Tales From the Backlog: The Fresh Allure of The Old Republic

Huge multiplayer online games and I don’t get along very well.  Part of it is just the nature of the netcode: that feeling of rough approximation in every interaction.  Environments have improbable proportions, with every hovel an airplane hangar and every footpath a runway so that potentially hundreds of inhabitants can maneuver in peace.  Character progression is metered out very slowly in the hopes of keeping players reaching for the next prize as long as possible.

Mostly though, I’m just a big narcissist.

And why shouldn’t I be?  Can you name anyone else who’s saved Icewind Dale, Gotham City, and the Capital Wasteland from horrible threats?  Anyone who can outfly Kilrathi, Shivan, and Cardassian aces by the squadron?  Who else can raid tombs, manage cities, and single-handedly save the president’s daughter from cultist zombie parasites in their spare time?

If you answered some combination of “Yes,” “Me,” and “Everyone,” thanks for ruining the illusion.  Jerk.  Next you’ll probably tell me that you did some of those things without dying, or in half the time, or with every possible bit of side content completed on the way.

Because, of course, millions of people have bested these challenges.  Most of them were way better at them than me, too.  We’ve got a few thousand of them registered on our forums right now, and scores more out there blogging, screenshotting, podcasting, and chatting about their accomplishments.  It’s a vast community brimming with opinions and advice, and the great majority of my gaming adventures are made on the direct recommendations of others who’ve already trod those paths.

The difference in persistent online games is that the footsteps I’m following were laid down by the guy visibly right in front of me.  There he is, turning in the eight splinterweeds I was told were critical to the survival of the feywild.  And again, slaying the vicious kobold terror I was begged to kill.  Thank god I’ll just have to wait a few minutes until it respawns, fresh new head on its shoulders, pacing around the back of that tree until a statistically adequate hero comes along to save the town again.  I just have to get him ahead of the person coming up behind me.

I already know my virtual exploits are not unique.  MMOs sacrifice the mirage that they’re even perceptible.  Any game can be erased and restarted – Capcom’s Resident Evil: The Mercenaries excepted – but here is only genre in the industry where I am confronted with the fruits of my labor being ungrown in real time.  If a raid boss falls in the fracas and your speakers are turned off, does it make a noise?  What is the sound of one alt crafting?

This is the existential abyss that eventually pushes me out of even the most precisely calibrated online game.  With no narrative to pursue, no agency over the environment, and no particular interest in signing on with a guild of strangers to grind out endgame encounters, the naked game mechanics leave me cold by a third of the way towards the level cap.

It’s also why I carry such high hopes for Bioware’s The Old Republic.  Everyone assures me it’s the MMO for people who don’t like MMOs.  They say every character class gets their own story: a full cinematic arc with all the NPC interactions, moral choices, and quality voice work you’d expect from the creators of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and an understanding of the source material we haven’t seen since…well, Bioware’s last Star Wars game.  I’ve even heard the nickname KOTOR3 tossed around.  It’s a bold claim, but if even one of the class storylines can evoke that degree of personal engagement for me, this visit to the world of online games would be a smashing success.

So just after this, I’ll be taking my first steps into a modern online-only game by rolling up a Republic Trooper.  Choosing an average rank-and-file soldier in a universe brimming with telekinetic swordsmen and seething mystics might seem like a mundane choice, but the least iconic class really is the one I’m most interested in playing.

I guess when everyone else has superpowers, he just seems the least forgettable.

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