Last week, MMOBomb was invited to a media presentation and follow-up Q&A session with the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic. With the newest expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire, now just a week away, the team took the time to give us the lowdown on the expansion’s new features and answer a few questions about this exciting new chunk of content.
Story for all
The new enemy facing both the Republic and the Sith is the Eternal Empire, a force that swept in after the Galatic Civil War and dominated both of the player factions, who were weakened after spending so long fighting each other.
“What makes me the most excited is how we’ve evolved the storytelling for the game,” said Lead Writer Charles Boyd. “We wanted to make it as accessible as we could.” He doesn’t mean “MMO accessible,” as in “easy gameplay,” but rather the accessibility of the story itself. The team’s goal is to produce a story that will be memorable to any Star Wars fan, “the quintessential Star Wars story, like you’re Anakin or Luke, tempted by the Dark or Light side. It’s been our goal from minute one to make you feel like the hero of a Star Wars story.”
One of those early temptations comes in the form of a cut scene we viewed, where you have to make the decision to let a reactor blow up and escape cleanly or try and prevent it from exploding. Your Dark side companion understandably wants to GTFO, while your Light side companion – who’s from the planet being endangered – wants you to save lives. Your choices could lead to one of those companions deserting you down the road.
Choices that matter – no, really, we mean it!
“Knights of the Fallen Empire is a passion project for our team,” said Senior Producer Bruce Maclean. The goal of the expansion was to “engage with and learn from our players. Players want more story, BioWare-style story with choices that matter.”
“Choices that matter” is a dangerous buzzword in MMOs. On the one hand, yes, we do want our actions to impact both our characters and our world, but when you have a persistent world with thousands or millions of players participating, making actual changes can invalidate content or make things worse for our characters. Blowing up Alderaan might seem cool, but not to players who had their housing there.
It turns out that, in the course of the Fallen Empire story, companions can leave you, and they’ll be unavailable for the rest of that story. But don’t worry – you’ll still have access to anyone you’ve recruited for other parts of the game. So go ahead and ruthlessly murder people in front of your Jedi knight friend – she’ll still be there for you later.
That’s if you can find her in the first place. At the beginning of the story, you’ve been frozen in carbonite for five years and in the meantime, “many people presumed you dead. You may find that former allies have moved on with their lives.” And, this being an MMO, many of them have probably been nerfed. By actual nerf-herders.
For your newer companions, they’re more fully incorporated into the main story, “making them key players in the story, not just tagalongs that occasionally pipe up,” You’ll have to go out and actively recruit them, and sometimes things won’t go as planned. I wasn’t able to quite get a handle on what the dev team was saying – they were trying to dance around spoilers, I’m sure – but it almost sounded like you could conceivably fail at recruiting, again feeding into that “choices that matter” paradigm. Just the notion of having some potential differences in our teams makes the game seem much more of an individual experience and does a nice job of fulfilling that “choices that matter” promise.
The play’s the thing
Of course, storytelling is only one part of an MMO; it still has to play well, and one of the other people on our call voiced a concern that, with all the focus on individual stories that the MMO-ness of the game would suffer as a result.
BioWare’s focused on that, as well, and is making many changes to the game with KotFE’s release, not all of which are popular with all fans. One of the most controversial is level syncing, which will downlevel characters to the level of the area or instance they’re going to so that those areas can provide some challenge.
“What this allows you to do is play alongside your friends,” Maclean explained. Now that flashpoints and other content are available to all players, regardless of level, and even solo, “we’ve embraced the strengths of our MMO roots and improved them across the board, while still leading into these epic personal stories.”
“It’s all about eliminating the barriers to grouping,” added Senior Designer Michael Ammer. “One of the things that I’m personally very excited about is that we’ve completely overhauled our group finder, so tackling all those revamped flashpoints and operations is going to be easier than ever before.” It all comes down BioWare feeling that the benefits of level syncing – primarily meant to improve the game experience for newer players and their lower-level characters – is worth the issues some veteran players will have with it.
One other concern with “missing” companions is that you might lose one that fills a crucial role, such as healer. That’s also being reworked in KotFE, in that companions will be able to fill any role in a group, adding to their versatility and not shackling you to certain characters when you’d rather make other choices for flavor purposes.
While there are no new operations coming with the expansion, there will be new instanced spaces in the form of Star Fortresses. These are giant space stations, constructed by the Eternal Empire, with randomized elements and loot and “local flavor,” representing one of the six planets they’re orbiting. Your goal is to march in and, with the help of your trusty Sullustan shuttle pilot, hack into the Fortress’s core and destroy the reactor.
It’s not that easy, of course. At the heart of each Star Fortress is an exarch, a powerful Force-wielding supersoldier, who draws power from the station’s reactor. If you destroy the reactor, thus dooming the Fortress to an explosive demise, the exarch will be just a wee bit upset with you and try to “persuade” you – with a lightsaber and Force powers – to remain on board to die with it.
Knights of the Fallen Empire definitely looks to put more of an emphasis on story than previous SWTOR content – which wasn’t exactly story-light – so if you’re only interested in “pure” MMO content, like raids and tough group content, you might find it a bit lacking. But if you love Star Wars and love tooling around in the Star Wars universe, it looks like a great package.
Knights of the Fallen Empire launches Oct. 27 and is free to subscribers, with an early access period beginning today, Oct. 20.