Was Forged Alliances Really Necessary?
In their prelude to their current expansion, Shadow of Revan, Star Wars: the Old Republic spent five months giving us new big-picture epic content via four Flashpoints collectively known as Forged Alliances. I spent an afternoon playing all four of them back to back on solo mode now that it's possible to do so and have been left with some questions that remind me of another big-name scifi franchise's first movie: Is this all that there was? Was there nothing more?
That might not be the fairest comparison, since other games have gone lengthier times without adding any new story content (looking at you, Warcraft). However, I'm still left with the mildly puzzled question of whether this story was truly necessary to bridge elder game content and the current Shadow of Revan content, or whether it was necessary to release it piecemeal rather than release all four as a single bigger update. One could make an argument that considering how many players tend to blaze through content, doling it out over time might be useful so it keeps people interested rather than making them wait months to a year for new stuff, like waiting for the next season of Game of Thrones. On the other hand, there's also an argument to be made for making a huge splash all at once and ensuring that splash is big enough to tide people over until the next big splash. I don't think any game has ever really got it right, but that's most likely due to the fact that most players would like a constant stream of new and big content to play.
Before I write further, let me put up a big SPOILER warning for anyone who hasn't actually played this older content, much less the current stuff.
The basic gist of this story is that heroes from either big power are sent to their enemy's Force-users' homeworld and then on a mission on their own Force-users' planet, then two further missions on the water world of Manaan and the homeworld of the now-savage Rakata. During the four Flashpoints, we're introduced to unconventional SIS agent Theron Shan, equally unconventional Sith Lord Lana Beniko, Wookiee Smuggler Jakarro and his droid translator C2-D4, and it tells the story of the four and our hero(es) coming together to face the threat of high-ranking traitors in both the Republic and Empire. Two of these traitors masterminded the events on Tython, Korriban, Manaan, and Rakata Prime, and thus we eventually learn who's truly behind all of these shenanigans, Revan, dun dun dun dunnnnn.
The playthrough of these Flashpoints is now smoother than it used to be, because now you can do them all in one seamless experience over the course of an afternoon, rather than do the first two and then wait for Part 2 and Part 3 of the storyline months down the line. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Much like my previous article about how the 12x class mission XP bonus during November was good for cohesive story but bad in that exposed just how relatively little content those class missions contained, I got the same sense when I played through these Flashpoints. They also left me with some story questions: How did Theron and Lana meet up behind the scenes, and how do they manage to trust each other enough that they're willing to work together on an adventure that would upset both their governments? It makes more sense if you consider the out-of-character time between when the Tython and Korriban FPs were originally launched and when the player learns about the team-up in the Manaan one, but it doesn't work quite as well if you play them back to back as no doubt most players do now.
When it comes to the mechanics of the Flashpoints, in solo mode you're given a Combat Support Droid to help you faceroll the content. There have been some players who hated the very existence of this content being soloable because they believe MMORPG stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Requires People Grouping. However, the simple fact of the matter is that unless an MMO is consistent in its 'grouping required' content right out of the gate (like BioWare Austin's other major project, ShadowRealms), it really needs to keep its primary story content available to the solo player. Lord of the Rings Online learned that in 2008 when they added the ability to solo the epic questline and made a ton of players happy, and doing it here in SWTOR is nothing short of common sense. BioWare retuned the content in all four Flashpoints and gave you a super companion to ensure you don't die in them. The Combat Support Droid was a suitable second companion for my Jedi Sentinel and ensured I never had to worry about dipping into my medpacs, although once in awhile I'd shift Treek from tank to heals mid-fight. I know there are some players to whom this sort of easy-mode is an affront to their sensibilities, and yes, the challenge was totally missing, but that was the whole point. These things weren't intended for players to learn new rotations for their characters with the advent of the Discipline system. I could see why some players might growl about the fact that a new level 55 would wind up with a complete set of 162-rated gear by the time they did all four, but does it really matter since these FPs aren't properly endgame, and players would need that sort of gear to begin content on Rishi in the expansion?
As to the actual story, it's mostly the work of the game's remaining writer, Charles Boyd. If you look at the credits for Galactic Strongholds and then Shadow of Revan, he's the one credited as the Lead Writer, with only Sean McKeever and Alexander Freed being named as writers too. The actual quality of the writing is the same sort of top-notch we tend to expect from BioWare, but I really miss the stable of writers they used to have for the main launch. Most of them now work on other BioWare projects, some went freelance or to other companies over the past three years, but you can't expect two writers and a freelancer to be able to create the huge amount of story we've been used to in the past. I'm still a bit surprised how much story those three crammed into Shadow of Revan, but for Forged Alliances, it raises more questions than it answers.
The Empire players have the advantage in terms of lore, because they get to do a series of Revanite quests on Dromund Kaas, but unfortunately, their choice at the end to join the Revanites or not has absolutely no bearing on these Flashpoints. In fact, it makes me wonder why a Revanite would attack their own guys. It would take one of those deep-cover spy-movie sort of mentality to justify it. Perhaps a player-Revanite is rooting out rogue elements within the operation or they're doing it to spy on Theron Shan and Lana Beniko, but Imperial Revanite players shouldn't have to make their own head-canon to justify why they're taking on their own dudes. While there surely can be Republic Revanites (as we see in NPC form in the Flashpoints), I felt more immersed in the story from the Imperial side because I already had exposure to the cult of Revan from DK.
Graphically, the Flashpoints are pretty impressive. Taking both Tython and Dromund Kaas and trashing them was an intriguing step. Sure, one could point out to the fact it helped cut some corners in terms of development time because the basic maps were already there, they just needed to redress them with new mobs and dirt and destruction, but the overall effect was impressive. The first time I previewed Tython as my Jedi Knight and saw the ruined Temple, I got a bit misty, I'll admit it. Manaan and Rakata Prime were gorgeous, and I'm actually a bit sorry that this game doesn't have more of an open-world setting, because I seriously wanted to explore both of them. In terms of design, I really liked the bit in Manaan where you were racing to escape before the Flooded Labs got to crush depth. Despite the linear path through the content, the art department has truly done some excellent work here, although I do wish to have seen more stuff swimming by the windows on Manaan, perhaps even a scare moment with some big fish or other.
At the end of the day, I'm still uncertain whether the quartet of Flashpoints was truly necessary to advance the story, or whether there's a more efficient way of doing the same thing while keeping players engaged. I mean, I like the characters of Lana and Theron, and I totally laughed the one time when you rescue Jakarro, who runs off in a rage and poor C2-D4 calls back a 'thank you!' for their rescue. As a player, I feel like my character is actually doing something to advance the plot rather than doing some side stuff that will enable the main characters to achieve victory as other games sometimes have you do (looking at your Pelargir Epic Battle, LotRO). For the folks who like their romances, you can get it on with either Lana or Theron regardless of your character's gender with multiple flirt options available over the course of the four FPs. There's good stuff here, don't get me wrong, but perhaps there simply needed to be more nuanced dialogue or more backstory. I'm all for more cutscenes in SWTOR, spacebarring be damned!
What do you folks think?