Friday, September 25, 2009

SWTOR: Always in motion is the future...

As both a gamer and a Star Wars fan, it's hard not to be excited about the upcoming MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. What Bioware has shown of the game seems reminiscent of their highly successful KotOR series. But it remains to be seen how KOTOR's famous style will translate into the MMO genre.

It's far too early in development to make predictions, but already SWTOR is promising gameplay that will be unlike any other MMO's to date. This is likely a good thing as the most common complaint heard around the industry is that modern MMOs tend to play too much like World of Warcraft.

Instead of forecasting what to expect from SWTOR in this article, I will try to analyze what Bioware has revealed of the game so far.

Focus on Story

There's no question that story is a key element of the RPG, but what about the MMO? In a single-player game, designers have to contend with just one player and how their actions will change the game. Much has been said about the loss of authorial control in games and how it can hinder the narrative. Yet in multiplayer games, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the great majority of your actors are also your audience members, over whom you have no control.

The Ms in MMO stand for Massively Multiplayer, which are social games by nature. Drawing a player into a storyline does not necessarily enhance the social aspect of the game. And yet more and more MMOs are offering the complete solo experience, allowing players to play the game from start to finish without interacting directly with other players. In this case, story-driven content should be an improvement over the status quo.

Plot Altering Decisions

In KOTOR, players were able to affect the plot with their actions in profound ways. Which implies that unless each decision players make will spawn branching, alternate realities, the world of an MMO that boasts this same feature would be in constant chaos. You'd get a quest from a Hutt to hijack some gunrunners, only to return hours later to find the gangster slug is dead. Clearly there are ways to diminish this problem, like by respawning slain NPCs, but this detracts from the value of the decision.

Group-Based Branching Dialog

To exacerbate the problems with plot altering decisions in a multiplayer environment, Bioware has already revealed that you will not be in control of every decision that affects your character's future. Some of those decisions will fall to your teammates, as SWTOR features the first ever group-based branching dialog system. This means that if you want to spare the disobedient captain at the end of the mission you better hope you're not misfortunate enough to find yourself grouped with a prepubescent Sith Warrior -- voiced by Steven Blum, of course.

There's been some speculation as to how the system will actually work. If done incorrectly, it could lead to a lot of trouble. Grouping is hard enough as it is in most MMOs. The last thing we need is every LFG (looking for group) message to read like a personal ad in the newspaper, having to account not only for level and skill, but ambitions and personality as well. However, if it is done properly, a system in which every player is allowed to choose their own responses during dialog should allow everyone to manage their Light-side/Dark-side status independently from one another.

Massive Voice Over Work

One aspect of the game that Bioware has been very vocal about is that every character will feature full voice acting. Previously, Everquest 2 and Age of Conan have also promised players a more immersive experience through the use of VO, but due to financial and multilingual constraints were unable to deliver on the level that SWTOR intends.

Having played both EQ2 and AoC, I can honestly say that the VO work added very little to my overall experience. But this is likely due to the fact that it wasn't consistently used throughout the game. There's no better way to make the wall-of-quest-text seem duller than to first spoil gamers with VO.

Another concern with VO is that most people can read faster than they can listen, but reading ahead while a voice is speaking to you can be distracting. This can be particularly bad when dealing with more mundane quests and interactions that a player would prefer to zip through. Luckily, SWTOR has over a dozen writers, who intend to give every line of dialog a certain verve and color.

Heroic Combat

Another major point of Bioware's demonstrations to date has been to highlight their so-called "heroic combat." As you might guess, the aim of heroic combat is to make players feel like the archetypal heroes of the Star Wars mythos. One of the ways this is accomplished is by pitting players against groups of enemies from the start of the game.

While overcoming odds may be a heroic feat, is it the character who is heroic or the player? From what I've been able to gather from the developer walkthroughs, it seems like a good portion of your "heroism" is automated.

Another game that is fond of throwing groups of enemies at players is Champions Online. Perhaps at the start I was a bit amused by my ability to take down groups in a couple of moves, but the novelty wore off long before I reached level 20. At this point, burning down wave after wave of enemies is more of a routine than anything else. A lasting sense of accomplishment is more likely to be produced by the player's own abilities, rather than their character's abilities.

Smuggler Cover

Again, developers were quick to point out that SWTOR will be the first MMO to use a cover system, yet only one class revealed thus far will be able to use it, the Smuggler. This implies that every level and map, especially any PVP maps, will have to be laid out in consideration of this one mechanic which is only useable by an eighth of the game's players. Attention must be put into the placement of every drum and cargo container throughout the galaxy.

But any Smuggler will likely tell you that this attention to detail is essential. The cover system itself looks quite potent, providing extra protection from enemies as you might expect, but also enabling the Smuggler to employ an entirely different set of skills -- similar to stealth in World of Warcraft.

While the prospect of greater interactivity with the environment is thrilling, perhaps more of the classes, such as the trooper, should be able to make use of it.

The M that was Fashionably Late?

So we've seen that SWTOR is a multiplayer, certainly played online, and has all the makings of a great roleplaying game, but where's the "Massively" aspect of the MMORPG? Developers have claimed that you will be able to enjoy the Star Wars universe with "thousands of friends" -- if you had that many, but we've yet to see how.

Group missions generally only involve 2-5 players and we've not yet heard of the specifics of how PVP will work in SWTOR. Hopefully, there will be more interaction between players than auction houses and the notorious zone-wide chat channels.

Herein lies my greatest concern for this highly promising game. Bioware has taken to heart all of the lessons learned from the KOTOR series, but are they being mindful of the successes and failures of other MMOs?

Will Star Wars: The Old Republic be a topnotch multiplayer game masquerading as an MMO, or will it be something greater? Will it redefine the genre or invent a new one? Regardless, it looks like it's going to be fun finding out.

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