Last week a wonderful Star Wars animation captured the imaginations of gaming audiences and beyond. It told the story of a mother trying to rescue her young daughter from the Dark Side of the Force. Innocence versus corruption. It was emotional, cinematic and had an impressive fight scene. Such production values wouldn't have looked out of place in a cinema. But this animation wasn't building excitement for the big screen. It was building excitement for a game. But could a game ever live up to it?
What the animation tapped into was a longing for a cinematic Star Wars game with a story. Perhaps Star Wars: Battlefront 2 will have a story in 2017. Amy Hennig's Star Wars action adventure, due out in 2018, definitely will. But will they be deep and winding and emotional enough? Let's cut to the chase: what the trailer tapped into was a longing for Knights of the Old Republic 3.
Imagine the fantastical sights and sounds of Star Wars brought to life with the razzmatazz of the Mass Effect series (which in a way I suppose was BioWare's KOTOR 3 - one it could creatively fully control). Imagine an emotional BioWare tale of Light and Dark, with all the characters and romances and betrayals the studio is famed for. The battles! The Lightsabers thrumming and clashing like cymbals, Force powers crackling and raging. I would like no game more! But I can't have it.
Instead, the animation tells me, I can have an expansion pack for Star Wars: The Old Republic - an online game that's five years old and was outdated before it even arrived. It's the answer BioWare and EA have tried to give fans braying for KOTOR 3 for nearly a decade now. BioWare's Greg Zeschuk even once said SWTOR "is like KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 literally in this one game". But quantity of story and voice acting cannot hide one important truth: a Knights of the Old Republic adventure is about being someone special, not being one person in thousands. Fundamentally a massively-multiplayer game cannot make you feel like single-player game would. How can it?
But for better or worse, BioWare is trying. Knights of the Eternal Throne will be The Old Republic's second seriously-story expansion after Knights of the Fallen Empire last year. The easiest way to think of them is as single-player games played in an online world, and they're more directly trying to scratch the KOTOR itch than ever before. But can they, in any way, live up to the promise of that trailer, to the promise of a KOTOR 3?
I subscribed to SWTOR for a month (£8.99) to find out. It's a free-to-play game but for that fee I got a level 60 character to play all of the Fallen Empire storyline with, including the chapters released throughout the year (the final, 16th chapter was released in August 2016). I expected the reality of playing the game to be alarming, because I know from memory that SWTOR doesn't look anything like that cinematic, and I expected to be disappointed. But 15 hours later I felt differently.
Knights of the Fallen Empire had made me feel special. I'd seen a story from start to finish and I alone had defeated the bad guy, which is a simple-sounding feat for a video game but one that usually requires a group, or group of groups, in an online game. My adventure had had all of the BioWare beats. I'd recruited a team, built a base, kissed a companion but argued with others, built a Lightsaber - even had a training montage while on a mystical sojourn where philosophical mumbo jumbo about the Force was babbled at me. And I love that - I love it when a game raises your character above the rote class you picked and gives you unforeseen, fancy abilities. And Knights of the Fallen Empire does that.
Through story-focused buffs and temporary abilities (and personal companions who heal their socks off) you are able to take on overwhelming odds and bosses alone. The final fight in Knights of the Fallen Empire had Lightsabers twirling in a furious dance while powers erupted, filling the screen. It was genuinely exhilarating, and it capped a string of encounters where Knights of the Fallen Empire superseded my expectations of what this old Star Wars: The Old Republic game could be.
Conversely where Knights of the Fallen Empire fell down was in the moments SWTOR shone through. The bespoke cut-scenes and missions and story areas cast an admirable and convincing spell but they cannot not hide the creaky beast underneath. They cannot hide the staccato hotbar combat fussied by 60 character levels of abilities that all have to gel with a wider game. They cannot hide the limited toybox of things you can actually do on a mission, so enemies and tasks are reused over and over again. Nor can they hide dreary, lifeless environments. When it got to the point of traipsing back and forth across sprawling but empty zones designed for other players, the focused story spell of Knights of the Fallen Empire almost broke entirely. It's a game world that feels old, and looks it - more handsome than the decade-old KOTOR games, sure, but far, far away from what a new role-playing game by BioWare could be.The games Obsidian never got to make Rummaging through the pitch drawers.
It's a bit of a paradox. Knights of the Fallen Empire would be better without Star Wars: The Old Republic, but without SWTOR it would not exist - and I'm happy it does. Whether or not the upcoming Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion can do much about those underlying issues, bend the rules even further, I don't know. I hope so, because I enjoyed Knights of the Fallen Empire in spite of my preconceptions. It almost itched the scratch, and for £8.99 it's one hell of a generous package (especially considering there's a whole MMO of story content underneath if you want to keep playing). It's not KOTOR 3, nor will Knights of the Eternal Throne be, nor will SWTOR ever be, because KOTOR 3 must be something completely new, something single-player, and something that looks cutting edge, shallow as that is to say. But SWTOR does feel a lot like KOTOR 2.5, and with Knights of the Eternal Throne on the horizon will only get better.