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Bill Murphy: Cautious Optimism and The Old Republic

Columns By William Murphy on May 12, 2011

Cautious Optimism and The Old Republic

In my treks across the interwebs, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: there’s a cadre of people who feel we at MMORPG.com “hate” BioWare’s upcoming game.  Honestly, considering the many interviews we’ve written and the many previews we’ve penned and the generally positive outlook of each I’m a little confused.  I just don’t see how anyone could come to that conclusion.  On TOR’s forums, folks say we love Rift while hate on their game.  On Rift’s forums, they say we love TOR and hate Rift.  In truth: we’re just a small staff that gives as much attention to every game we can, and we write exactly how we feel on any and every subject.  The things we write won’t always be agreed with, and they certainly don’t represent “fact”.  But we’ve tread that ground before.  So instead, let me focus this week’s column on the way I’m personally approaching Star Wars: The Old Republic - with a great deal of cautious optimism.  And I hope no one mistakes this for “hate”.  It’s merely the way in which any Star Wars fan should approach a game that could be so phenomenally great or catastrophically terrible.  In my short time with the game at recent shows, I have reason to believe it’s the former… but I’m not ready to swear fealty just yet. 

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Firstly, let’s not tip-toe around the subject here: it’s Star Wars.  It’s not exactly the sort of IP that has been done justice in recent years.  The once venerable universe has been adjusted to cater to a new generation and that’s just fine for some.  But for me, nothing can compare to the movies I grew up with.  And while the IP has seen its share of classic games, a great many more have been underwhelming.  But here’s one reason for my optimism about TOR – it’s BioWare and they made Knights of the Old Republic.  KotoR is and was one of the greatest RPGs in recent memory.  The brightest spots of all Star Wars games have been in the stories told.  If The Old Republic has even an ounce of the same heart and intricacy of BioWare’s first foray into Star Wars, it will be worth plunking down my hard-earned cash. 

But a story alone doesn’t make an MMO great.  It needs to be sustainable over longer periods of time and feel worth the monthly subscription.  For me that value comes in the form of two things: replayability (which I already believe will be in high supply) and a sufficient elder game to keep me playing long after I’ve hit the level cap if there must be one.  BioWare has not yet divulged details on its reportedly quite extensive elder game plans.  And if in the end the game resorts to little more than a repetitive dungeon or gear grind, I fear many will be disappointed.  With a game focusing so much on the personal story of one’s character, I really do wonder what will happen once the “cap” is hit.  And though this is their first MMORPG, I remain confident in BioWare’s ability to craft deeply engaging content.  Perhaps a steady stream of that alone will be enough to keep me with my hands on my blaster for years.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Until I got hands on at PAX this year, all I’d heard of TOR was that it did nothing new with the MMO.  But that’s such hyperbole most of the time.  Rift also did little new in the way the MMO was controlled or played, but on the back-end its systems and infrastructure made the game quite dynamic and engaging with its invasions.  Now I’ve played TOR.  I’ve been through most of a Flashpoint.  That’s all I’ve had the chance to do with my own two hands.  And even now I can tell you that indeed it is a traditional take on the MMO formula with the veneer of Star Wars.  And I’m stating it right now: I don’t give a damn.  It’s still very fun to play.  It’s still done with a high level of polish and panache.  And the presentation alone makes me feel far more connected to the characters and the situations they’re in than other MMOs usually do.  The “Story Pillar” is indeed a fantastic thing.  I’m not the type of MMO gamer to cast away a game just because it derives its mechanics from those which came before it.  I’m reasonable enough to realize that all game genres advance incrementally, and I firmly believe that the “standard” mechanics can still work and shine with a little more attention. 

In our time spent with the developers, I’ve also noticed something else repeatedly coming out of their mouths: The Old Republic is about recapturing the epic feel of the films, and not about creating a living breathing universe to live in.  I believe that so long as you approach BioWare’s game with this in mind you won’t be disappointed.  It’s for this reason that space travel is limited to fighting sequences, and why there’s such a large focus on story.  It’s why each player will have access to several different supporting cast members, and it’s why I think TOR will wind up reaching and capturing a much larger fan-base than SWG ever had.  If instead you go into the game thinking it’ll be SWG2, you’re very likely to get upset and rage-quit all over the Internet.  So please, adjust your expectations accordingly.

Ultimately, the only reason I’m cautiously optimistic about The Old Republic, is because the general public hasn’t seen enough of it.  But that will be ending soon enough.  The game’s coming out in months, no longer years.  It’s only a matter of time before the beta really ramps up and the NDA is dropped, and I suspect that E3 and PAX Prime will be big shows for BioWare.  If in the end TOR is a really good game that has a great main campaign but can’t keep me subscribed, I’ll be okay with that.  I know I can always go back whenever there’s more of that “fourth pillar” to eat up.  But ideally, like the rest of you, I’m really hoping that the Canadian Maestros of RPG gaming knock this one out of the park and make me feel like Star Wars is worth paying attention to again.  And I know that if there’s any one developer who can make me feel that way, it’s BioWare.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all of his pointless rambling.