Star Wars: The Old Republic Preview
It's been over seven years now since Blizzard took over the MMORPG scene with World of Warcraft, and many developers have since tried to take their own slice of the pie. Many have enjoyed early success, but few were able to keep subscribers paying for any appreciable length of time. And now that WoW itself has lost something in the realm of two million subscribers (down from twelve at its peak), this seems to be a perfect time for a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic to come along and try to really deliver a finishing blow. (It's not going to happen, but it's the storyline that everyone's trying to talk about.)
Designed by a team of MMO-development veterans at BioWare's Austin, Texas-based studio, The Old Republic attempts to cover a lot of ground. First and foremost, it plays out as a sequel to the two Knights of the Old Republic games, but by moving to the massive multiplayer genre, it's also stretching to cover Star Wars Galaxies' failure and fix many of the things that game's developers did wrong - and with SWG's closing, it seems fitting for BioWare to court the old Sony Online game's playerbase. But even moreso, this game seems to be the best reason yet for players who are sick of World of Warcraft (but, presumably, not sick of MMORPGs) to finally ditch the seven-year-old standby and move over. The gameplay and combat start out very similar, that's for sure, so players will quickly wonder just why they're bothering, but I think there's just enough new content (and fresh outlooks on how people have fun in MMOs) to make The Old Republic a hit, if not a massive one like Blizzard's games have proven to be.
TOR is the first game of its type to have a full range of voice-acted dialogue, from each combination of player class and gender to nearly every NPC you could conceivably talk to. Thousands of lines of well-acted dialogue are included, but I have to say that after only a short while of playing along, my min-maxing MMO gamer quickly came out and before I knew it, I was skipping dialogue and making beelines for quest objectives - just like I would do with quest descriptions in WoW. Of course, there are occasional times when players really should be paying attention, as they can gain dark side or light side points for their actions in conversations. These result in unique light/dark side gear and other benefits, and while players can be a light-side Sith or a dark-side Jedi and won't be forced to switch sides permanently or the like, it does make for some awkward conversation options when players deviate from their chosen side's stereotypical or expected choices.
While combat will seem fairly similar to what you expect from WoW (or, frankly, Everquest before it), there are a few nice changes and other enhancements here and there. Quest objectives are highlighted on both your big map and minimap, loot-able corpses show a pillar of light that's color coded for any better-than-common items that can be picked up, and characters have solid animations for moving and firing (and yes, you can fire on the move!) that give some battles a more action-oriented feel. For example, even low-level Republic Troopers can charge in with rifle blazing, fire off an explosive shell when closing in to melee range, then finish off the fight by smashing the enemy's face with the butt of the rifle - all with three keypresses. For some classes, there seems to be a focus on being able to stay mobile where you don't have to stop and channel a spell or slowly aim a weapon, and while that certainly will have gameplay implications (especially in PvP), for now it makes things feel more like Star Wars.
The lightsabers help make the whole thing feel more authentic as well, although my time spent with the game's low-level introductory areas mostly had me wielding practice weapons and vibroblades - but already there were plenty of acrobatic saber-swinging moves right out of the films as well as the original two Knights games. From Force-using ground smashes to saber defense that include both deflecting blaster fire and blocking enemy melee swings, things look and feel more cinematic than you might expect, even if there's still a fairly simple dice game running just under the surface.
When an enemy projectile is fired at you, you still can't move to dodge it in real time, nor are players of gunslinging classes required to actually aim their weapons; all they have to do is target an enemy and press a key to fire. Simply put, The Old Republic follows the World of Warcraft model of action and combat very closely, and the ranged-attack classes are going to notice it first and foremost. While new mechanics like a couple of classes' ability to hide behind cover add a bit of flavor and strategy, be aware that at best, this is a solid evolution of the generation of MMORPGs started back in 1999 with Everquest. If you're looking for a game to change the way MMOs are played, this ain't it.
The stress test that's been going on every weekend for a little while now has actually been pretty successful for EA and BioWare, it seems, as the game has generated quite a bit of buzz and some good words for being generally polished and mostly bug-free. Of course, that was also said about games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, and if there's one thing that MMORPG developers always seem to underestimate, it's the speed at which many of their players mow through the content presented to them. Usually developers are left in an awkward state where the next content patch is weeks or months away and a growing section of the playerbase is sitting around bored, waiting for something new to do. (And yes, Blizzard has been caught doing this, as well.) Time will only tell whether this will happen to The Old Republic, but at this point only a few weeks from the game's well-publicized December 20th release date, much of this is already set in stone and it'll be up to the players to find out just how ready BioWare Austin is for the horde of powergamers to chew through everything they've made.
From a technical perspective, the game seems to be doing things mostly right. A full set of interface and configuration options allows you to get the game running on pretty much anything that runs Skyrim comfortably, although I did find that my first-gen Alienware M11x laptop (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GT335M, 4GB DDR3 RAM) struggled to deliver frame rates beyond the low-20s. Still, that leaves a huge range of mid- and high-end gaming PCs playing TOR pretty well, and while the visuals are delivered in a slightly cartoony art style that we never saw in Knights of the Old Republic, they still feel well-suited for the subject matter.
The Old Republic looks like it will probably be the best MMORPG to be released since World of Warcraft, but the problem is that we've heard that same phrase attached to other games over the years. Even games that wound up living up to that kind of hype in the first couple of weeks fizzled out when players found out that there was no endgame or that spotty PvP systems were the only things intended to keep players coming back until the developers had new PvE content ready.
Worse still, guilds of players were split up as some people insisted on staying in the old game and the rest moved on to the new one. It is my opinion that The Old Republic is not revolutionary enough to be very different in that regard, so I find it unlikely that too many whole guilds will jump ship from other successful subscription-based games to play this. In the case of The Old Republic, the Star Wars license and solid story-based foundation this game is built on will help carry them a pretty good distance, but even that won't be enough if people find an unfinished and empty endgame.
While my short time spent with the beta can't possibly answer the question of lasting appeal beyond hitting max level, my initial impression is certainly a positive one. I still can't help but advise caution on mashing that pre-order button - especially if you've been burned by "WoW killer-type games before, or if you're looking for an MMO that truly revolutionizes how this genre looks, feels, and plays. For the rest of the gamers who just want to try something new and have sixty bucks lying around, well, it's hard to deny the allure of exploring a whole new galaxy full of loot, lightsabers, and light-side dialogue options, isn't it?