For the very first time we were going to be treated to a top quality narrative experience in a MMO. This was underlined by the way that BioWare proclaimed that making SWTOR was in many ways the same as making several sequels to the "Knight of the Old Republic" series, which was heavily story driven.
And indeed, after my experience with playing the Bounty Hunter class in the beta weekend in late November, I was very impressed with the way that story was integrated into SWTOR. I was propelled through a compelling narrative that saw me trying to make a name for myself as a infamous bounty hunter, and all the framing, cut scenes, voice acting and even missions design, really made me feel like I was playing through a Star Wars movie.
Fast forward to today, three weeks after I joined up for the full retail version of the game and created my Sith Inquisitor character.
I still feel that the basic story in SWTOR is a good one, but several critical problems have revealed themselves to me by now and I am unable to find the same enthusiasm for the storytelling mechanic as I did when I first jumped into the game.
|Riding a speeder bike on Hoth is hard to ruin, no matter how badly you tell a story|
There are lots of other small stories that you come across as you travel from one planet to the next, but for the most part these are not nearly as interesting as your main story. They do the job well enough to provide an excuse for why you need to go right-click the blue glowing object, but as a whole they're a couple of notches lower in terms of quality from the class stories, and I'm pretty much okay with that.
With that out of the way let's look at the issues that I have with the storytelling in SWTOR:
When you start out on your first planet the quests that advance your class story make up the significant majority of all your quests. You'll quickly start loading up on side quests, but generally you'll be advancing your main story very frequently.
As you get further and further up though the levels of the game, you'll find that the time between advancing the story quests becomes longer and longer. I'm still only at level 39, but I'm spending several hours on side quests exclusively before I get my next little bit of main story.
I understand that it is hard to create enough content that the player will constantly be able to advance his main quest line, but when you find yourself almost forgetting what you're doing and why, then I think you are pacing the experience incorrectly.
This issue is made even worse from the fact that clearing the planets (both main quests and side quests) does not grant you enough XP to level up appropriately for the following planet. So while you may just have cleared out all the quests on the planet you're coming from, you may well find that the next class quest is marked as orange, meaning you are not yet within recommended level range to play through it.
|"two levels until my next class quest turns yellow? Guess I'll go grind some Jawas"|
I can accept that there is a need in an MMO to try to nudge players onto non-linear experiences, since otherwise there would be a very real danger of them just playing straight through the storyline and quitting, but I do not think that BioWare found the sweet spot with the current setting.
As someone that really enjoy stories in video games, I came to SWTOR primarily to play through a great Star Wars story. I really do not care at all for having to spend several hours grinding out PvP warzones and space combat missions, just so I can get back into doing what I actually want.
This concern becomes even greater when I start thinking about wanting to play through the game with other characters so I can see their class stories. If I'm tired of playing through the space combat missions now, how sick am I going to be of them when I'm playing through them on my 2nd or 3rd character?
2) No Impact from decisions
BioWare has always been big on letting players make choices and influencing the way that their games play out. This is demonstrated to great effect with the Mass Effect series, where the choices of the player even carries over from one game to the next, meaning that your choices have a long lasting impact on your game experience.
With SWTOR BioWare has also proclaimed that this is a game all about making choices and dealing with the consequences. Unfortunately this mainly boils down to deciding if you'd like to have some Lightside or Darkside points or if you want to try to go for some affection points on the companion that you happen to have with you. It becomes no so much a question of deciding how you want your character to behave, as much as what kind of gear are you going for and what companion are you currently trying to max out.
And that's when your choices even have a slight impact on the gameplay.
The vast majority of your conversation options have *no effect at all* on anything, save for giving you a slightly different response from the person you're talking to. You can be rude to an Imperial officer or you can be professional, it really only means a different line of conversation from him before he'll continue on with the conversation in exactly the same manner.
There's also practically no long term consequences to the choices you make. BioWare has tried adding some sense of consequence to your decisions by having people, whose fate you have decided, write to you from time to time.
This basically boils down to a little flavor text telling you what a great person you are for sparing their life or explaining how big of a jerk you are for killing their space dog, and then you'll usually get a little reward in the shape of a few credits or an item.
It's better than nothing, but from the people that made Mass Effect and Dragon Age I was really expecting more. It seems like BioWare decided that it would be too much of a waste of resources to let the story of the player split off, since it would mean that there would be a lot of content that they would probably never get to see, unless they decided to make another character and play through with a different choice.
In particular I would really have liked something like the ability to decide what companions that I would get. As it stands right now, I'm going to have the exact same rooster of companions that every other Sith Inquisitor has.
Again, I realize this would mean a lot more work, but in a MMO it is incredibly important to make the player feel like they are in control and get to differentiate themselves, and I feel that BioWare has not gone far enough in their efforts to do that with the story telling.
3) It's hard to tell a grand story in a static world
This really ties in with my previous complaint, but I feel that this encapsulates why it's so hard to do story in an MMO, and why even BioWare is somewhat smashing their collective heads against a wall.
In a single player game you're free to tell a story any way you like and you're free to change the world around the player however you please. This makes it easy to create meaningful changes, like letting the player blow up a huge building right in the middle of the playing area or killing important NPC's.
But in a MMO the world has to remain static, or at least it can only change when it changes for everyone at the same time. Blizzard has tried to remedy this problem with their use of phasing technology that allows different players to see a different version of the world, depending on where they are in specific quest chains.
|The presence of general chat (top left) can also be somewhat immersion breaking...|
I get that having phases in the game world can be somewhat of a hassle to players, as they will be running around the exact same area and be unable to find each other due to being in a different phase. But in a game that does so much to emphasize the impact of your decisions it really sucks that you leave absolutely no mark on the world as you make your way through it. It makes my actions seem very inconsequential (which they are, see point #2, but still) and Star Wars is all about being a hero that makes a difference in the galaxy.
Though this has nothing to do with the static or dynamic nature of the game world, I also want to throw in here that having a ton of other people around you playing through the exact same epic story makes it seem a whole lot less epic.
When you finally make your way through chapter 1 of your class storyline you'll feel like you've really achieved something cool. But then you go to the fleet and you see 20 other people with the same title that you just got awarded from finishing that quest line and you think "oh yeah, I guess I'm not really special".
There's no way to really fight that effect, but I think it does make a good case for why it's really hard to make a strong story in a MMO, where you'll always just be one out of many.
These issues with SWTOR does not mean that the game does not have a high quality story. I think that the story I have played through with my Sith Inquisitor so far is almost on par with Knights of the Old Republic in some ways. But I feel like it could have been a much stronger story in a single player game, where the developers did not have to make so many design concessions to the nature of the game.
So far I would say that SWTOR is both an example of good story in a MMO, and at the same time a good example of why telling a story in a MMO is really really hard and maybe not the best thing to try to focus on.
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