By: Stuart Young
I’ve been a PC gamer since before ‘Massively Multiplayer’ was anything other than two words that sound a bit silly together. Yet ever since their inception, I’ve never played an MMO. It can be put down to a number of reasons: a fear of being sucked in, an aversion to games without a fixed ending, impenetrable-sounding game mechanics or just me being unsociable. Because of this, WoW, Eve, Guild Wars et al have all passed me by. MMOs are something other people do, a curiosity hovering in the periphery of my gaming vision. When I heard that BioWare was developing an MMO successor to feted Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic, it was enough to kindle a little flicker of interest in a genre I’d avoided. It wasn’t a fully fledged inferno – could The Old Republic really be a true inheritor? – but it was enough to make me pick up the ‘Collector’s Edition’ when the price dropped (mainly because I love feelies, and these guys were promising a free statue! And an art book! And a funny little keyring thing!)
So I went down the rabbit hole to MMO Wonderland. And it is a wondrous land indeed – a world where po-faced genre fiction collides with constant fourth-wall demolition. A world where strange game mechanics intersect with a stranger secret language. This was the gamiest of games, Tetris with a plot, the slowest of RPGs, and an odd but strangely compelling experience. What follows might strike some of you as uninformed, naive, or ignorant. This is because I am writing from ignorance. These are my first, teetering baby steps into a strange land. This diary is intended for anyone who’s never played one of these games and wants to get a feel for what they actually offer without dealing with a battery of strange terminology. More importantly, perhaps, it’s to offer MMO fans a different perspective – this is what your genre looks like from the outside.
The very first impression I got from The Old Republic was that it was an immense amount of hassle to get anywhere near playing the game. Not since the days of DOS and floppy disks have I experienced such a lot of fuss between buying a game and enjoying it. But rather than worrying about DMA addresses and Sound Blaster compatibility, I was led through a chain of installs and asked to hand over more personal information than a president being sworn in. The main install spans three DVDs and weighs in at 20 GB of hard drive – I truly feel sorry for the folks buying digital copies and having to download the whole thing. That done, EA demand a barrage of information – including your credit card details, even if you have no intention of subscribing. They also demand no less than five security questions amongst other annoying and slightly intrusive things. After that, it’s time to install a hefty patch – which surely could have been done while I was filling in the form – and finally, after almost an hour I had emerged victorious and triumphantly reached the menu screen.
I imagine that these trials are something that MMO veterans have grudgingly come to accept, but to me it feels massively archaic given the huge improvements in usability that PC gaming has made over the last ten years. Would it be so hard to combine the registration screen with the install? Or even install the first few starting areas – which you can’t leave for hours, anyway – and do the rest of it in the background? Over the course of a multi-hundred hour game, many players are willing to stomach inconvenience, but lowering the barrier to entry a bit would surely be one more way to lure ‘casual’ gamers away from Facebook and Flash games – which have virtually no set-up time. So at last, I was in. Then the game offered a string of big decisions. First, pick a server. I had no idea how to go about choosing this or what the consequences would be if any, so I picked one at random. The amount of players on each seemed about the same. They all had Star Wars themed names, which was cute but I imagine this would add to the confusion for anyone who didn’t know what a server was or why you are being asked to pick one, especially as some of them sound like starting locations.
Then I was asked to choose class and allegiance – Galactic Republic or Sith Empire, which for all ten of you who’ve never seen Star Wars means whether you want to play a good guy or a bad guy respectively. They presented a choice of eight classes, four for each side. Rather wisely, Bioware has made half those classes some form of lightsaber user – two kinds of Jedi and two kinds of Sith. I was more interested in the exotic classes, so I skipped past those. On the Sith side there was a bounty hunter (think Bobba Fett) and an Imperial Agent (doesn’t really have an analogue in the films, but I gather he’s a sort of dastardly spy). I wanted to join the Republic, and was offered the trooper (a soldier class) and, more excitingly, the smuggler (basically Han Solo). Of course, any player in their right mind (including myself) wants to be Han Solo – or Hanette, as you can also choose gender or race. Both seem to have little impact on how the game plays.
With my daring smuggler created, who looked oddly like Guybrush Threepwood (a quality that many of the male characters in this game seem to share), I finally plunged into the game proper. A brief cutscene introduced me to my alter ego, who just arrived on the planet of Ord Mantell to deliver a cargo of blasters to a chap called Skavek. It didn’t look a thing like the beautifully rendered CGI intro movies – in fact, everything looked a little bit flat. The visual style took a bit of getting used to – it’s not quite cel-shaded, but neither are they aiming for realism, settling for art a little reminiscent of the Clone Wars animations. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but neither is it how I imagined a KOTOR sequel would look. What was unpleasant was the HUD. Having a lot going on screen is something I’ve been conditioned to from single player RPGs, but this was really going to town. Dozens of little bells and whistles cluttered the interface, and even invaded the game world, and it took a while to work out what they all did. Again, I could only imagine how intimidating this would be for someone new to gaming. I also found I could only rotate the camera by holding the right mouse button, which immediately made me feel a bit distanced from my character – immersion obviously didn’t seem to be the priority here.
After a bit more talking, I was dispatched on my first mission – the planet’s air defenses had been overrun by local separatists, and I was sent off to take them back. The talky bits were quite fun, using a Mass Effect style dialogue wheel. Unfortunately, Bioware seem to have forgotten they designed a wheel, and all the conversations only had three options stacked up on the right side of the circle. These invariably translated to being nice, nasty, or somewhere in the middle. I was hoping the conversations would become more complex, have more consequences, but this rarely happened – it’s what you could charitably refer to as ‘streamlined’.
But what about the combat, the meat and potatoes of most RPGs? This was another big culture shock for me. It took a while to get used to the camera, and not having a pause button – obviously impractical in a persistent online world. Other little quirks – using the right mouse button to attack – I soon adapted to, but there was greater weirdness afoot. I had quite the array of attacks, but to use anything other than the default, I needed to click on a little icon with the left mouse button. I quickly realised that these were also mapped to the number keys, and felt rather foolish. There was a mechanic involving getting behind cover, but this was rather strange as well. Sometimes my plucky Captain would instantly roll twenty metres to behind an ankle high curb – other times he would just crouch on the spot, which seemed to be a reasonable substitute. Often I would manually take up a position behind a waist-high object and crouch down, but in battles I began to suspect that this wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ cover.
I soon discovered I had a superpower – semi-invisibility. I could pass by enemies a few metres away, in broad daylight, without them attacking me. They also seemed to be very fond of congregating in groups of three, but there didn’t appear to be much communication between the groups – I could pick a fight with one lot and their buddies over the street would ignore me. No wonder the separatists weren’t winning the battle for independence. I began to realise that this was a convention of the genre, which perhaps makes a bit more sense if you’re fighting packs of dumb creatures – wolves, zombies etc. – it certainly didn’t feel like a battlefield staffed by human combatants. After defeating the separatists, I would politely rob their corpses; if they were carrying anything I could steal, this was subtly indicated by an enormous pillar of light extending into the sky. None of them seemed to have guns on them, which was a little strange, as they’d been shooting me not ten seconds earlier.
As well as being partially sighted, my hapless foes had the disadvantage of being deaf. I soon discovered my hardy smuggler had infinite reserves of health, but could only recover between fights. His relaxation routine consisted of flipping a coin, which he’d practice shooting with his blaster. Perhaps the seperatists just enjoyed his devil-may-care style, because this behaviour didn’t attract any undue attention, even when positioned yards away, directly in front of them.
What they may have lacked in intelligence, the separatists made up for in manpower. After carving a path through one swathe of soldiers, I was dismayed to find that some reinforcements had materialised, and were casually strolling amongst their compatriot’s corpses. There seemed no end to the amount of troops who were willing to die protecting unimportant stretches of concrete – and just like me, they had a superpower; being able to fade in from nothing rather than arriving on the scene by more conventional means.
Of course, all of this moaning is a bit facetious. These are game conventions, things that aren’t real, but we learn to accept, like health packs and extra lives – or indeed the fact that Star Wars is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. There are perfectly fine reasons why the developers are using these shortcuts and conventions – to make sure there’s a good supply of enemies for other players to fight, for example. To prevent the player hauling around hundreds of weapons. To give that coin-flipping recovery animation a fun quirk. But the sum total of so many game-like departures from reality is an experience so very distanced from any sort of real world rules that you are constantly, unavoidably reminded that you are playing a game. It is impossible to suspend disbelief, because you are inundated with unbelievable elements. This meant that all the unfolding story – the civil war on Ord Mantell, my blaster delivery – was partially devalued. I couldn’t concentrate on it, and found my attention drifting away from my character, because, after all, it’s only a game, and I’ve got to think about my next move. It’s odd that the role-playing genre – originally the genre in which a player was encouraged to feel closest to, identify the most with their character – should evolve into a form that leaves you feeling the furthest away.
My session ended with my new friend Skavek turning out to be a villain (with a name like that, who knew?) and stealing my ship, providing the game with a convenient excuse to leave me stranded on the starting planet, and me with a convenient excuse to conclude my first report. Next time, I’ll be making friends with a trustafarian and learning what LF2M HC means. -End
You can now read Part Two of Stuart’s adventures.
When he is not performing on walking tours in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stuart Young writes as a freelance PC gaming journalist. His contributions include pieces written for GameZone, The Escapist and Adventure Gamers.