Thursday, August 27, 2009

Skipping pillars

Imagine that in some MMORPG at the start of a combat you could hit the ESC key and by that way skip all the boring details of the fight, and fast forward directly to the end, with you having lost some health and mana, and the mob lying in front of you, dead and looted. Ridiculous idea, combat is one of the pillars of MMORPG gameplay, skipping combat makes no sense at all.

Now Bioware claims that in Star Wars: The Old Republic storytelling will be another pillar, as important as combat. But people definitely have a habit of skipping storytelling in previous games. If SWTOR tells you the quest text with voice acting, will you be able to hit the ESC key and skip it? And if that functionality isn't in the game, will players demand it?

The new SWTOR gameplay trailer shows how this voice acting works in a bit more detail. Fortunately it isn't just one long droning quest text, but there is some dialogue, with dialogue options. But if you look closer, you'll wonder whether these "options" really influence anything in EVERY dialogue. They sure do in some dialogues, but when you see the developers point out especially how in this one dialogue with the captain you can choose to kill him or cooperate with him, then what about the previous dialogues? There is a scene in the trailer where the bounty hunter has dialogue options like "I'm just here for the money" and "I'm just here to kick ass and chew bubblegum". Now theoretically that could influence the quest reward, giving more money in one case, more bubblegum in the other. But I have a faint suspicion that these dialogue options are just for fluff. You get to choose what your character says, but the quest afterwards proceeds exactly the same way whatever you say. Between you clicking for the first time on the quest NPC and you finally having the quest in your log and leaving there might be several minutes of voice acting dialogue with no consequence, and one could well imagine that some people would prefer that ESC key to skip it. So if people want to skip storytelling, but not combat, is storytelling really such a pillar?

By the way, 20-minute, 4-part trailer then proceeds to show SWTOR combat. Which, predictably, looks very nice, and starwarsy. I couldn't really get all that excited about the dev telling us how the warrior has this wonderful charge ability, as I'm already playing a warrior who has charge, even if it doesn't involve jumping through the air and wielding light sabers. Looking at the UI I saw, predictably again, that combat will involve clicking on an enemy, and then using hotkey buttons to launch a range of special abilities, different from class to class. Now which previous MMORPG did I see a similar system in? Oh yeah, I remember: All of them! It worried me a bit that in the part which supposedly was "high level combat", the character had a choice of a grand total of six different buttons to press, but then I thought that this is probably just the early version, and there will be many more abilities in the final game. So all in all, combat looks good, appears to be solid, but doesn't offer much in the way of innovation, apart from a cover system for smugglers. I'm looking forward to SWTOR, but sooner or later somebody will call it "WoW in space" or "WoW with jedis" or something like that, and Richard Bartle will say "I already played SWTOR, it was called WoW", and we'll have that whole discussion again about how different a MMORPG has to be before you can consider it innovative.

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