The weekend of Thanksgiving, I had something fun to give thanks for — namely the chance to participate in the beta test of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is probably the most simultaneously amazing and annoying MMO I’ve ever played. It excels to new levels and sinks to new lows for the same reason: first and last, this game is about the story.
I’ve never really played an MMO that was so story-driven. Now, I love to write, I love great stories, and I was excited to see a Star Wars game that keeps that concept cooking — an epic tale of dashing rogues, sinister enemies, heroic warriors and ruthless villains. I wasn’t disappointed in that account: The game has it in spades. But to have a good story, you need to feel immersed in it. You need to feel as if you can slowly lose yourself in the tale and become part of it. This necessity for immersion normally doesn’t fly well in typical MMOs because there are often so many choices that the game can’t keep up.
For example, a lot of great videogames are filled with great cinema scenes — when the hero completes a goal or mission and the camera cuts to him doing something amazing or spectacular. This is very tricky for most MMOs, because not all players are going to move through the game in a linear pattern that coincides with preexisting cutscenes. Some players will try one tactic; other players will ignore the tactic. And when it comes time for the “Cut Scene” in which your Jedi Knight has saved the day? Well, maybe in this game you’ve decided to let your Jedi slide slowly into the Dark Side and he didn’t save the day. Or maybe your Sith Apprentice has given up his evil ways and repented instead.
You’re supposed to save the day as the Jedi; you’re supposed to use dark magic and evil powers as the Sith. You’re supposed to crush your enemies and see them driven before you as the Bounty Hunter, and you’re supposed to be a wise-cracking, street-savvy con-man as a Smuggler.
Unless, of course, you don’t want to — but you don’t really have that choice. And there’s the rub.
Star Wars: The Old Republic makes sure that when you move through the various chapters, your character feels like the heroes and villains in the movies. You play a Smuggler — you’re playing Han Solo. You play a Bounty Hunter — you’re play Boba Fett.
Consider character interaction. When your character talks with other characters in game, they don’t have mere text sliding across the screen to indicate their response. Instead, they have a prerecorded voice interaction. You can hear what your character says when you choose their response. You can actually hear your character talking instead of just reading something.
However, this is symptomatic of the problem I’ve mentioned already.
The sly, glib, one-liners from a Smuggler sound great — if that’s how you want to play your Smuggler. If you want to play him as a harried, troubled, complex and frustrated person, then suddenly that manner of speech and conversation feels anti-immersion. If you want to play a Jedi who grows weary of the asinine restrictions of the Jedi code and is eager for intense action and maybe a little excitement and adventure, well, you’ve pretty much picked the wrong character to play, because that’s not the way a Jedi is supposed to act.
In fact, because Star Wars: The Old Republic is so story-driven, you have preexisting conditions for your character build. I was really eager to see what type of races were allowed to me in the game, given the plethora of Star Wars aliens there are in the movies. I also was eager to see how I would build my stats for the character. Should I make my Smuggler very wise and charismatic, or should I make him a downright uneducated bum and focus all my strengths in his physical attributes such as dexterity or muscle? Turns out, I don’t get the option.
I’m “The Smuggler” — my stats are locked in. I can’t build a bookish and dull-witted Smuggler who’s primary statistic is strength and health — that’s not how you play a Smuggler, damn it! That’s a Soldier, or a Bounty Hunter. Haven’t you seen Star Wars? Geez, get with the program. Jedi are some sort of quasi-Shakespearean thespian knight, and they aren’t some devil-may-care womanizer! And seriously — whoever heard of an Ewok Sith Warrior? Preposterous!
And since, presumably, you can’t have a good “Star Wars Movie” with such radical or ridiculous options, you aren’t really allowed to have such options in this game.
I can choose from less than five races when I pick my character, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t get to play a Wookie Smuggler, or even an Hutt Smuggler — which could be ridiculous, but fun. I can only choose a few races: human, cyborg (man and machine — but what if he was a Wookie cyborg?), Twi’leck and one other race that I didn’t even recognize.
Why? Well, probably because when the game advances, my Smuggler will eventually run into certain things — such as the much touted and discussed romances with other NPCs that are already built into the story. The people who made Star Wars: The Old Republic made sure that a colorful collection of cool NPCs were added to give my character fun things to interact with — and perhaps Bioware thought it would be kind of creepy to see a beautiful young human female giving sweet love to scruffy, rough and tumble, roguish Smuggler ... if he’s an Ewok!
Of course, this drawback in choosing races was pretty much the same no matter what I picked. If I played a Sith Inquisitor, I could choose from a narrow variety of races — no cyborg, but I could actually play the “race” of Sith. Of course, playing the race “Sith” is not an option for Smugglers — nor is it an option for Jedi to play cyborgs.
OK, we get it. You can’t play classes with any internal flexibility with their skills or statistics. No hulking, bestial Diplomats; no charming, weak-kneed Soldiers. You’re not playing something creative, you’re getting immersed into a premade world, and you’re enjoying the thrill of bringing the world to life with the choices you make — even if those choices are rather limited.
So, if you’re willing to go with the grain instead of fighting it, you’re going to have a great time. If you really want to play Han Solo, then the Smuggler class is spot on. Why? Because he looks, talks and even acts like a somewhat less sexy version of Harrison Ford. And, if you really want to play your Jedi like Alec Guiness’ rendition of Obi Wan Kenobi, that’s totally great, because you will.
The missions, the stories, the characters you interact with — the way they talk to you, and the way you talk to them — it’s all built with a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure you enjoy the ride that we can call a “Great Story.” This assumes, of course, that you enjoy reading someone else’s work and not really writing the story yourself.
I’m guessing in the coming months after the release of this game, you’ll see a slow divide between people who love the game and hate the game (I’m not talking about Trolls here). The ones who love it will love how it feels like they’re part of Star Wars — a universe they love. The ones who hate it? I think they’ll end up hating it, mostly, because in the end, they won’t have the flexibility to play outside the box.
But enough of this jibber-jabber! How does the game feel on a technical level?
Well, I got to say that I enjoyed a lot of the basics that I played through. For example, I had no time with lag to get on — once I set my graphics setting to “low,” everything ran crisply and efficiently. (I should add that the “low” graphics really wasn’t so bad; it still looked pretty good, actually.) Things moved quick and easy once I joined the server, and the longest wait I had was under three minutes. At no time did my computer crash — and I was even running multiple programs besides.
So, if you’re worried about lag-time, check your settings. The lower end graphics aren’t that bad.
Next, the look of the game.
For all the above guff, Bioware had me at the damn “Crawl” that moved down the screen when they played the beginning of the game and the introduction slid down in bold golden font through the stars.
I hadn’t been so excited since the first two minutes of The Phantom Menace (of course, everything else afterwards sucked, but that’s another story). I found myself cheering like a little kid at my computer — and the cinema display scenes were so hot, I actually wrote to the company and demanded they compile them and put them for sale on DVD or BlueRay — because the cinema stuff was just that good.
As a Sith, I discovered that I was a freed slave who was forced to prove my worth with a bunch of other slaves on a harsh Imperial Planet; as a Smuggler, I was running guns to freedom fighters on Ord Mantel before someone stole my bloody ship; and as a Jedi Consular, I was forced to go on a mission of peace.
The worlds coincided perfectly with the design of the characters: the scarlet banners of the Empire on a rocky, barren wasteland; the beat-up city and space port of Ord Mantel. And the world my lovely Jedi Consular traveled through looked like something out of a Zen Garden; lush and tranquil with just a hint of trouble near the fringes.
The music was excellent; but then, if you like Star Wars, you’ll love the music, so there really wasn’t much to write home about. When it comes to the gods of epic tunes, there’s no god like John Williams — and Star Wars is his prophet.
As for the combat actions and tactics? Well, maybe it’s because I missed something in how the game ran, but I discovered that if I was going to make an attack with a ranged weapon, I couldn’t “auto-target” my enemy. I literally had to move the crosshairs over them with the mouse. If an enemy had cover, it was because the enemy was standing behind something, and it was harder for me to pinpoint a small target.
I don’t know if that was a glitch or if I didn’t read the instructions carefully, but I fell in love with that increased difficulty in the game instantly. Instead of clicking a target and automatically aiming for it, I had to actually take the time to dodge on the screen and move the crosshairs; there was no way I could simply “point-click-destroy.” It took practice and skill.
Again, that may be because I missed something; maybe it was because I skipped a step that would have allowed me to “auto-target” villains. Maybe, but I don’t care. It’s a feature that made the game both fun and challenging, and I loved it.
In the end, from the beta test, Star Wars: The Old Republic looks like a great time — if you enjoy the story the creators have made for you. If you don’t, and if you are looking for a “Sand Box” to build your ultimate Star Wars character via an MMO? Well, you’ll have to keep looking.