Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Okay, I love Star Wars and I love Bioware. Both passions were fueled by the original Knights of the Old Republic. The game was epic in countless ways, and despite the limitations of the Xbox, it was a moving tale that was incredibly immersive. Hell, I actually cared about the tertiary NPCs and found it hard to play an evil character because I had to kill so many of them.

So you'd think I'd be ecstatic about Bioware's new MMO The Old Republic, but after watching their behind the scenes developer diary thing I can't help but think it isn't going to be nearly as cool as it should be.

Blogger isn't letting me embed from GameTrailers for some odd reason, so here's a link to the video:

For starters, all the animations look like you're watching a bad kung-fu movie on fast forward. Okay, the game is still in deep in production so they might fix that along the way, but the fact that they're willing to "show off" this footage leads me to believe they actually like it.

The graphics themselves, when they aren't moving, look solid. The stylized realism was exactly the right choice for an MMO because it allows you to make a game that isn't too taxing on a PC's processor while still looking cool.

My biggest issue with the vision of this game is the way the developers are handling "story." They seem to believe that no MMORPG has had a compelling story yet, which kind of blows my mind because every MMO I've ever played has had massive story elements that went into defining and shaping the world.

WoW and Everquest both have back stories for pretty much all their instances and cities, talking with NPCs can fill you in on the surroundings and how they came to be, but no one gives a shit. Hell, Guild Wars is nothing but a single player RPG with MMO group dynamics, and even then no one actually watches the cutscenes or reads the dialogue. So the idea of infusing story as an integral part of an MMO seems like a moot point, because that's the part of MMOs players don't enjoy.

Another element they're adding for the purposes of story telling is a "companion character" whose job (it seems) is to follow you around and function in the same manner as a pet. Supposedly they'll have their own stories and personalities, but I can't help but wonder why the hell we would want to spend a majority of our time in an MMO interacting with a bot. I don't know about you (or the guys at Bioware for that matter) but what I enjoy the most about MMOs is the social experience of engaging with other players.

The Bioware guys claim that you will be given opportunities to choose how you influence your companion's story which, to me, smacks of a critical design failure. If I am going to make choices that effect my surroundings and the characters I interact with, I want to have the option of influencing my friends who I'm playing with. I understand the Herculean task that designing and balancing such a system would be, especially once you add in the classic "sacrifice _____ for ultimate power" choice. I believe it to be possible though, and if anyone could do it it's Bioware; the companion AI just seems like a cop-out to me.

We'll have to see once this game drops, but I'm not holding my breath. Ultimately, Bioware excels at single-player narratives and it looks like they're not adapting too much to the MMO space. Granted, this whole opinion is based on about five minutes of interviews and footage. It could all be better in the next year or so of development.

For the record, I really hope I'm wrong about this.

-That Guy

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