The new expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic – Knights of the Fallen Empire – launches today. And it may be the most peculiar MMO expansion that I’ve ever played, mainly because it is hardly an MMO expansion at all. Instead, BioWare’s latest update is a single-player game slotted inside a multiplayer game, and the closest thing we have to a Knights of the Old Republic sequel.
Rarely do expansions make MMOs feel properly new again. They add and they update, and they continue the game’s story, but even with UI tweaks, new classes and brand spanking new zones to play around in, you’re still playing the same game.
Knights of the Fallen Empire is nothing like that at all. It continues the story of The Old Republic, certainly, but kicks things forward five years, making it feel almost like a fresh start, and more importantly, it throws out almost everything you’d expect from an MMO, for better or worse.
When you hit level 60 and start the first chapter – or you can make a brand new level 60 character – you leave the core game and all the earlier expansions behind, beginning a new story in a new part of the galaxy, absent the trappings of genre traditions.
Imagine if The Old Republic was nothing but class and planet storylines; if there were no more random quest givers, mountains of filler, or breaks in the story. That’s what this expansion offers: a laser focus.
From the first cutscene to the end of the last chapter – that’s nine, but more are in development – the game never deviates from its path. Each mission is designed for one player, and every single one of them is directly connected to the Outlander’s personal story. It’s one that’s gripped me more than any other in the genre, and is a properly great Star Wars tale to boot.
The Eternal Empire is both the setting and foe of the game, a new galactic superpower that the Outlander, once the hero of the Galactic War, must struggle, and eventually build an alliance, to defeat.
The Empire’s a fascinating place, both utopia and dystopia, and the conflict it creates is infinitely more interesting than the one between the Sith Empire and the Republic, which is extremely well-trodden by now. Star Wars is typically pretty binary, with its Light Side and Dark Side philosophies and it’s ‘good’ Republic and ‘evil’ Empires, but the Eternal Empire is considerably more complex and doesn’t comfortably fit into those archetypes.
Despite being a direct continuation of the story set up in the MMO’s previous chapters, the expansion is most evocative of Knights of the Old Republic II. It explored the force and the philosophies of the Jedi and Sith orders in ways that the films and games never had, painting the galaxy in various shades of grey. Knights of the Fallen Empire doesn’t go on quite as an extreme philosophical journey, but it’s not finished yet.
Like Knights of the Old Republic II, the strength of the story hangs on the NPC companions, and they also emphasise how the expansion distances itself from the more binary interpretation of morality and the force. Take the first companion you meet, Lana, for instance. She’s Sith, but she makes decisions and reacts to player choices like a person, not a personification of one side of the force.
Very early on I was faced with a dramatic key decision, where lives hinged on the choice I made. Lana encouraged me to choose the Dark Side option. She’s Sith – of course she did, right? But that’s not why. She based her advice on what she perceived to be logical and the least risk to the Outlander. Later on, she admonished me for being cruel, among other typically Dark Side traits, and preached reconciliation over revenge.
The rest of the cast of companions are equally as difficult to pigeonhole, their reactions to my choices just as diverse. They don’t just like or dislike things anymore – they ‘remember’ how cruel I’ve been, how I showed no mercy, or how I made a major sacrifice. I feel like they have opinions about me now, rather than just a loyalty meter.
Until now, The Old Republic never really made it feel like you had a team. You had a whole bunch of individuals you could summon, one at a time, that hardly ever interacted. Knights of the Fallen Empire, on the other hand, is all about building a team. It’s Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, but in Star Wars. It’s fat with NPC chatter, and every companion has an opinion about his or her crewmates.
There’s even crew drama. Two crewmembers in particular, Senya, a wonderful force-wielding ex-cop, and Koth, a terrible bore and Carth Onasi impersonator, have problems getting along. They bicker and fight and disagree, and it’s wonderful. It’s even more wonderful when I pick sides and fan the flames of conflict, like a good little Sith.
So it’s all I’ve ever wanted – another single-player Star Wars RPG with a great story and compelling characters. But that’s not quite what it is, because it’s still in an MMO, and that feels a little awkward. There’s this huge effort being made to make you forget that you’re playing an MMO, that there are loads of other players just beyond your perception, and gosh is it jarring.
It feels a little bit like wearing blinkers. The story shoots you down this mostly linear path, where you never deviate to go into a Flashpoint with your pals, where everything remotely MMO-like has been shunted off to the side, where you can’t see it. Then, all of a sudden there’s another player, and another. You’re in a zone with other players for this brief moment, and there’s entirely no point in it, because there’s no multiplayer content at all. You can team up with other players, but there’s never any impetus to actually do that.
Fights are just too damn easy. You could probably get away with ditching your companion, and you certainly don’t need help from other players. The only challenge is in waiting for boss fights to finish. They might not do much damage, but crikey can they take a beating. And not only is the fighting all a bit dull, it also sadly makes up quite a bit of the expansion.
By making Knights of the Fallen Empire mostly single-player, pre-existing flaws become more obvious as well. Enemies, for instance, are miserably stupid, predictable and hardly even move, and the actual act of fighting them is extremely dreary. There’s only so many times I can walk up to some clueless berk and slap the same buttons, activating the same powers, over and over again. Other players would add an extra wrinkle that these unimaginative encounters desperately need.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that these issues killed my enthusiasm, however. The setting, characters and the unconcluded story made it worthwhile, and I have every intention of playing the new chapters, whenever they launch. But what about the meantime? What does Knights of the Fallen Empire offer once you’ve finished chapter nine?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Six new Flashpoints, daily and weekly tasks, operations that have been adjusted for level 60 players and missions from members of the Alliance – which I’ll let you find out more about by playing, as I do want to avoid too many spoilers – mean that there’s a hell of a lot to do. What’s strange, though, is that it’s all traditional MMO stuff. You are, essentially, grinding resources and loyalty.
I’m not convinced that you can really slot a single-player game inside an MMO, at least not without conjuring up some way for them to co-exist. In Knights of the Fallen Empire, they don’t – they remain separate, oftening jarringly so. Yet I find myself incredibly glad that BioWare have made an attempt. It doesn’t, lamentably, add much to the online experience – though there’s a beefy patch that will tweak the rest of the game – but it’s a fantastic single-player adventure, and possibly the best reason to become a subscriber.
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