Videogame (2011). BioWare. Designed by James Ohlen, Emmanuel Lusinchi, Brad Prince, Daniel Erickson. Platforms: Win.
After it became clear that Star Wars: Galaxies (2003) would not be a commercial success, and since it was generally believed that the causes of that game's failure could be found in its design or implementation rather than in the intellectual property from which it was licenced, a decision was made to build a new Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game set in the Star Wars universe. This time, however, the game was not based directly on the original films, but was instead derived from one of the most popular Videogame incarnations of the franchise to date, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003). This game is set four thousand years previous to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), in a time that is both different from and yet remarkably similar to that of the films. The gameplay of The Old Republic occurs three hundred years after that of Knights of the Old Republic, when the eponymous democracy is engaged in a galactic cold war with the evil Sith Empire, one which seemingly could turn hot at any moment. This milieu is skillfully depicted, with an excellent feel for the ambience conveyed by the original cinema trilogy. Throughout, the game is very professionally constructed; it may represent the state of the art in MMORPG design.
While The Old Republic appears much influenced by the Heroic Fantasy game World of Warcraft (see Online Worlds), it shows a definite preference for story over that work's emphasis on place. The player's experience is notably more guided than in World of Warcraft, with much time spent in complex multilinear Interactive Narratives specific to the character's profession (such as Bounty Hunter or Smuggler) in addition to the environmental stories which are typical of the form. Notably, these branching plots do not affect the entire universe, unlike the problematically world-altering arc narratives of Asheron's Call (see Online Worlds). Instead, they are adventure paths along which the player's choices determine only their own stories, and those of their computer-controlled companions. As in the later iterations of Star Wars: Galaxies, becoming a member of the spiritual Jedi order (or its polar opposite, the evil Sith) is simply a matter of player choice, but the resulting problems seen in Galaxies – where the significance of joining such an order was devalued by their members' excessive abundance within the game – are finessed by making player Jedi into specially gifted exemplars of the type.
The game has clearly been designed to be as continuously enjoyable as possible. Thus potentially uninteresting parts of the player's experience – such as flying over large empty landscapes or creating new equipment – are generally either skipped over entirely or made assignable to computer-controlled assistants. As in many similar games, play concentrates on a combination of completing assigned missions, undirected exploration, and combat, with some conversation (though less than is found in other games from the same developer, such as Mass Effect). As in Knights of the Old Republic, the player's behaviour is tracked and determines their assumed allegiance to the dark (Sith) or light (Jedi) side of the mystic Force, and hence affects the actions of computer-controlled characters who might ally with them or oppose them. Interestingly, characters who are members of the Sith Empire can still find themselves categorized as good, and vice versa. While The Old Republic differs from most persistent online games by encouraging players to spend much of their time pursuing their own character's personal plot, the game also includes more difficult missions and briefer storylines which can be shared by multiple players. To date, however, it seems that these experiences may be less compelling than the more complex narratives intended for individuals. Certainly many players have left the game after completing their character's prescripted journey to heroism (or villainy), suggesting that for some the shared areas may not be worth the game's monthly fee. While The Old Republic is by no means a commercial failure, its design and business model are still evolving; it will be interesting to see their final forms.
Related works: Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (2010), by Sean Williams, is a loose prequel to the game, while Star Wars: The Old Republic: Deceived (2011), by Paul S Kemp, deals with the aftermath of the sacking of an important Jedi world. Star Wars: The Old Republic (2010-2011) is an associated Comics series which also serves as a prequel; its authors include Alexander Freed, one of the writers for the game. [NT]
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