The Evolution of MMOs
From Norrath to The Old Republic
Welcome back to our next in-depth look at the graphics and gameplay of games. Today we’ll examine massively multiplayer online games.
Titanic games in size, scope, and success, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) have been an integral part of gaming since 1999. The early titles, despite the lack of high-speed internet, experienced popularity unimagined at that time in gaming. Connecting players all over the world, these titles shaped not only their genre, but influenced other genres and pop culture for years to come.
Everquest (1999, PC)
Produced by Sony Online Entertainment, Everquest was among the very first of games of this genre. Released shortly after Ultima Online, EQ had really only that title to compete with, but it was nonetheless a tall order. The Ultima series had been cultivating a fan base for years and trying to create an MMO alongside it that could compete or beat it would be hard work. The game centers around the land of Norrath, a fantasy world of massive cities, forests, jungles, and dungeons, rife with monsters to fight and treasure to be won [ 1 ].
As is common in MMOs and will be common in each one I mention here, there is a great variety in character creation, and Everquest, being among the first, helped to set that bar high. Players can choose from a variety of fantasy races including elves, dwarves, gnomes, ogres, trolls, as well as the typical humans, all displayed in their own graphic representations that reflect their traditional fantasy appearance. Each race has its own stat base with variations based upon your choice; some races have more strength, others more dexterity, and so on. Each race has a limited selection of classes it can choose from. In the original release there were 14 character classes to choose from, later expanded to 16. These are inspired from traditional D&D classes, such as the Paladin, Rogue, Ranger, Wizard, Monk, Druid and Cleric. These, combined with a few appearance options for facial appearance, give EQ both a large visual and mechanical variety in player characters.
On its release, the game’s interface left a lot to be desired. Anyone with any modern MMO experience would expect scalable and moveable windows and bars, but “vanilla”—that is, the base game on release—Everquest had a static interface. It still had all the staples, as it in fact is responsible for these staples, like the chat box, ability/spell bar, health/mana/stamina bar, inventory/character card and so on, but unfortunately stuck where they were. This was addressed in later versions of the game and made the overall visual experience much better. In combat you were treated to the old-time graphics visualization of your character swinging a sword or casting spells. The animations weren’t heavily varied, featuring simple down or cross swings regardless of melee weapon and plain bow animations, though the spells did offer a bit more to look at. You also got notifications in the chat window about how much damage was being done by your character and to your character, as well as any spells that were cast. Buff and debuff spells—spells that enhance your character or reduce their ability—were represented by flashing square icons at the top right of the screen, letting you know immediately if they were still in effect. These have a solidifying effect on the bright particle effects and explosions that appear on screen.
Environments in EQ are legion. This game has existed for over 20 years and has gotten a new expansion nearly every year, each one adding new towns, dungeons, and so on. It’s a task, in and of itself, to visit every game location; indeed, one could make it a side-goal to do so. Given that the graphics are not complex—even in current implementations of the game—the starting towns are not very expansive or elaborate. There are NPCs for your character class that can train them in new spells and abilities, as well as merchants who can sell you basic gear and crafting skills. The world outside the towns is where you’ll spend most of your game time, hunting and killing monsters for loot and experience. These areas feel open and alive, despite their blocky polygons. This isn’t grimdark fantasy either; these locales are brightly colored and vibrant almost to a fault. Having so much to see is both a blessing and a curse for Everquest, as despite the wonderful visual experience awaiting only the most dedicated players will get to experience all of it.
In the land of Norrath, monsters abound just about everywhere. New characters will face meager enemies like large snakes or rats, wolves, and a few minor humanoid enemies like goblins. As you progress in level and gather better gear, you can move on to more dangerous locations with bigger monsters, like gargoyles, vampires, and dragons. The enemy challenges are mostly straightforward—attack the foe until it dies, or you die. Sometimes enemies come in hordes, and sometimes they come alone. Raid bosses—boss monsters inside large open-world dungeons—also function basically the same, though some of them have different phases they go into, depending on how much damage they have taken. Overall, the combat of EQ captured a certain magic in its heyday, but these days looks and feels quite dated.
Everquest’s most obvious innovations in massive-multiplayer gaming come in the form of its 3-D world. Never before had a game with such ambition, to have a three-dimensional, fully interconnected, and constantly present online world, been attempted. Despite the early flaws, the land of Norrath was a place that inspired thousands of gamers all over the world and provided them with hours of entertainment. Though it is dated, its continued expansions always sought to improve the game as a whole; however, given that the game has been around for 20 years, the constant push for expansions has bloated the game world somewhat, while at the same time setting a new industry standard of an ever-changing game world, for better or for worse. When Everquest was popular, I was part of a crowd that rejected it. It was kind of a dumb rejection, mostly because my friends said it wasn’t a very fun game, so I never really gave it a chance in its heyday. Little did I know the type of cultural significance and impact it would have on the gaming industry. This classic game marks an important milestone in MMO history as well as the history of game graphics, as this was the first time that this had been done. Believe it or not, you can still play Everquest today (for free) in case you are curious to explore this world.
Dark Age of Camelot (2001, PC)
Borrowing heavily from Arthurian lore, Dark Age of Camelot was developed by Mythic Entertainment. Players adventure in the world of Albion, Midgard, and Hibernia, taking on the roles of various mythical heroes of these realms [ 2 ].
As its predecessors, DaoC has an abundance of options in character creation. First, the player must choose one of three realms—Albion, the classic Arthurian court; Midgard, the land of northmen and Viking mythology; and Hibernia, land of the fey. Each of these realms has their own races and classes, and while these are close in variation for PvP balance purposes, each one is different enough in appearance and stats to be an actual unique combination. Albion is home to mostly humans, though there are Inconnu, a race of pale humanoids that closely resemble a stereotypical fantasy elf. There are Half Ogres as well, and the classics—Paladins, Clerics, Wizards—and a few more esoteric classes like Theurgist, Necromancer and Reaver. Midgard has native Kobolds, Dwarves, Trolls and more, who can become Berserkers, Thanes, Valkyries, and Runemasters. Hibernia boasts Firbolgs, Elves and Sylvans, with classes like the Druid, Ranger, Banshee, and Champion. Each realm’s races and classes bring their own advantages and disadvantages, as well as their own visual style. Indeed, when Mythic made this game and drew from so many classic mythologies, they could have easily stumbled in fleshing them out both visually and mechanically, but they didn’t. No matter which land you choose, your character’s visualization is splendidly steeped in the classic lore that they are inspired from. Animations are a delight as well, with emotes for dancing, laughing, pointing and so on. Anyone can perform these with slash commands, as well as nicely mapped combat animations including things as complex as combination moves—moves you must use in succession to properly activate—and an abundance of spell effects that are quite entertaining to behold.
The interface took a hint from EQ’s updates and features customizable chat boxes, player status bars, and spell/ability bars. Inventory and character management is done via a card that drops down from a bar in the top right, which can be re-sized for easier reading. This is where you’ll see what’s equipped, what’s in the current inventory slots, what spells and abilities you can assign to your active bar, and what special passives you have unlocked. There is also a hidden display for buffs and debuffs in the top left, only active when those effects are active. It’s a simple and elegant design, if slightly primitive compared to modern MMOs.
The regions of the game are vast and varied, though not as vast as more modern titles like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. Exploring the whole of the game world is more or less achievable by the average player, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less visual splendor. Albion conjures the classic mythological European realm of Camelot, with castles and villages, forests and plains, mountains and deep caverns. Midgard is the land of Vikings, with snowy fields and frozen lakes. Hibernia is a verdant land of enchanted flora and fauna. The dungeons are just as detailed as the over-world, with sprawling tombs and catacombs, temples, bandit hideouts, and dragon lairs. Each town is populated by important NPCs, such as merchants, class tutors, and quest givers, though otherwise they lack life without players populating them.
When it comes to enemies, there’s no shortage in DaoC. From the humble goblins, pixies, and the ever-present rats to cockatrices, demons, golems, and the mighty dragon. While each foe offers different levels of danger, there’s not too great a variety in how they attack. Indeed, though several enemies cast spells, they’ll often only cast one or two different kinds of spells. Some enemies may inflict a damage-over-time effect, but ultimately this offers little difference from straightforward attack damage, save in large groups. This game still follows the core of old MMO grinding, where battling over and over is the only real way to increase level, and while the enemy visual variety can make this entertaining, one still has to enjoy repetition to get through it. The one unique combat feature of DaoC is its Realm vs Realm PvP experience. Players can group up or join a solo queue for PvP against one of the other two realms, vying for control of lands that hold ancient relics, which in turn offer a realm-wide buff. This territorial combat also featured special siege weaponry, allowing attacking forces to break through the walls or gates of the keep or fort they were assaulting. This feature, and the overall Realm vs. Realm map design, made PvP both fun and profitable.
While Everquest set many standards that Dark Age of Camelot followed, like customizable race and class options and a smoothed-out interface, it also changed the way MMOs approach player vs player combat. The idea of a three-way war between factions is not entirely new, but it was something that had yet to be attempted in an MMO setting. My only wish is that it could have been fully realized, with all three factions present on the same battlefield. This game was also the first MMO I ever played, and it forever established my own expectations for the genre with its fun and engaging combat. This classic MMO was dead for a time but came back and is still running if you have a mind to check it out.
Star Wars Galaxies (2003, PC)
The first iteration of a Star Wars MMO, Galaxies: An Empire Divided (more commonly called Galaxies), was a very ambitious project by Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts to bring the Star Wars universe to life in an online environment that wasn’t a fan forum [ 3 ].
Character creation featured the prominent races of the Star Wars universe. Apart from humans, you have Wookiees, Bothans, Twi’leks, Mon Calamari, Zabrak, Trandoshan, Sullustan and Ithorian. Each race was rendered in, at the time, state-of-the-art graphics that more or less made them look just like their movie counterparts. Each race had its own balance of the HAM bar pools—Health, Action, and Mind pools that each class draws upon differently in order to perform their basic functions. In the “vanilla” game release, there were seven basic professions that, once mastered, unlocked elite or hybrid professions, and you could’ve, theoretically, changed and mastered each and every one. There were classic fighting archetypes like the Bounty Hunter, Smuggler, and Commando. Those who had mind to craft could be Architects, Chefs, Droid Engineers, and Shipwrights. There was also a branch for entertainment, an important aspect of the game for those who relied heavily on the Mind pool, and these included Dancers, Musicians, and Image Designers. Being able to mix and match up to three professions gave every player a massive amount of control over what they could do in the world. On top of this massive amount of customization were the excellent animations. Indeed, this was one of the first MMOs to use motion-capture technology to make character motions look more natural, and it succeeded with flying colors.
The game interface sported a sci-fi theme, with screens mimicking holograph-projected text boxes. Character management and inventory management follows the card-style featured in many MMOs, and there is an ability/spell bar and chat window as well. Where Galaxies parts ways with other classic MMOs is its economy, which was entirely player-driven. If you wanted high-level armor or a rocket launcher? A player had to have crafted one, and put it up for sale, and you had to find their store. That’s right, on top of player-driven economies this game was a sandbox, meaning players can make homesteads even whole towns of their own. The implementation of this was clunky at times, but there were few things quite as satisfying as making your own house, store, or even building up a village with other players. Thanks to the smooth texturing, you could enjoy the aesthetic of it all.
Being that this game was set in the Star Wars continuity, you naturally would have gotten to visit several of the key planets of the setting. The harsh desert world of Tatooine, the lush jungles of Naboo, the city planet of Corellia, Talus, Rori, Dantooine, Lok, Yavin 4, the forest moon of Endor, and Dathomir. Each planet had its own geography, topography, weather, cities, outposts, and more. This was another game where the visual abundance is so great that the average player most likely would not be able to see it all. Regardless, each planet’s visual construction, from the famous ones to the obscure, looked and felt unique.
Enemies, oh man the enemies! The detail of the wild creatures on each planet was not skimped on. The massive Rancors of Dathomir, the colossal Krayt Dragons of Tatooine, the tiny Ewoks of Endor, each of the iconic creatures of Star Wars are brought to life in stunning detail. Add to this the forces of the Empire, the Rebellion, and the various criminal organizations, and you had no shortage of foes to battle. You could also engage in PvP, with the focus being on the struggle between the Empire and the Rebellion, with rewards unique to each faction. Both PvE and PvP are a glorious mess thanks to the insane multi-classing that was possible in this game. Imagine heading into the frontlines of a PvP battle in your best weapon-resistant armor, only to get punched to death by a Teräs Käsi skilled player. Or imagine trying to administer field medicine as a Combat Medic whilst being bashed and slashed by vibro-blades and hammers, on top of getting blasted to hell by support gunners. At certain tiers of play, players could even bring in combat vehicles like an AT-ST to increase the devastation.
I was among the many squeeing fans when this game was first announced. Star Wars was my jam, and an MMO set in that universe almost seemed too good to be true. Well, it kind of was. I loved the game because I loved Star Wars, a lot more so than I loved how the game played. It wasn’t a bad game, but it was a poor execution of a great idea. I grinded for hours on end trying to unlock the secret Jedi slots, because who doesn’t want to be a Jedi in a Star Wars game? Sadly, I never got that far.
As fun as this game was in days long past, it experienced its fair share of design mishaps and mismanagement. It came to its inevitable end in 2011, right before the release of the newer, brighter Star Wars MMO in The Old Republic.
World of Warcraft (2004, PC)
You knew I would have to cover this; the motherlode, the breaker of all games before it, the destroyer of social lives: World of Warcraft. Developed by Blizzard Entertainment, based on its signature Warcraft RTS franchise, WoW was possibly the most hyped MMO of all time. Yes, even more than Galaxies [ 4 ].
Coming into character creation, in vanilla (often called “classic” nowadays) WoW, players can choose from most of the iconic races of the Warcraft universe. On the Alliance side you have Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Night Elves, and on the Horde side you have Orcs, Tauren, Trolls and the Undead. There are some races notably missing from vanilla that were featured in the RTS games, such as Goblins and High Elves, but these came in due time with later expansions. Even so, the base game offers plenty of variety here, in both customizing appearance and in-class choices: Warriors, Hunters, Mages, Warlocks, Priests, Rogues, Druids, and the then unique to the Alliance Paladins, and Horde Shamans. While WoW is not the first MMO to limit class selection based on factions (see DAoC), it was a choice made almost entirely on established lore, and not on any concerns about game balance (although truthfully not much was based on balance). This aside, regardless of what your race and class combination ended up being; each one has a fantastic, stylized aesthetic.
Indeed, in terms of graphic presentation, WoW did one thing that MMOs before, save Everquest, had not done: it stayed away from “realism.” Instead, WoW’s graphics fully embrace the somewhat cartoonish style that was established in Warcraft 3, and this style choice both allowed the game to run more smoothly and to better attract those players who were already invested in the Warcraft universe. Movement animations are uniquely tailored to each race. Human men tend to swing their weapons like they are large clubs or baseball bats, and cast spells in a side profile stance, favoring the right hand. Orc males hew downward with ferocity and bring spells to bear with their left hands. Night Elf females move and attack like martial artists, and their magic comes blasting out of both hands, hadouken style. Each race and gender combo even had its own style of dancing and other social emotes. Giving each race not only a signature look, but a signature animation style makes them feel more unique, and also makes creating new characters a truly different experience every time.
WoW’s interface, being the newest at the time, was quite sleek. Your active abilities bar is centered at the bottom, which could be expanded to include more bars as you amassed more skills and spells. Your character’s health and mana or energy was in the top left, your inventory, hidden until called upon, in the bottom right, and when opened displays a character card representing your avatar and what it currently looks like with the gear equipped. Casting times are displayed when spells are used and come in the form of either a countdown or count-up bar below your character. Enemy health is displayed in the top left, next to your own status, when an enemy is selected, and the top right is reserved for the map/compass, which also displays notifications for the in-game mailing system. The graphics and icons for spells and equipment follow the established aesthetic of Warcraft 3, in some cases using spell icons directly from that game. Some might consider this lazy design, but this allowed fans of the franchise to more closely live out the fantasy of being a hero in this universe.
The game map of the world of Azeroth is quite large, with two continents on the main world and, later on, additional islands and other planes of existence. For our purposes, we’re going to remain focused on the vanilla game as otherwise it gets too complicated. Each of the racial starting areas is a mirror of the previous title’s lore, but bigger and better. Stormwind, the capital city for Humans, holds the classic fantasy aesthetic of the walled-in castle town, with cobbled streets, waterways, churches, taverns and so on. Orgrimmar, for Orcs and Trolls, is carved into the earth and reinforced with its surrounding walls, the streets made of natural dirt which twist and turn, reflecting its more rugged build. Darnassus, capital for Night Elves, has a design meant to be harmonious with nature, the stone buildings not disturbing the massive trees within, and indeed even some buildings seem to sprout from those trees. Thunder Bluff, for the Tauren, is reminiscent of Native American designs and strives for a minimalist impact on nature, being built literally on jutting high bluffs connected by wooden bridges. Every world location keeps in mind elements of the real world—the north is cold and snowy, the south is a humid jungle, the lands between are temperate forests and plains. Though it is a massive world with much to see, none of the designs feel lazy or lackadaisical, and the various quests that players can undertake will have them traveling the length and breadth of it all.
There are many foes in WoW, and each one has its own way of fighting, though some may be comparable to others. Something like a wild boar, which can be found in various places in the world, will charge into battle with its tusks and stun its target. Quillboars, a type of humanoid pig, may employ melee or ranged weapons, and some of their leaders have special abilities like inflicting bleed or fear. Enemy spellcasters of all kinds can draw from the same spells the players have access to, and in some cases spells unique to them, making each one its own challenge. Dungeons are large, instanced spaces with several bosses, each bringing their own special powers to bear and requiring five players to operate as at least a semi-well-oiled machine. That’s before you begin joining others for raids, which are huge dungeons that ask for forty players (or less, but scaling difficulty accordingly), feature even bigger monsters and bosses, and provide legendary loot to make defeating these foes worthwhile. The plethora of unique enemy designs, spells, and lairs are a bountiful feast for the eyes, with no two being exactly alike. The excellent visual design of these enemies is a testament to the dedication of Blizzard’s artists.
World of Warcraft changed the entire landscape of MMOs, heightening expectations for gameplay, graphics, social interaction, and basic interfaces. Today, you can even download customizable interface add-ons, improving an already great system with additional spell buttons and even pre-programmed raid boss alerts. You can count me among the first to jump right into the game. Having been a fan of the Warcraft franchise for many years, I was beyond excited to play it in an MMO setting; in fact, I had been saying they needed to make an MMO out of Warcraft for some time before the game was announced. This game was another huge time sink in my life, and while I quit it more than once, I ended up coming back again and again for the new and exciting content. I did finally quit for good after defeating the final raid boss in the Cataclysm expansion. A few years ago, WoW went to a model where it’s free to play for the first 20 experience levels. While it is fun, it can also be addicting, you have been warned!
Guild Wars (2005, PC, OSX)
Hot off the heels of the MMO renaissance ushered in by WoW, Guild Wars came at a time where the giant that was World of Warcraft seemed unchallengeable. ArenaNet and NCSOFT sought to make a game that would capitalize on the newfound popularity of the MMO genre and stand out enough to draw players away from the titan that was and is WoW. Its main draw was that it did not feature a monthly subscription, a mainstay of MMOs since the beginning, as maintaining servers and a support staff for these kinds of games is not free. Instead, Guild Wars relied on putting out game expansions and other micro-transactions for funding [ 5 ].
Character creation was more simplified in Guild Wars compared to other MMOs. There were no racial choices to speak of; instead, players simply choose a starting class, gender, and a limited selection of appearance modifications for their avatar, all of which were human. The vanilla launch classes included Warrior, Ranger, Monk, Necromancer, Mesmer, and Elementalist, which reflected the archetypal MMO classes of other games and functioned much the same. Warriors wear heavy armor and wield large weapons, Rangers master the bow and some spell abilities, Mesmers offer buffing and debuffing, filling the battlefield support role.
What made the Guild Wars professions system different from other MMOs is that players would also choose a secondary class to supplement their main one. You could be a Warrior/Ranger, a Necromancer/Elementalist, and so forth. This class combining system allowed for a lot of customization within the game mechanics, allowing players to mix and match spells and skills to their hearts content. You also had the option on character creation to make your character either a Roleplaying or PvP type. Roleplaying characters follow the regular MMO experience of adventuring through the world, embarking on quests, slaying monsters and some side activities like crafting. PvP characters are just that, restricted to PvP activities, for players who didn’t care as much about game lore and want to get into the competitive action. Character animations were smooth and clean, using a combination of MoCap and traditional animation techniques. While everyone is human, the amount of variety in class and appearance was able to stifle the somewhat sameness of this limitation.
The game’s interface shared some similarities with WoW, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The top right showed the compass/map, the top left displayed the server menu and party formation menu. The bottom showed your level and experience bar, mana bar, health bar, and the active skill bar, which is limited to eight. This limitation was intentional, requiring players to construct a deliberate build with their class and subclass combination, as having access to every single skill or ability whenever you like would unbalance the game. You may learn every skill for your main class and subclass, but you are still limited to using only eight at a time. The bottom left had the main menu button, which, as you might expect, opens the main menu card. The inventory card showed what is currently equipped and what it looks like on your character as well as what items you currently have available. As a whole the interface is pleasing enough to look at, and functions well, being mostly intuitive for any player familiar with MMOs.
The game world of Guild Wars takes place entirely in instanced zones, removing the MMO staple of free roaming the world around you. The game setting is the fictional land of Tyria, a sprawling continent split by a massive mountain range, with seas to the northwest and southwest. Players go to different staging areas, typically towns or villages or outposts, to gather the respective area quests. Then they venture into the instanced PvE areas to complete those quests and advance the game’s story. The instances are somewhat explorable, but they don’t offer the typical massive worlds showcased in prior MMOs.
There were many foes in Guild Wars. Some were twists on classic monsters like skeletons and ghosts, demons and dragons, giants and ogres. Others were unique to Guild Wars, like the Dredge, a race of hideous mole people in the north, or the Charr, a race of sentient beasts that resemble horned canines. Each monster’s design was styled to be a grim and gothic variant of its typical fantasy trope. Dragons, for example, look like a combination of western and eastern styles, having long, slender bodies with massive wings and whiskered maws. There were also plenty of variety in the enemy ranks, such as skeletons that reflect the player classes of warrior, ranger, monk and so forth, dressed in that class’ typical regalia and weaponry. The variety in enemy types and strategies was deep enough that no two encounters are exactly alike, though you can replay instanced missions where the events and enemy spawns remain the same. Combat ranged from small skirmishes to massive battles, reflecting the typical tiers of dungeon and raid play.
Guild Wars was quite successful, either despite or because it broke some of the traditional molds of MMOs. One can tell how much work and care went into crafting the world’s visualization in order to make it both familiar and new. Despite being a World of Warcraft fanboy, I gave Guild Wars a try, and found that it was enjoyable, and quite a different MMO experience. I didn’t end up sticking with it, as I just happened to find World of Warcraft more enjoyable, partially for the established lore and partially for the more traditional MMO gameplay elements. You can still play the original game and its expansions today, as well as its sequel, Guild Wars 2.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011, PC)
Now we come to the spiritual successor to SW:Galaxies. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the latest and greatest of the MMO genre from Lucas Arts, EA and BioWare. Set in a period 3,600 years before the prequel films, SWTOR takes elements from the movies and the expanded universe into its setting, giving fans of the franchise plenty to dive into [ 6 ].
A completely different game from its predecessor, SWTOR’s character creation follows the traditional MMO model of race and class combinations. There are two factions to choose from, Sith Empire or Galactic Republic, and there are neutral races that can belong to either, being Human, Cyborg, Twi’lek and Zabrak, followed by faction-specific races. You can select Miraluka or Mirialan for the Republic, and Chiss, Rattataki or Sith Pureblood for the Empire. As is typical, each race selection offers a plethora of choices to customize appearance, including height, eyes, hairstyles, and more. While classes have different names for each faction, they are functionally reflections of one another. Sith Warrior corresponds with Jedi Knight, Sith Inquisitor with Jedi Consular, Bounty Hunter with Trooper, and Imperial Agent with Smuggler.
These classes are iterations of the most popular character archetypes from the movies, but also contain a few more unique and fun skills for players to take advantage of. Of note, SWTOR took the approach that Jedi and Sith are regular classes, and not super-powered uber men, despite what Force abilities they might have in great contrast to how powerful they were in Galaxies. This choice more closely reflects the prequel movies, where audiences witnessed how a bounty hunter might take on a Force-wielding Jedi and stand his ground. The in-game avatars for each of these classes are a great presentation of their movie universe namesakes. Troopers and Bounty Hunters sport heavy armor and heavy weapons, Jedi and Sith have their typical Lightsabers and various force powers, and Smugglers and Imperial Agents wear regular clothing to better blend in with their surroundings. Animations are buttery smooth, and as one might expect, these visualizations are rendered in wonderful 3-D models, as fits the more modern technologies used to develop this game.
In terms of the interface, SWTOR is not lacking for style. The various windows and cards are presented as blue holoscreens, reflective of the sci-fi theme of the game universe. The ever-present map/compass is in the bottom right. The chat, current location, and mail notifications are in the top left. The various menu icons are top center, located on a small bar, and directly below this bar is your character’s name, including any titles currently displayed. The top right shows the drop-down menu of current missions and objectives. When the main menu or character cards are opened, they pop up dead center of the screen. Lastly, center bottom is the character’s status bars and ability bars. The interface as a whole looks good and functions well, meeting and sometimes exceeding the expected MMO standards.
As any Star Wars fan might expect, SWTOR’s in-game locations consist of several planets, some of which are iconic locations from the movie franchise, and others from the expanded universe. The famous locations include Alderaan (RIP), Corellia, Coruscant, Hoth, Korriban, Tatooine and Tython. The slew of somewhat lesser known but not less important planets are Balmorra, Belsavis, Dromund Kass, Hutta, Ilum, Makeb, Nar Shadda. Ord Mantell, Quesh, Taris and Voss. Now you might be thinking—that’s far too much! Depending on how you see it you might be right. However, players visiting each of these planets will note that you cannot explore the entirety of each orb. Each planet contains a few playable areas, and in the traditional MMO sense act more like separate continents. This choice is both wise and necessary, as building 20 whole planets is a fool’s errand. Each location sports its own cities, towns, and wilderness areas, each fully fleshed out and rendered with beautiful textures and set pieces. By looks alone, one truly feels as though they have been transported into the Star Wars universe.
The enemies and combat are as varied as the locations. Players will encounter the typical sci-fi fare of enemy soldiers and spies, rampaging beasts, combat droids, and various sentient but evil species of humanoid. These foes vary in appearance per the individual planets, though many will employ similar types of weapons, powers and strategies. As follows typical MMO fashion, enemies start out easy to defeat and become more deadly as you progress through the storyline of the game. Regular combat is quick and exciting, with blaster bolts, rockets and force powers flying, matching the typical pace set by the films. The small party dungeon and large party raid combat against higher-powered minions and bosses will require more planning, time, and skill to overcome, and they certainly are not lacking in visual splendor.
If you are looking for a wonderful visual experience in the Star Wars universe, then SWTOR is right up your alley. It remains mostly free to play, with a subscription format for higher-end content should one desire it. I took advantage of this semi-free model to check the game out a few years ago, and what I did play through I liked a lot. Had my life been less busy, and my desire for MMOs not already quite drained by my many years in WoW, I may have played this game a lot more.
In the history of MMOs games, there are no projects that aren’t ambitious. The very nature of this genre of game requires a metric ton of passion, skill and dedication to create one’s own. Even in their earliest iterations, they reflected this. From the humblest graphics of the pre-2000s to the high-res 3-D models of today, these games showcased how far multi-player games could go, both in visuals and in scope.
- “The original MMO juggernaut may not have aged well. It is, however, a fixture in gaming history.” Fahey, Mike. “The Original EverQuest Has Not Aged Well.” Kotaku, 3 Apr. 2019, kotaku.com/the-original-everquest-has-not-aged-well-1833779714
- “Dark Age of Camelot (DaoC) was a significant leap forward in structures, took notes from Everquest’s customizable User Interface and featured robust character generation with matching visuals apropos to the referenced cultures.” Dark Age of Camelot Screenshots for Windows. MobyGames, www.mobygames.com/game/windows/dark-age-of-camelot/screenshots/gameShotId,82052
- “Star Wars Galaxies had a deeply varied experience, with various patches and expansions drastically altering the play styles and conceits of the environment. Crafting and Trade leaders, space combat PVP” Source: “Star Wars Galaxies: The Total Experience.” IGN, www.ign.com/games/star-wars-galaxies-the-total-experience
- “Blizzard’s 800-pound gorilla in any discussion of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft popularized the genre across its many revisions and expansions. While not all fans were thrilled at the retcons to the Azeroth setting, it’s remained the enduring status quo.” World of Warcraft. PC. Activision-Blizzard, 2004.
- “After its predecessor was criminally underrated for years, Guild Wars 2, and its various expansions has continued to soak up relevance in the Free to Play market.” Guild Wars 2. PC. NCSOFT, 2012.
- “The last vestige of the prior Star Wars Expanded Universe, The Old Republic has been and remains an evolving ecosystem further adding quality developments to the saga.” Star Wars: The Old Republic on Steam. store.steampowered.com/app/1286830/STAR_WARS_The_Old_Republic
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
- Everquest. PC/Windows, Sony Online, 1999.
- Dark Age of Camelot. PC/Windows, Mythic Entertainment, 2001.
- Sony Online Staff. “Take Part in a Thriving Star Wars Community.” Star Wars Galaxies, Sony Online Entertainment. web.archive.org/web/20100206075426/starwarsgalaxies.station.sony.com/players/index.vm. Accessed 23 January, 2020.
- World of Warcraft. PC/Windows, Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.
- Guild Wars. PC/Windows, NCSoft, 2005.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic. PC/Windows, Electronic Arts, 2011.