Life in A Post-SWTOR World

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Last night, I played Pandora Saga. It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of it. It’s an MMORPG, published by Atlus, that was recently added to Steam. I found myself drawn to it because it bears an uncanny resemblance to one of my favorite games ever, Final Fantasy XI.

I played it with the intention of writing about it – I wanted to play a few hours and write a ‘first impressions’ piece. What I found when I played it, though, is that it pretty much sucks.

Pandora Saga is also first MMORPG I’ve played, other than Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), since SWTOR came out. And the difference between the two games is devastatingly obvious – but it isn’t the mechanics.

It’s the world-building.

I have praised the unparalleled massively multiplayer immersion of SWTOR repeatedly. From the moment you start the game, you are swept away in a story that, to some degree, is uniquely your own. There are sprawling, AAA-class cut-scenes, with lush sound design and full voice-over. There’s a booming, stirring score. The experience, even in the opening minutes, of SWTOR feels important and meaningful – like your character, the thing you spend countless hours staring at, is something defined by more than the stats and gear attached to it.

Let’s contrast that with Pandora Saga. I said before that it sucks – but really, there’s nothing wrong with it. Compared to a lot of things out there, it’s a serviceable MMO. It has pretty graphics, a nice color palette, plenty of players, a smooth combat system and a remarkably useful mini-map. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. It just doesn’t feel like anything matters, beyond the standard MMORPG trappings of gear and experience.

Really, it just can’t hold up. Going from SWTOR to Pandora Saga, for my fellow Americanized Mexican Food Aficionados out there, is like going from Chipotle to Taco Bell. There’s no real comparison.

SWTOR’s detractors like to claim that it doesn’t actually do much for the genre – that the detailed settings and high quality stories and everything else is just a façade tacked onto the same, stale, typical MMORPG. And I give that claim a little credence. BioWare played it remarkably safe, mechanics-wise. But with their focus on story and character, they made a massive leap forward in the genre, combat be damned. With SWTOR, MMORPGs have shown they can compete, as far as bombast, story and story-driven player engagement, with the most prominent of singe player games.

All of the great things that SWTOR accomplishes leave me in a little bit of a quandary. I am something of an MMO vagabond. Where many people stick fanatically to one game, devoting endless hours to it and it alone, I tend to roam. I’ll play a game for a month or a week and move on. I will probably only ever play Pandora Saga for the 2 or so hours I played it tonight. You might say that isn’t long enough to properly judge the game. And maybe not! But I keep things on a strict “MMORPGs have about an hour to impress me with something” rule.

The quandary, then, is: has SWTOR ruined older, or more traditional (read: story-less) MMORPGs for us? Compare your favorite massively multiplayer game with it. Sure, you might have extremely fond memories of playing with your friends or guildmates – I certainly do – but when you put something like Lord of the Rings Online or RIFT up against SWTOR, they look lifeless, bland, and almost sterile.

It’s a different scenario than going back to play a vintage game. Compare two RPGs of different time periods: Chrono Trigger and Mass Effect, for example. I think we can agree that story is a critical component of a good RPG. And both of those games have great stories. They both demonstrate exceptional examples of the commonly accepted critical design elements of their genre. They just tell stories in different ways, because of their technological restrictions. We can apply this same idea to another genre, like FPS. Goldeneye and Battlefield 3 both need good, mechanically-rewarding shooting. Battlefield 3 is able to provide fun manshoots differently than Goldeneye, because of the technology – but the fact remains they both have enjoyable gunplay.

In other words: Chrono Trigger and Goldeneye are older games, but they’re not flawed. There are no gaping holes. Mass Effect doesn’t expose Chrono Trigger’s shortcomings; it just expands on the game designs that Chrono Trigger puts forth.

SWTOR, though, illuminates gaping chasms in the core of the MMORPGs that came before it. SWTOR’s greatest strength is how it places your character in the world, and gives him meaningful connections with what’s going on around him. As a player, you care about your character – their tale – more than the stats, gear and accomplishments. And through your character, the entire game world takes on more life. Even the combat!

You can’t really find anything like that in SWTOR’s ancestors. They had stories and cut-scenes, sure, but they kept the spotlight to brightly on the player. It was all about the person playing the game – how much gold they had, how much DPS, what kind of armor they had obtained – and not the character the player was controlling, or the game world they inhabited. That approach left MMORPGs to often feel like achievement-engines, places where you went to obtain arbitrary, digital accolades, when they should have felt more like virtual worlds.

This fundamental flaw in older MMORPGs, as highlighted by SWTOR, is what made it so difficult for me to enjoy Pandora Saga. And it’s left me scared to try any of my other MMORPG favorites. I have impossibly fond memories of Final Fantasy XI, and I’m scared to play it because I don’t want it to be revealed as something hollow. I love Fallen Earth, but now, I don’t want to touch it.

So what should I do? I can’t decide. I don’t want to risk souring on some of my favorite games. Luckily, this isn’t a problem I’ll have to face anytime soon. The reason why is simple: as far as massively multiplayer experiences go, I have no desire to stop playing SWTOR. The only game that could dethrone it is Guild Wars 2.

The funny thing about that? Guild Wars 2 is being touted as a game-changer, too. Another revolution in the land of MMO. Will it succeed? I couldn’t tell you. You’ll know if it did, though, if in 6 months I publish something called, “Life in a Post-Guild Wars 2 World.”


One Response to Life in A Post-SWTOR World

  1. Scopique says:

    I’d both agree and disagree.

    I cannot merge the storytelling of SWTOR with the gameplay. I really liked SWTOR’s storytelling; from that single persective, I agree totally that going back to the “wall of text” storytelling methods of SOME other MMOs is difficult. I attempted to return to Rift this weekend for their Carnival celebration, for exampl. I loaded it up, and tried to work through it, but it WAS quite stale. I don’t think that it felt LIFELESS, but there was a certain presence missing.

    On the other hand, I — and many others — have a difficult time giving SWTOR’S GAMEPLAY a pass simply because we like the way they present the story. When you’re not talking to someone, or engaged in a cut-scene, you’re out in the world engaged in the same basic gameplay that you find in many other MMOs. THIS is the side of the game that killed it for me, and sadly, the storytelling wasn’t present enough to redeem it for me.

    If I analyze my own reasons why SWTOR killed some other MMOs for me, I have to say that it was the layering of the great storytelling mechanic on top of the “safe” MMO gameplay. I figure that if SWTOR’s “plow through trash mobs on the way to the objectives” meat-and-potatoes gameplay equates to the same concepts in other MMOs, that’s one thing; but if the storytelling in SWTOR couldn’t get me to overlook that feeling, then I can’t see how some of the other “wall of text” MMOs could possibly do any better.

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Pandora Saga Boxart


  • Developer: Rosso Index
  • Publisher: ATLUS
  • Genre: MMORPG
  • Release Date: February 14, 2011
  • Link: The Official Site
  • ESRB Rating:

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