The last big video game to be released this year is the MMO STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC.
Too bad the actual game doesn’t look like those trailers. It looks like this:
I’m not a games journalist or reviewer, so I don’t look at games with the same criteria they do. I tend to play big games to see how stories are handled or mishandled in them. What made me interested in THE OLD REPUBLIC was that it was developed by Bioware, the company that made the original STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC game and the MASS EFFECT and DRAGON AGE series. Bioware are doing something different in MMOs by importing their now-familiar brand of interactive storytelling to a franchise that has tens of millions of fans chomping at the bit to play as a character in the Star Wars universe.
Bioware games are generally continuity-heavy, but heavy in continuity that they themselves established in order to create the sense of a big, evolving world that the player can feel his character is influencing and changing through decisions apart from just killing the bad guys. What makes Bioware interesting as a developer is hat their games might be engaging in a form of social engineering, of providing a safe virtual space for people to explore their own morals and social behaviour through the proxy of a character whose personalities and moral behaviour can be molded by player choice. I’m still surprised no one has written a study of the use of games like these in social learning and social engineering. Typically, your character is usually the Chosen One, the Saviour, the new Big Cheese in the making. That is the definition of how single-player role-playing games work. Given that story-centric interactivity was going to be mixed with the contradictory “everyone is playing together” nature of the MMO, I wondered how this was going to work.
I’ve never been into MMOs. The chaotic nature of hundreds of other players running around the game world going after the same missions at the same time tended to break the sense of immersion in the fantasy that you’re playing a character a make-believe world. It’s been the same experience when I sampled he trials and betas for WORLD OF WARCRAFT and DC UNIVERSE ONLINE – you’re always asked to beat up or kill X number of rats or rescue x number of people in trouble and bring them to the hotspot. Once you hit your quota, you collect your reward and move on when you can see that there are an infinite number of rats or people in trouble and it’s never going to end, but you’ve done your part and you can go ahead and move on. All the other rats or people can go to hell for all you care. If you’re supposed to be a hero stopping a crisis, this breaks any believability when the crisis is still obvious happening but you can go ahead and leave if you want, don’t worry, you won’t offend anyone. I remember during the initial stages of WORLD OF WARCRAFT’s tutorial level, I was supposed to go smack some big beastie in the head and return to the quest-giver for a reward, and found my character literally standing in a queue with about a dozen other player characters waiting for the player in front to finish bashing the beastie in the head, then for it to respawn again so the next player can do the same and move on. I thought, “Christ, this is like a combination of queuing for a Disneyland ride and a goddamned gang-bang…!” Suffice to say, I never got into WORLD OF WARCRAFT beyond playing for two hours in the free trial.
STAR WARS; THE OLD REPUBLIC, though, tries to up the game, as it were, by filling in all the gaps of MMO games with actual story and characters with personality for your player character to not only interact but have a connection with. My the problem with the MMOs I tried out is the emptiness of the characters, despite the lore and rules that are often complex enough to take up entire book series, your character and the characters in the game are always ciphers and total blanks. Whatever personality you find is usually filled by yourself and the personalities of other players when you befriend them and play together, forming guilds and groups in order to raid dungeons for better upgrades to your characters’ gear. What keeps players hooked is the social interaction and relationships they have with their friends online. In THE OLD REPUBLIC, you’re still asked to go off and kill X numbers of baddies, but you’re given a reason why you should do it. Every character in the game, including your own, is fully-voiced, and you’re off to find a missing family member, find a cure for a plague, and so on. Granted, this might be seen as sugar-coating, but it still works because of the illusion that you’re doing something for someone who talked to your character and showed emotion. Your empathy is engaged. Besides, this is Star Wars. You’re a major player in this universe who’s going to rise up from relative obscurity to major player in the Sith-Jedi conflict.
What THE OLD REPUBLIC wants to do is give players a sense of investment in their own story – like the rest of Bioware games – by giving them a unique story for each class and where they can be as nice or dickish as they want to be. In fact, I’ve heard that playing a Sith character lets you be possibly the most evil character a video game has ever allowed a main character to be. You can be ethically and lawfully evil or an excessively brutal and mean bastard and make everyone hate and fear you. But the dialogue choices also give you the feeling that you’re molding the personality of your character. You even get a choice to remark on a character’s funny appearance, whether politely or crassly. Even when you play a Jedi, you can be a snarky Jedi who likes to kill things – you’re only killing bad people anyway. And in the Jedi story, there are a few moments that felt like they were taking the piss out of long quests in games: one quest had your Jedi hero being asked by an injured cop to go into a bar to confront a violent gangster. Once he meets the gangster who threatens to beat him up, you have an alternate choice to fighting him – you can jedi mind-trick him into simply not wanting to fight and giving himself up. That’s it. Five minutes. End of quest. And you still get points and rewards. I wonder if that might be a commentary or piss-take of long and tedious quests that these types of games are known for, and this game has its share of them.
But once you encounter the MMO parts of the game, that’s when the illusion threatens to crumble again. When you leave your individual, walled-off story area into an open area, you see other players on their way to or from the same story you’re playing, especially if you’re the same class character. And the baddies or monsters you were bashing are still there. In fact, you’re likely to run into the very same ones you beat up earlier because they need to respawn for players after you, and you usually have to beat them up all over again, even if you get points for leveling up for doing so. This takes you out of the story and into what the game really is: a Star Wars amusement park where you get to play out your fantasy of being in Star Wars.
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun. The story is engaging enough as far as Bioware games go, and the option to team up with other players to play major battle campaigns is perfectly good fun as you take down large armies of baddies together. It’s essentially the same as every other MMO out there, only with the added layer of storytelling to encourage emotional engagement in the game story, which hardly ever happens with WORLD OF WARCRAFT. It wants you to care about the characters in the game other than your own or the other players you befriend. The question is, once players have played their character’s story to its conclusion, what will keep them paying the monthly subscription feel to continue playing? Is it the social engagement of getting together with their friends for raids or is it the attraction of creating a character in a different class? There are eight different character classes, four on each side, after all – in order to see how the whole story plays out, since each class’ story is only one aspect of the big picture. If the latter turns out to be the hook, then Bioware may have a new model for MMO games: one where players are playing for a story on top of Player-vs-Player and dungeon raids. If this doesn’t succeed, then THE OLD REPUBLIC will be the last of the big budget MMOs and a grand – and very expensive – experiment.
Hmm, maybe I’ll create a Sith named either Darth Ar’sol, Darth Dik’ed or Darth Waddakunt.
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