Saturday, November 28, 2015

SWTOR: Knights of the Fallen Empire (Chapter 1-9)

Following her adventures on Rishi, Yavin 4, and Ziost, the time came for Eltaix the bounty hunter to move on to the latest Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) expansion: Knights of the Fallen Empire. Or at least the first part of it: at release, only the first 9 chapters (of 16 announced, and possibly more later) of the Knights of the Fallen Empire story were made available.

It's immediately clear that this is a different beast from the prior expansions. Starting the expansion story-line comes with a warning that you're about to leave everything and everyone behind. That's fairly rare in the MMO world but much more common in the single-player RPG genre. I've always considered SWTOR to be a marriage of the two. I've purposely focused on the RPG side up to this point, and Knights of the Fallen Empire certainly feels like it belongs on that side of the equation for the first 8 chapters.

Going through the story mission for this expansion resets the state of affairs in the galaxy. A new power, the Eternal Empire, is revealed and quickly becomes your primary adversary. The Jedi Republic and Sith Empire still exist, but the main conflict is no longer between those two, but rather both against the new threat. This isn't too surprising. From a story perspective, it follows fairly naturally after Republic/Empire cooperation against Revan. From a MMO mechanics perspective, it's pretty natural for developers to want to develop content in a way that allows them to address it to all players with minimal customization (as opposed to doing everything twice, once for each side). This reset also provides a easy starting point for new players, and that's reflected in the ability to create a character at level 60 and jump right into Knights of the Fallen Empire, rather than going through all the prior content first.

I was a bit sad to say goodbye to my ship and companions, particularly Mako, but such is the price of progress. I do like that I'm seeing a lot more of Lana Beniko, who played a big part in the Shadow of Revan story and is now one of my new companions. (Too bad they taught her how to comb her hair, though.) Other new companions are gathered along the way, very similar to the early-to-middle sections of the pre-expansion game, although more quickly.
Some of the new crew.
The way the story moves along in the first 8 chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire feels like it's entirely your personal story. Previously, you always had at least two stories to follow: your own, and whatever larger conflict was going on around you (usually specific to the current planet). This newest story-line doesn't bother separating the two. The same story-line addresses your own character development and the fate of the galaxy-spanning conflict with the Eternal Empire. It feels almost like watching a movie more than playing a game...albeit a movie with interaction points. That's not a bad thing, especially if you're in it for the single-player experience, but it is a bit jarring if you're expecting standard MMO gameplay. It actually feels strange to see other players in the few shared areas that you run across.

One benefit of this consolidated story-line is that there's little downtime between chapters. I rarely had to spend any time getting to the next area, though there still were a few places that required a whole lot of running around. I still wish mount-speed travel were available in some of the larger zones, but for the most part the back-and-forth-across-entire-planets annoyances are gone.

The here's-your-new-gear-for-the-new-expansion rewards were mostly useless to me this time. Perhaps because all the stuff I bought with data crystals was so good. Or maybe the gear power creep in this expansion isn't as bad. That would be nice; constantly rising power levels across expansions is one of my least favorite things about MMO mechanics.

The combat feels slightly more difficult than before, but not significantly so. I can still breeze through normal enemies, though I did find that in some locations it's no longer safe to run past enemies until they stop following you. I died in one swamp area because the population of the entire zone was on my tail by the time I got to the end point where I needed to stop. The bosses I encountered were occasionally tough enough to force me to switch my companion over from attack to healing mode, but none of them posed a significant challenge. (That companion healing was supposedly nerfed, but it still feels like god-mode to me.)

Then you get to chapter 9, and suddenly the game is an MMO again. Other players are everywhere and there's a bunch of things going on, not just your personal activities. You're thrown back into familiar territory, able to travel around to all your old stomping grounds in the Republic and Sith Empire. After a brief introduction to your new base and the group of revolutionaries that you now lead against the Eternal Empire, you're pretty much left to your own devices instead of being moved along by the story. They even give you back your ship, though not your companions. (Yet. There are certainly hints that they may be back.)

Your job is to gather allies to recruit from various Republic and Sith Empire worlds, and build up various aspects of your alliance: military, scientific, Force-wielders, and logistics. There are some story aspects to this, mostly in the ally-gathering which takes you around the galaxy, helping and/or threatening potential allies until they join you. Beyond that, though, progression is through a whole lot of daily or weekly missions, mostly to complete group-only or PvP objectives, which raise your influence with the various characters in your alliance. That sort of grind isn't why I'm playing the game.

So that's about it for my journey through SWTOR with Eltaix the bounty hunter, at least until more chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire are released. But I'm certainly not done with the game. Next, I think I need to try a Republic character, starting from the ground up.

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