View From the Road

View From the Road
View From The Road: Flash Frozen

John Funk | 25 Jan 2010 17:00
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I think it's a matter of public record by this point that I am really, really looking forward to BioWare's massively multiplayer take on the Star Wars universe. It's a beloved setting in the hands of a popular and talented developer, and almost everything we've seen looks pretty damn cool so far. If there's one area where I'm not ready to drink the Kool-Aid yet, though, it's BioWare's stated goal of making a story-based MMOG, which is both a problem and the most ambitious part of what they're trying to accomplish.

I'm not talking about the standard argument of "Oh, how can we feel like the hero of the story when we know that every other Level 26 Jedi Knight has done the exact same thing," either. All it takes to get around that is good presentation and some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, which isn't as big a hurdle as it may seem. Rather, I'm talking about the pure mechanics, specifically the idea of "Flash Points."

Flash Points, as outlined by BioWare, are moments in the story where your choice will make a difference. Do you show mercy and spare the life of someone, or do you kill them for their disobedience? Every choice opens up new paths and avenues for the story - in theory, anyway. If this sounds like old news to you, it's because that this sort of thing has been in every BioWare game in recent memory. It's standard, it's tried-and-true, and it works...

...except for when you have multiple people calling the shots. This is my main hang-up with the idea, one that was driven home last weekend while playing Army of Two: The 40th Day.

While it may seem odd to compare a shallow, uber-macho third-person shooter slaughterfest to an epic sci-fi fantasy MMORPG, it's not quite as crazy as you think. Army of Two had a minor storytelling mechanic very similar to TOR's Flash Points, where the protagonists Salem and Rios would be given the opportunity to make a major choice once per level. If offered a hefty bonus to eliminate the person they'd been working with up until that point, would they spare his life and let him get away, or shoot him in the back of the head for the extra money?

If you were playing through the story by yourself, then it wasn't a problem. You made the choice, you saw the cutscene, you moved on. But if you were playing it with a friend, whoever chose first was the one whose choice was accepted. So if you voted to spare the guy but your partner beat you to it by voting "kill," then he got a bullet between the eyes. It was a minor thing, but it could be a bit frustrating to see the story turn out differently than it would have if you'd been the only one at the controls.

Of course, in Army of Two, it was a nuisance at best. You could play through the game as many times as you like and see the different choices however you wanted. Salem and Rios were not persistent characters, and you didn't win or lose anything by revisiting an earlier chapter of their story to see "what if?"

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