Revisiting the Old Republic
For one of the most expensive titles ever made, Bioware’s The Old Republic hasn’t half gone quiet over the last year. It’s easy to forget it’s still there, chugging away in the background. After a reasonably promising start, due largely to the time-honoured games industry advertising system of using elaborate trailers to show the audience exactly what the game wouldn’t look like, numbers began to drop away. Now a few months into a humbling free-to-play structure, TOR barely makes a splash in the mainstream industry media, releasing a new digital expansion with all the fanfare of a new Robson and Jerome LP. So what went wrong?
Far be it for me to sound shallow, but let’s start here – one of TOR’s greatest flaws is this: it’s bloody ugly. Textures are bland and muddy, colours are drab and anaemic. Body shapes are divided between tiny rat-men and bloated giants. Faces and hair for the most part look ridiculous and nearly two years on dtill seem oddly limited – you’ll see the same ten or so faces crop up throughout the game. The art design aims for a sort of cartoony quasi-realism, but lacks any sense of cohesion. It has far more in common with the generic, airy blandness of the prequel trilogy than the earthy, grounded physicality of the early films. There’s no spectacle, no wonder. It’s a boring place to explore, this version of the Star Wars galaxy.
“There’s no spectacle, no wonder”Star Wars has always been a franchise that prioritised iconic visuals above everything else. Empire Strikes Back and parts of the other two original films occasionally veered into deeper territory, but George Lucas’s baby was nnever concerned with deep philosophy. The simple rule was this – people liked it because things looked cool. We liked Luke running around the pristine halls of Bespin in his grimy flight suit, blaster and lightsaber in hand. We enjoyed the wonderful, unique ship designs and the inventiveness of the sets and costumes. We didn’t give a shit about the inner workings of the Jedi order.
We can talk about the over-emphasis on visuals in modern computer games some other time, but for now the focus is on over-emphasising the visuals in this one. It’s this simple. You make a Star Wars game, it needs to look great. It craves those angular Imperial lines, the scattershot improvisation of rebel ships and the rugged practicality of a blaster pistol. My heroic Republic trooper, by contrast, looked like David Gest as dressed by Vivienne Westwood. He looked fucking ridiculous, and it itched at me. A couple of years on, and you can now unify your armour’s colour and choose to hide your head slot item (if you pay for a subscription), which is an admitted improvement. Armour design itself, however, is still ugly as sin – all pointy helmets, bug-eyed visors and inadvisable kilts.
It’s more than just the visual style, though. Bioware, bless them, couldn’t animate a wooden fence. Over the course of my playthrough I developed a nervous twitch whenever the NPC I was talking to used the ‘one hand on hip, shake head’ movement, because I had witnessed it 3,000 times. It’s like Commander Shepard’s famous ‘lean forward and point angrily’ move, but repeated ad infinitum. Said conversations always took place between two people standing directly opposite each other in rigid formation, unmoving. Big set pieces are rare, and only a very few get across any sense of cinematic flair. The camera is static. Rather than moving with and capturing the action, it will switch from one static vantage point to another, just in time to catch the characters moving into frame. Sometimes it doesn’t bother capturing anything at all. The lack of action was typified by one moment when my character was escaping from an exploding Imperial vessel, explosions going off all around. I made it to the airlock, and dived through. Quick loading screen and I’m back on my ship. “You’ve completed the mission,” my computer blarped at me, “here’s some money.” Oh. Thanks.
“Battles are a chore of attrition”You have to give me something, TOR, because otherwise I feel like I’m impacting absolutely nothing. Remember that bit in Knights of the Old Republic when you find out the truth of who the person I can’t name for potential spoiler reasons really is, and there’s that great little cutscene? Or remember the destruction of Taris? If the stories and dialogue were better, the lack of spectacle might be acceptable. I love Obsidian’s Mask of the Betrayer because it’s smartly written and full of great characters and ideas: I’m not being sold an action-adventure romp, so I don’t mind the static conversations and slower pace. In a Star Wars game, shuttling back and forth like an intergalactic Fed-Ex man listening to bland, boring (but fully voiced!) people burble on and on, only for the whole plotline to end up as another solo run through an identikit Imperial ship is just violently depressing.
TOR’s dull combat has been criticised heavily before, and really, there’s nothing to say apart from that it’s dull. The original KOTOR has a dynamic, simple and fun combat system that still feels great today – I was playing through it a few weeks ago, and was astonished at how well it holds up. Animations are crisp, force power effects fly about gratifyingly, and attacks feel like they have weight. Compared to this energy and headlong pace, TOR’s battles are a chore of attrition. Lightsabers become little more than glowing wiffle bats with which you endlessly buffet the enemy until they fall over.
In the interests of fairness, I should say I played through one class storyline to the end, and there were things I liked. Being given a personalised storyline is great, and something that needs to be taken up by other games in this genre. The actual writing for my Consular story was rather unremarkable, but there were some likeable characters, and I enjoyed the trip to max level a whole bunch more here than I have in any other MMO. Frankly, it pisses all over Guild Wars 2, which wasted its breath-taking settings and designs with a torrent of half-arsed fantasy mush. Grouping for flashpoint quests, and partaking in the NPC conversations with your teammates is also a brilliant touch. It needs work – you’ll often be pressured by impatient allies to skip the dialogue, even if you’ve never played the mission before – but it’s a little gem of innovation that TOR is all too short of.
“The soundtrack is fantastic”The Old Republic as a whole is confusing. In some areas there’s so much work that’s clearly gone into it. The ambition in the range of voice acting is laudable, and for the most part it’s well performed. The soundtrack is fantastic, with the feel of a classic Star Wars score. The personalised stories and multiplayer questing are good, too. But there’s so much that just seems thrown out haphazardly. I checked into the new cartel market, and discovered a kind of microcosm of the entire game – some nice features ruined by baffling decisions. You can buy colours to dye your armour now. But they come in predetermined packs. Lame. Worse, they are sold in randomised packs, so there’s no telling what colours you’ll get. Inexplicable. There are new armours for sale. Most of them are taken from the class selection screen, and are available in similar forms for free elsewhere in the game. They’re charging nearly five pounds for this stuff. Can the developers not even be bothered to come up with new gear designs? Or is there simply no money left to spend on what EA must be thinking is a lost cause?
I still think there’s a decent game buried under here, but it’s buried so deep it would take a brave developer to dig it out. Certainly not one who remains fixated on poorly though-out micro-transactions so unspectacular in their execution that one is genuinely baffled that they sell at all. There’s an air of desperation about the whole thing. When you jump to the game in you’ll barely be able to move without encountering another Cartel Market (TOR‘s in game shop) icon popping up, letting you know you can pay a few pounds to change your jacket if you want, or add more taskbars, or buy a new speeder. It’s relentless. It’s understandable that they need to make some money out of the F2P model, but it feels tacky and hucksterish. Especially since playing a bit of Neverwinter recently, another F2P game that hides its monetary micro-transactions discreetly enough that you barely notice them. Mind you, Cryptic probably didn’t spend two hundred million dollars on their game, so they can afford to be a little more tactful.
There is nothing to enjoy in the fact that TOR is such a disappointment. As a long term fan of Star Wars (despite abhorring those vacuous prequels), when it was announced that Bioware would be making a game with eight separate stories to play through, as well as co-operative online quests, there was feverish excitement. I ignored the little voice at the back of my head that argued this was a wildly ambitious conceit that would likely only to a bloated and unfocused product. Ultimately, unfortunately, some would say predictably, it was a conceit that failed. At every instance, those rigid MMO chains bind TOR tighter and tighter, robbing it of every ounce of life. That childlike optimism that Bioware could pull their game back from the abyss, and somehow breathe new life into it with the potential freedoms of an F2P system has long since evaporated. The Old Republic is like a beached porpoise, slowly dying. The kindest thing is to jump up and down on its head until it stops moving.