This weekend I finally spent several uninterrupted hours in the heavy boots of one of Star Wars: The Old Republic's more ruthless classes: The Bounty Hunter. Did the experience change my opinion that BioWare's upcoming MMO is more akin to a singleplayer game that just happens to have other people in it? Not exactly.
BioWare's approach to massively multiplayer online role-playing games is quite different from the approach other developers have taken over the past decade and change. Since the early days of Ultima Online and EverQuest, MMO developers have focused on giving players the very basic framework for a story and letting them iron out the details themselves. Where their character comes from, their ultimate goals, their basic personality, and the path they take through whatever world they may find themselves in was largely left up to the player themselves. Here's your world, now go play.
In recent years MMO makers have begun to experiment with stronger story-driven content, exchanging player freedom for a more powerful narrative. Games like Cryptic Studios' Champions Online did away with a completely open world in favour of more modularised content. Even the wildly successful World of Warcraft has, with recent expansions, moved in a more linear direction, giving players a set storyline to advance through rather that a series of loosely-related quests.
Star Wars: The Old Republic might be the ultimate realisation of this idea.
The game opened like many a BioWare role-playing game has opened in the past. I created a character -- in this case a female Chiss Bounty Hunter -- and then I entered the story the developer has carefully crafted to introduce me to the ins and outs of being a material girl living on an Imperial world.
Through the use of cinematic cut scenes and BioWare's signature dialog system I was introduced to my crew, a group of well-intentioned support staff on the planet Hutta, looking for a Bounty Hunter with the potential to win a competition called The Great Hunt, catapulting them into fame and fortune. I was their best and brightest hope of realising this goal. Not one of many, mind you, but the brightest.
That was a worry of mine during my initial forays into the world of The Old Republic. Every class has a single story that all members of the class share. Every Bounty Hunter on the server was experiencing the same story I was, joining up with the same companion character, and facing the same choices I was facing as I advanced through my initial batch of quests. For some reason I thought this would cheapen the experience, but in reality it heightened it.
That strong feeling of story focus even remained when I grouped with other players to take on some of the start area's more challenging group missions; it was as if I was playing the optional co-operative multiplayer mode of a single-player game.
The Bounty Hunter class is a highly entertaining choice for fans of explosions. The equivalent of the Republic's Trooper class, they're a mix of pure damage and subtle crowd control. Say I was taking on a group consisting of two shooters and a melee character. The melee character will rush forward while the enemies relying on firearms stick back and shoot. I'd launch a rocket to knock the melee opponent back into the group and then unless a powerful area-of-effect weapon to take them out all at once. To put in in Star Wars terms, I wasn't quite Boba Fett, but I was much better than Jango.
The Bounty Hunter also has some rather powerful choices to make while progressing through their early levels, a reflection of the wide variety of personalities and temperaments lured towards the dirty profession. During one particular mission I was tasked by a mother to recover her son from his father, who had seemingly kidnapped him. Upon finding the father I learned that he was only trying to protect his Force-sensitive child from the often lethal brutality of the Sith Academy. I could choose to turn my head and look the other way, or kill the father and return the boy to his mother and a potentially dark fate.
The boy's anquished cries as I shot his father dead made me instantly regret my decision.
They also signaled. I had crossed over to the darker side of the Dark Side, and from there on out when given a choice between good and evil, I chose the latter. Innocent civilians were killed. Wives were delivered their husband's heads in bags. After 10 levels of missions I was wearing a set of armour vaguely reminiscent of Boba's finery, rocking a pouch full of credits, and bathed in the blood of more undeserving souls than I care to mention.
That's not the sort of feeling I've gotten from an MMO before. Damn Dr. Ray for pounding the term into my head, but this is some emotionally engaging stuff right here.
So no, the overall experience of my initial 10 levels as a bloodthirsty gun-for-hire did nothing to change my perception of The Old Republic as a single-player game with massively multiplayer features. What it did accomplish was make me question whether or not this is what massively multiplayer gaming should have been all along.