SW:TOR: Thinking the Unthinkable

As you undoubtedly already know, Star Wars: The Old Republic is putting out a new expansion soon, Knights of the Fallen Empire. Normally this wouldn’t be huge news to those who aren’t die-hard fans of the game — SW:TOR has been cranking out expansions at a decent clip for a while now — but this one seems different.

A shot from the "Sacrifice" trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionI respect the steady pace of new expansions SW:TOR has managed, but part of their speed is due to their relatively small scale. Granted, I don’t play the game, but everything I’ve heard says that these expansions are really quite small, usually offering just one new feature or a handful of new zones (or such is my impression).

Knights of the Fallen Empire seems different. Bioware has found their ambition again, and while details on the exact content of the expansion are still scarce, it sounds like a massive shake-up to the game. Add to that a spectacular full cinematic trailer, and the hype train has left the station.

All this chatter has me considering something that until now had been unthinkable: Actually playing SW:TOR.

Where we stand:

Let’s start with why I’m not playing SW:TOR right now. Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my thoughts, but it’s been a while, so I’ll provide a refresher.

I don’t think SW:TOR is, at its core, a bad game. The mechanics are solid, if often uncreative, and it plays fine. Its most fundamental flaw is the God-awful graphics that make it look like Mr. Bumpy: The MMO.

My Imperial agent in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThat said, it’s not an especially memorable game, either. It suffers from the same problem so many MMOs had for so long: It’s basically WoW with a fresh coat of paint and one or two unique selling features.

In this case, the unique selling point was its commitment to story. The class stories were very high quality — as one would expect from Bioware — but copious voice acting wasn’t enough to make all the pointless “kill ten rats” side quests interesting.

Personally, I also quite liked the class design. The Imperial agent had a great combination of shooter and traditional MMO mechanics, and I swear I heard the Duel of the Fates start playing in my head during some fights on my Jedi.

But I didn’t find those things were enough to stop SW:TOR from feeling generic. As I’ve said before, when I want to play WoW, I’ll play WoW, and games that too closely ape its mechanics feel very tiresome to me.

And then there’s its oft-criticized free-to-play model. It’s some horrible Frankenstein creation where you still have to subscribe to enjoy the game properly, but the free option doesn’t even work as a trial because it makes the game so utterly miserable.

My Imperial agent pew pewing in Star Wars: The Old RepublicAnd then there’s my general ambivalence toward the Star Wars universe. Like most little boys, I loved Star Wars when I was a kid, but I outgrew it. Seen through an adult’s eyes, the movies are ridiculous cheesefests that are impossible to take seriously — yes, that includes the original trilogy; come at me, bro.

However, I do think it’s a great concept with enormous potential, and I’ve always felt the franchise could be magnificent if it was ever given over to someone who actually knew good-storytelling and cared about more than selling toys. I do not think JJ Abrams is that person.

This brings us to Knights of the Fallen Empire.

A new hope:

The thing being trumpeted from the rooftops about Knights is that it’s a return to Bioware’s roots, focusing on story above all other considerations. The meat of the expansion is a storyline making the player the hero of the galaxy in the face of a terrible new threat to Jedi and Sith alike, almost a new single-player RPG within the MMO. In fact, players will be literally unable to interact with their fellows through much of the storyline.

It’s hard not to see this as a tacit admission by Bioware that they should have stuck with what they do best — single-player RPGs. It does seem an attempt to excise the MMO from the RPG, and while I certainly sympathize with those who are upset by this, I think it’s a wise move. The consensus has long been that SW:TOR’s strength is its story and its weakness is all the parts where it tries to be an MMO, and my admittedly limited experience with the game aligns with this perception.

The Dark Temple in Star Wars: The Old RepublicIt’s not just the new content that’s different, though, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Bioware is also planning to revamp the entire game from top to bottom to focus on story-telling.

Unfortunately, the details on this are incredibly vague, and that does make me a bit suspicious. It could be as simple as retuning XP rewards so you can ignore side-quests.

It sounds like more, though. There’s a lot of talk of changing the game from the ground up to cut down on time wasted on travel and other pointless distractions — something the game badly needs.

One thing they have announced for sure is that leveling flashpoints (dungeons) will have the option to be played solo for the story, which is fantastic. Dungeons were one of the most obvious places in which Bioware’s attempts to marry single-player story to MMO mechanics fell flat on their face. You get outvoted, and your character ends up making a conversation choice you vehemently didn’t want while some bozo is constantly pestering everyone to just skip the cutscenes already.

All this talk of story first and solo-friendliness is music to my ears. I’ve always been someone who likes a little MMO in their RPG instead of a little RPG in their MMO, and it definitely does play to Bioware’s strengths. They’re good at story, and not much else.

My Imperial agent riding a speeder over the city in Star Wars: The Old RepublicIt also seems like perhaps the best chance I’ll ever have to experience Star Wars as the smart and powerful story it should be but isn’t.

But I do wonder how much they can really change about the core game, and then there’s still that wretched business model to consider.

You know what holds me back more than anything else? Emotes.

In SW:TOR, many emotes are locked out to non-subscribers, and there’s no way to unlock them other than subbing. I’m not talking about fancy, extra emotes — just standard stuff like /salute.

I’m not much of a role-player, and I don’t even use emotes that much, but it just seems like such a petty and asinine thing to do that it sours the whole game for me. I can live with greed, but that crosses the line from greed to spite.

Now, Knights is in some ways improving the business model. The expansion will have no box price. If you subscribe, you get access to it. Better yet, you’ll also get access to all past expansions, and you won’t lose access to any of that content even if your sub lapses.

Nobody likes being frozen in carboniteAll the other bad stuff about the business still applies, but that’s something. I have always felt that games should charge a box price or a sub price, but not both, so while SW:TOR has probably the worst F2P model, come Knights it will ironically have one of the best sub models.

I don’t like subscriptions, but I wouldn’t mind subscribing for the first few months while the new game smell is still strong. What happens after that worries me, though. I’m not willing to sub to any game indefinitely, least of all SW:TOR, and the free option is still a horror show.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I’m very much on the fence. On top of everything else, there is a huge glut of games I want to play right now, and with most of my time spent on looking for apartments lately, that backlog is only growing. On top of all the other things holding me back, Knights of the Fallen Empire has a lot of competition.

But still. The temptation won’t go away.

Heroes of the Storm: The Best Is Yet to Come

This is a post I’ve meant to do since Heroes of the Storm launched back in June, but between how hectic life has been and my surplus of topics to blog on, I just haven’t had the chance.

A cutscene from the tutorial for Heroes of the Storm, depicting a team of "good" heroesIt is often the case in the gaming community that one only hears about a game when there’s something wrong. And that’s perfectly understandable; it’s just human nature that the contended tend to stay quiet.

But today I’d like to talk about how very happy with the state of this game I am.

Coming into its own:

Now the funny thing is that in the weeks leading up to launch I was actually feeling pretty unhappy with Heroes of the Storm. After a nearly year of alpha and then beta testing, I was feeling pretty burnt out, and some of the game’s flaws had really started to get to me.

By far the biggest of these was the community, which I have complained about before. Even way back in closed alpha, the community was rampantly toxic, and it was only getting worse. Almost every game would devolve into pointless bickering, name-calling, and general ass-hattery. I could only imagine how bad things would get once the doors were opened to the public.

The other major issue was how often the game would match woefully imbalanced teams against each other. If your team has no support and the enemy team has Rehgar and Malfurion… well, you might still win, in the same sense you might win the lottery.

Johanna leads the charge on Garden of Terror in Heroes of the StormI exaggerate somewhat. I did win more than a few “no support versus supports” games, but the fact remains at that point you were at a major disadvantage, and it was mostly down to hoping the enemy team screws up — it was their game to lose.

And of course the two-issues feed each other. Go up against a much more powerful team, and you know your team is going to get frustrated and start slinging around blame, snark, and insults.

It got to the point where I was thinking I would probably have to give up on the game, as I always do with competitive gaming.

But then a few simple tweaks changed everything.

One was a change to the matchmaking logic. Under most circumstances, teams with no supports will no longer get matched against teams with one or more support character. You still get imbalanced match-ups, but it’s not nearly as common or as stark as it used to be.

The other, far more important change, is the option to disable in-game chat.

Thank you, Grilled Cheesus!This has made such an enormous difference in my enjoyment of the game. It’s taken so much stress away and allowed me to focus on how fun Heroes of the Storm actually is. Nothing’s enjoyable while you’re bombarded by the spittle-flecked ravings of a maladjusted man-child.

I think it’s even making me play better. Just after I disabled in-game chat, I went on a massive win streak, and even now, I still think I’m playing more effectively. I think the lack of extra stress and distractions is helping me focus on the game. Now I’m only fighting the enemy team, not my allies as well.

It is perhaps a bit sad that an ostensibly social game is best enjoyed by shutting off all communication with your fellow players, but such is the state of the gaming community. Since map pings are all you need as far as tactical communication goes, the truth is chat was almost never used for anything but trash talk anyway. Good riddance.

Of course, you can still play with chat turned on if you want.

You know. If you’re a masochist.

It’s amazing how much of a difference these two simple changes made. It totally refreshed my interest in Heroes, and I’m loving the game again.

The Eternal Conflict:

The Immortals clash on the Eternal Battleground map in Heroes of the StormHeroes has certainly not rested on its laurels. Shortly after launch, Blizzard embarked a huge, multi-week event with new maps, new skins, and new heroes (and treasure goblins): the Diablo-themed Eternal Conflict.

The star of this update is the new Eternal Battlegrounds map, which pits the forces of the High Heavens and the Burning Hells against each other.

I’m mostly happy with this map. It’s easily the most visually impressive map to date, and the eye for detail is impressive — even many sound-effects have been replaced with their Diablo equivalent.

It is a very intense map, and I do agree with the consensus that comebacks are very difficult, but overall I think it’s a strong addition. Certainly renews my faith after the blandness that is Tomb of the Spider Queen.

Also, it makes me glad to be a Jaina main. So many team fights in tight spaces, so many enemy teams bombed back to the Stone Age with blizzard…

Pushing the enemy base on the Eternal Battleground map in Heroes of the StormThere will be another Diablo-themed map before the Eternal Conflict event ends, but we don’t know anything about it yet.

As for heroes, Johanna (the Diablo III crusader) and the Butcher have already been released, Leoric the Skeleton King should be coming very soon, and the D3 monk is in production. Blizzard has said they’ll take a break from new Diablo characters after this, which is a bit disappointing because I want to see the wizard.

The Butcher hasn’t come up on the free rotation yet, so I haven’t tried him, but he seems to be in a good place where he’s very powerful, but he does have counters. I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a small nerf or two at some point, but I don’t think he’s terribly overpowered.

I’ve just started playing Johanna this week. I was curious about her because I love playing a crusader in D3 (much as I love badass ladies in armour, I’m still a little disappointed they chose Johanna instead of the Gideon Emery version), but I didn’t think I’d enjoy her much, because she’s very much the archetypical tank. She’s very slow and clumsy, and her damage is minimal, but she has a lot of crowd control and is possibly the hardest hero in the game to kill.

However, despite my dislike for the standard tank archetype, I find I’m loving playing Johanna. I think it’s just hard to resist a character that almost never dies. So many times over the past week, I’ve found myself in a situation that would be fatal to any other character, but Johanna just walks away unscathed. It makes the game very low stress.

Johanna the crusader in Heroes of the StormWith so little fear of death, you can really get into the thick of things and impose your will on enemies in a way you can’t as any other hero. Johanna might not be able to blow people up like Valla or Zeratul, but she can wear them down through sheer attrition, and nobody contests map objectives better.*

*(Well, except maybe Murky, depending on egg placement and whether or not it’s one of those “Durr, I’m a specialist; I don’t need to leave lane” players.)

The other day, I managed to almost single-handedly prevent an enemy team from capturing a tribute on Cursed Hollow for nearly five minutes, which is an eternity in a game like Heroes of the Storm.

And she does look very cool.

The future looks bright:

I remember the beta for Mists of Pandaria was very discouraging. Huge swathes of player feedback were ignored, and the expansion suffered badly from problems many of us had seen coming months before release.

Fine details on the Sky Temple map in Heroes of the StormPlaying Heroes of the Storm from alpha to release has been a starkly different experience. Almost every major complaint fans have had has been at least partially addressed, and the game has launched in a very strong state. It’s full of content, it’s easy to learn but still has depth, and it’s just plain fun.

Heroes still has problems, of course. I’m still not fond of having to unlock heroes, there are more than a few imbalanced characters, and I still loathe Dragonshire.

But right the game’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It’s a fast-paced, exciting game where epic comebacks and stunning reversals are always possible. It has a great sense of humour and a charming attention to detail, and it oozes nostalgia for us Blizzard fans.

As disaffected as I am with the state of World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm proves Blizzard is still capable of greatness, and I have tremendous optimism for the future of this game.

And this is all coming from someone who hates PvP and thinks MOBAs are boring.