In which I ramble on about “Encounter at Farpoint”, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and a woman building a TARDIS.
Yesterday, on a whim, I rewatched Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s pilot story, “Encounter at Farpoint”. It had been quite a long time, so I was looking at it with, if not fresh eyes, at least not entirely jaundiced ones.
Yup…still kinda sucks.
It’s not abjectly terrible, mind you. Patrick Stewart immediately shows his qualities, for example, portraying a character very different from Pike or Kirk. His Picard is a bit of an introvert, an explorer, an intellectual…and socially awkward as hell in any remotely informal situation. On the bridge, in command, in diplomacy, Picard is on, but the minute it gets the least bit personal or private, he’s completely at sea. His first conversations with Riker, as well as his interactions with Beverly and Wesley on the bridge, show that most strongly.
Also, strangely, Frakes own performance as Riker bugs me less here than I think it did when it first aired in 1988. I think back then he just seemed too much like the attempt to present a more Kirk-like character, but now, with more distance, I don’t see it the same way. Riker is young and brash and yeah, the hyper-testosterone is there, but somehow it works better now that I’m not actively trying to compare him to Shatner.
In fact, in the end, most of the performances are fine. John DeLancie sort of steals the show as Q, of course (and really, I think the very first outfit he shows up in, the Renaissance once, should have become his default appearance!), but everyone turns in at least a competent performance. Except for one person.
Troi…oh, Troi…shudder. The only upside to how dreadful Troi is here is that it makes me appreciate how much better she became. I never quite thought the concept of a counselor on the bridge was all that great an idea, honestly, but at least, by the end of the series, the writers and the actress had found ways to make it work. But here? Every time she opens her mouth, I cringe with embarrassment on Marina Sirtis’ behalf.
And then, there’s the overall writing. All pilots suffer a bit from expositionitis, but I had forgotten just how many contrived reasons to explain something, or demonstrate some capability, were jammed in here. One huge example: the saucer separation sequence comes across, now, as nothing more than an excuse to make sure they got the budget to build the Battle Bridge set and create the stock footage for later use. Considering how comparatively rarely the wound up using it in the long run… well, OK, I guess they honestly expected to use it more, to get around the idea that a ship with families would take those civilians into battle. Which, by the way, you’ll never convince me that large numbers of civilians, especially children, belong on starships. So there.
In the end, “Encounter at Farpoint” still remains my least favorite of the six Star Trek pilots. For the record, I rank them thus:
- TOS: “The Cage”
- DS9: “Emissary”
- TOS: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
- ENT: “Broken Bow”
- VOY: “Caretaker”
- TNG: “Encounter at Farpoint”
The simple ordered list, though, doesn’t really convey a sense of scale between them. I consider “The Cage” and “Emissary” to be way out in front, most of the rest to cluster comfortably together in the range of “enjoyable and re-watchable and really not to shabby”, and “Encounter at Farpoint” to rank as, “How the hell did this actually lead to the series getting made?!” What might make this ordering more remarkable is the fact that VOY is my least favorite of the series’, but I actually rather like its pilot. In fact, one reason I dislike the series is that it failed, in my opinion, to live up to its promise.
Anyway, enough about the old. Let’s move on to something a bit newer…
Star Wars: The Old Republic
For those of you who don’t pay any attention to video games, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SW:TOR from here on) is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set a few thousand years before the Star Wars films. Its creators, BioWare, have a history with making role-playing games set in this universe and time period, with the similarly named Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I and II, and this game continues the storyline and concepts forward from those games.
BioWare have a certain distinctive style to all their RPGs (which include the aforementioned SW:KOTOR games, Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, the Mass Effect franchise, and more recently the Dragon Age franchise). All of these games offer the player choices during interactions with NPCs, and those choices actually affect the game, for example. The player always has one or more companions, whom they meet along the way and then choose from for any given set of missions to round out their party. There is generally some concept akin to “the light side” and “the dark side”, which ones actions and conversation choices contribute to and which change the way the game plays out.
So the most pleasant surprise, upon firing up SW:TOR for the first time during early beta access, was that BioWare had somehow managed to preserve all of these elements! For example, a Jedi is not automatically going to stay light-side for the entire game, nor a Sith dark; their choices will determine how they align, and their alignment determines how NPCs interact with them.
But they’ve broadened the concept to work with the idea that one might be running around with a group of other players. Most MMOs have the idea of “rolling” to determine who in a group gets certain special loot items. SW:TOR expands this idea. If you’re part of a group, and you have a conversation with an NPC, and each of you picks a different conversation option, you roll to see whose choice represents the whole group. This seems straightforward enough, but it gets complex! If the choices entail light-side/dark-side points, you get the points that were attached to the choice you yourself made, regardless of who wins the roll. However, in later conversations and quest choices, you will be treated according to how your group behaved.
An example from a friend of mine: he was playing Sith, but actually trying to play to build up light-side points. He was running in a group with someone who won a particular action roll with a choice that was dark-side. He got the light-side points, but afterward, his trainer refused to speak to him (presumably he could find another that would), because she was disgusted by the atrocity he and his group had committed!
Also, all of the NPC conversations are performed with full animation and voice acting. This has mixed results, as you might imagine, but for the most part, the voice acting is pretty adequate, and at any rate, it’s a welcome change (in my opinion) from other games of this sort I’ve played. A look on IMDB at the credits showed some interesting names, like Grey DeLisle, whose voice is all over the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and who has been voicing BioWare games forever. I could have sworn I heard Kate Mulgrew’s voice at one point, but she’s not credited (she is credited in Dragon Age, though ).
At any rate, adding full voice acting to these interactions makes the entire experience significantly more immersive, and definitely helps to make quest chains feel like stories!
Then, there’s the companion system. World of Warcraft and other games have the idea that certain character classes can have “combat pets” — animals or familiars that can help you during fights and are often almost as good as having another player along.
SW:TOR expands on this idea, building on BioWare’s hallmarks, and allows every character to have combat companions. Your first companion is generally complementary in fighting style — if you’re a melee attacker they’ll be more of a ranged attacker; if you’re sort of a stealthily, rogue-like character they’ll be a bit more of a tank, drawing fire so you can hang back and lob grenades and snipe from cover; and so on. When you get a ship, the ship might come with a droid, who acts as another companion. Later on, you get introduced to additional companions with different skill sets and classes that you can choose to take along instead of your original companion. For example, if you’re going into a situation where you know you’re really going to want a healer, you can bring that companion along instead of your fellow fighter.
This doesn’t really help you on quests that are designed for multiple players. In WoW, for example, if you’re a hunter, you can sometimes manage a two-person instance with just yourself and your pet; but because everyone in SW:TOR has a companion, a “Heroic 2+” area still really calls for two or more actual players and their companions.
Beyond these things, the game actually feels a lot like WoW. For starters, you have to choose a specific server (from dozens) to log into. Different servers have different rulesets — Player-vs-Environment, Player-vs-Player, and both with an “RP” variant where you’re expected to more actively play your character when interacting with other players. I almost always play PvE, because I’m not into these games for beating up on other players
At any rate, the separate-servers method is a decent way to sort of manually load-balance, but it means that you and people you know may wind up unable to interact in-game because you’re not on the same server. By contrast, games like City of Heroes and Eve Online connect everyone together in a single game universe. This is undoubtedly more complex for their programmers, but means that you never have to choose which set of friends you want to interact with.
But more than such technical details, the quest chains and style of story-telling feels a lot like WoW. You have quests that are specific to your character class, and then a lot of side-quests that are available to anyone who’s playing in the area. You have quests that lead you into “Heroic” areas, requiring a group to complete them but yielding high-quality loot at social points in the bargain. You wind up doing a lot of running around maps, but there are also quick-transit points you can jump back to (once every half-hour), and also taxis for transport between areas of a given map (any time you want if you have the credits). Unlike the WoW hearthstone, which can only be bound to a single return point, the you can bind to multiple quick-transit points on a given map.
So, ultimately, if you like BioWare games in general; if you like WoW; or if you like the Star Wars universe, there’s likely to be something about SW:TOR you’re going to enjoy.
This woman built a TARDIS and made a very entertaining video about it. Go watch!