Road To SWTOR: Can I Love an MMO? - febtober swords Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Road To SWTOR: Can I Love an MMO?

Ever since I first booted up Star Wars Galaxies in 2005, I've had a love-hate relationship with MMOs. On one hand, their capacity for facilitating social interaction is unparallelled among video games, and they generally provide unique, fun experiences that allow players to create their own highly customizable characters in a vibrant, highly populated world.

On the other hand, those are really the only things that MMOs do particularly well. I don't mean that every other aspect of these games is boring or broken; on the contrary, I've found that many have really great gameplay systems and interesting story arcs. However, I've never seen an MMO that excels over its single player counterparts in those respects. As much as I loved scaling walls and gliding through the air as I traversed Gotham City in DC Universe Online, I couldn't help but feel that the same thing was done much better in Arkham City and Spiderman 2. As much fun as it was to slaughter rancors in Star Wars Galaxies, I couldn't help but feel that it was much more fun to fight them in Knights of the Old Republic. As fascinated as I was by the Vibora Bay Crisis storyline in Champions Online, I still felt that the storytelling was inferior to...well, the majority of the single player games I own.

I understand that this isn't a result of poor design decisions or the developers being unskilled. It is simply impossible to make a game that both allows hundreds of people to play on a persistent server at once and maintains the same graphical quality and advanced gameplay features that one would find in a singleplayer game.

This brings me to the newest competitor in the MMO arena, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Currently in beta, this game has been building up hype for three years, and it looks poised to carve out a nice subscriber base for itself when it releases next month. Of course, why shouldn't it? It's developed by Bioware, which has multiple high-quality RPG series to its name, and the pre-release buzz has almost entirely been praise. The worst thing that I've heard about it has been "it feels like WoW in space," which, considering that WoW is the most popular MMORPG on the market, isn't really a bad thing. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite honestly, the fact that it's an MMO.

To clarify, I don't think that being an MMO will cause SWTOR to sell poorly. In fact, it probably already has more pre-orders than most games have sales. Rather, I believe that the game could "go wrong" in terms of quality. Keep in mind that Bioware and EA haven't really been marketing this game as the next WoW or the greatest MMO ever. Rather, they've been marketing it as both a competitive MMO in a WoW-dominated market and as a full-fledged entry in the KOTOR series. The second aspect of this image is the part that worries me. Will SWTOR be a worthy sequel to KOTOR and KOTOR 2? According to Bioware, it goes beyond that. They've stressed that the game has eight unique stories and hours upon hours of missions and dialogue. They've even made the claim that SWTOR is not just equivalent to a hypothetical KOTOR 3, but that it's also KOTOR 4, KOTOR 5, KOTOR 6, and more.

While many people have come to believe this and feel that they will be satisfied by SWTOR, others have been more pessimistic. Every departure that SWTOR makes from the classic style of the original Knights of the Old Republic has generated new detractors of the game. The cartoonish art style, the fact that it is an MMO, the lack of a clear, single protagonist, and countless other changes made to the newest game in the KOTOR series have been derided by those who feel that SWTOR simply can't live up to KOTOR's greatness. 

It may seem like these people are simply being "haters," but, to be honest, I feel like they have a point. Knights of the Old Republic is one of the most beloved RPGs of all time, and its sequel, although flawed, was very popular as well, to the point that many believe that it was superior to the original. These games provided an unparallelled interpretation of the Star Wars universe, depicting a vibrant galaxy full of warriors, thieves, and all manner of unique aliens. You played as the sole hero, a charismatic force user who was the only thing standing in the way of Sith conquest of the galaxy.

SWTOR, on the other hand, completely changes the appearance of the universe, shifting into a less realistic art style. While the graphics of KOTOR and KOTOR II weren't spectacular, they did perfectly complement the deep, dark storylines of those games. While I don't know much about SWTOR's tone and I don't mind unrealistic graphics in general, I just feel that the KOTOR era has its own distinct aesthetic identity, which doesn't fit well with the colorful graphics of SWTOR. The reason for the shift in art style is clear: creating good, realistic graphics is simply more difficult to do than creating good, stylistic graphics. As I mentioned above, making an MMO requires sacrifices that single player games don't. The graphical style is clearly one of them.

SWTOR also focuses on eight separate characters who have unique stories of their own, rather than one protagonist. My main gripe with this is that something tells me that not every character's storyline will end with him/her saving the galaxy and ending the war. Bioware's RPGs have generally been about being the hero (or anti-hero) and making decisions that have real weight in a massive, global or galactic conflict. While I have no doubt that the class stories in SWTOR will depict the characters as heroes, there's nothing that indicates that their actions will have the same weight as those of Commander Shepard or Darth Revan.

Of course, nobody's better than Commander Shepard.

Furthermore, how can a game create a dynamic, shifting world if it's constrained by the necessity of having hundreds of people at various points of eight different storylines co-exist? If you betray or make enemies with a quest giver, won't it be weird when you see that quest giver in the same spot again, completely ignoring your presence? The obvious answer is to never create a situation where the player becomes an enemy of a quest giver, but  this simply constrains the capability of the developers to offer unique stories. This type of problem rarely affects single player developers, since they're more easily able to create dynamic, shifting worlds.

However, even with these possible flaws, I do feel that SWTOR will be a great MMO. When an early demo of one of the game's flashpoints, The Black Talon, was shown at GamesCom in 2009, I wholeheartedly said that I would pay money just to play that mission, and my opinion hasn't changed. In fact, I'm sure that it's going to be a great MMO; I would be shocked if it wasn't a great MMO. But is a great MMO the same thing as a great RPG? That remains to be seen.

Lastly, I feel like I should mention a few legacy issues of MMOs that don't necessarily need to be included in MMOs, but which seem to often occur anyway. These issues are why I often grow tired of MMOs faster than I grow tired of single player games, and I think that, if Bioware truly wants to create a unique MMORPG, they won't include these in the final product, or they will create patches to lessen their effects:

1. Travel Padding - This is the tendency for game worlds in MMOs to have large spaces of nothing. There are no enemies, no items, and no quests; there are only pretty environments and a massive time sink. These areas are often found between missions or large groups of enemies, and only serve to take up time that you could be using to level your character or advance the story, while making you curse the fact that your character never seems to move quickly enough no matter how many speed modifiers your travel power has. These can often take two to three minutes to traverse.

2. A Terrible Fast Travel System -  Remember Fallout 3? In that game, every important area became marked on your map, allowing you to return instantly at the press of a button. Being miles away from your objective wasn't a problem, because you could be there in seconds without having to wade through "travel padding" areas and hordes of enemies that were five levels lower than you. For some reason, MMOs hate this type of simple fast travel. DC Universe Online, for example, puts a long cooldown on your ability to fast travel to your side's headquarters, and, from what I understand, WoW uses a similar system. Having an ineffective fast travel system simply pads out the time investment required by the game, to the point that there are some MMOs where I will purposefully kill my character just to get back to a city quickly. You heard that right. These games encouraged my character to commit suicide. This should never happen .

See that dot near the bottom right corner of the map? Have fun spending ten minutes just to get between it and your next objective.

3. Kill X Enemies - When used conservatively, I have no problem with this. If I'm required to kill 5 elite soldiers or 30 weak monsters to proceed in a mission, then I don't really mind, even if every enemy is identical. The problems arise when the objectives become ludicrous. Killing an elite enemy lieutenant that takes half a minute to bring down can be fun. Having to kill him and his guards 30 times in a row becomes tedious, especially when only five of him spawn at a time, forcing me to stay in the same area while I wait for him to respawn.

Hopefully, Bioware will keep these features to a minimum, and the overall experience of SWTOR will be lengthy, but not tedious at the same time.

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So now that I've given my thoughts on the subject, what do you all think? Will SWTOR live up to its hype? Will it match the excellence of its predecessors? Most importantly, is this game truly a good substitute for KOTOR 3?

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