It's been four and a half months since BioWare Austin released the second full expansion of Star Wars: The Old Republic, entitled Shadow of Revan. At the launch and since that time, the level cap increased to 60, everyone's skill trees were replaced by Disciplines, they've added story encompassing three new planets, we now have a better means of managing our characters' outfits, and there have been a few new Flashpoints and Operations. Today, we're going to take a look at how it all fits together and what's been going on with the game recently. Fair warning, there will be full spoilers on the story up to and including the end of events on Ziost in Game Update 3.2: Rise of the Emperor.
In out-of-game news, BioWare's been more active in catching and banning folks who willfully and repeatedly exploited certain content in the game. It's like the flavor of the month for game studios. Blizzard banned over 100,000 World of Warcraft accounts for botting, TrionWorlds went to town against cheaters in ArcheAge, and Daybreak Game Company president John Smedley recently took to Twitter to ask that H1Z1 exploiters who emailed him to apologize to video themselves apologizing instead to their fellow players for cheating. BioWare jumped on the ban-wagon by actioning accounts proven to have gone to a special locked-off area on Imperial homeworld of Ziost prior to its opening on May 4th and downing a new world boss.
In many ways, the Rishi/Yavin/Ziost trilogy of stories reminds me of running quests on starter and capital planets, doing them in in fairly short gaming sessions such as clearing the Galactic Market quests on Coruscant one night, then going for the Black Sun area the next, and then going to the Justicar area. Bite-sized chunks of gameplay were suited for a three or four hour session and then you come back for more another day, or you went to PVP or do a Flashpoint or two before signing off. That way, folks who played it more casually would wander their way through a planet's worth of quests in a few days or maybe a week if they had jobs, families, other demands upon their time.
Personally, I'm as casual as they come. Due to playing a number of games, I never got around to playing through the Shadow of Revan content until fairly recently. I took my Jedi Knight main to level 60 a couple of months ago by playing through Rishi and taking advantage of a double XP weekend to polish off the last level over the course of a couple of days. I loved the class story we were given, and the Jedi Knight one was utterly perfect for my distressingly light-side Jedi. Major kudos to Alexander Freed for keeping the same flavor for the class we've known since the days Hall Hood was the lead writer for it. It resonated. This past weekend, I played through all of the solo Yavin 4 content in about four hours including the fight with Revan and spending too much time hitting up the archaeology nodes for crafting mats. On Monday, I spent a few hours casually playing through the entire storyline on Ziost.
At no point was the story poor. It's Star Wars, and it's BioWare-flavored Star Wars. It was serendipity that I'd spent much of last week reading former BioWare writer Drew Karpyshyn's novel Revan, which tied in heavily with this expansion's story more than anything else in the game other than the Foundry and Maelstrom Prison Flashpoints that brought the character into modern day. The visuals on all three new planets were utterly stunning. The art department completely stepped up their game even beyond the scenery we've seen in the Forged Alliances Flashpoints, no mean feat. I remember remarking to my friends in Mumble how even the transit tunnels on Yavin 4 were gorgeous.
Playing through Yavin 4, we had all the visuals to trigger nostalgia for A New Hope, and the Massassi natives were there to hassle, and you can kill some jungle lurkers. You get to save some captives, fight a number of possessed Republic and Imperial troops, and eventually battle your way to Revan. His story is the basis for the BioWare Old Republic era, and the end fight was intriguing, but as with many things in the game since Rise of the Hutt Cartel, I'm always left wanting more. Finally rooting out the Revanites and settling Revan's story once and for all deserved as much content and foreshadowing as one of the earlier chapters of the game, but due to various constraints known and unknown, we at least get some kind of closure until BioWare trots him out again to see if he'll be a good witch or bad witch next time. It reminded me of the rescue of Warcraft's King Varian Wrynn from being a split personality in two bodies, except in Revan's case, he's now a whole ghost and his body seemingly went the way of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The Ziost story, on the other hand, is most personal to Jedi Knight players, since the Emperor is their ultimate nemesis. Of the other classes, the two Sith options and the Imperial Agent offer the most intense ties to the story itself. The other classes, it's just another mission against another big bad, although this is the biggest bad of the entire Old Republic era. It's simply not personal to them unless the player was doing some off the books roleplaying. Any players on the Imperial side who felt their character was a hardcore Emperor loyalist would get laughed at if you tried to join his side. On the Republic side, you get to watch politics happen during the mid-story cutscene featuring Supreme Chancellor Suresh and SIS Agent Theron Shan, and the story eventually winds up with a showdown with the Emperor that doesn't truly end well. Along the way through the trilogy, both genders have an opportunity to /flirt with both Lana Beniko and Theron Shan as well.
In terms of gameplay, all three new planets felt far too single-player than anything else in the game so far. I occasionally saw other players while I played, but the story shifted from location to location to location via speeders and packing crates and specific quests that it was hard to really connect with other players to do anything together. There were no real challenges even for players trying to relearn their classes after the Discipline system went into effect. As players were shuttled to Ziost, there was an opportunity to work in some proper cross-faction gameplay into things, but the closest we have is simply helping NPC agents get their jobs done. I was also expecting more out of the Sixth Line Jedi or getting to interact with them, something like doing quests with them at first and then watching them get possessed by the Emperor, but they were already toast by the time players show up and they had zero agency the whole time. We acquired barter items to trade with the local Quartermasters, but unless a player liked the look of the gear and wanted to use it in the Outfit Designer, there wasn't any point to buying it because you get a full set of level 60 armor with the same mods simply by questing, unless you want a second full set of armor's mods for an off-spec.
The end of the Ziost story is a tragedy, of course. Readers of Revan will know exactly what Vitiate did to the planet, and I think I would have liked all Force-using classes to get a couple of whispers or other textual clues that the planet was now a sepia-toned lifeless husk, much like Nathema from 300 years ago. Drew Karpyshyn made a point to emphasize in the book how being on a Force-null planet adversely affected Force-users even on short exposure, and it would have been a good tweak to put in the game to enhance reactions or give the roleplaying community a few more hooks to use without expecting them to have to read the book itself. By the way, the novel's very good, highly recommended, and very much felt like reading quest dialogue – no real surprise there, considering Karpyshyn's role on the writing team back in the day.
So where do we go from here? One of the biggest things I felt was missing out of this experience is the whole notion of open-world gameplay. This wasn't Tatooine, where you could just ride your speeder all over the place and click on a random skull out in the desert and everyone was all in the same overall map at the same time. Until now, I could easily forgive the design decisions that led to the game not being a true open-world experience like... wait for it... Star Wars Galaxies. Due to the gorgeous scenery (even on Imperial Ziost), I really wanted to explore the planets and poke into the nooks and crannies and just wander around, but the laser precision focus of the story kept pushing players away from sightseeing. I felt there was far more to each location than expediency and out-of-game necessities and limitations allowed us to see, and that was a real shame. That feeling had been building up since the Forged Alliances Flashpoints, by the way. The amazing work by the art and environmental teams has only been making this feeling get stronger. I particularly loved the thunderstorm effect in the Revan fight instance on Yavin 4 when the player is heading back to the shuttle. If that could happen anywhere else in the game, yes I'd like some more, please. Ultimately, I felt like I was playing a single-player game with a fraction of the depth and storytelling that BioWare is able to put into Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and until now, this is the first time I consciously felt like it needed that amount of detail. This story demanded more than just a Cliff's Notes version of it.
In terms of that actual story, I'm left to wonder where they can go next. We've got a redeemed Force spirit, a thoroughly malevolent Force monster, and a galaxy between them. The problem from a storytelling standpoint occurs when you invent a huge big bad and then topple them or give them a Kael'thas-style setback and then have them pop up again in the next game update, and the next, and so on. BioWare has seemingly painted themselves into a corner by escalating things to their era's ultimate enemy in just three years. You can't keep going back to take him down repeatedly like he's a raid boss you're farming for a specific piece of gear.
How does BioWare intend to top a villain who's over 1000 years old, has godlike power, and can chow down on a planet's life more casually than Galactus in Marvel comics? He's actually more of a badass than Palpatine in the movies, and he destroyed the Republic for an entire generation. Other games do it by introducing other villains from their lore, and BioWare has a bunch of thoroughly evil Sith Lords they can tap that we already know about, but none of them really have the horrific majesty of Vitiate. We don't know how logistically feasible it is for BioWare to rekindle the war between the two main factions (due to needing separate content for each faction), but I for one am quite done with the alliance era between Republic and Empire and would be happy if they go back to fighting each other good and proper. However, I don't think we'll ever see any other major shift in gameplay because it would destroy the same red versus blue two-factional system that is a staple of games like Warcraft or WildStar or EverQuest. It would take an entire overhaul of the game to throw that particular hydrospanner into the mix, and I think they'll be serving ice water in very warm climes before that happens. I'd say we're more likely to see pazaak being added to the game first, if only by a few minutes.
We'll see, I suppose. They still have another major game update to ship before the end of the year.