The Problem with The Old Republic…

I stopped playing The Old Republic.

This isn’t a complete trashing – although one does have to wonder where exactly their $100 million budget went considering the air of cheapness that pervades the whole experience – nor is it the whinging of a player not wholly immersed in the Star Wars universe. Because, it has to be said, The Old Republic is far from the worst MMO released this year (that award goes to Rusty Hearts!). It’s playable and relatively stable, despite the numerous UI bugs and technical glitches that even the casual player base has been discovering and moaning about endlessly.

No, this isn’t about trashing the game. It’s about being objective. From the stance of someone who isn’t versed in Star Wars, the truth is this – by not being blinded by the rose-tinted spectacles of a franchise fan, I’ve been able to see the game as it is, without imposing my own imagination onto the superficial structure that holds the game together.

Speaking about it as an MMO, there are frankly dozens of mistakes that pervade every inch of its being. The lackluster character creator which I commented on in my brief diary is one of numerous issues, but its the first hurdle that one comes to when trying to get into the game. The point of a character creator is to give the impression of choice, to give the player a meaningful representation of themselves in a world – or in this case, galaxy – by which they can explore, engage and interact. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on the area design or the voice acting, if the doorway into the property isn’t suitably inviting then no-one is going to want to walk through the door. I learned that a decade ago from watching House Doctor. Ann Maurice, you are sorely missed from the swathe of boring presenters on TV today.

The next issue is the game itself – all too often, it feels like a sparsely populated universe with more walking than really is required – often through landscapes where enemies and wildlife stand perfectly still unless you get too close. They have no soul, they give off no impression there is any actual life to the universe. They are there for you to just beat up, and that just makes them basic fodder for experience points, and pretty poor ones at that seeing as the game rewards far more for questing than it does for grinding. It just feels… empty. A bit dull.

Then there is the voice acting. Look, I am all for voice-acting in games, I like it and I don’t think there’s a gamer in the land who will say they don’t want decent voice acting in games today. But, truth is, an MMO isn’t really made for fully-voiced scenes. There are two reasons for this – one, it eats up your play time. When you can spend a third of your time in voiced cutscenes, you’re artificially padding a game that lacks content. The second issue is when you are in a group, people may not WANT to hear the cutscenes – especially in an instance, one which they may be in for the fifth or sixth time. They’ve seen it, done it, and frankly, couldn’t care less if you are new to the place. They want to get it over with as quickly as possible, and being forced to get stuck into the long-winded multiple-choice scenes must get boring after the third run through.

Another issue is the light and dark side choices. This is a mechanic that, whilst important to the franchise as a whole, adds relatively little to the experience. It’s essentially a reputation grind in all but name, and even then, it gets worse still when you hear that some are being forced to reroll when the better end-game gear requires a Dark 5 or Light 5 rating. The reason for the reroll is, you can have 10,000 light and dark points, but Dark or Light 5 requires the full 10,000 points. If you even have so much as one light point, it cancels out one dark point, meaning you can only have a maximum of 9,999 dark points in total. It’s a shoddy and poorly implemented system and one I am sure they will work the kinks out of, because this is an obvious problem that should have been dealt with prior to release, but that it even went through in such a state to begin with is, frankly, a very poor reflection on EA and BioWare. It’s the kind of stupid game design we thought we’d moved away from.

Likewise, I am frankly sick to death of the dialogue wheel now. BioWare, I know you like it, and I know you worked on it for a long time, but let us be frank here – it doesn’t need to be shoehorned into every game you do. It’s just a tad boring now, a tad overdone, and it wasn’t that special to begin with. It is just a streamlined interface for what has been done for many years, and more suited for the console market and joysticks than a PC game where everyone is using a mouse and keyboard.

But the really major issue for me is that The Old Republic feels terribly outdated already. It’s another MMO – it doesn’t do anything inherently new, or anything inherently interesting, or anything with conviction. It’s a game that probably would have been acceptable two years ago in this state, but today just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

The real comparison to The Old Republic that needs to be made is not World of Warcraft, because as much as 4.3 and Dragon Soul has reinvigorated a game that appeared to be on the verge of total collapse, it is a game that is far too big for one game to take down. It’s a behemoth that was created by the lack of decent alternatives, coupled with good advertising and positive word of mouth. It’s taken years to achieve its current status as king of the genre, it didn’t happen overnight.

No, the comparison that is more valid is with a game that has been released in more or less the same window as it – and conveniently, we have Rift: Planes of Telara to fit that description. A game that defied the conventions of the genre by releasing with end-game content already in the box, as well as living, breathing worlds filled with opportunities. It’s still conventional in many respects, but it is a game that has had regular updates, constant hotfixes and patches to fix bugs and exploits as and where they are discovered, and didn’t try to be anything more than a thoroughly decent MMO experience. It wasn’t trying to be something it isn’t. It is what it is – a fantasy MMO. And a technically accomplished one at that.

When compared to Rift, The Old Republic feels like a game that is schizophrenic in nature – torn between offering a single-player game with the trappings of an MMO landscape. Torn between trying to be a team game, and then not. Trying to be artistically different, and yet trying not to alienate people. Trying to look good, but in a way that doesn’t challenge the average PC. It feels confused. Bewildered. A game that doesn’t quite know what it wants, or who it wants to be in the end, so it tries to be all things to all men and yet doesn’t really end up with a personality of its own.

This probably wouldn’t have been uncommon or frowned upon a couple years ago, or even one year ago, but Rift set a new benchmark for the genre that is extremely high considering its status as a new intellectual property. It is a benchmark that The Old Republic can’t reach, it’s not good enough. Engaging enough. It isn’t particularly fun, or fancy, it’s the sort of game that feels like Dragon Age 2 – a “That’ll Do” philosophy that permeated the genre for years, and got dozens of companies absolutely no closer to competing against World of Warcraft. That Rift is said to have up to two million subscribers isn’t a fluke – it’s because it’s never been a case of “That’ll do”. The players want more. Trion want to do more. It’s never enough, and both sides are constantly being engaged with events and new content to engage, inspire and eat their spare time. The Old Republic feels rigid, like a single player game that someone put a bunch of MMO-style arenas in and thought it would work somehow, without trying to really work out the kinks in their designs first.

As an MMO, it isn’t bad – but it is, it has to be said, average at best. It will certainly please fans in the short term, who are superimposing their imaginations onto the blank canvas and becoming engaged in their own special way, and I applaud that. I applaud a game that offers fans the chance to feel like they are engaging in the series that they love so much. But, at the end of the day, examples like DC Universe, Star Trek Online and Age of Conan have proved that once that gloss has worn off, one the fans get to the end game and it becomes chasing the loot and beating up the notorious baddies of the universe, or when they just disengage for a moment and settle into a grinding groove, the game itself has to step up to the plate – it has to stand on its own merit, and perform as a game, not fanservice.

For me, The Old Republic is sorely lacking in that department right now. The gaming world has moved on in every respect in the four years this spent in development – we expect more, demand more, want more. A good MMO has to draw everyone in – from the fans to the outsiders who don’t have a clue about the franchise. Heck, any good game has to do that, see Batman: Arkham City for a good example of how to transcend the likes and dislikes of a set superhero piece. Whereas the fans will get a good couple of months superimposing their own impressions onto the landscape you have made, the outsiders don’t have that luxury and are judging it not as a franchise game, but a normal game. Star Wars or not, it has to bridge that gap, cross the divide and offer the hand of friendship to the outsiders, explaining and engaging in a way that doesn’t alienate them or expect them to have read the half-dozen novels or see the modern versions of your movies to understand half of what is going on.

The problem with The Old Republic isn’t that it is inherently bad at what it does – it’s just, we’ve seen people try this before. And every sign in The Old Republic right now seems to suggest that the game is making the same mistakes, the same errors of judgement that have seen many fall already. That they haven’t paid attention the last four years and tried to do everything in their power to avoid it smacks of rushed, poorly-planned opportunism.

And that is ultimately what drove me away. I have no time for an MMO that doesn’t engage properly, doesn’t feel right and especially one with numerous design flaws that even MMOs on a far smaller budget seem to have managed to avoid. The Old Republic is a game that feels made by Star Wars fans, for Star Wars fans, and be damned with the rest of us who just want a decent game.

Maybe they’ll fix this. But something tells me that amidst the claims of paying LucasArts 35% of the profits, the behind-the-scenes wailing and gnashing of teeth and the reaction of a large part of the community upset that Star Wars Galaxies was cancelled to be given a game that isn’t half as deep, the only time that the game will change is when players start to leave, the profits drop and they are forced to radically alter the game in order to try and stave off the stigma of failure, and the destiny of ending up another free-to-play experience.

It would be a shame for such a big licence to end up that way, but hey, it happened to Star Trek. It would be oddly fitting for this new Star Wars MMO to follow suit.

Nothing is too big to fail. Even Blizzard must be bricking it knowing how Cataclysm wasn’t well recieved, fearing the worst.

Lessons are out there to be learned. Those who do not learn are destined to repeat the same mistakes ad nauseum. That’s just how the world works, and always will work.

The Old Republic is just another MMO. It’s not new enough or daring enough to make a lasting impact.

That’s it’s biggest failing. And considering the money and talent thrown at it, it’s frankly unforgivable in that regard…

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