Nar Shaddaa

Story Wars: The Old Mechanics

“Typical Jedi. Slaughter a roomful of men, and then apologize for it.” – Commander Graul, Sith Empire, Nar Shaddaa

The major difference between my Jedi Knight and my Imperial Agent, apart from being aligned with opposing factions, is that my Agent makes no apologies for what she does. Both characters have made Light Side choices almost exclusively – my Agent has a bit of a temper and can’t resist acting out at times, though. She has, by turns, backhanded a young, coquettish, female noble and murdered a roomful of men after witnessing a noblewoman’s husband backhand her. Double agent, double standards.

They’re both, however, ultimately aligned with the Republic: my Guardian Defender as the consummate do-gooder and my Marksmanship Sniper as a recovered brainwashing victim who sees the “rebels” as the lesser of two evils. As misfortune would have it, my duplicity is garbed in Plot Clothing which requires me to spend anywhere from an instant to a lifetime enduring the vicissitudes of the Empire in order to effect change from the inside. Color me unenthused.

Darth Jadus is not amused.
Darth Jadus was in no mood to accommodate my insolence.

When I first met Kaliyo Djannis, a bald-headed, grey-faced Rattataki with black facial markings, I understood her to be an amoral assassin enforcer who would not hesitate to gut me like a fish if given the opportunity. My first Dark Side choice was thus to declare my intent to kill her after I discovered that she had “broken into” my room in the pleasure palace of her employer, Nem’ro the Hutt. Much to my chagrin, my superior at Imperial Intelligence had already decided to make her my well-compensated subordinate. Her ability to tank meant that she remained my companion for most of the story unless I needed a healer or wanted to hear the unusually cheerful “Here, Sir!” of Ensign Raina Temple nearly every time I summoned her. By the time I met my second tanking companion, I had almost completed the third and final chapter of my Agent’s pre-expansion class story. I ended up finishing it off just in time for the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire in which all companions can fulfill all roles and no longer derive statistical gains from their equipment.

Cue the flood of female companions tanking snow beasts on Hoth in their bikini dancer outfits.

Kira Carsen in action.
“Eat lightsaber, jerk!” One of many reasons why Padawan Kira Carsen was my companion of choice for the entirety of the Jedi Knight story.

The accelerated pace afforded by the 12x experience available to subscribers prior to the release of 4.0 meant that I could experience the class stories of my choosing in a reasonable amount of time. Anyone with enough time to spare could have completed levels 1-50 (Chapters 1-3) on any given class in a single day. My somewhat shorter play sessions meant that I required roughly a week each for my Jedi and Agent. I also took the time to get the other six available classes off of their starting planets. If I had much more time and 12x experience were still around, I’d probably seriously think about completing the Smuggler and Sith Warrior class stories as well. Instead, I took the time to watch Chapter 1-3 for the six classes I wasn’t interested in on YouTube at 2x speed without loss of comprehension. Can’t say the same for interest, in some cases.

As it is, the new post-4.0 experience rates for subscribers, while noticeably more generous than those for non-subscribers, make leveling up somewhat more deliberate. Flashpoints (instanced four-player content), which were previously level-restricted, are now “tactical” and scale you to an appropriate level. This is as it should be. Numerous other improvements and quality of life features were added, none of which I’m terribly interested in at the moment as I’ve decided that this is a good stopping point prior to my subscription running out eleven days hence. We are presently beset with a cornucopia of spooky offerings in Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, WildStar, and elsewhere, not to mention the smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt launch of Heart of Thorns.

I enjoyed my time in the story, less so in the game. Star Wars: The Old Republic is really nothing new to anyone who’s played World of Warcraft before: if you like tab targeting and hotbars but prefer droids and blasters to orcs and elves, then SW:ToR is your playground. PvP was, as it usually is, a visceral and thrilling experience. Otherwise I found myself wishing that I could simply skip the in-between bits which invariably had me disabling shield generators of all shapes and sizes prior to returning to the story bits. No, I don’t want to do another load of laundry before I can turn the page, thank you.

Kira and Kelestria in a loot-cave,
“Kira, dear, I’m going to need you to run back to the spaceship and do the dishes before we proceed to the next level of this instance.”

The upshot was that I paid a month’s subscription for 30-40 hours of story. It’s not terribly different from having purchased Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition, I suppose, with the caveat that DA:I completely does away with gender-locked romance options. (Getting a smooch from Lemda Avesta in Chapter 4 of the Republic story is hardly a whirlwind affair.) I am perfectly happy with this financial decision. Once my subscription has lapsed I should have enough Cartel Coins to un-hamstring the characters of my choosing on my Preferred Status account. I may end up letting the Star Wars universe percolate in the background for a while; it took a bit of doing to get myself to pony up the money for a month’s non-cheapskate status in the first place after witnessing first-hand the extent to which programmers had been made to remind non-subscribed players that equipping purple-text equipment modifications without the corresponding “authorization” from the cash shop to the tune of 1200 Cartel Coins (approximately USD$13.33) would make them less effective and then, once equipped (which was allowed in-game), literally make their characters far less effective. How wretched. I would have to have a rather compelling reason to dedicate more time or especially money to this proposition.

It’s apparently a running joke that SW:ToR is an excellent single-player MMO. I would have to agree. I am not the only person to independently come to the conclusion that they intended to play the game primarily (or solely) as a single-player story experience. It’s not my fault they made three or four really good stories and slapped a bucket list of MMO features on top of them. It is my fault, however, for disappearing into a rabbit hole for over a month and ignoring everything else, including games with things I like (fewer/no levels, limited skill bars, action combat). At least with Star Wars I knew when to stop and didn’t complain too much. Going to pat myself on the back for that one.

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Jedi Knight Meets Star Destroyer

Nights in the Old Republic

I’ve recently undertaken a comprehensive program of treatment designed to remedy my historical lack of gaming breadth. The cure involves researching new games on a regular basis, selecting suitable candidates, and playing them daily for a minimum of one week. Having done so, I then catalog my experiences and make a decision as to whether to continue playing based on a thorough review of existing literature combined with several hours of meditation on my play sessions.

Yeah, right. It was on a whim that I downloaded and started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

When I first loaded up the game client, I was under the false impression that I had never been particularly attached to the Star Wars universe. I watched the opening cinematic and found myself as close to being enthralled as one can come in the mundane world of interminable parenthood. In an instant, memories of my childhood came back to me: Star Wars action figures, the Millenium Falcon under the Christmas tree, my sister’s Ewok tree fortress, and an insatiable hunger for watching movies that I had already seen dozens of times.

I remember at one point having watched Return of the Jedi thirty-seven times and eagerly anticipating the thirty-eighth viewing. I was utterly delighted when my aunt one evening threw a bag of licorice in my lap and took me to see it at the theater. Lightsabers and blasters lit up my dreams that night.

Nowadays I don’t remember terribly much of the plot beyond the major thematic arcs. The Old Republic’s opening cinematic recalled the raw thrill of suspense, intrigue, and action I had first experienced over three decades ago. I can genuinely appreciate the exorbitant amount of money spent creating the game and its wealth of cinematics and cutscenes. While I may be a responsible, financially accountable adult these days, I’m not particularly concerned with whether the development studio was able to recoup its production costs – somewhere, someone else is getting paid to care about that. Meanwhile, I’m dreaming the day away in a fictional universe that has been providing an unexpectedly fertile backdrop for my Force-infused imaginings. It seems I’d forgotten that I was a child, once.

I’m assuming that most of the people reading this are familiar with Star Wars: The Old Republic already, if not intimately so. This relieves me of the burden of having to recapitulate the basics of the game’s rather uninspired tab-targeting combat in which the imposing cinematic figures cut by its villains (or heroes, depending on your perspective) are brought back down to space as they stand atop you while firing their blaster or swinging their lightsaber every three seconds. I likewise have no intention of engaging in a lengthy discussion of the flaws I perceive in their implementation of free-to-play. To put things in context, however, I will mention that I’m doing all of these things on a Free account. At some point I may spend five dollars on Cartel Coins to achieve Preferred status if only to stem the tide of insidious reminders that I am still a cheapskate after having been afforded the privilege of playing the game for several hours. In the meantime, I’m going about my business with nary a care in the world – least among them is the monetization of fun. The game’s got my imagination running, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Coruscant

It should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with my character creation habits that the extensive race-locking in place for non-subscribers did not at all affect my ability to create human females from here to infinity. After five minutes of playing with the customization options, I hit upon a combination that “stuck” and joined the legions of Jedi Knights who had come before me.

I’ve since made it through the starting area of Tython and have moved on to a place called Coruscant. Between there and here, I didn’t so much mind having the story interrupted by frequent commercial breaks. The animation of my lightsaber and the accompanying sounds are satisfying embellishments on the press-button-receive-damage combat mechanics. More delightful, however, are the conversation options offered by the majority of the individuals with whom you interact. While the choices you make in your engagements with minor characters ultimately amount to no more than using a different set of stepping stones to get from one side of the river to the other, navigating through the dialogue branches “in character” for the first time has an intoxicating appeal that would be completely rubbished by treating the game as a leveling race.

The allure of these options was so strong that I ended up creating an Imperial Agent in my second character slot just to see things from the other side. This is saying quite as a bit as I normally have very little capacity for playing characters who are not on the “right side” of things. My Agent was given her own unique look within the parameters of my constrained aesthetic sensibilities to distinguish her from her chaste, do-gooding Jedi counterpart.

The choice of Jedi as a first character should be quite understandable. I chose an Imperial Agent as my second character for two reasons: first, the Agent’s story is consistently praised by narrative enthusiasts for its quality and the impact of the player’s choices; second, the appeal of dodge-rolling into cover and blasting away with a laser rifle at range speaks to me much more than shooting lightning from my fingertips, plinking away with comparatively weak pistols, or assuming the role of a run-of-the-mill backstabber in a world of high fidelity science fiction. Having been delivered unto the planet Hutta bearing an appearance and moral compass which reflect her imperial, British-“accented” upbringing, I found my alternate self gravitating toward the Light Side choices my Jedi would make reflexively with the caveat that I have the freedom to interact with those I meet without restraint.

Imperial Agent

Whereas my goal as a Jedi is to thus walk a path of serenity and peace, killing where I must but otherwise comporting myself as my ideal self would in an ideal world, my goal as an Agent is to be an asshole to everyone I see. At the same time, I’m making a meta-game out of not killing anyone unless they really, really piss me off. So far, I think I’ve done a good job of it: I bullied a hostage-taker into releasing a captive by threatening to shoot him in the face without actually doing so; later, I went to find a husband who had taken his son and fled from his angry wife. He was supposed to have taken his young progeny to Korriban with him so that they could both train to become Sith. Father ended up running away because being powerful and evil is hard and his wife was not amused that her son was not going to grow up to be an unstoppable badass. So, I went and found them hanging out in some random space building and instead of taking the Dark Side option which would have meant murdering Father in front of his son, I told them to get the hell out and never come back. I then reported back to Mother and told her that I had killed her husband and put her son on a ship to Korriban. Without blinking, she voiced her approval and paid up.

Apparently you have to make efforts to distinguish yourself as a psychopath in these parts. Everyone I meet melts like butter when I start talking tough, though. I had decided against simply murdering all those who were unfortunate enough to encounter me after watching a YouTube video in which a Sith Warrior chooses the slaughter option every time it’s available. This particular character chose to display the effects of the Dark Side on their face which had the comical effect of making them look like the Joker from Batman. There’s no nuance in being a murder-clown, I decided, so I’ll let my words be my primary weapon against anyone who isn’t looking to put me in the ground.

It’s the substance of my words rather than their inflection that causes those who cross me or stand in my way the most consternation. I find the subtle expressiveness of British voice actress Jo Wyatt’s Imperial Agent to be quite endearing. The American accent of my Agent’s undercover persona is technically perfect; it is only when I don a pair of headphones and listen carefully that I’m able to chart the contours of her practiced pronunciation. Likewise, the steadfast warmth conveyed by American voice actress Kari Wahlgren’s Jedi Knight enabled me to bond with my character much in the same way that April Stewart’s strong, confident human female endeared me to my Mesmer in Guild Wars 2. It was perhaps because I had already heard Ms. Wahlgren’s voice that I found comfort in its inexplicable familiarity: she is also the voice of Guild Wars 2’s Caithe as well as a handful of minor characters and vendors.

It’s the production value, then, that has sold me on first-person participation. I can re-imagine my childhood in a familiar world whose distance is measured in time despite being set in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve briefly reviewed the stories behind the game’s other classes and could quite honestly see myself playing through them as well if I had an infinity of lifetimes to work with. (Watching them on YouTube only whets the appetite.) For now, I’m busying myself with what I consider to be the gems of the collection: the experiences that speak to me.

There’s something to be said for recapturing that child-like sense of wonder uncomplicated by knowing too much. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. Right now, I’m quite content.