I’ve found MMOs are like Texas. Everything is bigger there. And like Texas, traversing an MMO will probably take a long, long time. I’m not entirely sure why, but this is the way it is; everything in The Old Republic seems to have been built for a race of giants.
As soon as I’d been through the missions on the starting planet, my smuggler’s journey took me to Coruscant, a city covering an entire planet and the seat of the Galactic Republic.
The developers have certainly been diligent in trying to recreate this sense of scale – the towers of the Senate climb up into the atmosphere as you stroll (or rather run) its venerable and lengthy corridors. Back and forth I ran, completing missions for the assorted dignitaries who were willing to trust a down on his luck spacer with the fate of the planet.
Why is the environment so darn massive compared to your avatar? Perhaps Bioware had visions of a best case scenario, their environments so packed full of keen players that they’d have trouble passing each other in the hallway if the corridors weren’t a hundred feet wide. Making the world so big seems like wasted effort now, as there are never more than thirty people on the planet when I log in. Or maybe it’s another convention, a dictate of standard MMO design. Either way, there are no small spaces in The Old Republic – no cramped hidey holes or secret passages, no cosy nooks or homely chambers. Everywhere is big.
It doesn’t help that you don’t get a speeder until level 25, allowing you to shave precious minutes away from the cumulative hours of travel time. One player I met had a developed a counter-intuitive strategy. To return quickly to the senate tower, the nearest taxi being a few minutes walk away, he would hurl himself off the edge of the plaza. He’d find himself resurrected at the medical service inside the senate. This damaged his equipment, which he had to pay to repair, but shaved a few minutes off the journey back to a quest giving NPC. It’s an odd situation where players are willing to pay a penalty to avoid traversing the majestic environments designers have laboured hours over.
But I can see his point, and joined him on a couple of occasions. Despite the care lavished over each planet, I have never really enjoyed exploring in TOR. I’ve been trying to identify why this is. Firstly, I fingered the blocky, simple art style as a reason. I think that only partly explains it – after all, Deus Ex looks similarly bald by today’s standards, but when I recently replayed that game I still wanted to ferret out every nook and cranny, and I felt more like I was in a ‘complete’ place in the few streets of New York it simulates than in all of Coruscant’s sprawling map.
So that’s not it. It’s not the auto-map function, either – I hardly needed to rack my brain for all the single player games with detailed mapping that I still felt had a sense of discovery and genuine, impressive scale – anything by Bethesda, for a start.
I think I’ve cracked it. In this game (and perhaps in other MMOs), nothing is unexpected. After a few hours of playing, it becomes clear that there is only one way to get a quest; walk up to a completely static quest giving NPC or terminal, all clearly marked on the automap for your ease and predictability, and initiate a dialogue. You’re never interrupted by a messenger, running up to you, and thrusting a desperate plea into your hands. You never get an unexpected holocall from a senator trusting you with a secret mission. You never have a conversation with a merchant – the store window just opens up, to ‘save’ time. This means a shopkeeper never complains about a womp rat infestation or asks you to carry a letter to his sister.
When you’ve got your mission, you walk to the exact location – or general radius – given on the map, and kill some static groups of enemies. You kill a big enemy, sabotage/fix some machinery, or collect some trinkets. Then you hand in the mission. Again, and again and again. That’s why TOR feels so big and empty – because it’s game space is just an irritant to traverse. You know what is going to happen when you get there. And you know that you will find nothing except a dozen, almost riskless, low-level fights between yourself and ‘there’. There is no spice in this space. No smaller spaces or secret areas to wander into by chance. No granularity, unpredictability, unfairness. No traps or double crosses, excepting transparent ‘twists’ as demanded by the story. Bioware want their customers to be happy – that means that almost everything is smooth, predictable, polished, and to me, at least, rather boring.
At one point, I tried to exercise a little genuine free-will and take a risk in the game. The smuggler’s plot eventually branches, sending you to deliver items on a choice of two planets – one area is recommended for a couple of levels lower than the other.
By that time I’d dabbled a bit with the game’s fun-but-chaotic PVP arenas, and earned enough XP to – just barely – attempt the higher level planet first. Attempting to create a bit of real jeopardy, I went there as my first port of call. I enjoyed a harder, riskier game for a while, before the extra XP from taking down higher-level enemies plonked me straight back on the prescribed leveling curve.
But then I went back to the easier planet to complete my mission there. And I was punished for my deviation, for wanting to genuinely choose something – anything – in what is ostensibly an RPG. In a game so dependent on leveling, lower level enemies are utterly trivial to defeat, no matter how terrifying they look. So trivial that the game doesn’t bother handing out any XP at all, after a certain disparity. Yet the enemies never retreat – they swarm around you, relentlessly attacking despite it being akin to suicide. Instead of a challenge, the easier planet became an endless marathon of walking, then swatting unreasonably persistent creatures, walking, walking, talking heads, walking, swatting, walking. When I reached level 25, the speeder at least cut down on the journeying. But this was a hollow triumph for me, it was just a removal of a major irritation in the long, slow walk to victory.
It might surprise readers to learn that, in spite of my grouchy cynicism, I persisted with TOR for a really long time. I like to get my money’s worth to the point of self-flagellation. In fact, I had almost reached the level cap when the news broke that Bioware was effectively throwing in the towel and turning it free-to-play. That, I decided, was a perfect time to cancel my subscription and throw in the towel myself.
I’d had a few glimpses of what people enjoy about the MMO landscape along the way – mostly when I could find other people to play with – but for the most part, this felt like a potentially enjoyable single-player RPG(s?) padded with hundreds of hours of leveling and formulaic side missions. I’d had some fun, but not very much. And it was very stingily, carefully rationed fun for my ten pounds a month.
But I’m not quite ready to stop trying yet. So I’m moving on in search of something a little bit different, a bit more exciting. I’ve heard encouraging things about Guild Wars 2, including that it’s less of a static world than other MMOs and that there’s not as much padding to reach the level cap. Plus: no subscription, so I won’t feel shackled to the game if I’m not really getting much pleasure from it. So next time, this now seasoned online backpacker will be hitching a ride to another strange land.