Tuesday, June 19, 2012

So Farewell Then, Star Wars: The Old Republic

So, over the weekend I cancelled my subscription to Star Wars: The Old Republic. My poor Jedi Knight will now be consigned to live out her days in a freezing cave on Hoth, wondering why no-one had the decency to port her back to the Republic Fleet where at least they have a bar and hot running water. She'll never get through your romance options with Doc and his cheesy dialogue and cheesier facial hair. She'll never get to the end of whatever your personal plot line turns out to be. I almost feel sorry for her. But in the end I just found myself not caring anymore, and not feeling the urge to login and play, and so it is no-more. From reading the gaming press, I am not alone.

So what went wrong? I mean, when we started playing SW:TOR I was really impressed with it, and only a few months later, I'm grabbed by ennui. What gives?

Well I have to say that I don't think SW:TOR is a bad game and I don't think it does anything terribly wrong. It's mechanics are solid, questing is pretty standard for an RPG and certainly fluid enough, keeping you moving through zones and planets with a nice pace and regular changes to the environment. And the storytelling is pretty good - the voiced quests are immersive and interesting and the the look and feel of the game is great. But all of this fades as you move into the 30-something levels, and I think there is little to pick up the slack.

One of the issues is the illusion of choice becomes stripped bare, and one of the games most defining features stops working. Early on, the Bioware dialogue wheel and interactivity of it feels a huge breath of fresh air against the more common MMO staple of "click through the quest box as fast as you can and then follow the arrow", but after a while it becomes more and more apparent that these choices are illusory because of their lack of permanence. Saving or killing a character on Tatooine doesn't mean anything other than that character sending you an email saying "thanks", so what was the point? They're never spoken of again. I don't expect Mass Effect levels of branching decision making, even within a planets story arc there doesn't seem enough consequence to make the choices meaningful.

Part of this is of course a limit to the technology used in the game. World of Warcraft put great store a few years back in "phasing" technology, where buildings, mobs and questgivers could move around, allowing you to see progress as you, for example, conquered a zone, or settled a town. SW:TOR is crying out for this sort of thing - seeing gangs vanish from the streets, or new colonies grow and expand would have given the game a next-gen feel that for all it's shiny game engine, it lacks underneath. Given the game encourages you to go back to worlds - something I like - this is the sort of feature that would make a big difference.

It is also noticeable that as the game goes on the worlds themselves become less interesting. Tatooine was fun, and interesting, but Alderaan less so, and by the time we reached Hoth it all started to feel a little samey. Which is odd, because the main plot was starting to be about the cold war between the Empire and the Republic turning hot, but Imperial forces offer nothing new in terms of enemies, and again, one of the games underpinning weaknesses is exposed. This time, it's that there are too few enemy types and they repeat far too often. Its not like there are gang-types, and they come in X flavours, and Imperials that come in Y flavours, its that all types of adversary come in all flavours, so the only difference between Imperials and Gangers is the look of the bodies at the end. Most RPGs, Massively Multiplayer or otherwise, through new foe archetypes at you steadily through a game, and SW:TOR, for some reason, seems to have forgotten this and I'm really not sure why.

In the end, for all the money and attention that's clearly been lavished on SW:TOR, and for all the good within it, it feels crippled by it's own lack of ambition. It's got ambition in the "hey, lets get millions of subscribers and be huge" sort of way, but not in the "hey, lets push the increasingly stagnant MMORPG model" sort of way. I've seen nothing out of the Mists of Pandaria pre-publicity that makes me thing Blizzard are going revitalise this corner of the gaming market from it's stranglehold position, and whilst I hold out a fair bit of hope for Guild Wars 2 I can't help but feel that Bioware have missed an opportunity here.

Still, Free-to-Play by Christmas, right?