Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is perhaps the most anticipated Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORPG) we’ve seen in years.
Its developers entreat us:
“Explore an age thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader when war between the Old Republic and the Sith Empire divides the galaxy.”
In brief, the background story is as follows:
After centuries of relative peace, the Sith have returned from ‘deep space’ Catching the Republic and the Jedi Order by surprise, the Sith sacked the republican capital of Coruscant. A disadvantageous treaty has been signed, and the Jedi have relocated their council their home-world of Typhon. The galaxy is on a ‘knife-edge’: the peace treaty is fragile; and skirmishes are common. It is into this arena that players will step. Whether to support the Sith, or the Republic – or simply to serve themselves – that is the choice facing players.
Regardless of which choice they make, gamers around the world are in expectation of an expansive and deep role-playing experience.
Developers, Bioware have proclaimed that whichever class players choose, the game will be story-driven: with unique storylines for each class, and moral challenges which affect story-line and character development.
So far only two classes have been revealed at the official SWTOR website: the Trooper and Bounty Hunter classes. But in an exclusive interview with Gamespot, the developers have confirmed another class: ‘the Smuggler’.
Ultimately, there are expected to be eight classes: two of which will most likely include the Jedi and the Sith.
Each class choice is expected to provide a distinctive experience.
The Troopers are to be the Galactic Republic’s finest: elite soldiers with access to advanced heavy weaponry, grenades and “almost impenetrable armour”. While based on the ‘clone troopers’ and ‘storm troopers’ of the Star Wars movies, the SWTOR Trooper class are ‘the best’: and are not to be underestimated.
Streaming video at the SWTOR website also feature Troopers’ use of “sticky grenades”: which upon attaching themselves to an enemy, appear impossible to evade.
(Further: in breaking news from Bioware, Troopers are now expected to enjoy a range of “morale themed party buffs.” (a very important development with regards to game balance) Hopefully we’ll hear more of this soon.)
And as with other classes, the Trooper class will confront tough moral quandaries in search of victory over a ruthless and callous foe. Will they do whatever is necessary – achieve victory “at any cost”? Or will they adhere to a moral code: but risk defeat?
The ‘Bounty Hunter’ class, meanwhile, is to provide a ‘shadier’ and possibly “morally-ambiguous” role-playing experience. Bioware describes the class as “Hunter, seeker, Killer for hire”. These men and women spend their lives “on the edge” – their life-paths leading to “a life of infamous glory… or to a quick and ignominious death.” “Shifting allegiances, unbeatable odds, and deadly showdowns are common in the occurrences in the life of a Bounty Hunter.”
Bounty Hunters also have access to state-of-the-art equipment from the ‘black market’: wrist rockets, flamers, heavy yet flexible armour. jetpacks. For those wanting to play a “Boba Fett fantasy” this class will surely hold a strong allure.
Finally, there is the Smuggler class. The Smuggler is set to appeal to those with “a Han Solo fantasy”.
To date Smugglers have not formally featured as a class at the official SWTOR website. But in an exclusive interview with Gamespot, we are given an ‘advance insight’ into this intriguing class choice. Crucially, Dallas Dickinson reveals that:
“The smuggler class utilizes a dynamic cover system in combat, which is also a first for the MMO space.”
The ‘dynamic cover’ system includes ‘shooting from around corners’, and – because of superior initiative – shooting first.
In addition to use of cover, the Smuggler is set to have powerful charismatic force, and is to make use of ‘quick thinking’. Further, the Smuggler class provides the choice of whether to take sides “for patriotism” or for “simple profiteering.” Possible missions could involve: “contraband, people, lost treasures” – enough for a fully immersive role-playing experience.
Hopefully the class will be more fully ‘fleshed out’ in the coming weeks.
Weapons, armour, and cover – what kind of choices will we have?
There are other issues, though, that face Bioware in developing this title: and we will consider some of them now.
The Smuggler class’s use of cover will be a critical aspect of the game. Clearly developers are searching for ‘signature’ abilities which define each class. But while use of cover could comprise a critical skill for Smugglers – surely such tactics should not be restricted to them only.
Assuming advanced training, surely Troopers should also be able to take advantage of cover. This should be a ‘feat’ – available to all classes: but one in which certain classes (eg: the Smugglers, Troopers) enjoy bonuses in its acquisition and application.
Use of cover – and related actions – might also involve tactical questions not yet explored in ‘developer dispatches’ from Bioware.
While the Trooper’s armour may have a significant power to reflect, absorb or otherwise neutralise attacks which hit; dodge and evasion skills, and use of cover could prevent attacking from making contact in the first place.
And in addition to this, all players ought be able to lay on the ground: to minimise the area vulnerable to attack – and provide a smaller target.
Such tactical choices could provide depth to the game-play experience: and a more satisfying and authentic gaming experience.
Availability of a wide range of grenade types could also provide greater tactical choice to the Trooper class – and possibly others capable of using such weaponry.. Already we have the ‘sticky’ high explosive grenades: but what of electronic grenades to short-circuit droids; or what about ‘flash’ grenades (blinding) or stun grenades? Grenades hold potentially critical tactical importance – as they may be able to overcome the enemy’s use of cover – because of blast radius…
And for all classes there needs to be a wide variety of weapons – not just heavy weapons.
Pistols and light rifles could be less cumbersome – easier to use ‘from around corners’ (especially useful for Smugglers) – or to wield while laying on the ground. Heavier weapons, meanwhile, might be more difficult to use from a position of cover. Some might even ‘overheat’ if over-used.
Heavy weapons might also have recoil (affecting accuracy depending on the players’ skill and strength); or because they are cumbersome may affect agility/dodge/stealth. (But if so expect this to me ‘made up for’ by ‘packing an incredible punch!’) Finally, sniper rifles might involve slow reloads, but may have no problem with overheating, while providing excellent criticals, accuracy and range.
Armour type should also be of critical importance. Some heavy armour should be cumbersome, incurring penalties to agility/dodge and stealth abilities. Advanced (maybe experimental) armour may at least partly overcome this. And maybe some light armour could include stealth functions. Some suits of power armour may boost strength and melee potency. Some may enhance speed. Others could absorb certain energy types.
Importantly: whether for armour, or lightsabers, or other weapons: there needs to be maximum scope for customisation. Think, here, of Mass Effect, and the Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) series: customised plates, scopes, crystals, ammunition, ad infinitum. A great variety, here, is what I think players will want.
There are many other possible dimensions to the game also – that so far have not received much attention. Let’s not underestimate skills such as stealth, dodge/evasion, healing, ranged and melee critical hits, and the influence of charisma and diplomacy… Smugglers, in particular, could specialise in some of these areas – increasing their appeal and versatility – even if use of cover is not their exclusive domain.
Other possible skills could include: disarming or laying down traps, opening electronic doors, and hacking into computer systems.
Perhaps there may even be scope to incorporate ‘mini-games’ associated with some of these skills – providing greater depth and variability of game-play. Indeed: this could be but ‘the tip of the iceberg’.
What about factions and moral choice?
Most modern MMORPGS today involve factional and/or political affiliation choices – and hopefully SWTOR will expand and improve on this. The developers have trumpeted the core role of ethical choices for each player and each class. Players will desire for this will be implemented in as credible manner as possible.
Some classes seem relatively ‘clear cut’ on the surface – such as the Trooper. But even here – as recognised earlier – there will be morally ambiguous decisions to be made – where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not clear cut. (eg: the use of physical threat to extract information from an enemy when there are many lives at stake)
Meanwhile: the Bounty Hunter and Smuggler classes should provide relative flexibility in terms of affiliations and allegiances. Ultimately, some will ‘follow the flow of credits’. Others may be won over by their ‘better angels’ – their consciences – to work only for the Republic -and fight against the Sith.
Depending on the storylines Bioware develops -even a Jedi might turn to darkness; or a Sith ‘to the light’. (It has been done before – and thus shouldn’t be too surprising)
But assuming there are to be hard moral choices – what effect does this have on the game? Assuming there is real flexibility in affiliation and advancement of the story line: how will this flexibility be handled? The system of KOTOR I & II ought be reflected upon here. In rewarding extremes of benign and malicious behaviour, moral ‘shades of grey’ were excluded.
The difficulty is in allowing for ‘shades of grey’ while discouraging inconsistent, erratic and seemingly senseless changes of behaviour. ‘Extremes’ ought not be rewarded on principle: but genuine ‘role-playing’ in the advancement of the story ought be rewarding in of itself. This is an important issue for discussion: raising questions that Bioware ought address sooner rather than later.
Keeping them coming back for more…
Much has been said of the real choice offered to players: and the ‘unique’ gaming experiences that are being planned for each class. That said, the developers must be aiming for an immersive gaming experience – the sort that will keep players ‘coming back for more’.
Instead of subscribing for a month or two and ‘burning out’ – the developers will want to provide a product that provides satisfaction over ‘the long term.’ Unique class story lines are part of this challenge – but even ‘maxing out’ in one class, and finishing the storyline of one class – should at least take several months.
Some have suggested a cap of ‘level 10′: others of “level 50″! Most importantly, though – there needs to be plenty of scope for multiple branching storylines with real options for character development; a gripping and evolving main story-line – where the world changes with the actions of the various player factions; and enjoyable and challenging PvP combat.
Critically: Don’t let it turn into another grind: ‘camping out for spawns’ with little story or substantial content. (thankfully this doesn’t look likely)
Also importantly: the developers need to get the balance right with regard to character advancement. There must always be another accomplishment ‘within reach’ – ‘over the next horizon’. And yet ‘levelling up’ – or gaining skills in between levels – needs to be a real achievement too.
A three hour gaming session ought be able to provide some kind of advancement in skills – at least at the lower and middle ranged levels. And if advancement at higher levels is more challenging – how then to keep high level players involved? What motivation will there be to keep them playing? Hopefully all these issues will be addressed in the coming months…
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game of enormous promise. Because it is likely to be in competition with ‘Star Trek Online’ and ‘Stargate Worlds’ – it will have to deliver to players on an ongoing basis to achieve the market share its publishers must be aiming for.
Over the coming months we will be following the game’s development: commenting on breaking news as it arises through official channels, and in community forums. The formal announcement of the Jedi and Sith classes will be eagerly anticipated: and as the picture emerges – as to what the final product will be – we will be there.
We encourage readers to consider the issues in this article: discuss them in various forums – including here in this blog. It is to be hoped – with the feedback of ordinary gamers – that the developers will make SWTOR the great success we all wish it to be. Economic gloom aside, 2009-2010 may yet emerge as a groundbreaking year for the genre.
Tristan Ewins is an experienced freelance writer and blogger based in Melbourne, Australia. He specializes in PC Gaming, as well as political and social commentary. He has been writing for ‘On Line Opinion’ for several years, and blogs at the ‘Blogger’ blogs: ‘PC Gaming Forum’ and ‘Left Focus’.