I just had a hands-on demo with the hugely anticipated massively multiplayer role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic, but after an hour of watching self-described sizzle reels of prerendered and in-game footage, showing casually pirouetting Jedi and environments full of foxfire and crepitating tails of energy, I couldn't actually make myself actually play the game. This isn't the Star Wars I love. This is a cartoon fantasy of a world that once felt lived in, ancient and crumbling, but is presented now—three-thousand years before the events of the Star Wars movies—as mawkishly digestible neoteny.
Which isn't to say SW:TOR is going to be a bad game or that its story will be bad. (And Lord does Bioware think players of massively multiplayer games care about story; they've bet what is rumored to be hundreds of millions of dollars on it.) It's simply clear that the world that Bioware has created (or reinterpreted), the world in which they expect players to spend hundreds or thousands of hours within, is so unlike the Star Wars that excites me that I can't bear the thought of spending all that time living inside that universe.
Bioware is good at storytelling, certainly, and they'll be the first to tell you so. "Bioware-level RPG" is the term used a few times by Dallas Dickinson, a producer of SW:TOR and one of Bioware's presentation men. ("Boom!")
"People keep asking where Knights of the Old Republic 3 is," explained Dickinson as the box art for the previous two titles of Bioware's beloved single-player RPGs set in the Star Wars universe animated onto the video screen in the small presentation room. "But we've put Knights of the Old Republic 3 and four...and five...and six and seven and eight...inside The Old Republic."
I'm fairly certain that most fans of KOTOR 1 and 2—games that themselves took dozens of hours to complete—just want more KOTOR.
Not that I will think less of you for playing SW:TOR. It looks like a perfectly serviceable MMO, even if it is cast very much from the same mold that has made the seemingly eternal World of Warcraft a lifestyle choice for over ten million fans. I enjoy WOW (or did for the couple of years I played). I enjoyed SW:TOR's nearly forgotten antecedent Star Wars Galaxies even more in some ways, largely because it felt like Star Wars—a universe in which smugglers and cantina dancers were common and magical knights and wizards were rare. (Mostly I just liked setting up moisture harvesters. I'm a farmer at heart.)
But I've put in hundreds of hours into MMOs before. It's going to take a very compelling experience to draw me into another one. (I barely have time to play all the other games I want to play.) I have largely ignored SW:TOR in its previous demos because I believe that a few minutes here and there aren't enough to give a player real information about how a game will play. (So, you know, maybe the gameplay is brilliant. I'm just talking about my feeeelings.)
Before our small group of fans and journalists in the screening room were loosed on the PCs on which the game demo had been prepared, we were shown a five-minute tutorial video (also narrated by a pre-recorded Dickinson). He showed us how to play the game, how to properly prepare our characters for battle. "Press G to [my pen fell asleep]. Then right-click on the enemy to [my pen ran out of the room to play Battlefield 3]." I'm not totally trying to be a jackass about this, but after having spent twenty minutes previously being told how Bioware was bringing something entirely new to the world of MMOs, sarcasm is my only defense against the cognitive dissonance experienced when watching a game that plays more-or-less just like World of Warcraft.
More damning (to my poncy aesthete inclinations) is how much Star Wars: The Old Republic looks like World of Warcraft. A live demo (operated by Bioware employees) set on the planet Aldaraan—Princess Leia's adopted home planet and the first to feel the terribly disturbing power of the Death Star—involved a mission into some royal guy's castle. (His castle!) The party of Republic good guys did the sort of weightless, stand-in-place pantomime of combat we've come to accept in MMOs. (Backflip! Grenade that explodes next to a friend but only hurts the enemy! Force cracklin's!) Then the players ran further into the castle to give Baron Von Space a stern talking to. When he appeared on the screen—fully voice-acted, as are all the random characters in SW:TOR—he was wearing a cape and what looked like a metal marching band hat. He looked ridiculous. Space ridiculous.
I know George Lucas is largely to blame with the asinine allowances made in the prequels for clean-edged pageantry that barely alluded to the designs and styles of the original trilogy, but somehow SW:TOR—set three-thousand years before the movies, remember—comes off as even more ridiculous, a cartoon of a cartoon. Big, chunky architecture replicates known Star Wars settings but makes little logical, historical sense. Is this really a galaxy in which Sand People, a race of sentient marauders who live largely by scavenging, have worn the exact same types of goggles for thousands of years? After the Sith wiped out the Jedi, did they go after Ray-Ban? (It's all the more strange that SW:TOR feels this way when Bioware's own KOTOR series somehow held more authentic allusional heft toward the original trilogy of movies than the prequels did. They should be able to do this!)
In the introduction movie—prerendered graphics that look little like the art style of the game itself—someone giving a speech mentions how "the Empire returned", as if the Empire and the Republic are simply warring factions and not descriptive, political terms describing transitive, competing states of government. (Or maybe more simply "perspectives". The United States is a republic that could also arguably be called an empire, depending on which end of our guns you might be staring at.) The movies try to address this to a limited extent by making a distinction between the Empire and the Sith, the anti-Jedi who basically use the Force for selfish purposes with seemingly only cosmetic consequence.
But in SW:TOR, with its good faction and its bad faction both capable of making "light side" or "dark side" choices, the distinction-the dramatic tension of human consequence-is reduced to its grossest representation. Because of the way MMO gameplay works (because no one can apparently figure out a way to truly rejigger the tropes) your party often needs a healer. The Empire is evil so it can't just have a healer, right? So instead the Empire characters have an ability called..."Dark Heal".
But I am more dubious than ever that SW:TOR will be the sort of experience that will trigger and compound those deep-set feelings that Star Wars the movie can still evoke.
God bless 'em, I'll probably give Star Wars: The Old Republic a try. Even the most terrible game can be made fun with friends—and it doesn't look terrible, just uninspired—and I remain intrigued about how well Bioware has wedded story to a game type that I don't think actually needs that much story. (The way party members all roll a random number to select who gets to pick the dialogue spoken to non-player characters is a clever way to bolt some gameplay into a place that could get dreary quickly, for instance.)
But I am more dubious than ever that SW:TOR will be the sort of experience that will trigger and compound those deep-set feelings that the Star Wars movies can still evoke.
And while its gameplay may be different from World of Warcraft, it's clearly only different in ways that passionate MMO gamers will be able to discern. To the rest of us, it's going to be World of Warcraft wearing a brown robe and carrying a lightsaber. It could have been so much more.