I’ve avoided playing MMOs for over four years now. I used to play World of Warcraft nightly with a group of friends I met before and during my time as an undead rogue. Changes in jobs and duties as a father of three helped to reduce the attraction I had toward WoW. As I found my gaming habits change from that of a diehard PC gamer to that of a console gamer, I often found the one thing that I missed the most was the random social chats that would occur playing online. Sure the chatter was usually inane and pointless, but there was a certain satisfaction of logging in knowing that there was always something going on. Be it guild drama, new dungeons conquered or bragging rights over sweet loot, chat was always a part of WoW that I now miss playing many single player games on my PS3.
Over Thanksgiving I was invited to participate in EA/BioWare’s beta weekend of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I lifted my personal MMO ban to try it out. Aside from knowing that the story/world took place three thousand years before the movies, I have intentionally steered clear of lore and features that have been released over the last year or two in anticipation of SWTOR‘s release later this month. (Ed. Note: News just arrived today confirming all systems go for the December 20 launch and a December 13 “Early Game Access” head start to pre-ordering players.)
The opening cut scenes explain that the Sith Empire has secretly been building up and then in dramatic fashion attacks and destroys the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. The subsequent warring between Light and Dark sides of the Force is the basis for BioWare’s epic MMORPG. Of course no MMO would be complete without several classes to choose from on both factions. Since I have avoided most news surrounding the game I went with my leanings from WoW and picked a Bounty Hunter working on the side of the Sith Empire. There’s just something about a bounty hunter not giving a crap about anything other than the highest bidder in a galaxy filled with backstabbing gangsters, merchants and even the inevitable good guy who is willing to bend the rules just to get a task completed, that I find more interesting than defending the galaxy as an all-powerful Jedi.
So after tweaking my character’s many physical traits, I headed out to stake my claim as the next great bounty hunter in a galaxy host to much scum and villainy. What I encountered was a mix of WoW influence and the classic BioWare touch. Lots of conversation options are presented throughout the quest encounters. The options gave a mixture of choosing between light and dark moral choices or somewhere in between. One conversation/quest ended with my character coming to differing points of view with an accountant for a Hutt. To win favor with the Hutt, my bounty hunter cut off the head of the accountant and delivered it to his wife. Not something I was expecting from a Star Wars game, but certainly something I would expect a bounty hunter to do in the Star Wars universe.
Now as I mentioned, one of the things I loved about WoW was the social aspect. SWTOR is of course very social. If you want it to be. There are plenty of other players running about attempting to grind on the same enemies, for the same quests, but with a click of a button all social windows can be dismissed and the folks that are running around can be seen as just set dressing in a large, vibrant world. Of course, missions are designed to challenge, and one of the best ways to meet that challenge is to group up with others who are either just along for the ride or have to complete the same quests.
During my encounter with the Hutt accountant, I had another party member traveling along with me. I mention this mostly because as conversation trees are presented while other party members are nearby, the cut scene interaction is played out for all party members. This is pretty cool. What blew my mind though was the fact that the other party member was also presented with the conversation tree and during several interactions he was the one who had greater social influence over the NPC I was conversing with and so the other person in my party shaped my conversation instead of me. This is one aspect I wasn’t expecting, but found really cool. It makes sense. If I had three friends who were all thugs surrounding someone with information and one of my friends was very influential, then it goes without saying that he should be the one controlling the conversation. Why should all party members play a back seat to a conversation that they are directly involved in?
This is one of the great touches BioWare has added to the MMO concept. One of the biggest reasons I stopped playing WoW was simply due to a greater slant on farming quest objects than on the story behind the quest. Or maybe it was a lack of presentation with the quests. In SWTOR all quests–hell all NPCs–throughout the entire game have spoken dialog responses. This is one thing that BioWare is touting as one of the great reasons to play SWTOR. After playing almost ten hours of the beta, I would agree. The dialog is well performed and the “human” element adds an extra reason to care about why you are simply going out to farm for 10 cat teeth or whatever the quest giver is asking for.
Each side has four classes to choose from as well as several distinct races to then choose from as well. There is plenty to do in each class and the key thing (in my mind) is the option to play as a social butterfly, or play as a more traditional BioWare game, going about saving the galaxy solo with scattered companions that happen along your storyline.
The brief time I spent playing Star Wars: The Old Republic brought back many fond memories, but also made me realize that MMOs can indeed be a well crafted solo affair with the option for party play when I’m in a more sociable mood. SWTOR is a game that I think will deliver on a lot of great ideas for seasoned MMO players as well as bring a fresh way to play a Star Wars story for people not typically accustomed to the very well established MMO marketplace.