The Old Republic Feels the Force in New Preview
The past year has shown once again how difficult MMOs are to get right. Anything rushed or too gimmicky will certainly fall by the wayside. Having a strong fan base devoted to a franchise, while helpful, is not enough by itself to guarantee the success of a new MMO (as the poor reception of Final Fantasy XIV demonstrated).
So can The Old Republic, and with it the legions of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) fans and general Star Wars devotees, avoid the pitfalls of previous MMOs and give us the gaming experience that lives up to the increasingly high expectations that surround it?
From the look of the preview video from IGN, I would say it looks promising.
The Clash of Lightsabers
BioWare’s presentation of The Old Republic so far looks incredibly appealing. The style of both the terrain and the characters who populate it seems well rendered and in keeping with the “feel” of Star Wars gaming mainstays such as KOTOR.
However, what struck me as being more impressive was the animation, particularly during combat, which looked remarkably smooth and stable. Let’s face it, lightsabers are the most iconic and perhaps the coolest aspect of Star Wars. If they don’t look good when characters swing them around, the game might as well give up on its training right then and there.
Thankfully, BioWare looks like it has managed to combine the practicality of standard MMO combat (that is, clicking to activate skills) with the visual spectacle that comes with a lightsaber duel. Sure, it might not look as impressive as lightsaber battles in the Star Wars movies, but the acrobatic moves, saber swings and blast deflections have all been well animated to the point where I can imagine the player’s desire to learn the next combat skill or move.
You Underestimate the Power of Light/Dark Side Choices
Bioware have already experimented to good effect with the Paragon/Renegade (Good/Evil) options in Mass Effect, which added another layer of possibility to your character development. As did the Light/Dark Side options in KOTOR.
It will be fascinating to see how much of a difference your loyalty to the Light or Dark side will make in game terms for the finished release of The Old Republic. It could simply affect the nature of quest endings and your ability to use certain items but it would be great to see players’ moral choices leading them to something more unique this time around. Perhaps access to certain areas or membership to certain groups will only be achieved with the requisite Light or Dark Side points.
Whatever importance BioWare assigns to the moral choice system, hopefully it will be strong enough to make players think hard about what path they want to take their character down. Some quests that involve agonising decisions and a chance for last-minute changes of heart could really help players feel more attached to their character.
Going Up Against the Big Dog
When considering question of how much potential The Old Republic has, it’s hard not to make comparisons to the great MMO game-changer that is World of Warcraft.
IGN’s preview has discussed how the combat seems to be MMO business as usual: similar to WoW but with the bonus of awesome lightsabers. The moral choices concerning quest paths should be an interesting twist in the player’s development of their character, something that WoW does not feature.
However, the question of whether The Old Republic is a worthy opponent of WoW will not be decided by these two aspects alone. A crucial part of challenging WoW will be for BioWare to make sure that the game grips its players, right from the opening quest, past the early infatuation stage and all the way to the level cap.
As IGN said, The Old Republic will have plenty of simple “kill and retrieve” quests like WoW does, where you need to harvest whatever the questgiver NPC wants: heads, satchels, scout badges, whatever. However, as WoW‘s Cataclysm expansion has shown, giving the player a greater sense of involvement with the story is the key to keeping this simple type of quest interesting and immersive.
The preview claims that with the increased emphasis on the story development, it’s easy to get caught up in what you’re doing and lose yourself in questlines. Given that it’s still in development, this is a very encouraging sign that The Old Republic will keep players hooked, rather than let their interest fizzle out after a few Force-pushes and lightsaber throws.
A Commanding Voice
The fully voice-acted NPCs in The Old Republic should help the game achieve the desired level of immersion. While the frequency of voice-acting in WoW has been upped significantly, the vast majority of NPCs who give players their appointed tasks still stand mute while most players usually skim read the quest text box and dash off to complete it.
Tied into this consideration is the question of scale. WoW in its newest incarnation does a great job of making the player feel like the central player in the momentous events that are occurring in Azeroth, even though Blizzard have built a vast world (two worlds really, including Outland) populated by many thousands of NPCs. Will The Old Republic aim for that sort of scale, albeit spread across many different planets?
If the majority of their NPCs will be fully voice-acted, this suggests that fewer, more thoroughly fleshed out NPCs will be the order of the day for The Old Republic. This is by no means a bad thing. BioWare would do well to learn from the industry’s most successful MMO and imitate some of its strengths but still cultivate an original style that makes it stand out.
Given the encouraging signs that this preview has provided, The Old Republic is definitely one to watch. While anticipation of the game continues to build, hopefully BioWare will take a leaf out of Blizzard’s book and give themselves all the time they need to prepare their MMO for its release.