"...having to make real decisions that will affect your own growth and how others perceive you is thought-provoking and rewarding."
Since its launch in 2011, Star Wars: The Old Republic has seen its share of changes. Originally promoted as an MMORPG with BioWare-caliber storytelling and player decisions, the game has taken on a slightly different direction in the years since. With four expansions and updates that focused on MMO standards like large-scale PVP and player housing, The Old Republic has remained popular.
That said, BioWare is looking to return to their original vision for the game in this fall's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, with a return to the storytelling, player choice, and cinematic flair that BioWare is known for. We got to spend a little bit of time with the expansion at E3, and if what we saw is any indication, BioWare's goals may very well be realized. We got to see several story sequences, interspersed with battles. There was definitely a strong cinematic feel to the cutscenes, much more than you typically see in an MMORPG. It's a combination of things that are commonplace in movies, but less so in games, especially online ones. The camera movement, natural dialogue, and interesting characters are all nicely atypical for an MMORPG, and left me wanting to see more.
Decisions in conversation and actions can and will have drastically different results. Remember in the old days of many RPGs when someone would ask you a yes or no question, and saying "no" just prompted dialogue such as "Oh come on, you can't be so heartless. Please say yes!" It was the illusion of choice, which made it feel like there was really nothing you could do to affect the outcome. In our time with Knights, our protagonist was asked by his rescuer/companion to make a choice: Make an escape on a flying vessel or head back into certain doom to prevent a reactor from exploding. This isn't a "do you want to save the world or not?" kind of choice, where there's a clear right and wrong answer. Both of these have risks: For your own sake, you should run, since there's far too many people searching for you that you'll certainly be noticed. On the other hand, letting the reactor blow will undoubtedly injure and kill dozens (or more) people. Just to show us the ramifications, our hosts chose to run. This choice increased our reputation with our companion, who was insistent that we leave, and not be concerned with the lives of the innocent. At the same time, the protagonist lost points in what I believe was reputation or compassion, or similar. Oh, and a bunch of people did indeed die. Luckily, we escaped either way. At least, after a cool Force-powered battle with Vaylin, who still managed to catch up to us.
It was only a small snippet of a larger story, but it was entertaining, and having to make real decisions that will affect your own growth and how others perceive you is thought-provoking and rewarding. It's commonplace in BioWare — and other Western devs' — games, but it's great to see in an MMORPG, which typically aren't known for overly compelling storytelling (even if they have mountains of lore).
Speaking of story, in the months leading up to Knights of the Fallen Empire's release, the existing game will see an important update. Since the expansion will raise the level cap, BioWare wants to make the new content more accessible to both new and current players. As a result, players will now be able to progress through the first 50 levels exclusively through story content, without being required to take on a wealth of side content to hit the level cap. This is almost exactly what Square Enix just did with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn with the release of Heavensward, and its a welcome trend in a game like this that's really pushing story content. It means Star Wars fans who might have been averse to grinding out optional content to see the story can now focus on what they really want.
Knights of the Fallen Empire looks to be a fairly long-term expansion, with story broken up into TV show-like chapters, to be released over time. The first "season" will span sixteen chapters, most of which should be available near launch, with others following. Past these chapters, it seems there's more planned to be revealed at a later date. It's an interesting approach to story content, not unlike Guild Wars 2's ever-expanding story.
While this expansion — The Old Republic's largest yet — launches on October 27th, BioWare is offering perks to those who start playing before that. The game's early access period runs from July 31 to October 19, and by subscribing during this time, a new reward is added each month, such as having gunslinger Nico Okarr at your side as a companion, a unique blaster set, coat, and a slick Swoop Bike mount. While each of these is "unlocked" about a month apart, they won't be available until the expansion actually releases.
While we didn't get to get incredibly in-depth with Knights during E3, what we saw was enough to make us believe BioWare has a good chance of living up to its promise of a "return to BioWare cinematic storytelling," and we'll be looking forward to it.