Review of KotFE

In its latest installment, Star Wars: The Old Republic continues to awkwardly straddle two game genres. It succeeds at providing the gameplay experience of a single-player RPG, but at what cost to the game’s MMO elements?

Unlike the previous two story expansions (Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan), which were purchased for an additional fee, Knights of the Fallen Empire is included with an active subscription. And the “season” is not over: new chapters will be released during 2016. This new model for releasing story content addresses two major criticisms of the game: first, that it has been trying to nickel and dime players excessively since introducing a microtransaction shop, and secondly, that there have been long droughts between content releases. I believe that this is an entirely positive change, and the lack of a separate purchase cost does a lot to compensate for the expansion’s failings.

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Game Mechanics Changes

The expansion update included many changes that make the game feel more current at all levels of play. Missions have been streamlined so that leveling is faster at low levels, and players can skip some of the loathesomely repetitive tasks that plague early zones — but because players are now scaled to the content’s level, completionists will be rewarded for their time.

It is clear that the game design now supports playing alone: a solo mode has been added to most flashpoints, so that players can see them without forming a group. Heroic missions have been adjusted to have a suggested group size of two, and a player of moderate ability will find them easy with only a non-player companion.

The crafting system was redesigned, and although the new design makes more sense in many ways, players were stung by having progress erased when certain items moved to another crafting skill. In an RPG game that is about advancement, this feels like a betrayal.

Companions have been overhauled so that players have more choice about which one they bring on their adventures. Their stories now trigger based on the player’s level, not how many gifts they have been given, resulting in better integration in the class storylines. These are excellent changes. However, it is a disappointment to see the alliance base and companion window imitate World of Warcraft‘s garrison system so closely, since the combat companions are one of the ways that The Old Republic differentiated itself from other MMORPGs.

The new Star Fortress flashpoint is a delight, and a major advance in game design from previous flashpoints: maps are randomized, making every journey a little different; group-dividing cutscenes (“Spacebar! Spacebar!” barks the pug) have been replaced with a voiceover; and it is an engaging challenge to solo the heroic version.

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Story

Knights of the Fallen Empire continues the story of Shadow of Revan (and Bioware’s Star Wars plot that began in Knights of the Old Republic). New players can start with this entry in the series, but they’ll have to be prepared to accept the narrative’s rushed establishing shots of recurring characters.

In a refreshing change from most MMORPG expansions, the plot successfully raises the stakes from the previous story without resorting to time- or dimensional-travel, and gives the player the role of heroic underdog without negating his or her previous adventures.

The new areas are detailed, and the map design is free of the atrocious mazes of their earlier zones (I’m looking at you, Taris). Neither is it too linear, despite a clearly marked path. Some beautiful areas have been hidden in quest areas by the game designers.

The cutscenes are gorgeously cinematic, although their increased frequency makes gameplay a little too close to interactive television, particularly since the game difficulty is tuned such that it feels impossible to fail. The player character often loses agency, even during fight sequences, making it a passive experience. Notably, it even includes a few scenes that break viewpoint, in which the player character is not present. However, it’s enjoyable interactive television: the voice acting performances are superb.

Thematically, we are introduced to yet another faction of “neutral” force users, the greatest liberty that Bioware has taken with the Star Wars mythos — particularly when framed in a point-based system where achieving “neutrality” means behaving erratically. Moral relativism seems to conflict both with the task of saving the universe and the dualism of the movies, so I am personally disappointed to see this theme again.

Finally, the first nine chapters fall short of the promises made before launch that player choices would matter (a selling point put directly into the characters’ mouths so often that it almost breaks story immersion). Although you may change how you get from event to event, you are being moved along a single plot, and there is little replay value even on characters with opposite philosophies. In this way the expansion lacks the complexity of the original class stories or even of the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, where parallel plots told a larger story. Future chapters may surprise me, since game writers have stated that they want unforeseen consequences, but a truly branching plot appears to be too much to hope for— which is only disappointing because the affect of choice on the story was hyped as the largest selling point of this release. Once again, what would have been an unqualified success was undermined by marketing.

Despite these criticisms, the story is enjoyable pulpy space fantasy. Twists and quips have been prioritized over continuity and depth: but it fits the Star Wars franchise, and satisfies by evoking just the emotional state an honorable jedi or devious sith hopes for when playing. You won’t be disappointed until your second trip through.

Contradictions

Knights of the Fallen Empire is a single-player MMORPG, with all the self-contradictions that entails. Although the hallmark of massively multiplayer games is grouping with others, the new story content is written for a single player, and even your closest friends can only spectate. The player who is only interested in the single-player story campaigns is an odd target audience, because to him there are solely disadvantages to this game’s online, massively-multiplayer format: lag, server downtime, and the requirement of constant internet connectivity. He’ll also be outraged when he is suddenly required to group to recruit companions in Chapter 9 (see the multiple complaints on the forums about heroic star fortress, and Major Pierce/M1-4X).

There’s another contradiction in the switch from  encouraging players to make multiple characters (the legendary icon, the Story Boost to experience gain) to the tedious alliance system, which is clearly designed for players to focus on a single character. I fear that making a 180-turn on your player retention strategy every few months is a terrible move for a game, because you’re going to lose the players you have now. No new operations or battlegrounds were added to endgame, so players will be disappointed unless they are returning to the game after a hiatus.

The largest contradiction comes at the end of Chapter 9, when the media-rich story concludes by dropping the voice acting and throwing the player into the kind of brutal grind that has given MMOs a bad name: filling up multiple bars, made up of so many thousands of points that you only undertake the journey if you’re bad at math, for the sole reward of having the little bars full. It appears that the game designers have split into two teams who have radically different ideas about the game, and are actually carrying out a passive-aggressive office war.

Not only does the “RPG” undermine the “MMO,” but the “MMO” undermines the “RPG”: the need to have all players arrive at the same content is what prevents major plot changes based on player choices. The MMO format also means that there are no save games, and so inflicting major unintended consequences on a player character, who may represent four years of investment from a player, will be a move likely to backfire. The addition of Start-at-60 tokens suggests to me that a boosted character is meant to be your “save game,” but this doesn’t quite work: the attachment to an MMORPG character is an irrational, emotional one, and equal numbers will not compensate a player for a lost character. And when our companions are put in peril in Chapter X, our guts will be twisted not by feelings arising from their simulacrum personhood, but by the lost hours and credits spent on companion gifts.

Post-Launch

In the month after launch, it has become clear that there are not enough resources allocated to fixing game bugs. Many of the reported bugs completely stop a player from advancing in the game (for example, many bounty hunters cannot start Chapter 2 of their class story, and other players are stuck in new content when a door fails to activate). This category of bugs needs an immediate workaround. You cannot tell new players who are engaged in the story to check back in a few weeks: you will lose their attention.

Conclusion

The eight interweaving class stories of Star Wars: The Old Republic are one of the most interesting storytelling accomplishments in computer gaming – and it’s a pity that they didn’t launch with a better game to support that story. Players will be disappointed if they expect this expansion’s material to match that level of re-playability, and completionists who have done everything that this game universe has to offer will quickly exhaust the new material. However, outside of that minority, new and returning players will be thoroughly delighted at the quantity of content available and the improved game world.

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