There is/used to be a trend in most (fantasy) MMOs wherein the earlier zones were the nice, lovely places in which you wouldn’t mind buying a vacation homes, but as you progressed you’d find yourself in increasingly hostile — and ugly — territory. Privately, I called it the “lava field syndrome,” because many of these endgame zones were forbidding landscapes dotted by volcanoes and Apple Stores. I never liked this trend because it was like the game was punishing you for leveling up by forcing you to go to these eye-bleaching environments just because you were successful.
I don’t think this is as true today, as I’ve seen plenty of more modern MMOs save gorgeous zones for higher levels. I’m glad this has happened, because it doesn’t make leveling as painful for people like me who are heavily impacted by the “feel” of environments. As I make my way up through the 40s in SWTOR, I’m equally grateful that BioWare has mixed up the beautiful, forbidding, and interesting in terms of zone design so that it’s not a straight progression from pretty to ugly (a reverse duckling?). In fact, my character started out on one of the more gross places. Looking back so far, I’d rate the beauty of each planet as such:
- Hutta: Fugly
- Dromund Kaas: Strangely pretty
- Balmorra: Ugly-ish and irritating
- Nar Shadda: Garish, but in a fun, different way (going to a much more urbanized planet)
- Tatooine: Pretty, loved the wide-open spaces
- Alderaan: Gorgeous
- Taris: Disheveled and ugly, cluttered
- Quesh: Felt like coming back to Hutta (fortunately it was a quick revisit)
- Hoth: Attractive if lacking in diversity
- Belsavis: Really pretty, nice juxtaposition of glaciers and tropical hotspots
Beyond subjective interpretations of planetary attractiveness, I’m just enjoying the concept of planets in SWTOR versus zones in most other MMOs. I know, it’s mostly semantics, but it still feels different when you know that the other places aren’t crammed up against your current location, but a hyperjump or two away. Star Wars lends itself well to the MMO zone design template, in which most zones adhere to a wide-reaching feature (the ice zone, the water zone, the hilly zone, the autumn zone, etc.). After all, pretty much every planet we saw in the movies was dominated by a singular terrain type.
It’s hard to compare the size of SWTOR’s combined landmass with other MMOs, but from my perspective, it all seems really, really big. There’s a lot of places for one to strike off and explore, if that fits your fancy, and the game always keeps you on the move.
Speaking of which, another pet peeve I’ve had in MMOs is that once you level past a zone, you’re done with it. That always felt contrived and artificial, and I never liked it — why wouldn’t your character come back for other missions? Happily, SWTOR has given me several reasons to return to previous planets, usually through the class storyline or via bonus missions (which, if you aren’t doing them, come highly recommended for XP, rewards and additional story). I think bonus missions are set up in a way that get you off the planet earlier than the level curve would’ve demanded. It breaks up the scenery, and for anyone who’s spent weeks or months in the same stinking zone, wishing desperately for escape, it’s a boon.
It’s also pretty cool to know that over on the Republic side are not only a couple unique planets that I’m not going to see this time around, but a few different versions of planets (like a lowbie Taris). Of course, I hope that in the future there are more planetary paths to the level cap — or even multiple paths on the same planet — but for now I’m enjoying the tourist aspect of planet-hopping.