I currently have ten job applications on the go, three are on the boil, two I actually actively want. Since experience has told me that I can hold motivations for around ten jobs in my head before I start going to interviews confused as to what company this is, I’ve mostly been playing computer games this week, alongside keeping ten applications active. So, I shall pad out the lack of content here with some reviews for a little while.

Star Wars – The Old Republic

I had no interest in TOR. I’m not a Star Wars geek (being a geek, I know a lot about it via cultural osmosis, and I’ve seen the movies, obviously) (I say obviously. Two girlfriends now have never seen the movies. It’s one of those statistical anomalies that crop up now and again, like almost every girl I’ve ever had a crush on playing the cello) until I got a chance to play it. I think that’s the thing that the tendancy towards Free to Play games is bringing to the MMO market, the ability to *demo* a game before you play it. Previously you had thirty days, or two weeks, in a trial you could blag off a mate with a proper subscription, but in real terms the heart of an MMO has a sweet spot between the end of the tutorial and the level cap, with ideally another one at the end game, and with most trial restrictions you’ll never see what that is, so often the best way to try an MMO is to play it in Beta, when the full thing is open for free.

SWTOR is a Warcraft Template MMO.

What is currently known as the Warcraft template MMO is an evolution of what was, before the great, lumbering, world shattering, doddering beast that is World of Warcraft came along, known as the Everquest template module. Evercrack, as it was known, ate lives. Destroyed relationships and jobs with equal abandon. Serious articles were written in serious places about the affect of addiction to Everquest on the world as a whole, and it ate the PC games industry for a while, as no magazine or website could exist without keeping up with the EverJoneses. Then WoW came along and ate its dinner while it wasn’t looking. Everquest itself, though, has it’s mechanical parents elsewhere. While it wasn’t the first major graphical MMO (which I’m counting Ultima Online as, for now), it isn’t really inspired by UO directly (they were in development, in secret, in parallel for a long time). The target market for it was RPG players.

Critical on system mechanics digression +1

The general meta-mechanics; semi-transparent turn based combat, skills as actions, hit points and damage calculations, quest-hub progression, equipment and inventory management are all pulled from computer-based Roleplaying Games (CRPGs) of the time. Temple of Elemental Evil, the tail end of the Ultima games, and a whole load of Not-D&D-Honest based games. Notably, though, Everquest was released six months after something changed the CRPG landscape radically, Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate. Far too short a gap than perhaps it needed. It’s kind of hard to relate to what was special about the first BG if you didn’t play it when it was new, but it turned CRPGs from dungeon-hackery where you visited the town to read some new text screens and advance the plot, to a fully realized world with entertaining characters and a deep and engaging storyline. Not that some games hadn’t aimed for the same lofty heights, but BG succeeded, and from it BG2 became a far more accomplished game, and Planescape: Torment became a far more accomplished story.

Everquest, for all it’s addictiveness (A word my spellchecker feels sure should be seductiveness), feedback loops and 3D graphics, wasn’t much more than a co-op CRPG in a persistent world, with a cruel and penalizing PvP system.

Wandering off into a Blizzard

One of the things Blizzard are great at is polish. Not just surface-level polish, but a fractal level of polish where every component part is taken and polished until it shines and sparkles. Diablo was a wildly popular dungeon hack-a-thon, and then they took every component part, every bit of feedback and used it to polish Diablo II until it gleamed. Now they are applying the same process to Diablo II to create Diablo III. The polished the speed of Warcraft II to create Starcraft. The polished the storytelling of WarCraft II & StarCraft to create WarCraft III. Then they took that and EverQuest, and started polishing until they got to WoW vanilla, which took almost everything EverQuest tried to do, and made it better. Corpse runs still existed, but were less annoying (fractionally). Quests were easier to find and complete without constant death. The reward feedback loop crunched and polished until the rodent-brain inside all their customers couldn’t help but press the button for more food.

and I may be some time.

As the years went by the genre stopped being Massively Multiplayer games. Blizzard kept polishing, adding more bits, and they gained ever more users from doing so. They refined epic battles from a massive ruck into a tightly coordinated tactics-based massive ruck, and people stopped building MMO games, and started trying to polish World of Warcraft instead. WoW has set the barrier to success so high that it’s tough to see anything that can be seen as a success next to it (Runescape and Lineage, possibly). MMO games that deviate from the WarCraft-template MMO are few and far between, and if they don’t catch on quick, they are abandoned without mercy (Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, Dungeon Runners, Earth & Beyond, Asheron’s Call 2) although some survive (City of Heroes, Eve Online, more recently World of Tanks).

Electronic Arts haven’t had a great deal of success in the market beyond their first MMO game, the classic and venerable Ultima Online. Various attempts to get into the space by development (Sims Online, the cancelled Ultima Online 2, Earth & Beyond again), or by investment (Purchasing Mythic Entertainment, gaining the aging Dark Age of Camelot and the good-try-now-once-more-with-feeling Warhammer Online) have floundered and faltered a bit. One thing EA do have, though, is money. Money and a company who are really good at these RPG type of games: Bioware.

SWTOR is a Warcraft Template MMO

Just in case you’ve forgotten where we were before I digressed into a history of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Bioware’s point of view on this, which I’m paraphrasing from an interview with Eurogamer, is that attacking it for being a quest-based, turn-based combat, skill-button, block-inventory, paper-doll equipment game is tantamount to docking marks from Battlefield 3 for having the same runny-shooty mechanics as Modern Warfare. It’s a Questy-Levely-based MMORPG, same as WarCraft. They are cut from the same cloth, and therefore they are the same kind of thing.

The problem is possibly that we don’t really have the range of terms we need to. MMO just means “Massively Multiplayer, Online”, at least some of which is redundant, and misleading. SWTOR  is an MMO, although if you get more than 64ish people in one area some of  you will be on a different server, unable to interact. At what stage is that different from Battlefield 3’s 64 player maps from a definition PoV? SWTOR is an MMO because it’s questy-levely and online, but Eve Online is an MMO and they are entirely different things. Is it because you need to be online to play it? Same as Settlers 7, then. MMO, it’s like pornography. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it?

So, SWTOR is a game where you build an avatar and then go on quests for people, levelling up as you go. Other people are doing this at the same time you are, in one big world, and sometimes you interact with each other. So far, so WarCraft. So, lets swing around to the other side of this, shall we?

SWTOR is a Bioware/Obsidian Template cRPG

Closest match is, fairly obviously, the games Knights of the Old Republic and the somewhat more comprehensively reviewed (at least by me) sequel, but also if you’ve been playing Dragon Age 2 (Or the original, but less so) any time recently you’ll see the similarities. The slightly cartoony style, the light-side/dark-side morality system, even down to the ability to have an NPC companion follow you around, helping you attack things, and then disapproving of you numerically when you pick a sub-optimal conversation choice. It’s set in the same world a few centuries later, which explains a lot, and you do end up hearing about – and dealing with – some of the fallout from the previous games. This being Star Wars, they reached a high tech-level and then entirely stopped innovating for thousands and thousands of years, so the lack of progression between KOTOR and this isn’t a massive surprise. But the difference between playing this and playing a normal Action-focused CRPG is minimal. Most of the time you’ll be soloing, but when you’re not there’s a dice-roll based system for deciding whose conversation options are canon (your own light-side/dark-side and companion morality choices are canon anyway).

The CRPG thing isn’t entirely an insult, though. Every character, every stage of every mission is fully voice acted, giving the most moronic kill-ten-rats quest a place and presence in the world. Even this is a plus and a minus, though, as whilst it means the world is a lot more engaging, it does mean every single plotline is presented with the same level of weight, from the advancement of your own personal questline to the wishes of the annoying little weasel with the rat problem.

And yet it’s also unique

Telling stories in MMOs is a science under construction. In WoW, you start with your own race, but once you escape the tutorial into the rest of the world you’re bound up in the same story as everyone else on your side, and the overarching story is told by you being able to grab bits and pieces if you pick up the right quests in the right places.

Rift has quests in each zone as you progress that advance the world-story for you personally, but it’s still a matter of finding those if you’re lucky (or devout), and it’s one-set per side.

The Matrix Online had an ongoing story that actually advanced and changed the world as it progressed in real actual time, but that just left new players with a huge amount of reading to do before they could interact with the plot at all, only really rewarding the people who preordered and stuck though to the bitter end.

Lord of the Rings has the epic quest-line, a series of quests that follow on directly from each other that tell the story of the game and guide you from the start to the current level cap, interwoven with and referencing the LOTR series. If you miss a follow-on quest, there are various “on-ramps” where minor quests in a zone will get you to where you should be, and after every “book” of the main quest, cinematic keep you up to date with the story so far. Still, though, there’s only one story to tell.

When TOR was in development, they described it as “KOTOR 3-10”, and that they wanted to add the forth pillar to MMO games, that of Story. Well, the other three pillars are made from competent evolutions of WarCraft/EverQuest concepts, so there’s quite a lot – the whole value of the game, possibly – resting on the forth.

And it just about handles it. There are eight stories. Eight full-length, well crafted stories with lifts and crashes, set-pieces and crowning glories. At every point you’ll have quests you have that are offered to everyone on your side on this planet, but also your own storyline that only other Sith Inquisitors are on, and that’s the key.

And Finally

The game is polished beyond a doubt. The main core of the game, the base mechanics, are evolutionary rather than a revolution. It’s still a questy-level game where you highlight the dude you want and press One, Five, Six, Two, Three in sequence, where you are given a quest that requires four people and sit in general chat watching for LFG requests. It’s a Warcraft Template MMO. This isn’t to say there aren’t evolutions. Companions, for example, and the ability to send them off to sell your worthless loot like the dog in Torchlight. Or to send them on Crafting-related quests. Plus, there’s a rails-shooter minigame called “Space Combat”

But it’s WCTMMO with a Bioware CRPG bolted on as the storytelling engine, with crafted stories and interesting companions and betrayal and cunning plots. And there are eight of them, all with different companions and different  plots and different highs and lows, and while you’ll get bored of the planet-related stuff alongside if you do it repeatedly, there’s an awful lot of plot and story here to play.

It’s not a race to the end-game, at least not yet. SWTOR is a slight new thing, a Story Driven WarCraft Template MMO, which is a worthwhile thing, if it works. I’m not sure it’s a WoW beater. A lot of Gamers who are bored of WoW will probably switch to it, and be happy (Well, possibly not happy, there’s not the basis for obsessive stats-wunk yet), but a lot of WoW’s base is actually non-gamers, for whom WoW is the only thing they play, and if they give up on it they might just stop entirely.

First twenty minutes

Finally, when I got into the beta I wrote notes on my experiences. Notably, after about half an hour or so the notes fade into nothing and I got stuck into playing the game for several hours without realising. That’s generally sign, I think. Anyway, notes of a Jedi Knight (contains minor spoilers for the first three minutes of gameplay of the Jedi Knight class):

It starts with a 30 Gigabyte download, which is a little harsh.

First view is a cinematic that sets up the state of the universe – Sith Army has just returned. After that, choosing a side (Sith/Republic) gives you another extended cinematic to introduce you to the ideals of the faction. Republic (Good, Truth, White, Losing) or Sith (Evil, Lies, Scars, Winning).

Picking a class/race combo (I went for Jedi Knight. Predictable, but it’s what a lot of people will do. I went for a blind thingy over human or Twilek though) throws you in to the big traditional STAR WARS! Big Opening Theme! Yellow Scrolly Letters! opening, which is fun and by this point you’re really drawn into the universe (as if you didn’t know it already) and your part within it, cinematically.

Text was a bit hard to read at the default resolution. Upping the res made everything a lot easier to read. (Double check, can I do that before I get into the game?)

“All Able Bodied Jedi to the training grounds”, excluding the NPCs just outside the door? Odd.

…and the ones in the building right next to Derren

Clipping on the taxis is a bit crap.

I’m getting out of a taxi that’s already vanished! I’m wonder woman!

Mission going fine. Killing doodz appears to work. I like the combat, it’s fast and hitty.

Hmm. Did I miss a thing explaining how the focus mechanic works? There are a load of tutorial things down the right that appeared without me noticing them. Also, there’s no distinction between “MMO 101” and “Hey, a unique combat mechanic”. Not distracting me is fair enough, but I hadn’t even realised they existed. I should read them.

Oh noes! DBShard Disconnected From World!

Pretty please could the movies not play if I’ve seen them already?

(And then there was nothing, like a million voices cried out at once, and then were suddenly silenced)