AND OTHER SINGLE SERVING FRIENDS
FROM STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC (AKA: WHY CAN’T I ROMANCE THE GRAVESTONE?)
Old Republic junkies rejoice! SWTOR has a new expansion, and it’s the KOTOR we’ve been waiting for. Sorta.
For me, SWTOR has pretty much always been a largely single-player game. That’s not to say that I never availed myself of it’s multiplayer options–I have and still, occasionally do. It’s just that the real draw for me has always been the stories. That’s why I signed up early, quit, and came back again.
Let me explain. Most MMO’s are very story-light. They promise ongoing stories with choices that matter (™) and rarely deliver. Story in the space is largely an afterthought. Rote characterization, lame dialog, and idiotic plot devices are the rule and not the exception. Most MMO fans play for reasons unrelated to story, except in the broadest sense. Early game group content notwithstanding, most MMO’s encourage a race to the top and focus on large scale raiding and / or PVP once you arrive. SWTOR purported to be different, with mixed results.
The big draw here, beyond the ability to MMO in a “Star Wars” universe, albeit one far removed from the movies of my youth, were the class stories from the vanilla game. When I came to SWTOR at release, I came with the expectation that Bioware had created a kind of successor to their wildly successful “Knights of the Old Republic” RPGs. This expectation often clashed with the reality of MMO design, which forces the player to participate in a power treadmill and encourages long-term subscription. The core stories were often interrupted by the kind of garbage that clutters the MMO space: fetch and kill quests designed to slow down the story in obnoxious ways for no other purpose than to create filler where none was desired. In effect, playing multiple class stories became an ordeal: you couldn’t avoid repeating the same non-story nonsense with each play through, just to get to the good stuff because of the MMO leveling treadmill and power curve. I played the Jedi Knight story and bailed, having weighed my desire to see the other seven stories against the thought that I’d rather bash my face in with a lightsaber hilt than suffer through each planet’s version of “bring me 10 bear-asses” a hundred times or more.
After SWTOR went “Free-to-Play,” I’d occasionally return, but never made much headway. Of the MMO trappings found in KOTOR 3, 11 were so obnoxious, it just wasn’t worth it for me. Lots of other players felt the same way. But then something magical happened: the launch of the game’s third expansion (DLC), the “Shadow of Revan.” SOV came with the perk of 12x experience in class stories for subscribers. I was quite happy to give Bioware my money so that I could avoid vast portions of their game and play the remaining class stories through their third acts.
In this way I avoided the multiplayer or MMO aspects of SWTOR altogether. They never particularly mattered to me anyway. I was playing to experience the world of KOTOR in 8 different tales, not to “guild up” or do the traditional MMO thing. Along the way I learned that some of the stories were better than others, but each, when free of the fetch and kill nonsense, were easily worth the price of a month’s subscription. Bioware was getting paid, and I was getting more KOTOR. Win/win, right?
I played through each as if they were a stand alone sequel to the KOTOR games I loved. I played them like they were single-player games. I even deleted characters two-thirds of the way into their story because I didn’t care for the spec I had chosen, or because I wanted to make a different choice at certain key moments. I knew I was going to replay my Jedi Consular the moment I killed Lord Vivicar, for example, instead of redeeming him. I weighed the various options and decided right then that my character had to die and started over, just to let Vivicar live.
As I worked my way through the class stories, the game became progressively easier. I leveled a few choice tradeskills to keep my newest characters and their companions at the peak of the power curve. One at a time, I played through each class’ third act, ignoring the “Rise of the Hutt Cartel,” or Illum, or hard mode flashpoints and operations, in search of the next story. My time commitment was small, compared to most MMO’s I have played, and each new character earned the buff of the ones that had gone before, as well as a heroic opportunity version of their defining move or power.
When my last character completed their class story’s third act, I chose one, my do-gooder Sith Assassin, affectionately dubbed “Force-Jesus,” to begin the DLC content. I was pleasantly surprised to find my power-level remained largely intact. I cut a swath through the story: first on Makeb, in “The Rise of the Hutt Cartel,” and then on to Rishi and Yavin 4 in “Shadow of Revan.” My lightside Sith gathered allies from both the Empire and Republic, and, for the most part, I enjoyed the stories. The ability to do flashpoints and flashpoint-like instances solo certainly helped, and I continued to play SWTOR like a single-player game.
I went into the third expansion, “Knights of the Fallen Empire,” with the same expectations, and I am pleased to report that, on the story-front, it continues to deliver the best sci-fi single player RPG experience out there, in spite of its MMO baggage.
The story of KOTFE works in spite of its beginning. You begin with Darth Marr, which is always cool, because Darth Marr is very fucking cool. Or, at least, he used to be. And maybe still is. Either way, it begins with a major trope: YOU are the “Outlander” on a quest to find and defeat the former Emperor and save the galaxy. It doesn’t matter that you were once a Jedi Knight, or Imperial Agent, the set up is the same. As a plot device, and technical issue (everyone refers to you as “Outlander” in the many cutscenes, saving resources and money in recording times and voice-overs) this works fairly well. Plus, you and Darth Marr, and well…. chapter 1 kinda falls apart at this point. Stuff happens and you are basically imprisoned in carbonite for 5 years, no matter your choices. It’s tropey but forgivable largely because of what follows.
The Outlanders story at release is basically the first 9 chapters in an ongoing story-arc scheduled to continue, one chapter a month, beginning in January 2016. Along the way you hook up with an old friend, make new friends, and generally muck about the galaxy in true “Star Wars” fashion. Travel between “zones” is deemphasized here in favor of pacing. Sometimes you cover the distance in the traditional way, by running around a zone with your companion doing stuff, and other times travel is assumed through clever use of story-bridges and cutscenes. A side quest in chapter 3 earns you a new mount–a nice touch because you need one to plow through these chapters “getting to know you” companion missions.
The companions are a mixed bag. One is basically a clone of every “bad boy with a heart of gold” you’ve ever met in adventure-fiction. But the crux-character from the past is gloriously resistant to type, for the most part, and displays of range of motivations and emotions befitting her role. Another is dark, capable, and deliciously single-minded in the pursuit of justice and morality. The last of the companions introduced in the first act is great comic relief, with some of the best one-off lines of dialog in the game. All contribute to the pacing of the story as it unfolds in mostly positive ways. I found it hard to get up and get another cup of coffee IRL because one sequence led to the next in a way that kept me hungry for the next plateau, often in ways I couldn’t predict or anticipate. KOTFE is a return to KOTOR’s single-player RPG roots, but it is also a movie you get to play. Its flow is so seamless in places that it is easy to forget the game, like most RPGs, is essentially on rails.
OLD FRIENDS / NEW FRIENDS
Controversially, you begin KOTFE sans your vanilla companions, which is a shame. While I loved some, loathed others, and frankly, never used many because gearing them up was inefficient depending on my spec. Yet the old companions served as a valuable reminder of who you were and what you stood for as a character. The decision not to use your old companions in KOTFE is likely a matter of production costs and understandable. I don’t want to hear Vett speaking with another woman’s voice, but I still miss her.
Their loss is minimized by the rapid fire introduction of 4 new companions in the first act who each perform the roles of healer, tank, or DPS. Though their combat roles are interchangeable, their story roles are not, and their dialog is largely well-written. It is worth noting that these new companions are nowhere near as customizable as your previous companions. This is by design, and they are not gear dependent. Their efficacy depends on one stat: your influence. They excel at keeping you alive while out on missions.
CHOICES (KINDA) MATTER
Major decision points throughout the story still rely on dark side/light side choices, but there are grey overtones built into either choice within the story as it progresses. You may, for example, choose to use the deaths of thousands as cover for your escape from Vaylin during the story’s second chapter, or you can do the right thing and minimize further loss of life. The story proceeds either way, but your companions note your choices and voice their approval or displeasure in the scenes that follow.
The Outlander is occasionally offered a boost of power, at high cost, and these choices likewise affect your influence with certain companions, as well as some of the dialog and narrative flavor that follows after. At one point, I was presented with the choice to make an ally or kill an old school companion outright. I can affirm that, though killing him means you won’t have his help during a pivotal fight in a later chapter, it doesn’t actually matter much either way. Choices kinda matter, but it’s mostly just for flavor or show.
THE BUFFET ALLIANCE
Which brings me to the alliance-building portion of the game. You find yourself on a new planet, in a new base that YOU and your new friends, Republic and Imperial alike, have built together in opposition to the Eternal Empire. Your task is to lead this rag-tag group to victory through the allocation of minor resources, team-building tasks, reputation boosts or data crystal collecting. The story is still in there somewhere, but is buried in micromanagement and MMO busy-work.
Sure, you can tell the Bothan who leads your military units that you think his species is a joke, but you can’t choose to put a Moff in his place, so why bother? Again, there are technical reasons why true choice must remain illusory in RPG’s, but the nature of this alliance makes these constraints feel glaring. I suspect that putting together a strong alliance will be helpful once the story resumes with Chapter 10 in January. I do chores for the Bothan Admiral, but only because I don’t have a better option.
This feels like a buffet where I am required to try at least one of everything, and it is almost as immersion breaking as the 50+ “Outlanders” who are also running around the alliance station’s non-instanced common areas.
THE STORY CHAPTERS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES
I treat the alliance building portion of the program as a true mini-game, something to do why I am also doing something else. Like reading a good book. I do it because I want to have a strong alliance with a wide variety of support characters and capabilities as the new chapters are released next year. But a nagging suspicion lives in the back of my mind, like a former emperor turned stow-away. Will it even matter? Or should I be spending my game time catching up with Dragon Age Inquisition or playing Sword coast Legends?
IT’S SO EASY
“Target has achieved: Deadness.” — HK-55.
One of the reasons I worry is this: KOTFE is too damn easy. It’s like Dragon Age or Mass Effect on the lowest possible difficulty setting. Each of my new companions is more than capable of keeping me alive as I plow through whatever the game throws at me. Outside of flashpoints, operations, or PVP, dying is rare. I made it through all 9 chapters on 2 different characters without respawning. It feels heroic, or at least anti-heroic, but the overall effect is that KOTFE plays more like a choose-your-own-adventure story than a “game.” I haven’t quite decided whether this is a good thing or not.
SIDEBAR CONTENT: GAMEPLAY CHANGES RELATED TO STORY
My new companions are not as customizable as my old friends from the vanilla game. I don’t have to deck my favorites out in orange adaptive gear and keep them topped off to make them effective. My mastery (a new stat which replaces each “main” stat for the various classes) and influence alone determine my combat readiness. This means that I choose to bring one or another with me when I go on a mission because I want to hear their chatter and modify their opinion of me as I make light or dark-side choices. The only things I can modify with my new companions are their cosmetic skins and weapon choices. They all do the same amount of damage or healing regardless.
NEW COMPANION SYSTEM
The new companion system comes with a perk, however. Pressing “N” opens a screen that gives you a detailed dossier of each companion, alive or dead, as well as their current “influence level.” This is a nice touch, and the interface is clean and useful.
Obviously, this being a Bioware RPG means you have the option to romance your companions. There are options for opposite sex romances, same sex romances, and robot romances. Sadly, I can’t romance the uber-weapon/starship my alliance will ultimately use to defeat the big bad and his Eternal Fleet. For shame, Bioware, you intolerant bastards.
Here’s the thing: If you are currently in a relationship with one of your vanilla companions, you receive letters via the in-game mail system, reminding you of your romantic obligations. If you choose to invest in a new romance anyway, a pop-up dialog box warns that this choice is permanent.
CARTEL MARKET CHANGES
There are likewise big changes to the Cartel Market with this expansion. These are numerous and mostly quite useful, if you like tipping Bioware for their hard work or collecting rare outfits, boosts, mounts or other collectibles. You can read all about these changes, here:
THE NEW STREAMLINED LEVELING EXPERIENCE
One bit of news that gave me pause is that the 12x leveling boost for subscribers is going away with the release of KOTFE. In its place is a streamlined leveling experience, designed to move you through the game from 1-55 by focusing only on the class and planet story-arcs. I haven’t tried making a new character, aside from my “free” level 60, so I don’t know how well this works, or if it significantly alters the pace of the early game, either way.
THE BOTTOM LINE
SWTOR took a lot of flack early on for being an MMO. Many players, including myself, had fetishized the original KOTOR RPGs to such an extent that anything other than KOTOR 3 was seen as a retreat from what made “The Old Republic” such a great setting for stories in the first place. I won’t speak to this choice now, except to say that the decision to make KOTOR into an MMO, with World of Warcraft-like “fetch” and “kill” quests, and forced group content (and all that implies), really put me off at first, and put me off subscribing beyond the first 90 days following launch.
Removing that nonsense entirely, or at least making it optional, is the decision that brought me back to SWTOR after the launch of “Shadow of Revan” and has succeeded in making me a subscriber, even after the game went F2P. That said, while SWTOR has managed to pull back from the standard MMO progression grind to a great extent, much of it still exists in the gathering of reputation boosts for various factions, and data crystals or rare crafting materials found only in hard-mode flashpoints for equipment upgrades. This is probably unavoidable, and, because of the story’s pacing and flow, back loaded after 9 chapters of new, damn near feature-film quality single-player story.
SWTOR feels, more than ever before, like a single-player RPG with optional multiplayer content, and that’s a good thing, no matter how you slice it. Story is the heart and soul of Bioware’s “Old Republic,” and the game works best when its MMO features are deemphasized in favor of pacing, flow, and narrative. It will be a long-slog before January, and the continuation of the Zakuul story-arc, but I plan on doing all the Flashpoints I missed with my new companions. Now, I can actually watch the cutscenes for the story without being bitched at by other players, and that can only be a good thing. Meat-bags are fine, in tiny doses, but are prone to bicker, gripe and ERP, and that distracts from MY story.
“DEMAND: ARE. WE. THERE. YET?”
“Fuck yeah, we are HK. Fuck yeah, we are.”