By Blair Nishkian (Tagspeech)
The highlight of every press event: a spread of complimentary food. This time it was pasta and roasted vegetables. I enjoyed the meal while I listened to the producer and the creative director from The Old Republic talk about the upcoming content for The Eternal Throne expansion. I think I drank six Coke Zeros. Here’s what I learned.
For those of you that don’t know, The Old Republic is Bioware’s first and only MMORPG venture, set in the historical Star Wars universe. After a successful launch in 2011, subscriber numbers tanked after a matter of months, as most MMORPGs do. EA was determined to make the game profitable, and so the cartel market was introduced, and the game’s platform has expanded significantly. In terms of simple re-investment, TOR is up there with WoW. The production values are excellent, and the game has experienced a resurgence in the past two years. But it still follows the cycle of every MMORPG – expansion released, numbers swell, expansion gets boring, numbers drop. Repeat, repeat, ad infinitum. There’s a reason the genre is dying.
TOR offers something unique, though. In response to player feedback, the developers behind the game made a conscious decision to reimagine the game as more of a direct descendant of the much-loved single-player RPG classic, Knights of the Old Republic. Thus we now have the high-octane and fully voice-acted saga that is the Eternal Throne arc, in which a secret third empire comes out of nowhere and subjugates both the Republic and Empire, rendering the classic faction rivalry conceptually moot. That saga has been going on for about a year (in real time updates), and at last with Eternal Throne, it’s drawing to a close. It is, of course, reaching the only possible logical conclusion: the player character will become the grand emperor of all the galaxy.
You and every other player character. So, get ready to run around with a whole bunch of emperors. You can all take turns sitting on the throne – at least, that was my understanding of it. We didn’t get to play the storyline all the way through in the demo. But they did tell me that you become the emperor and have to participate in a new form of fast-paced group content called ‘uprisings’ designed for four players to knock out in less than an hour.
A lot of the new storyline has brand new gameplay elements, like walker piloting, which of course everyone enjoys. But these are just more of what we’re used to in MMORPGs – being able to hop into a vehicle and stomp around is nothing new, it’s been around in the genre since 2006. A lot of what I witnessed in the demo was underwhelming, but the storytelling was, as usual, top notch. The voice acting was choice. And the cinematics were fun. It’s a great single-player experience. It’s ironic that EA’s MMORPG venture had to be salvaged by turning it into a single-player experience, but here we are. TOR remains unique in that respect. It’s a story-driven, acting-driven MMORPG; it invests itself in the most expensive aspects of the industry, yet it still manages to make it work.
There aren’t many character-driven sci-fi MMORPGs anymore, either. TOR fills a unique niche. You could simply see it as WoW’s sci-fi counterpart, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It certainly makes more of an effort to suck you into the world with that famous Bioware writing, and it largely succeeds, barring the attacks on immersion and roleplay when it comes to reconciling the MMORPG story (you are the CHOSEN ONE) with the reality of being one of thousands upon thousands of other players, many of whom probably outgear you and could curbstomp you in a duel.
This sort of cognitive dissonance is wholly embraced by TOR, and most MMORPGs. It begs the question: what the hell is the point of an MMORPG? Why do people play them? Is it for escapism and immersion, a sense of being transported and enchanted? Or is it just so we can push a few numbers forward on a character sheet in one or two hour bursts before dinner is ready?
I think that TOR is earnestly trying to do both. There are some new server-wide features, like the war between the Dark and Light that seems to transcend factions. You choose whether or not to actively fight for and align yourself with either side of the Force. If enough players win enough victories for either side, the Force becomes imbalanced, and certain powerful, raid-quality world bosses will spawn on various planets that require huge groups to take down. This is interesting, but nothing particularly earth-shattering. It’s nice to see TOR continuing its tradition of lateral content development (strongholds, star fighter, etc.) rather than just forging ahead with level cap increase over level cap increase. That said, the level cap is going up another five levels, unfortunately. The hamster wheel needs to get bigger, and that sense of progression needs to be there for some people.
But that’s fine. TOR still remains one of the MMORPGs that has the most amenities for people who like something beyond simply grinding gear, and maybe even enjoy the social or roleplaying aspects of the MMORPG genre (RPG is in the acronym, after all). It’s a great game. And with this Eternal Empire plot arc finally tying itself up, it’s possible that more emergent gameplay will come around. It seems to be the direction they’re pushing towards. Wouldn’t it be nice to see players and their actions tying into the story, driving the world forward? One can only dream. It is, after all, what the genre is made for. Ultimately, it’s a social scene.
When speaking to the creative director, Charles Boyd, I had a good time talking about this sort of thing. He was a big fan of City of Heroes, like me, and part of what made that game so special was the way it encouraged collaborative storytelling and imagination in its players. There’s a bit of that spirit in TOR, though not to the same degree. With the game’s storyline having rendered the two primary factions, Empire and Republic, rather moot, and there being an Alliance between them, he told me that he’d love to see more meaningful cross-faction content, outside of the simple Odessen Proving Grounds PVP area. The only thing stopping them are significant technical hurdles.
I hold out hope that TOR continues to develop in this lateral fashion, in a way that will really make it one of the few, if only, MMORPGs left that actually emphasizes the RPG.