Tuesday 28 February 2012

The man in the coon-skin cap by the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Reading about the $870 worth of Mass Effect 3 DLC, I can’t help but think Bioware have missed a trick for Star Wars The Old Republic. Most of the ME3 cost comes from assorted toys, accessories and hardware peripherals that include DLC unlock codes – a mere £70 will get you a nylon bag with a code for an in-game assault rifle, a promotion much less controversial than an earlier plan to offer an AK-47 for £70 with a code that would unlock an in-game bag for additional inventory space (gamers were absolutely outraged that they’d have to clutter up their bedroom with piles of weaponry just to carry around more loot in the game).

For SWTOR there’s the Collector’s Edition with the high-quality action figurine character replica statuette (definitely not a doll), but I haven’t seen much other tie-in merchandise; I imagine this is due to the Star Wars IP, as George Lucas is notorious for his maniacal preservation of the artistic purity and integrity of his vision. Nevertheless there’s an opportunity for some classy, tasteful merchandise, not only from Bioware but all MMOG publishers, if they take a leaf from sports so that when a character reaches the in-game level cap the player has an opportunity to buy an actual physical cap. It could be embroidered with a classy, tasteful alphanumeric string that would unlock an in-game equivalent, so both player and character could sport the fetching headgear on the team bus back from the final mission, belting out a song over Ventrilo…

All right, maybe not. Unfortunately there’s not much else for me to look forward to having hit level 50 in SWTOR. The main problem is the PvP warzones that I’ve been participating in nigh-daily; just as Moridir observed in a previous comment, up to level 49 the boosting algorithms seem to work quite well to give a fairly level playing field. Lower levels are at a disadvantage, not having their full range of skills, but apart from that can still effectively contribute. A fresh level 50 is chucked into a pool that includes people who’ve been grinding gear for two months, and the potential power differential is vast. Without getting back into the age-old “gear vs skill” debate there’s not much incentive to hop onto the upgrade treadmill, slogging through tier after tier of gear, with little to look forward to apart from finding someone in inferior gear to dish out a kicking to, even the momentary pleasure of unleashing pent-up frustration denied by the self-knowledge that you’re just perpetuating the cycle.

I popped down to Ilum, the open world PvP zone, joined up with an ops group, and spent half an hour edging slightly forwards, then edging slightly backwards; massed combat in SWTOR isn’t much different to massed combat in WoW or WAR, or most other MMOGs I imagine, packs of players shuffling around, AoE heals generally countering AoE damage, and occasional stragglers being picked off; stray too far forward and a “yoink” ability pulls you into the middle of the enemy pack for instant death, but hang around in the middle of the pack and you’re probably safe. With roughly balanced forces it’s a cagey stalemate, which is at least a marginal improvement over a massacre followed by one side giving up.

There’s still the story, of course. I haven’t wrapped that up yet and I’m quite intrigued to see how it all pans out, but it hasn’t hooked me so much that I’m desperate to finish it. Interspersing the story with general planetary missions, flashpoints, warzones and the like has made it feel very fragmentary, my own doing, but an inevitable consequence of developer-driven narrative within a MMOG. That’s not the only factor; single player games have a much better chance of digging their story hooks in and The Witcher 2 didn’t manage it either, it’s been kicking around my Steam library somewhere near the start of Act 2 for months and I’m not sure I’ll go back, but the story alone wouldn’t keep me in SWTOR. That there are seven more stories to experience is a temptation to play other characters, and I’ve dabbled with several, but I’ve never really been one for alts. I might well come back for another stint in the future, probably playing a Republic Trooper (tried a couple of Jedi for a few levels and they were insufferably smug, and it’d be nice to have a different play style from the Agent, plus the female Trooper is voiced by Jennifer Hale); pottering about having a look at the first Republic flashpoint and seeing warzones from the other side has been fun, but not that different.

If ever there was a box I wouldn’t tick in the “What are you most looking forward to about Game X?” section of a questionnaire, it would be the one labelled “Raiding”. Unless there was another one labelled “The complete absence of hats”. Or “The fascinating socio-political debates in /general”. Anyway, I’ve never been serious a raider, had no great desire to participate in eight man SWTOR operations like the Eternity Vault, but the afternoon after I hit 50 the guild had a run planned, I had a couple of spare hours, and it turned out to be rather fun. Plenty of clustering up and running away and hopping over stepping stones and pushing buttons, shepherded by our chilled raid leader with some assistance from a more hardcore raider we grabbed from general chat to round the team out (who was good enough to only point out how simple an encounter was after a couple of wipes; I like to think what we lacked in cohesion and gear we made up for with enthusiasm and charm, like excitable puppies at an obedience class just about getting the hang of “sit”, briefly). I was only personally responsible for one failed encounter (as far as I remember, losing a DPS race when we split into eight separate one-on-one encounters; slowly chipping down a tank-ier mob worked better) and got a couple of purple gear upgrades out of it, happy days.

It’s been a good run and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but the time’s come to hang up SWTOR for a while, especially with Mass Effect 3 imminent. While the subscription ticks down I wouldn’t mind taking another look at Eternity Vault or Karagga’s Palace; I don’t think I’ll be becoming a regular raider, but it’s a lot more attractive than warzones at the moment.

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