By – Stuart Young
Greetings from the world of MMO gaming! In this series, I’m exploring the strange land of massively multiplayer gaming from the perspective of a complete newcomer. In Part One, I ventured onto the shores of Star Wars: The Old Republic (but not before being forcibly detained at the customs desk of registration, installation and patching). Once I’d arrived, I found unfamiliar territory indeed, with mechanics and an interface that left me mildly bamboozled. In this part, I’ll continue to document my travels and travails in TOR, as I begin to get to grips with the game systems and encounter a few surprises. Holding down the right mouse button to move the camera. It’s just not natural!
I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to that, but I soon started to feel more at home with the conventions of the MMO genre and began to enjoy my journey. Stranded on the starting area of Ord Mantell, I was sent into a chase to get my Smuggler’s ship back from the hands of a dastardly traitor. Doing that meant nabbing data from Separatists currently fighting the Galactic Republic to control the planet. As is the nature of such quests, finding out where my foe had gone required me to single-handedly defeat what soon felt like most of the Separatist army along the way. Big task, perhaps, but I soon felt like I had the tools to handle the job. I’ve already mentioned the confusion I felt when confronted with a huge line of mysterious skills mapped onto little buttons at the bottom of the game screen. After a little experimentation, this daunting prospect turned into a chocolate box of tasty combat possibilities as I began to grasp the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Soon, I was settling into a nice little rhythm. Approach some enemies close enough to not trigger an attack, take cover, read their health-bar displays to discover the weakest, stun the rest with a flash grenade and focus on whittling down their numbers quickly. It’s worth noting that, although I’ve progressed quite a bit further in this game since these early days, the basic formula hasn’t really changed very much. Although a few kinks and new abilities are introduced, I’m surprised that anyone ever decided that you could sustain a hundred-plus hour game by looping the same thirty seconds of gameplay.
Yet in those early hours, I started to quite enjoy this routine. Despite that, it’s also worth noting that I never felt truly excited or engaged. This style of gameplay seems to operate at the precise spot where all your low-level animal brain functions are engaged but no actual thought is required. Like a simple matching-puzzle game, this ostensibly complex RPG started to turn into a mental fluff where routine reigns over variety. Once I began to enjoy the game on this level, it was satisfying enough to just keep plowing on through squads of identical baddies, watching my experience bar tick up slowly and stopping for the occasional ‘story break’ – handing in or accepting a quest. Even after a few tasks, it became clear that these generally consisted of the kill 10 X’s, destroy 10 Y’s or walk somewhere variety.
It’s a pity you can’t effectively play this style of game in a tiny window or with the sound off (the writing gets too small, and you can’t hear enemies attacking) because otherwise it would be ideal fodder to have on the backburner, say, while you watch the news. It asks just enough of you to prevent you from multi-tasking. For the most part, the game was providing just enough to do to keep me attentive. Occasionally, though, I was thrown a curveball, and it’s those little moments I remember fondly. For the first few missions, I’d barely come into contact with other players in the world and was beginning to become rather cynical – surely, I thought, there’s more to the MMO concept than watching another player with a silly name run into a building I couldn’t enter to be sent off on his or her own breadcrumb trail of missions.
Eventually, that changed, albeit only temporarily. I came across a quest (one of many) requiring me to clear out some of the local wildlife – a bunch of green ogre-type things called savrips. The quest was labelled in my log with the legend [Heroic 2+]. Now, I didn’t have a clue what that meant, but I figured – ‘hey, my Smuggler’s a pretty heroic guy, right? I’ll go and have a look.’ I approached the island on which the savrips lived, and attracted a few, using my normal cover-attack routine. But the monsters did something I didn’t expect – they all ran straight at me and started walloping me. I panicked, and before I’d even managed to take a single one of the ogres out, I was dead.
I’d ‘died’ a few times before, but previously it was nothing more than a trifling inconvenience – a few seconds wait and a medical robot would be there to revive me. It had always been a result of carelessness or error – not paying attention to my health bar, or attracting too many groups of enemies (I later discovered this is known as ‘pulling’ – a word which commonly has a very different meaning here in the UK). In this situation, the defeat was different – somehow the game had gone from having a practically flat difficulty curve to an enormous difficulty spike.
I tried again, with a better plan – I got into cover as far away as possible, focused all my shiniest toys on the weakest creature and prepared to run. This time, I fared marginally better, taking one savrip down before his cohort mauled me to death. The penalty for failure seemed to increase every time I died, and this time I was given the option of waiting half a minute or returning to a safe area. I waited, tried again, failed to take down the larger beast, and elected to give up, returning to safety. I couldn’t understand it. Was I at too low a level? That didn’t sit right – before, all the quests I’d encountered seemed to have been designed for roughly the level I found myself at. Perhaps the mysterious [Heroic 2+] had something to do with it. Was I just not hero enough? Did I need to gain two levels, perhaps?
Then something caught my eye in the top left of the screen – the chat window. ‘lfg svrip island’ said the message. ‘Anyone?’ I felt a little surge of excitement as I typed a reply. I didn’t have much of a clue what he was talking about, but this player sounded like he was facing the same problem as me. I knew I was going to sound clueless, but it couldn’t be helped. ‘Do you mean the green troll things? What does lfg mean, I’m new?” Yes. Looking for group want to join?’ ‘Sure,’ I replied. A few moments later, a dialogue box popped up and invited me to his party. I’ve always liked being invited to parties, so I signed right up. ‘Come back to island,’ said my new-found samaritan. ‘Can bet heroic with two players.’ Spelling aside, I’d finally caught on. The term heroic referred not to flashy acts of individual bravery, but to teamwork.
Two minutes later and I was crouched in the shallows next to the aforementioned island. ‘rdy?’ said my new pal. He was a smuggler, too. ‘Let’s go’ , he continued, after I’d found my way to cover.
And go we did, cutting a veritable swathe through the lumbering savages on the island. I found that our firepower had not doubled, but tripled – the other player was assisted by an AI companion that, when I looked closer, I recognised as a character from my main storyline. Corso was his name – an unfeasibly enthusiastic and wholesome armed guard who, as I rightly surmised, would soon be joining up with me. Seeing him fighting alongside another player rather took the surprise out of having him as a companion – and certainly diluted what personality he possessed. His most memorable character trait was a ludicrous trustafarian hairstyle, so it came as no surprise that he’d started his career volunteering to travel the galaxy in what seemed to be an interstellar equivalent of the Peace Corps. As you might be able to tell, I found him rather bland but impossible to actively dislike.
My human companion and I finished clearing out the Savrip’s island. I was all for exploring the new horizons that an actual interaction with another player seemed to lead to, but he had other ideas.
‘Thanks for the group, gtg.’ ‘Bye,’I replied’.
I confess to feeling just a tiny bit abandoned. The group was disbanded, but I smiled when I saw he had added me to his friends list. This, perhaps, was a tiny little glimpse of the MMO experience I had been looking for.
Join me next time when I’ll be getting a sweet ride, trying to outsmart the game, and committing suicide. (In the game, please don’t make any phone calls.)
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.