Hot on the heels of the announcement of the next expansion, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on Knights of the Fallen Empire as it winds down. I won’t promise to avoid spoilers since I think the statute of limitations on spoilers runs out once hype for the sequel starts to ramp up, so beware!
In general, I very much enjoyed KotFE. I was engaged and entertained by the story. It has everything you’d expect from a Star Wars adventure: massive scope, mumbo jumbo about the Force, cool space ships, last minute saves and enough humor to remind you not to take it too seriously.
It’s no secret that SWTOR’s engine has its issues, but I give full credit to the folks at Bioware for getting the most out of it. With KotFE, the visual storytelling makes a huge leap over what we’d seen in the game at launch and previous expansions. The camera moves and refocuses dynamically, the action sequences and environments are dramatic and fun, and the game makes sure you and the characters around you look as cool as possible.
SWTOR is also currently as friendly to new players as it’s ever been. Whether you’re an old hand at other MMOs or just a fan who want to play around in the Star Wars universe, it’s never been easier to jump in and go.
The flip side of this is that experienced players will likely have a very easy time with the combat portions of the game. The non-player companions who accompany the players are extremely powerful, and if you can play your class well, you might find the ease at which you mow down enemies can under-cut the dramatic tension of a scene. I think the overwhelming power of companions is the biggest issue, and it’s telling that the most interesting fights to me were the ones in which I had no companion to help out.
After completing the story, the primary thing the game will direct players towards is building their Alliance by gathering allies and resources to fight the story’s evil empire. Alliance Alerts are one-time quest chains that involve recruiting companions, and these involve many types of gameplay, including simple puzzle solving, exploration, basic questing and, in one case, participation in player-vs-player warzones. I enjoyed many of the alerts, but not all companions are equally interesting and some alerts felt like busy work. That said, I like the variety of things the alerts ask me to do, and don’t mind that they had me dipping into different aspects of the game. My biggest complaint with the alerts is that the player character’s dialogue is not spoken aloud. Going from years of fully voiced dialogue to one-sided conversations was a shock. Not being able to hear my characters’ reactions in conversations with long lost old friends was a real drag.
Star Fortresses are instanced mini-flashpoints related to the Alliance building, and they fill the role that the old daily quest areas like the Black Hole or Oricon used to. The layouts of the Fortresses are randomized and each boss in the heroic versions has their own abilities, but while there are lots of iterations, the environment and enemies are the same across the board, so going left instead of right at an intersection doesn’t do much to keep the setting fresh. Bioware previously did something like this with the Kuat Drive Yards flashpoint. While KDY has fewer variations, each randomized area has distinct layouts and objectives, and I think the Star Fortresses would have benefited more from that model. That said, the Star Fortresses are a good source of decorations and I don’t mind banging out one now and then.
The most recent piece of content added to the game has been the Eternal Championship, and I am, personally, a big fan. The championship is basically a fight club, with ten different boss encounters. While it can be done (and done easily) with a group, it’s best experienced solo, and unlike most other solo content, it offers a real challenge. The EC can be completed by tanks, healers and damage dealers and it’s been fun to learn it in each role. There are some neat rewards from the EC and it’s been satisfying to earn them.
In general, I strive to avoid strawman arguments, but there are two common complaints about KotFE that I would be remiss not to acknowledge.
The first concerns the lack of end game content. It is worth pointing out that KotFE has more relevant flashpoints and operations than any previous expansion. If you raid, you can visit a different operation every week and not repeat yourself for months, and if you want to run a flashpoint, there are dozens of options. There is a wealth of terrific multi-player content for new players to discover.
The problem, of course, is that none of it is new. For veterans this is a big problem. Speaking from my own guild’s experience, going from running content that we had on farm-mode (or even faceroll-mode) back to having to jump through hoops we thought were behind us felt at best like treading water or at worst a step backwards. Not surprisingly, interest in ops dropped dramatically, we stopped pushing hard mode progression altogether, and many folks found other games that could meet that need. I don’t blame them one bit. It’s a shame because SWTOR’s operations and flashpoints have been great fun both mechanically and as storytelling devices. The scope of the war with the Dread Masters across a half dozen operations and two expansions was truly epic. The adventure experienced through the flashpoints of the Forged Alliances arc was another high point for the game. I very much hope Bioware doesn’t give up on telling stories through group content.
I’ve also read complaints about the ending and the degree to which choices matter. SWTOR’s story has always been on rails, and you either go with the flow or you don’t. No, the story does not dramatically spin off in different directions depending on the character’s choices, but that’s been the case since day one. That said, tonally the light side and dark side variations of the story are very different. Certainly your choices matter to several returning and recurring characters. The Alliance built by light side characters evokes the Rebellion from the movies, but a dark side player’s Alliance feels more like a cutthroat terrorist organization. Granted tone isn’t the same as fully branching storylines, but I don’t think it’s nothing either.
Additionally, I think the conclusion of KotFE’s final chapter works very well. Structurally, it is nearly identical to A New Hope and The Force Awakens: the main villain narrowly escapes, the evil empire is still very much a threat, but the band of heroes have won their first major victory with the promise of more to come.
Where KotFE does differ from the movies and sets itself apart is in Senya and Vaylin. Senya, an ass kicking, middle aged mother of three, is easily my favorite character to emerge from the Fallen Empire story and a great and unique addition to the Star Wars canon. Pity poor Arcann; he thought he was the center of a typical Star Wars story: another conflict between fathers and sons. Only now at the end did he understand, he was just a bit player in a tragedy of mothers and daughters. To Valkorian, Arcann was a failure; to SCORPIO barely an afterthought. Only his mother could save him. But Vaylin, she was the one who mattered all along. She was the one who could sense the Outlander during “A Dream of Empire;” she was the one who you fought in the cave; she was the one with the power. The ending works perfectly for me. And I look forward to future chapters.
Update! Information about Knights of the Eternal Throne has emerged since I wrote this post, and I’m glad to see that the next expansion may address some of the issues I expressed here. I’m hopeful that Uprisings will be fun to run with friends, and am crossing my fingers in hopes that we really will have some fresh operations bosses to fight in the new year. And, holy cats, is that trailer fantastic!