Entries in SWTOR (1)

Monday
Apr092012

The State of the Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic is the best MMO out right now.  Yes, you read that correctly, but before I go any further, let me also say that it won’t be enough.

 

First let’s look at SWTOR’s main competition: Rift, Aion, and the ten ton giant, World of Warcraft. All of these games are based around the traditional MMO model, with hotkey based combat focused around parties of players employing the holy trinity of Tank, DPS and healer. Combat in all four games is essentially the same, including similar archetypes such as cloth wearing mages and heavy armor melee classes. When looking at the basic structure there is no clear winner, although WOW does have that tiny extra bit of Blizard polish that is subtly missing from other games.

 

With the Old Republic being the newest game, it has the benefit of being the best looking. Graphics revamps can only do so much for WoW’s ten year old engine. While Rift’s art isn’t bad, it is uninspired and somewhat boring. Aion is aesthetically more pleasing than both WoW and Rift and is one of the highlights of the game in general, but its short comings in other areas have prevented Aion from gaining a large player base.

 

As far as content goes, WoW has a lead due to its 3 expansions, but much of this content goes unplayed or unused, such as all of the raid content from Burning Crusade and Lich King. WoW also suffers from the problem of constantly rehashing old content for major areas in new expansions such as Naxxaramas, Molten Core and Black Wing Lair. While not all of WoW player base has been there since the beginning, there is a large amount that has, and they often walk into supposedly new areas that immediately feel old and tired.

 

Aion and Rift on the other hand succumb to the problem of feeling really grindy for different reasons. Aion was developed by NCSoft, a Korean company, a country in which many of their RPG’s and MMO’s contain a much steeper experience grind. This created a really sharp curve for leveling above 20, making long term investment less enjoyable compared its western competition. Aion also has an unfinished feeling, many players are struck by the difference in the thoughtfully crafted pre-20 areas compared to the less developed areas the follow.

 

Rift went a different direction and invested too heavily in open world events. Rift’s main focus was their open world rift system, in which players in the same area could band together to fight off the invasions for mutual gain. The problem with this system was that rifts became very binary, either you were overwhelmed at a rift by yourself, or rifts turned into a zerg-fests filled with too many players, with any sort of individual contribution feeling extremely muted.

 

SWTOR took note of these issues and created a more personal content experience by taking the concept of instanced content even further. Not only are group dungeons instanced, but a large part of the individual questing areas are as well. While SWTOR still has some open world content, they are more of a side attraction as opposed to a goal for progression. SWTOR was able to identify the pitfalls of its predecessors and did a good job combating these issues. Overall, The Old Republic is a solid iterative step forward in the MMO genre, and with one exception, provides a new baseline for the modern MMO.

 

That exception is the leveling experience. For years games have been trying to make leveling and questing feel more ‘immersive’ which lead to WoW putting more void zones or fire traps under characters, forcing players to move more in combat. But this didn’t actually make people care more about their character or feel more invested in the story. Old Republic’s addition of a fully voiced quest line is what truly separates SWTOR from its competition. Every quest from a simple fetch request to the numerous kill quests are started and finished with generally solid voice acting. Bioware has created a strong narrative for each major class from beginning to end in SWTOR, and it serves to really pull the player into the game’s universe.  Now of course a few lines fall flat here and there, but it is hard to fault EA and Bioware for missing a few times out of the twenty gigabytes of voice acting files that is in the game. After player the Old Republic, questing in games without the voice acting feels dull and lifeless. And even though the quests are not as dynamic as past Knights of the Old Republic games, even players who quest and level devoid any other player interaction won’t feel lonely in SWTOR richly narrated game.

 

Recently, even Blizzard has admitted that SWTOR has had a negative impact on the number of subscribers in WoW, and with two million units shipped, and a reported 1.7 million subscribers EA is sure to turn a profit on its $100 million plus investment. But SWTOR could have been so much more, and EA didn’t get the WoW killer and ten year cash cow they thought they were, and here’s why.

 

I said before that SWTOR is generally a better game with respect to its competition, but due to growing development costs and delays, the game was rushed to release. The Old Republic lacked a lot of the polish that it needed. The game was overly buggy on release, and while no game, especially one of SWTOR’s size, can ever be bug free, many of these issues had been known and reported during the numerous beta tests held pre-release. Also many of the battlegrounds, dungeons and progression mechanics did not feel fully tested.

 

One example is the PVP warzone Voidstar, in which competition between teams with even the slightest coordination resulted in a stalemate, with the victor being decided by pure randomness. The same goes for the Civil War warzone, in which a single defender could control a point from almost an infinite number of attackers due to the combination of respawn timers that were too quick, and damage over time effects breaking attempts to capture a point.

 

Another issue was the despite Bioware’s attempt to keep PVE and PVP progression separate but equal, it was simply too easy to gear up through PVP, skipping the entire four man dungeon experience before moving onto large operation groups. Not to mention that the process of gearing up from PVP was based entirely on randomness, whereby two players with identical skill and time investment could end up with vastly different progression.

 

There was also the problem with the crafting system in which really only one out of six professions being actually useful. This combineded with a cumbersome auction house interface and a largely stagnant trade environment made a very mediocre economy.

Many of these small issues are still in game or have only been recently fixed. It is nice that patches have been pretty frequent, but most patches are so devoted to bug fixes that there is often no fixes to broken game mechanics. Looking at the proposed changes for now delayed 1.2 major patch, it is clear that SWTOR version 1.2 is how the game should have arrived on launch day. I believe the rushed nature of the release and lack of polish has held back the Old Republic from greater success.

 

This isn’t to say that SWTOR is crumbling, because there are still many bright spots such as the Huttball warzone, which is one of the most dynamic PVP arenas to be released in recent times. But many of the small details could end up being the difference between people staying with SWTOR or jumping ship to another game. With the release of Tera, Guild Wars 2 and most notably Diablo 3 later this year, there will be a lot of new competition for SWTOR and the game will no longer have is new game sheen to attract players. With the large amount of MMO release this year, many have said 2012 is the year of the MMO, and while SWTOR may be the king now, their fumble off the start won’t keep them at the top by year’s end.