Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mass Effect vs SWTOR: A Short Comparison

Okay, this is very short, because I'm only about a couple of hours into Mass Effect itself.

Yes, yes, I bought the Mass Effect Trilogy. I bought it to help fill out an Amazon order to get it into the "free shipping" price area, and besides it was much cheaper than buying it from Origin.*

There were some adventures getting the original Mass Effect to work properly --mainly involving shutting down Origin when ME loads**-- but when it loaded...

Mass Effect is the natural progression of Bioware cinematic storytelling from Baldur's Gate I and II through Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic I and II, and Jade Empire. That cinematic storytelling process is actually quite revealing to me, who played BG 1 and 2 in the late 90s/early 00s and then skipped ahead to SWTOR long before going back to Jade Empire and now Mass Effect. In a way, Bioware's original Mass Effect story mirrors the intro stories of SWTOR to a significant degree.

Part 1: Starting Zone

It goes without saying that MMOs have a starting zone where the player first learns the basics before setting off into the big bad world. Even useful learning experiences like "don't stand in the bad" will make an appearance in the Starting Zone and it's adjacent low level zones. But as for the story in a Starting Zone, that's been fleshed out over time.

The evolution of the MMO starting zone from generic knockabout place to one with a specific storyline can be most easily seen in WoW. The Vanilla races, particularly in the pre-Cataclysm questlines, were very much a hodge-podge of "do this", "fetch that", "kill ten rats"***. The BC races had a bit of a questline but still harkened back to that earlier Vanilla era. It was only in the post-Cataclysm races that you found an actual story --using phasing-- that dominated the starting zone experience.

Age of Conan, with its Tortage starting zone, probably is the best of the classic old style MMOs for a story driven starting area. It's a shame, really, that the story driven promise of Tortage wasn't followed up in the regular zones to the same degree.

LOTRO, of course, does have its own story driven zones that propel the player into the next, regular low level areas, but the story line can get lost in the "kill ten rats" quests that dominate the game. It's only when you hit the old "max level" quests does the LOTRO Shadows of Angmar story really shine.

But SWTOR is a different animal entirely. Designed to be strictly a story driven MMO from the start, each of the eight class stories deals with the same general process:
  • Player is given an initial couple of quests
  • Player deals with a sudden shakeup of the current order, and has to spend the bulk of the starting zone making sense of the shakeup
  • Player is handed a sudden story twist that turns the entire conflict on its head and propels the story to the faction's capital planet.
This by itself isn't too remarkable, since LOTRO's, AoC's, and WoW's Cataclysm races have similar trajectories. However, the other three's lack of fully acted cutscenes lack the same emotional punch that SWTOR's has.****

Which leads me neatly into Mass Effect, which has cutscenes that heighten the dramatic impact when the unexpected twist happens. You could also argue that there were two unexpected twists for the intro zone for Mass Effect, the *mumblety mumble* one and the one at the very end of the mission, and I'd not disagree with you.

Hell-lo, bad boy.
From multiple places on the web.

Part 2: Capital City and Intrigue

It kind of goes without saying that in MMOs a standard exit from the starting zone is the pilgrimage to the faction/race's Capital City/Planet. You leave Shadowglen and end up at Teldrassil. Your Cimmerian leaves Tortage and ends up at Conarch Village.***** Your Sith leaves Korriban and ends up at Dromund Kaas.

And so it goes with Mass Effect that you end up at The Citadel.

For a space based SF game, Mass Effect and SWTOR are eerily alike: you arrive without a means of interstellar travel as a passenger on a ship, and you have to navigate the consequences of the story twist on the starter world. You're introduced to galactic politics, various races, and no small amount of intrigue along the way. An older game such as Mass Effect compresses the experience a bit compared to the more fully realized MMO environment, but it still provides an eerily similar experience to the SWTOR capital cities. Mass Effect's angle is a bit different than most of the SWTOR class stories as the politics is more direct and at the highest levels of (what passes for) government, but all revolve around the same basic theme of dealing with the fallout from the starting world.

Part 3: A Ship and the Means to Go Where We Will

I thought Joachim's line from The Wrath of Khan highly appropriate for this last part.

The SWTOR player has conquered the immediate threat on the Capital world, and as a result more issues appear on other worlds. Time to give that player a starship!

(Or, in the case of the Smuggler, 'I have GOT MY DAMN SHIP BACK! and I now want to go and... What's this? Treasure you say?')


And Mass Effect follows the same pattern. (Sorry kids, no spoilers here.)


The Normandy has some really nice lines and a great look, but my fondness still goes with the Smuggler's starship.

The Normandy and a SWTOR starship are outwardly dissimilar, but inside you can talk to your crew and advance crew questlines. Since Mass Effect is rated M, that presumably means a romance that enters into R rated territory, unlike SWTOR's romances. However, since the crew in SWTOR is somewhat limited in scope (at least initially), the Normandy not only looks bigger it feels bigger.

Part 4: No More Hurry Up and Wait

On the flip side, the missions for Mass Effect are akin to taking an entire SWTOR planet story and compressing it a bit. That has the effect of heightening the tension while at the same time making you feel like you just might be missing something somewhere. MMO zone/planet stories have enough time spread out between them that you have a bit more leisure time to take care of any side quests without rushing things too much.

I suppose you could say that Mass Effect --and other Bioware console/PC games-- have had an impact on SWTOR in Knights of the Fallen Empire by eliminating a lot of the side quests and enabling the player to focus strictly on the main questline with few interruptions.

Conclusions: What, you were expecting spoilers?

I've obviously not gotten very far in Mass Effect 1. Among other things, I'm playing ME1 at the same time as LOTRO and keeping myself afloat in SWTOR and some other MMOs, and I'm resisting the impulse to play until 4 AM.****** But the more I play ME1, the more I think that the experience with the Mass Effect series in particular has influenced Bioware's design for SWTOR.  There's been more than once when I've exclaimed "Hey, that feels like SWTOR!" while playing the game.

Which isn't a bad thing in my book.

*Or buying a used XBox 360 and the games that way.

**There's actually a setting box for this in the game's settings menu in Origin --not the Settings menu IN GAME, but the one in Origin itself. If you deselect the option for keeping Origin running while ME plays, you're able to play the game properly. Took me about 45 minutes of tweaking and Googling to figure that one out.

***Often literally so.

****Like, oh, the cutscene for the Trooper's or the Knight's sudden twist.

*****Yes, I know, Cimmerians don't have a capital city because they are nomadic tribes, but as an in-game necessity the Cimmerians use the home village of Conan's tribe as the "capital".

******Although this election season has made me want to lose myself in a game --or drink a lot-- for obvious reasons.

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