What more games should be learning from GW/GW2.

Recently, I played the beta test weekends for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now, before I say anything about the game, let me make it clear that I am a huge, huge Star Wars fan. I love Star Wars, I grew up with the movies, I’ve played most of the SW video games that have released and read a great number of the books.

That said, I am not the sort of fan that holds something to a “can do no wrong” standard. I have no problems criticizing something I am a fan of. I’ve done it many a time before to things within the Star Wars universe. So, with that said. Did TOR live up to my expectations?

Sadly, the answer is yes, as I didn’t have high expectations for it in the first place. Initially I did – I thought it looked amazing and that it’d be a blast…and then as they released more and more information about it, and it began to look more and more bland. And the final product just couldn’t be more generic.

The entire time I was playing, I couldn’t help but constantly think “Guild Wars did this better”, or “Guild Wars 2 is doing this better”. Now, of course, most of these failings are just endemic to the MMO genre and are not unique to TOR – you could insert any game (WoW, Everquest, LOTRO, Rift, FFXI) in here for most of the points and it remain the same. TOR played up how it was going to be different a lot at first, though, and obviously fell way short of that.

Not to mention the fact that with Star Wars? They easily could have afforded to branch out and do new things. Instead, they decided to go the safe route.

So what were the glaring things I noticed that they could have learned to do better from GW/GW2?

Don’t lock race/species selection to class.

So, GW2 has eight professions and five races. TOR has eight professions and nine races. You’d think that TOR would allow more variety in what you can create?

Well, you’d be wrong. Each class in TOR is limited to a choice between five races (for the most part, I believe one or two of them were limited to only four). A couple of the choices make sense – the Sith race and Rattataki being restricted to Sith/Imperial options, for example. But the rest? Initially it was justified in that your race would influence the starting story. However, as it has turned out…it doesn’t. The only thing I noticed was a single dialogue option in a sidequest if you were a Sith Sith (sounds redundant). That’s it.

I myself had wanted to make a Mirialan Bounty Hunter, as I have an RP character that is a Mirialan bounty hunter that works for the Empire. Bounty Hunter is an Imperial character class. Score! Or, well, not. Because for some unknown reason, you cannot create a Mirialan Bounty Hunter. Nor can you make a Twi’lek Agent, or a Mirakulan Smuggler…and if you want to be a Sith Warrior? Hope you like humans.

Whereas in GW2…while NPCs for the most part will only be of certain race/profession combos, for your character, you can pick whatever you want. Want to make a sylvari Engineer, or asura Warrior, or charr Elementalist? Go for it. You’re not locked down to a specific role. Nor should you be. You’re playing as a hero, and heroes are allowed to defy the norm.

Make the races actually look different.

Oooooh boy. Now, in TOR, the races you can select from (human, Mirialan, Miraluka, Twi’lek, Zabrak, Cyborg, Chiss, Rattataki, and Sith pureblood) are all…very human-like. Cyborg is simply a human with some cybernetic mods, and the others are all either humanoid or near-human.

Unfortunately, TOR also tends to keep the customization choices between them nearly the same…to see what I mean, here’s a video I made of the main character creation options. I did not record body type, complexion, eye color, or for most skin tone, and after a while I started leaving out scar options as they are the same across everything (except female Rattataki and male Twi’lek…which also have the same options).

Now, compare that to GW2′s character creator…and keep in mind that this video is from the demo at Gamescom, and isn’t even close to what will be available upon completion.

Across each gender, with only a few exceptions, the faces, hair, and scars are all the same. The only thing that differentiates, say, a human and a Mirialan is the skintone and tattoos. Cyborgs get some metally bits attached to them but otherwise are identical to humans. And the ones that do look the most different from humans have the fewest options available to customize them. Essentially, there’s nothing to set your character apart from another. The most annoying thing about this is that there are clearly models available of less humanoid races in the game – some of the NPCs I came across included Togrutas, Rodians, Nautolans, Kel Dors, Cathars…they’re just not available for play.

Whereas, in GW2…each race looks drastically different. They each have very, very different options for customization. And it will be very easy to create a character that stands apart from others.

Make the gameplay interesting.

TOR’s gameplay is okay. It’s not bad. It’s not great, though, either. It’s just…very generic. Essentially, it plays exactly like WoW. There’s stuff everywhere for you to shoot at/hit with a lightsaber. Hit enough things, you go up a level.

…okay, so every game ever basically plays that way. The problem with TOR is that the gameplay essentially does not ever change from that. Not only that, but you can go through everything just mashing the number 1 on your keyboard. Sure, there are other skills, but your most basic one, the first you learn, is strong enough to see you through pretty much anything.

Enemy groups you also fight are nothing to write home about. Nearly every group is made up of three enemies, at a level where chances are likely you won’t have to break a sweat to kill them, and they never do anything special. They just shoot at or hit you until you kill them.

The leveling mechanic is also quite dull – you level up, you go see your trainer to buy a new skill. You never have any options as to what you want to get, though. You’re just limited to one or two skills. Your class dictates your playstyle 100%, and the only time you get any real choice over this is when you hit level 10 and go to choose your advanced class. Then, you’ve got a few skill trees you can put points into. Choose wisely, though, as you cannot ever change your advanced class once chosen, and while you can re-spec your skill trees, doing so isn’t free and gets increasingly expensive.

In Guild Wars, enemy groups tend to have at least some variety. They can vary in size – anywhere from 1 to about 8 or 9, vary in profession, even vary in species. Some can be very easy, some can be very hard. Sure, there are a lot of people who claim over and over that GW is easy…but it’s really only easy when you’ve been playing for a long time and know how to perfectly synergize a party build and take advantage of AI limitations. For most people, that’s not the case. Some of it can indeed be quite difficult. And while, sure, you can stick with the same build throughout…not even the vaunted Necro/Mesmer/Ritualist setup will work at peak efficiency everywhere.

Leveling is also different, as we all know. It doesn’t really matter, for starters, and you hit max level fairly quickly. It gains you attribute and skill points, and you can spec your attributes any way you want and spend those skill points on any skills you’ve unlocked thus far. Changing your attributes and skill bar is easy and can be done at any time while you’re in a town or outpost; changing your secondary profession is equally easy past a certain point. Experimentation is encouraged and each person will wind up developing their own playstyle.

Guild Wars 2 will be even more dynamic in this; the level cap is higher, but they’ve stated that when you’re at level 75 it won’t be any harder to gain a level than it was at level 5; it’s still not terribly important. You learn weapon skills by using a weapon a few times. And you can change your skills on the fly just by swapping to another weapon set – and in fact this will be a very important part of playing the game.

Also, as far as the story goes, make it actually relevant to the gameplay. Fetch quests and “go kill x of y” are not fun. There’s the occasional fetch quest in GW, but for the most part, that sort of questing is absent from GW, because it’s pointless. The instancing in the first game made it so. TOR’s quests, though, all tend to boil down to just that.

Make it feel like it matters that there are other people around.

For all that TOR is an open world and there are other people running around everywhere, it doesn’t really feel like they actually matter. NPCs in the game will make comments like “Oh, it’s good to see another Padawan!” to you, despite the fact that there are…dozens of other Padawans running around, and oftentimes other players are just going to wind up being an annoyance or a hindrance to you, as you wait for something to respawn that someone else get to before you did. You can group up, but there’s really no point in doing so except for Flashpoints, which essentially require you to group, and nothing in the world reacts to others being around.

Guild Wars 2 is not going to work that way. The dynamic quest system makes it so that the difficulty of a quest will change, depending on how many people are actively participating in the area. While there will be things like crafting and the like, you won’t have to camp out around a node waiting for it to regenerate for you to use; you can use it and it will still be readily available for the next person to come along. And no need to worry about someone coming along and ganking your kill (and loot!) – anyone that participates in a fight will get goodies, depending on how much they had participated.

Make it seem like your actions actually mean something.

TOR is a heavily instanced game; as each profession has it’s own storyline, this makes sense. But there is also no phasing to the game – everything else is 100% persistent. This means that what you do has no actual effect on the world. Kill as many fleshreavers as you want – it won’t ever make a difference. They’ll still keep coming.

Guild Wars allows you some effect on your world – as it’s all instanced, things can be tailored to you. Completing quests can make it so that certain enemies do not ever spawn in an area again; active quests can make it so certain NPCs appear in an area while you’re completing that quest. GW2 will go even further with that, with the dynamic quest system. Stuff will happen and depending on how successful people are in responding, things will change and a new line of quests will spawn. Of course, these won’t necessarily be permanent changes, as that would be unfair on anyone who missed out (or if a particular quest was won, and people wanted to try the quest line spawned by losing that first one), but the effects of your actions will be seen pretty clearly.

If you’re going to claim something, try and live up to it.

TOR and GW2 are both games that have made the claim of being fully voiced. But…just how well do they live up to these claims?

TOR is, indeed, fully voiced. What little that is voiced, anyway. Some random NPCs you go up to might have a line of greeting for you (much like the NPCs in Eye of the North). Most will just completely and totally ignore you. The only thing that’s really voiced are cutscenes. And, well, there are a lot of them. Every single quest you try and pick up or turn in means you have to go through a minute long (at least!) cutscene. Double that with loading times…and yeah, it gets tiresome.

On the flipside, and this is where GW2 is really going to shine, I think, in TOR? I noticed almost no background chatter. During the smuggler starting quests I noticed some guys sitting outside of the spaceport that’d start (belatedly) chatting as you’d run by, but that’s it. Despite the fact that the world is actually quite populated (people everywhere, and not just players!), it all felt very sterile. Certainly not alive at all. Compare that to GW2 videos that’ve been shown so far of running around cities and constantly hearing background talking and noise…there’s no doubt which game feels more alive.

There’s probably more I could write about here. I barely touched the story aspect of the games, being as I didn’t really get far in the stories in TOR (the sidequests rather overwhelmed the main plot I found, anyway) and we don’t know too much about the plot in GW2 yet. And TOR did do some things well – while I dislike the standard “morality wheel” for your dialogue choices and a lot of the light/dark choices were very arbitrary and made no sense, they did have some great characterization available (several responses or conversations made me laugh out loud).

But as a whole…it felt too much like things I’ve played before, and disliked. The MMO genre is stagnating, has been rather stagnant for quite some time. I believe that initially BioWare had intended to try and do something different with TOR, and while I don’t like them as a developer anyway, I do not believe they’re 100% responsible for the resulting genericness of the game; I feel that EA had a pretty big hand in that.

At the same time, though, I just can’t help it. I look at what TOR could have been, the potential it had, and can’t help but be disappointed that it fell so short and they went for being just another clone. Combined with excitement over the new things that GW2 is aiming to do…and I think it’s pretty clear which game is doing the right things, and that more developers should be paying attention to and learning from.