Hyperspace Beacon: How SWTOR added two Onslaught stories (but wrote only one)

    
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Star Wars: The Old Republic prides itself on being a game with choices that matter. Fundamentally, one of the biggest choices a player can make in the game is the faction chosen before before stepping into any storyline at all. Of course, in SWTOR, we also have class choices and then choices within the story itself that have lasting ripples even to the current expansion. In the interest of simplifying the story and possibly making those choices matte more, the writers at BioWare created a single storyline that converted every character into the Outlander. And frankly, that story bombed.

The audience clamored for a story that returned to the roots of SWTOR, which meant that it was likely that BioWare would have to make at least two different stories. Players would not settle for the single combined story anymore. So it would have to be at least the level of the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, which was the last expansion that actually had two different complete storylines. Unfortunately, BioWare no longer has the budget to create the story it did on Makeb. So what is BioWare to do? The answer is to create two stories that aren’t actually two stories. Conceptually, it’s simple, but the genius is in the execution. And I wholeheartedly approve of how it was executed in Onslaught.

I’m not going to spoil any endings for you, but I should warn that beyond this point, I will give away the premise of the Onslaught storyline and the main story for one planet. So if you haven’t played through the storyline at least once, then you might want to do that first before you continue reading.

The meat is Mek-sha

I remember the first time that I played through Mass Effect, one the best single-player games BioWare ever made. For me, it felt as if my choices in the story really made a difference in the outcome for the first time. By comparison, every other game, single-player or otherwise, seems to be on rails when it came to the storyline. On subsequent playthroughs of Mass Effect, I saw that some of my choices made some real differences in the story, others added some nice flavor, and others really didn’t matter at all but allowed me to sculpt the character into my image.

For a while, it appeared that SWTOR lost the feeling of being able to mold your character, and the differences between the choices seemed very extreme and more plot-driven than character-driven. What I mean by that is that the consequences affected the other characters in the story but appeared to have very little effect on the player character. I believe I’ve said it before that the Knights of X expansions told an interesting story about Valkorion’s family, but if you didn’t care about them, then it really is inconsequential.

The Mek-sha storyline gives us a great example of how you can twist a single plot into two disparate stories, giving the characters involved unique motivations and keeping vastly different main characters true to form.

Regardless of faction, class, or alignment, the plot of Mek-sha is the same: You want the leaders of Mek-sha’s makeshift government to refuel the Republic ships. Even the major beats of the plots are the same: You have to convince one of the other factions to vote in favor of refueling, you have to do a favor for one of the factions, and you have to get to the command offices where a failsafe is located that will make the fuel inert.

The motivation — character development — is what makes this plotline seem very different based on your character’s background and the choices made during the storyline. Ultimately, it’s the main character’s development that makes this storyline replayable despite the same story beats. For instance, the reason that a Republic character needs to get into the failsafe room is that the Empire is attempting to throw the switch. For an Imperial, you need to get to the failsafe room to make the fuel inert and maybe blowing up the Republic ships. Or — get this — if you are Imperial and are a double agent, then you have the choice same choice as any Imperial or you can also let the Republic get away with the fuel.

When you’re on a smaller budget or half your studio is off making another game, you have to cut corners. The Mek-sha storyline is really a master class on how to deliver a simple story that you want to play over and over just to see how different characters would handle the same situation.

The aesthetics are the side dish

I think I might owe the environmental designers a bit of an apology for some of my statements in my first impressions. I called the design of Mek-sha “a run-down version of Nar Shaddaa.” I’m afraid that might have oversimplified my critique of the design. My first impressions of Mek-sha were definite of a discount Nar Shaddaa, but after spending more time there and really getting a chance to explore, I can see more of its unique properties.

Of course, I ran the primary questlines multiple times, but Mek-sha also has a line of daily quests as well that give you an excuse to see parts of the planet as well as understand the story behind it. But for me, I really didn’t need an excuse to run around the planet just to see what was there. Yes, the planet still reminds me of Nar Shaddaa in a lot of ways, but the map, the hidden corridors, and building aesthetics are uniquely Mek-sha.

To understand what I’m talking about, try to find the datacrons. There are two of them. You’re welcome to use a guide if you like, but they aren’t that hard to find if you just look around. Hunting for the datacrons will force you to travel off the beaten path and into alleys and buildings that you might not have noticed on your initial playthrough.

My endorsement

As most everyone knows, I’ve played SWTOR since before it launched. I have had only a few months’ gap in playtime since then. You might have thought that I would never be driven away. It would take something big. Yet I practically stopped playing earlier this year. I wasn’t sure if BioWare could do anything to draw me back into the game. However, the events in Onslaught have me replaying the vanilla storylines just to see what effect it will have on the current expansion.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that Onslaught has a lot of room for improvement, but it’s got me invested and satisfied with the game again, at least for a couple of months.

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of BioWare‘s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!

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Brazen Bondar

I agree that Mek-sha is the strongest element in the Onslaught release. It really should have had a set of dailies like Onderon has. The dailies I saw in Mek-sha were just two heroics…have I missed something? I am enjoying Onslaught but even with Mek-sha…the writing is a bit weak. I’m in my third play through and I just wish there were more ways the writers had allowed us to show our quasi independence as Alliance folks besides the choice at the end. We only get real choices if we are a traitor. Otherwise, I don’t see yet how our choices matter.

I can only hope that Bioware allows quality development of the game going forward. Onslaught is fine but I don’t consider it a full expansion and it won’t satisfy people for long. The new gear grind (an extremely expensive one at that) won’t be enough to keep non PvPers interested in hanging around. And the cost of crafting is too high to make that worth thinking about. Bioware will get a couple of one or two month subs out of Onslaught and then folks will drift away again.

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Greaterdivinity

When you’re on a smaller budget or half your studio is off making another game, you have to cut corners. The Mek-sha storyline is really a master class on how to deliver a simple story that you want to play over and over just to see how different characters would handle the same situation.

This was my big takeaway.

I caught up over the past weekend (last bit of KotFE, all of KotET and the expansion after it) and Onslaught was a big improvement IMO. A lot of those expansions have pretty poor writing/character building and there was quite a bit of jank in the animations (“Oh, let’s just raise my characters eyebrows INTO THEIR FOREHEAD!”). Wasn’t a huge fan of those arcs, really.

But Onslaught was a big improvement IMO. didn’t even know it was a single story, but the sabateur angle and the way a lot of the choices played out felt like you actually had a semi-meaningful amount of player agency that extended beyond “Oh, well I’ll just kill off this one companion that doesn’t impact my character at all.”

I’m a bit torn. I fear I’m falling out of love with MMO’s a bit and I can’t say I enjoyed all, or even most, of my time catching up in SWTOR. But at the same time Onslaught has me moderately excited for the game if this is the path they’ll go ahead with for delivering story. I didn’t muck around beyond just the core story yet, and may never, but I felt I got PLENTY of value for my $15 sub for a month, even if it was just for Onslaught. Now I’m wondering if I want to spend a few days dragging my Agent through the story line with light side choices to see how things are different, because a dark side Sage was pretty hilarious at times.

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NecrococoPlays

fear I’m falling out of love with MMO’s a bit

I relate to this a lot. It feels like my gaming for the last year or two has mostly been chasing after those experiences I had when SWTOR, GW2, and WildStar launched. I’ve played almost everything that’s been released for the last 10+ years, but apart from the first few months of BDO (which captured that amazing new game rush for me), I haven’t been able to find it again.

So, for the moment, I’m back to playing WoW, while jumping between the older titles I used to love. It’s almost like playing for the sake of playing. :/ I still have hope that another great gaming experience is ahead of me, but with the direction most development is taking, it seems I’m going to be waiting on expansions instead of a new title.

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Greaterdivinity

I’ve long ago given up on trying to “recapture” that magic from long ago. Nothing will ever repeat the grandeur of exploring WoW or GW2 for the first time again.

But I still found something satisfying about mindlessly tinkering around and plowing through content or grinding away that’s just not scratching that itch it used to.

I’m almost wondering if years of building up a backlog of non-MMO games is finally starting to get to me since I’m finding myself worrying about when I’ll get around to those games when I’m playing MMO’s at times. Maybe I just need a damn break.