Archive | February 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Both the Best and Worst thing BioWare’s Ever Done

Fulcia Romero, my level-49 Jedi zombie hunter, has officially cashed in her lightsaber.

Moments ago, I had been egging her on as she hacked away at yet another faceless Sith Boss. Predictably, she died after a hard-fought battle, leaving me to either wait ten minutes to respawn, or warp to the nearest medical facility and fight my way back. This is a familiar despair, because I’ve been in this same spot dozens of times over the last few months. What’s worse: after the despair wears off, I usually feel the familiar pull to go back. But not this time!

After pouring untold hours into BioWare’s huge, sprawling MMORPG, I’ve finally come to a stunning conclusion. It’s incredible. And terrible.

BioWare doesn’t need a cheerleader, but it’s not hyperbole to say that they’re one of the most beloved and talent-stuffed developers on the planet.  Even its current-gen offerings, like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, may as well be timeless even now. BioWare distills many (but not all!) of these successes into SW:TOR, perfecting parts of the formula and modifying others. Detailed skill trees, tri-fold dialogue systems, myriad planets, and long, branching storylines are all BioWare standards, and TOR binds them together in one singular, mammoth package. It’s a culmination and refinement of all of BioWare’s RPG mechanics. And it tells a story that’s hundreds of hours long.

The game’s high points include a thrilling series of repeatable space missions that count amongst my favorite RPG diversions ever, and the PVP, while hit-and-miss, can be a blast if you’re on the right team. Co-op “Flashpoint” missions are good fun, too… if you can find a group. After level 35, my server was a ghost town. This may change in the future, obviously.

And yet…

SW:TOR is also their biggest failure. And not just because the familiar MMORPG trappings of grinding and loot gathering transform BioWare’s joyful experiences into repetitive chores. Had the story (the Jedi Knight story, in particular – I wanted to keep some continuity with the KOTOR games, which I really liked) had any of the spark of a Mass Effect, or even a Dragon Age II, god forbid, it would have been an amazing experience. But there’s no spark. The Jedi Knight storyline is an exercise in “And then this happened.” After you complete the prologue, which is – I’m not even shitting you – fifteen+ hours long, you’re sent on a series of quests to a shopping list of planets. You bounce from one generic Sith adversary to the next, with the occasional Imperial moustache-twirler thrown in for variety. This may work fine in a Saturday Morning cartoon, but it doesn’t have any of the narrative propulsion of something like Mass Effect 2. Worse still, you’re following orders most of the time, so you don’t get the sense that your hero has free will.

The game itself will seem familiar to anyone with MMORPG experience, which is both a blessing and a curse. For someone (like me) who doesn’t particularly like MMORPGs, it’s a shame that BioWare didn’t make any meaningful changes to the WoW formula. With the exceptions of Tatooine and Hoth, the planets are mostly bland and interchangeable. The familiar pattern of “get quest, go to cave/field/warehouse, and collect/kill/disable entity” quickly becomes a means to an end, with the “end” being the leveling of your character. It’s good fun to watch your character grow, but BioWare seems to want you to drag it out as long as possible by making planets impossibly large (you’ll need to buy a $28,000 speeder at some point, or else) and by making your character walk through endless corridors, docking bays, and entry pavilions before you can get to any of the game content. It’s a transparent ploy to inflate playtime, and makes traveling between planets and the fleet a hutt-sized pain in the ass.

It also doesn’t help that the design reminds me of the Clone Wars cartoon. Any link to the prequels, either direct or indirect, instantly puts a bad taste in my mouth.

There are two major exceptions to the “lame planet” rule:  Tatooine and Hoth. Each planet has a self-contained (and usually forgettable) side plot , but those two planets featured the best of the lot, and have a tangible connection to the two good Star Wars films, which doesn’t hurt. They’re also the only planets that are any fun to explore.

In the end, it’s quantity over quality that killed SW:TOR for me; it throws so much of this stuff at you that it all becomes meaningless in the end. It’s the least enriching BioWare game I’ve ever played, if you can call a game “enriching;” after finishing ME2, I felt invigorated, but after playing this game, I just feel exhausted. It’s how I imagine casino addicts feel after spending twenty hours in front of a one armed bandit.

It’s a rare thing to leave a BioWare game unfinished; maybe I just needed a break before Mass Effect 3. I doubt it.