Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
At least five major-budget MMORPGs have come and "gone" - that is to say, their subscriber base swelled initially then shrunk dramatically - since Blizzard's hugely successful World of Warcraft was released at the end of 2004. Most of these games are still running, some still with subscription-based fees, some having been converted to free-to-play games with paid features for those who want nice perks. Looking back, we can see WoW as a sort of evolution of EverQuest, the MMORPG that a company called Verant Interactive released back in 1999, and now, BioWare and EA are releasing what seems to be an attempt to further fine-tune this MMO formula with Star Wars: The Old Republic.
SWTOR plays out as something like a sequel to BioWare's two Knights of the Old Republic games, but now it's an MMO, which opens up the game to a huge, new audience - along with a new business model, a much wider range of games to compare it to, and many possible pitfalls that come with not only running an MMORPG, but also an online game with cooperative, solo, and competitive gameplay types. This is by far BioWare's most expensive and ambitious game they've ever made, and they've done a great job with many useful innovations and a few downsides. Let's start out with the good.
First things first: it's important to temper expectations. The Old Republic does not revolutionize the MMORPG. It's built on a solid foundation and has many great, new elements as well as good ones borrowed both from competitors in the genre as well as from BioWare's solo-gaming past - but the action and the way players progress in levels and gear are exactly what you'd expect from a subscription-based online RPG released in 2011. The innovations brought into SWTOR should not be overlooked, though, as the notion of having unique stories for each class as well as voice acting for every bit of dialogue really does get players engaged in the story better than WoW (or any game like it) has ever done. These efforts won't sway all potential players, as some gamers have zero interest in story at all, especially when playing an MMO. They might wind up skipping through many dialogue options, but they still must carefully consider the story choices that affect how they want to progress through the RPG systems - including ones that permanently affect a companion or those that push characters towards the light or dark side. But if you have nearly any interest in a great Star Wars story - and yes, most of the storylines are generally more interesting than the ones Lucas set up in the prequel movies - then I think you'll really enjoy what SWTOR offers.
Of course, most of your time will be spent running around and killing enemies, just like you would in any other MMO, but now you'll be using lightsabers, force powers, rocket launchers, vibroblades, and blaster weapons instead of swords and sorcery. Just that change in setting and in the tools you use is like a breath of fresh air compared against the glut of fantasy games out there. The only thing is that a majority of players are carrying around lightsabers, so any mystique generated by the novelty of having the iconic weapon falls apart once you get around the galaxy a bit. In some places and in many situations, it's actually more unique to be a guy using stealth and knife stabs or jetpacks and blaster pistols than just another dude with a lightsaber or two.
Because the story has you moving from one planet to another in a mostly-linear order, the setting changes very drastically when you're finished with one world and choose the next - and the story arcs also work well in their chapter-style format as you move from one zone to the next. Put together, the experiences usually rival and often easily surpass the best of WoW's storytelling. And here, you might find yourself surprised in mid-mission, often with either a character betrayal or in receiving new objectives, all without those Quest Complete and Accept Quest buttons that often separate steps in other MMOs. It's a small thing, but I enjoyed how SWTOR's quests and plot kept me guessing more than many games like it.
Most planets have you traversing a large "zone" that encompasses the full experience you'll have on that particular planet, although the way some areas - like the city planet of Nar Shaddaa with its roof platforms and separate sections- really break up the monotony. Not only does the color scheme get a welcome change when switching planets, but many of the familiar planets still wind up having larger playable areas than when they were depicted in past Star Wars games. And while it may be a disappointment to find out that each planet is just one zone that's no bigger than a few square miles, it's important to point out that the galaxy is pretty big, too. The feeling of openness I got when first accessing the Mass Effect-style galaxy map was pretty unique - especially for an MMO.
BioWare carefully considered the weaknesses in other MMOs and came up with some rather original solutions. For example, a short way into your character's story, you'll be awarded a ship from which you can sort of base your operations and even do some arcade-style space missions. This feature allows for something like player housing - which Blizzard still hasn't implemented - and then on top of that you must equip the ship's weapons and defense systems. On top of that, you'll eventually unlock multiple companions, each with their own abilities, gear, and dispositions, that you have to juggle. You'll only have one companion with you at one time in nearly all situations, but they fulfill different combat roles depending on what you need, so you can pick the character that complements your spec. On top of this, they have a full loyalty system, much like Dragon Age, where you can say and do things to increase each companion's loyalty.
Tradeskills are very unique in this game. Each player, upon making level ten, can choose three skills, one of which can be a crafting skill, and then they are able to loot tradeskill items in combat zones as well as send their companions on missions to collect more - and to go craft. This means that with the cost of a relative few credits, you can play the game and leave your team to do the tedious work of crafting. It's a great system that really picks up steam later, as you will have several companions out on missions simultaneously while you still keep your favorite combat companion alongside you in battle.
So what does all this add up to? At first this game seems a bit too much like World of Warcraft with lightsabers, but BioWare decided to slowly release some of their best features only to players that stick with it. Those who do get to later stages of the game are rewarded with a deep, exciting game with some interesting stories for each character class, a feeling of true power with later talents, companions, and more, and a fully fleshed-out galaxy - along with a good choice of end-game activities including several flashpoints (dungeons) and operations (raids) on three difficulty levels. Sure, at first you'll feel like this game is constantly thieving from Blizzard, but around nearly every corner you will encounter a situation, fight, or choice you've never seen before in an online RPG. By the end, the game has changed into something quite unique.
Yes, there are some issues with The Old Republic, and while none of the are remotely bad enough to ruin the experience, it's still important to go through them. First: BioWare's customer support under the EA umbrella has been spotty, leaving many players with technical or gameplay issues left out in the cold. Second, the system requirements are just a tad steep, and I found some weird performance issues in this game, and conventional solutions, like lowering detail and resolution settings, may not always work. This is only on machines under the "recommended" spec, though; nearly any serious gaming-capable desktop PC will do exceedingly well in this game.
Next on the list would be the myriad of little annoyances, design flaws, or omissions that you'll encounter. The UI has some inconsistencies, and while BioWare has had their hands full in fixing more glaring issues here and there, I do hope that they get around to some tweaks to improve the Galactic Trade Market, bank, and hotbar functionality. Additionally, there's no support for player-made mods at all, and while ambitious mods like damage meters and such might be best to be disallowed in SWTOR, Blizzard's efforts have made interface modifications in MMOs essential for a lot of us. That becomes doubly true once you realize that SWTOR offers even less interface customization than the base version of WoW does.
Moving on - the Looking for Group functionality is nearly useless and there's no Dungeon Finder feature for PvE instances, and while one can make a pretty good case for the purposeful omission of the latter, the former can only really help in my opinion. Some classes, like the Operative, were designed mostly for the endgame, with a strange mix of abilities while leveling up to 50 that don't really work together well. There is also one thing that WoW started to do in the last two expansions that SWTOR doesn't, which is to change the world to match the player's quest progress through its phasing technology (where the world can be in a different state for different players, complete with buildings appearing or having been wiped out, based on their progress in the story). TOR makes a half-hearted attempt at this by instancing small sections of the world for important story events and quests, but the world's still the same when you walk back past that green barrier. For the most part, TOR's story has more to do with characters that live or die than kingdoms and fortresses that are built or burned. It'd be nice to have both at once, but we're going to have to wait until the next big game for that, I guess.
Finally, my biggest complaint is one that's not even really fair to levy on BioWare, or at least not onto them alone. But it's been brewing for a long time, so here it is: MMORPGs have stagnated for many years, and BioWare, like many developers that came before it, didn't try and revolutionize how SWTOR plays compared to its competition. It's hard to fault them for not doing this, especially since trying this would be very risky and might alienate players who want something that plays at least a little like what they're used to. Still, I'm disappointed to see yet another living, breathing world that is unfortunately full of mindless NPCs and monsters that stand there or patrol the same short route for days on end until a player shows up to kill them. BioWare aren't the only ones that are guilty of this stagnation, though; many games released even just in the last year have had this same static feel to their worlds' inhabitants, and most aren't even MMORPGs. But with so many sandbox games doing such a great job of fleshing out a more broad and immersive experience, this is one area that MMOs need to get past in order to make the leap to the next generation.
Despite my having written a chunk of negativity that's longer than some whole articles I've written, it's important to point out that The Old Republic is still a fantastic game with many great ideas for implementing a solo-style RPG experience into a much larger framework. Having spaceships, lightsabers, companions, and a plot you can dig into really does wonders for keeping up that motivation in moving towards level 50, and the playerbase also seems just a tiny bit more mature than what you might expect coming from a Blizzard game. If you're sick of WoW but don't mind a game that doesn't fully reinvent the grinding wheel, this is most definitely worth a shot. If you're a KOTOR fan who doesn't care for MMOs but wants to see a continuation of the story, you'll find quite a bit of it here with plenty of references to the original game's plot and characters - but be aware that it's not nearly as easy to play this game solo-only as you might like. Finally, if you just want to enjoy the latest Star Wars spectacle, then by all means pick this up, because you'll get a big dose of the Force, starships, bounty hunters, and the Empire versus Rebels (er, Republic) action that you surely crave.