BioWare has recently revealed some information about Companion Characters and it’s generated some strong opinions and heated discussion across forums and blogs.
What exactly are Companion Characters?
We certainly don’t know how companions will look and function fully until we play the game, but BioWare is being pretty up front about their use — that you can develop “relationships” with them perhaps even ‘romance’ them, that they can be summoned, that they aren’t necessary but fully optional, and they can fill in for a party role (or the entire party) if one wishes. They’ve also stated the rule that you can only have one Companion out at a time. The others stay in a central location that you can change out from time to time. Details are still fuzzy.
If it works like other BW games, the companion will be a character you meet along your story arc who will choose to join your party. They will react to your actions in game. A ‘good’ companion may comment if you do an ‘evil’ deed. They may even leave your party. Companions add a depth the story that would be missing without them.
One of the examples we’ve seen so far is a ‘Tank’ type companion for a Sith Inquisitor. The Companion helps the Inquisitor stay at range, and takes some of the beating that the Inquisitor would have a hard time coping with.
I think Companions will help with two major complaints I’ve seen in other games: leveling a group oriented character (tank/heal) is difficult, and that you never really get to practice and hone your group skill (tank/heal) while leveling.
Now when I talk in the next section about Classes, I’m using the term very loosely. It could refer to a ‘class’ in the traditional sense, but for some games, the concept is expressed as a Specialization or Talent Tree. For example, the way I’m using the word Class, the World of Warcraft Protection Warrior is a Class, distinct from the Fury Warrior Class.
One of the reasons cited for why people don’t level Tanks/Healers is that those classes are typically more difficult to level with. To balance their ability to tank or heal, those classes do less damage. Since the main activity of leveling usually involves combat, these classes find it more difficult or at least slower to complete those combats.
The Companion Character helps to address that. A Tank type character could use a Healer companion. A Ranged character like the Inquisitor could use a Tank type companion. Instead of having to heal things to death, the Healer player heals his DPS companion who kills things for him. This will help those classes level faster and hopefully mean there will be more Tanks and Healers at End Game.
These Companion Characters also help the Tank and Healer learn to use their group oriented skills. A Healer class can sometimes level all the way to end game without ever healing anyone other than themselves. A Tank class may get to the level cap without having to use some of his Tank spells. With Companions, players will have a need to use their group skills for their Companion.
Much of the strong negative reaction to Companions centers on people’s concerns that Companions are a move to over-mollify soloers and steer the game away from grouping. Basically, the detractors believe this will remove some of the massively from the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game and fundamentally change the genre.
This is a sensitive issue for BioWare since many are concerned that TOR is just a single player game with an MMO price model of a monthly subscription.
To a certain extent the people expressing those concerns are exactly right. When interviewed, BioWare representatives have said that part of their goal with Companions was to let you play through the game solo. They want to ease the transition of a guy who loves BioWare games, like KotOR or Mass Effect, but hasn’t played an MMO. Bioware specifically related the MMO part to there being ‘other people in the world’.
BioWare also wants Companions to be able to fulfill roles you are having trouble filling. Most MMO veterans know of the experience of waiting for find that one class or one role to fill out a party. (LF1M Healer then good to go!) BioWare’s intention is that instead of waiting around for a healer, someone in the party could offer to use their Companion to heal.
This will make balancing of instances/dungeons/flashpoints interesting. Do the Developers balance them around people using Companions, in which case groups not using Companions will find them more difficult, or do they balance around not using Companions, in which case groups using Companions will find them much easier. Perhaps BioWare has designed some sort of on the fly balancing based on how many players/Companions you have in the instance. We just don’t know yet.
Personally, I’m pretty excited about Companions. They add a level of immersion and depth to the game. Plus, with my real life schedule, sometimes being able to have a short ‘solo’ session is attractive. No one wants to wait 10 minutes while I run upstairs because my daughter woke up with a nightmare. My Companion character won’t care. Of course, I don’t want to always be soloing and I thoroughly enjoy the virtual friendships I’ve formed over the course of other MMOs I’ve played. It’s my hope that the people concerned over Companions are overstating the issue and that in the end Companions will be good addition to TOR and a well received feature.