Wednesday 15 February 2012

If you've heard this story before don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again

A couple of years before release, when we were getting the first glimpses of group conversations in Star Wars: The Old Republic, there was a bit of scepticism over how the Super Happy Mass Effect Conversation Wheel of Alignment Sparkle Time Fun (© Melmoth) would work with multiple players. At the time I didn’t think it was something that would translate well to a MMOG environment, but the first flashpoints (SWTOR dungeons/instances) really have that Bioware-RPG feeling for a group of players.

The Esseles and Black Talon flashpoints have a short introduction, a couple of conversations where each member of the group picks a response (a dice roll determines the response that’s used, with some sort of modifiers making sure everyone gets a chance to speak at some stage) and plenty of fairly standard MMOG action (clearing corridors of “trash” mobs, the odd boss here and there with shiny loot). At three or four points during the flashpoint there are more conversations, with decisions to take that affect how things play out, a nice set piece or two, a climactic confrontation, then home for tea and medals. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, taking the standard Bioware formula, adding another three players and sprinkling with MMOG-ness, but as with the proverbial swan it doubtless takes a lot of furious paddling below the surface to appear so effortless.

This week’s Star Trek Online expedition demonstrated a slightly less graceful implementation of story-driven group play, more of a thrashing sort-of-butterly stroke. Since the game went free-to-play, group nights have mostly been spent on “Feature Episodes”, linked missions that tell a story, at one point released on a weekly basis. I have to confess I haven’t entirely been paying attention to the exposition text from NPCs, I think there was an ambassador involved somewhere at the start, and probably some Klingons or something. I seem to recall a group of starship captains, each commanding a crew of hundreds and enough firepower to take decent sized chunks out of a planet, were responsible for a health & safety inspection in a night club at one point, but that might’ve just been a cheese-fuelled dream. Anyway, the specifics haven’t been terribly important as the missions generally boil down to entertaining bouts of Kirk-style diplomacy delivered with fists and photon torpedoes. We don’t stack Ferrero Rocher into a pyramid, we replace the hazelnut with antimatter and launch a full spread of them at anything that looks at us funny.

This week there was a newly released episode focusing on Deep Space Nine, so we toddled along to have a look at that. (Danger: the following contains vaguely remembered possible spoilers for that episode.) There’s a very important conference going on, and you’re sent to… all right, to be honest, I was mostly skipping the text again. Some missions have voiceover text, I think this latest Feature Episode includes it throughout, but it’s not really up to Bioware standards. Where SWTOR delivers brief, punchy, well-voiced cutscenes, STO shoves a dense block of text up in an oh-so-closable window. If you were sitting around a table playing a board game or RPG with others, handing out a short pamphlet and telling everyone to read it wouldn’t really be compelling gameplay, it doesn’t work well for an online group either. From what I could gather, in the best MMOG traditions the first part of the mission was to undertake some trivial tasks from some NPCs too lazy to walk around themselves: get some bootleg liquor, act as a virtual pimp and hoover someone’s starship. Our first instinct, “What would Kirk do?”, had to be abandoned when it proved impossible to either punch or snog our way to success, so we tried “What would Picard do?” After a very well received off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Badener LehrstĂĽck vom Einverständnis we decided that wasn’t getting us anywhere either, and tried “What would Sisko do?” I was unsure of what this entailed, having only watched a few episodes of Deep Space Nine, but following the lead of our Trekkie/er/ist leader it seemed to be running around and clicking on anyone with something floating over their head.

Aside from the fact that this wouldn’t have been vastly compelling group content at the best of times, our elite away team instantly activated Plan Sperple and spread out across the station, randomly clicking on anything that looked clickable. It wasn’t clear if we were all supposed to talk to NPCs in turn, or if just one of us had to talk to them, or we were all supposed to talk to them simultaneously, or some mix of all of the above; we managed to render two of the optional goals uncompletable, either by speaking to the wrong people at the wrong time, or selecting the wrong dialogue option, or just giving the game a headache, we’re not really sure. Still, we managed the key objectives to move the mission forward, and got to participate in the pan-galactic conference of great importance. Instructed to take seats, we naturally jumped on top of the table as per the time honoured sport of “try and place your character in a ridiculous pose for the cutscene”, but sadly (as in SWTOR) the game forces your characters to preordained locations. A bunch of alien dudes with weird foreheads then droned unskippably on for a bit; those more in to Star Trek may have had more of an idea who they were, I can just about remember Klingons, though they seemed to be represented by a lizard-thing… Shockingly the delegates reached an impasse, so it was down to the Federation’s finest diplomats to sort things out! Unfortunately they weren’t available, so it fell to us instead, and once again we ran around the room frantically clicking on anyone clickable. This was surprisingly successful, though I have no idea what we said to anyone, we probably made completely contradictory promises that will lead to a galaxy-shattering war in the future, but it got us out of the conference room.

Finally, the action kicked in; the station was attacked! Much vworping of sirens and wobbling of the camera to simulate phaser hits. We had to escort the ambassadors to their shuttles, fighting through units of Some Bad Aliens in ground combat; despite a couple of overhauls ground combat is still a bit ropey in STO (much like Pirates of the Burning Sea), but at least it was more involving for the group. On reaching the shuttle bays, we then beamed up to our ships to ensure their escape, and that’s when the game really came into its own, space combat on a grand scale, waves of enemy ships, friendly Federation ships giving support, protecting the shuttles as they made their escape. It took a while to get going, but at least there was a strong finish.

In a world of identikit “use hotbar ability to cause damage” combat-heavy MMOGs, Cryptic at least make an effort to broaden the game content in keeping with the source material, and the first part of the mission would probably work quite well solo, especially for someone more into Deep Space Nine. Tipa has a far better write-up from the perspective of someone who actually has a clue about both STO and the Star Trek universe in general, reaching a similar conclusion. I think, with sufficient resources chucked at it, the STO episode could’ve worked well in the SWTOR engine, structuring the mission to keep the group together, increasing the interactivity of conversations, perhaps adding in bridge crew as more fleshed-out NPCs if not in a full group of human players, but such resources are probably prohibitive, especially if trying to get Feature Episodes out on a more frequent basis.

Even SWTOR seemed to run out of steam somewhat after the first flashpoint for each faction. Subsequent flashpoints have been far more linear without much of a story driving them. It’s hardly unusual for the best content in MMOGs to be front-loaded at launch with later gaps left to be grouted over in future updates; mid-level City of Heroes task forces featuring series of missions on similar maps against identical enemies, Lord of the Rings Online at launch when the fun of the Shire gave way to the desolate Lone-lands and attendant boar-grinding, post-Tortage Age of ConanSWTOR has more than sufficient content across two factions and eight classes for getting to the level cap, so subsequent flashpoints not living up to the high standards of the first is hardly the most heinous crime; it’ll be interesting to see if future updates bring more story-heavy branching flashpoints, or whether more repeatable content is seen as a better investment. Though Esseles and Black Talon have some replay value to see how the different branches pan out, story isn’t something that’ll keep players coming back twice a week like the chance of a loot drop from some big boss. From that perspective, story just gets in the way; I’m sure there are guides aplenty with loot tables and detailed instructions of which choices to make for optimal completion of Black Talon to allow displays of precision synchronised flashpoint-running from the Derbyshire Light Infantry:
“Squad! Atten-TION! By the left, quick MARCH! And HALT two three, click two three, space-skip space-skip select first reply two three, space-skip, space-skip space-skip select second reply two three, left TURN! Quick MARCH! Perkins, you ‘orrible little man, are you LISTENING to that NPC? You’re up on a charge!”

It’ll also be interesting to try the multiplayer features of Mass Effect 3. Star Wars: The Old Republic may turn out to be a little like Concorde, the ultimate development of story-heavy MMOGs, a fantastic achievement, but a bit of an evolutionary dead end that nobody can really afford to emulate (apart from a Soviet knock-off with a dubious safety record…) If multiplayer ME3 gives that same flashpoint-type experience with no subscription and the possibility of introducing new content as DLC, available on consoles as well, that could be a more sustainable model for the future.

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