I haven't played a massively multiplayer online game since the single Saturday afternoon I spent four years ago raising a World of Warcraft Tauren Druid to level 12.
I expected to break my MMO fast some time this year, either by trying WoW again or by giving in to the appeal of one of these sprawling games, one set in a Star Wars universe engineered by the excellent video game creators at BioWare.
On Saturday, at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston, with reckless little preparation, I took a 45-minute bite of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I asked the Old Republic reps to watch me closely, to treat me like I was an infant and tell me everything to do. I only crashed the game once.
Getting Ready For My MMO Return
The appeal of Star Wars should supersede my disinterest in MMOs. I don't care about raids, don't fancy the idea of leveling up to 80 and I certainly don't want the pressure of being part of someone's guild. Running around in a BioWare Star Wars universe, though. That seems cool.
I approached the massive Old Republic booth on the PAX East show floor with journalistic confidence and only a little confusion that a BioWare rep did the very Star Trek thing of producing an iPad to preview the mission everyone else was waiting hours to play. I knew enough about MMOs to sort of follow along when she told me which character was "the tank". I knew just enough about Star Wars to think it was bizarre that the healer character who I could play was classified as a smuggler and a scoundrel. Aside from his use of a make-shift laser scalpel on a Tauntaun, I don't remember smuggler/scoundrel movie hero Han Solo performing medical activities. Be that as it may, I correctly predicted that the best role for an MMO padawan like myself would be hiding behind crates tossing health potions/tanks/vials/whatever.
As we partied up in real life, I met a nice guy named Chad from Iowa who covers games for Dualshockers. He would be our mage. We were teamed with two people who had suffered the Old Republic line-wait a second time in the hopes that this time they could beat the boss character lurking at the end of the PAX East demo. Poor chumps probably figured they'd be teamed with someone who had played MMOs since Obama became President. Spoiler: we didn't beat the boss.
At PAX East they sat people like me, Chad and our unlucky temporary friends into a small theatre room, a room you share with the game's developers and other eager gamers, only one of whom wears Obi-Wan Kenobi's robe. They made us watch a video where Old Republic Dallas Dickinson, via video, crafted an excuse for me by pointing out that, you know, we probably wouldn't be Level 32 characters if we were starting this game under normal circumstances. No, we'd have fewer than four healing options, several buffs, a bunch of ways to shoot our gun and even the power, as a smuggler/scoundrel/healer to kick someone in the groin. PAX East would allow us to pretend we'd immediately earned all that.
Time To Play (And Remember Where The Number Keys Are)
As we were released from the theatre, I preemptively apologised to the three guys with whom I would be playing The Old Republic. I sat on the second stool in a row of four, each stationed in front of a PC ready to run a portion of the four-player "flashpoint" section of the game called Taral V. While my colleagues were settling into their virtual skins, I was staring at my mouse and wondering if I'd even try to press the number keys on it - I'd never touched a mouse with number keys on it before! Nah. And which number key on my keyboard would I hit if I moved my middle finger up from the W without looking? I kept mentally repeating a mantra to myself: "3,3,4". That's what a BioWare lady told me to press if things got bad. It would heal people.
The flashpoint sections of The Old Republic are story-driven missions designed for four players. The section started with us receiving orders from a Yoda-looking guy called Master Oteg. As with other BioWare games, you can respond to people who chat with you in a variety of ways, all mapped to parts of a conversation wheel. All four of us would choose responses to Oteg, but only the one of us who automatically rolled the highest number saw our response take. Needless to say, I didn't even respond to the first couple of questions in time. I was busy telling a BioWare guy behind me that I was going to need help.
Oteg was sending us on a rescue mission. We needed to free a prisoner somewhere in deep space, but first needed to capture some navigation technology made by a civilisation called the Gree. The Imperial forces had the tech. We'd be raiding their planet.
Horrifyingly, after the Oteg conversation ended, I needed help walking my character to the elevator. Everyone else had left me behind and I didn't know which way was which. Patience was still with us, thankfully.
Everyone was out of the elevator and approaching a spacecraft with which we'd fly to the Imperial base when my computer crashed. I'm sure I had nothing to do with it and I appreciate that BioWare's officials rushed to restore my machine with the speed one usually reserves for pouring buckets on fires.
After My Computer Crashed...
My computer restored, The Old Republic rebooted, I joined my buddies in the hangar and we flew to the planet to battle. In the official video summary of this mission, I see now that I was supposed to use the post-landing bit of the game to buff my character. I probably tapped the 5 or 6 key, if that counts.
Into the battle we went. Most of this flashpoint involved three of us charging up a grassy incline, fighting dark-armoured imperials and large gorilla-shaped monsters. Only one of us lagged behind hitting the the 3 key, the 3 key again and then the 4. Honestly, I got better at it, but I can assure you that if Han Solo was half the smuggler/scoundrel/medic I was, he would have bandaged Greedo first.
Much of the battle ahead of me seemed well-fought, and in time I learned how to dole out healing-over-time and instant-healing items. I kept the party at max health for most of our fights as our Jedi Knight and Trooper tore through the enemies. I couldn't assess most of their tactics other than to note that these guys kicked a lot of arse.
From the rear I began to feel less charmed that I was playing a Star Wars game and more worried that this game seemed like World of Warcraft. What I'd assumed were trappings of Blizzard's vaunted MMO must be trappings of the genre. These games, I guess, are played with one eye on a keyboard's worth of on-screen ability icons, each needing a number-key to activate them. These games, I realise now, require you to stop aiming and shooting and require you to instead click on whoever you want to heal or hurt, then press the key that represents what you want to do to them, then watch said thing happen. In other words, they still require, fast fingers, digital intent but also the patience of moving at less than half the speed of thought. I'd underestimated how stiffly MMOs flow, how much they feel like orchestration rather than like virtual existence. I forget I'm not the character in most modern video games I play. On Saturday, controlling my smuggler, I felt like a puppeteer. At least, that's how The Old Republic feels, as did WoW.
Despite being thrown by the rhythm of the game, I mostly had a good time hanging out in the background. I earned experience points for healing and was proud that my allies were able to charge to the Imperial base. As we reached the gates, I was happily tossing in the occasional thermal detonator. From cover, I kept my party healthy as they took down an Imperial captain. I did wonder why he took so long to beat and whether this was a game design problem or a simple reality of MMOs that our Jedi and Trooper just seemed to be spending minutes spamming this guy with attacks before he dropped.
After the captain fell, his his monster lackey mauled us. We went down, one at a time. I felt terrible. I let them die. Demo over.
I left The Old Republic area pleased to have been reacquainted with MMOs but unsure that they've changed enough to make me get past my four-year-old impression of disinterest. I was more compelled by the Oteg group chat than I was by the action, more interested in the fiction than in this style of play. The Oteg part felt more Star Wars-y, but then again, I was playing a medic, which is not the career one associates with Star Wars heroes.
I'd prefer to start at level one instead of level 32 to better assess the game. I'm glad I've had to figure out where the number keys are and am ready to give The Old Republic a second try. Now can anyone explain why Han Solo never became a doctor?