The name is Agent. Imperial Agent.
A lot can be said about EA lately and their present tactics to kill any last original thought someone might have within the company. The recent closure of Visceral Games, and the future of Amy Hennig's promising Star Wars game uncertain, has people understandably worried. Not helped by EA's own spokespeople talking about doing changes to the game, claiming it doesn't fall in line with the kind of games they make. Knowing EA it mostly will get the micropayment procedure. The future of Star Wars games are looking grim. It feels like we're in opposite land, where the amount of quality Star Wars games are few, and the amount of movies are in the many.
All of this brought me to think about BioWare, who's been put into an awkward position in recent time. Talk of bad working environment in regards to the development of Mass Effect Andromeda, said series being put on hiatus for the time being due to poor reception. It feels like a repeat of what happened to Visceral and many other developers that were axed by EA. It led me to think about some of the good that has come out of post-EA takeover in regards to Star Wars. And one thing in particular that crossed my mind was their Star Wars MMO in its early years. Particularly the Imperial Agent class story in said game.
The framework for a Star Wars thriller
"I wanted the agent for myself largely because of that lack of an obvious Star Wars predecessor archetype... So we had our two halves, broadly defined by Star Wars without being all-encompassing. The Imperial half was, as mentioned, the Imperial everyman–with shades of Grand Moff Tarkin, the one non-Sith capable of “holding Vader’s leash” and an equal among the mightiest of the mighty. The espionage half was more ambiguous–we knew what spies in Star Wars did (steal superweapon plans, disguise themselves, snitch to stormtroopers), but not so much who they were." says Alexander Freed, writer of the Imperial Agent Class Story, on his blog regarding the process.
His words generally summarizes what an unprepared player can expect. It is also as he said that because of the lack of any real archetype regarding spy-characters in Star Wars, it was easier to play with expectations because people had none. People were geared up to play their Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or Vader types with the Smuggler, Jedi Knight or Sith. So, just as much as the character the Agent her or himself, the whole class story is a enigma waiting to be solved by the player.
While the Agent story certainly pays its fair share of homages to Bond, it's not in any way a Bond flick. There are no wacky gadgets or cute secretaries to flirt with, the plot plays its spy thrills closer to the likes of Bourne or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But having said that there is a little bit of every type of espionage in this. The Agent's personality touches upon the whole Bond spectrum, everything from the charm of Pierce Brosnan and Sean Connery to the grittyness of Daniel Craig. Should you find yourself playing a female agent instead, you'll be treated to a lot less nasal cavity being dug out with a pickaxe, and more to the soft-spoken and tenderly seductive upper-class voice of Jo Wyatt (Ciri from Witcher, Hawke from Dragon Age) with a bit of Nikita femmefatale touch to her.
And of course your superior officer "Keeper", the one who briefs you, provides you with intel and the target for all of your quips in best Q-esque fashion. And on that note let's talk about the plot.
Lose the accent Mary Poppins!
In contrast to most of the class stories in the game, the Imperial Agent story puts you right into the heat of things. You're an undercover agent, who's been dispatched to the heart of the slimy underworld of Star Wars Nal Hutta, seat of the Hutt Cartel's most influential leaders. The Empire wants to control the underworld and use its influence to undermine the Republics seat of power. Both the Republic and the Empire have declared a temporary truce, which has placed them into a cold war conflict, fought with information and espionage. It's up to you, as an agent of the Empire, to secure faux alliances or seize assets through deception, assassination, you name it. Before you know it you are taking down one of the biggest criminal cartels in the galaxy, all in a days work for the Empire.
Star Wars has never been keen on exploring the dirtier parts of its universe, the numbers that aren't counted when the Death Star blows up, or the thousands of soldiers waging the wars. Plainly put, the civillians. Star Wars Galaxies had players play ordinary people, who could then later become the afforementioned Jedi, Smuggler etc. The Imperial Agent story in TOR, however, places you somewhere in the middle. “We're sanitation workers. We clean up after the military and the Sith.” as Keeper says. While the ongoing conflict between Jedi and Sith are running along its course, you're in the background protecting the little man, who supervises the Emperor's deadly superweapons. You might have to get your hands dirty in order to accomplish this, which is where the moral dilemma comes into play. One the more subtle moral conundrums among BioWare's work, but sadly still dragged down by the dark or light alignment system.
Kiff, we have a conundrum
One of my major gripes with BioWare and their games has always been their inability to portray their characters with any real morally complicated motivations. Sure they've written great characters, like the Glorious Strategist in Jade Empire, whose motivations and goals are as tricky as a rubix cube. But they've never managed to really commit to their "big talk" of choice and consequence. Even when they try to aim for that sweet spot in-between, they normally revert back to the a-typical shining hero trope. Post Dragon Age 2, BioWare has retreated to their comfort zone of basically telling the same story from Origins and KOTOR 1 over and over again.
The Imperial Agent presents an interesting alternative though. A lot of the many tough decisions you make throughout its story feel like they carry weight behind them. You can side with the big bad Sith, who is about to set off a deadly superweapon, ready to kill thousands all so that he may rule the Empire through fear. A neat reflection of the world we live in today, presented through the lens of a Star Wars story. You can also choose to disarm his bomb, at the expense of him escaping and possibly commit more atrocities elsewhere. Or you can also trick him by pretending to side with him, let the weapon do its thing, nab the villain while he is distracted. You capture a dangerous foe at the expense of thousands of people dying.
Conspiracies and mind control
A few paragraphs ago I made the point that the Imperial Agent story doesn't necessarily settle down into just one type of spy thriller. It covers a lot of bases. It feels like each chapter is a completely different spy-novel from the one that came prior, yet it all weaves so seamlessly together. Chapter one was the modern-day, gritty anti-terrorism story, in vein of 24, where all of your supporting casts panickly chatter each other's ears out as a bomb just went off. In Chapter two you get a split between a bombastic Bond flick, with flashy villains and crazy science all wrapped up in a psychological warfare package--like something out of the old British television series The Prisoner and The Machurian Candidate, the former being the obvious reference. Chapter 3 felt like something akin to the sci-fi thriller genre, in vein of Deus Ex or Metal Gear.
But it is already at the moment when you've returned from your dealings with the Hutts on Nal Hutta where the story shows its fangs. You've only gotten a taste of what Imperial Intelligence is capable of, now you get to see what they are really like, and how they operate. As you're being debriefed for a job well done, a bomb goes off, and all of the officers in gray suits bark information back and forth from their screens, as they try to assess the situation. These are the same people in the movies, who are mostly there as a punching bag for Vader's frustrations. As it turns out they are competent experts, trained to deal with situations like this, and the way they go about it feels like something out of House of Cards or West Wing.
After this you're given a promotion and a codeanme "Cipher Nine", to be observed by Watcher Two, basically straight out of The Prisoner. All down to you going to a place called Shadow Town, similar to the Village from said show, where all of the Empire's most troublesome criminals and ex-agents are locked up. It's here where you meet Watcher X, a paranoid former intelligence officer, whose broken down mental state feels like a dark omen of things to come. He represents the aspect of the Empire's inner cogs, who try to do some good but at great risk.
Things escalate only further when you're given another mission involving you infiltrating the Republic's spy network, the SIS. Your induction into their ranks are met with obvious suspicion from the Republic, but ultimately welcomed the same because they wouldn't pass up a chance to learn some intel on the Empire. Especially if they had the means to get it with force. It's here where the story's biggest plot twist unfolds. As it so happens, the Empire is an aggregate of paranoia, thus Imperial Intelligence routinely have their agents brainwashed, using a password, without their knowledge to ensure obedience and loyalty. It's the kind of thing the Empire does to its own people, but the Republic uses it to control you as well.
Invisible to all, The mind becomes a wall. All of history deleted with one stroke
On top of the loss of free will, where you're being forced to partake missions for the Republic, this time at actual behest of the narrative, it also comes with the side effect of brain damage. As you try to find a way to cure it, your character will have hallucinations. Everything from an imaginary droid flying past you, a monster lurking in the background, and a character shooting out of the mouth of another character. It's so acid drippingly surreal you could be forgiven for thinking that the game might be glitching out. Only thanks to the help of Watcher X, or possibly a hallucination created by your own subconcious, you eventually manage to rid yourself of the conditinioning completely.
But then you find yourself at a crossroad. Do you go back to your old boss, and let them tell you why everything that happened to you was a necessity? Or do you forsake the Empire and defect to the Republic for real, despite the fact that they had no qualms about using the trigger word to control you either?
The decisions that you make in the Agent's story have meaning, despite the linearity of the story like any other, there's depth to your choices. Whether you continue to work with Imperial Intelligence, as a servant to the Empire, or whether you become a triple agent for the Republic, the context of which everything happens in is altered. You can even choose to serve the Sith and their Dark Council, despite the fact that largely consists of individuals with all the motivation and charisma of a Powerpuff Girls villain. You can also choose to cut all ties to the galaxy, and aid your allies from the shadows and a Ghost.
Stigma of an MMO, micropayments and stagnation
All of this and more is what you can expect from the Imperial Agent Class Story. All played out in the traditional BioWare, Mass-Effect-y cinematic style, dialogue wheels and everything. But framed around all of this good stuff is the usual MMO tedium to which all games that want to be WoW has to have. You have to deal with a lot of useless filler side quest, some that does feature occasional fun dialogue with NPCs but are largely just another "collect 10 wampa bottocks" for this and that guy, overly huge sized rooms big enough to fit a Star Destroyer, but deliberately designed to compliment the huge servers of people that play. Respawning enemies, carefully placed all over the map in such a way that you're forced to fight them, useless abilities, combat becoming a hindrance and companions standing on top of furniture.
SWTOR is a WoW clone in anything but name and due to its failure to measure up to the costs that it took to make the game, the class story aspect has since been scrampled in favor of linear story expansions in line with the usual BioWare recipe. The game has also seen plenty of changes that favors micropayments, customized gear is no longer something you can get your hands on easily without resorting to Cartel Market. EA's very own Diablo 3 auction house. It is what SWTOR has become now, another asset within EA's gambling business.
When you play the Imperial Agent Story it's impossible not to think that this would have been better as a standalone singleplayer RPG in vein of the old KOTOR games. But in retrospect, the concept of the Imperial Agent wouldn't exist without the Old Republic. The single player RPGs by Obsidian and BioWare centered its focus on Jedi and Sith out of necessity, because the Force and lightsabers make for a huge and much rmarketable brand for Star Wars. When you remove them from the equation, it's usually about handsome scoundrels, courteous droids and wookies. The Original Trilogy will always be the main selling point for Star Wars.
If the idea for a game, where players could carve out their own destiny in a galaxy far, far away, in any way they saw fit while constantly trying to balance the PVP, didn't exist there would be no Imperial Agent. When thinking about it like that, it makes the whole prospect of the Old Republic as an MMO be another necessary evil, like Cipher Nine, who ultimately exist to serve the greater good.
While I know what I would have preferred, I think I'm just glad that this story got to exist. I highly advice checking out Alexander Freed's blog for more insight info on narrative writing in games. Thanks for reading.