Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Release date: December 20th, 2011
Price: $59.99 (Game) $14.99/Month (Subscription)
For the short time massively-multiplayer roleplaying games have existed, there has been a surprising amount of evolution in the genre's design. New genres and concepts have been injected into the space with varying success, but few have tackled them the same way Bioware has with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Focusing first and foremost on delivering an intense personal experience with the world players will be investing countless hours in, they have built a new breed of MMO that's more accessible than most before it without completely abandoning the tropes that made them successful in the first place.
Like any Bioware game, the heart of the SWTOR experience is its story. Unlike other Bioware games though, that story is generated in a growing and dynamic world full of other players who are each crafting their own tales. As you traipse around a galaxy full of Jedi and Bounty Hunters, you get the sense that the choices you make are only a piece within a larger saga.
A MILLION VOICES
Key to this sensation is the incorporation of a Mass Effect inspired dialog system that uses a full cast of voice actors to read every line of dialog, and multi-path conversation trees that offer real choice. While most MMOs strive to give the player a sense of character within their worlds, SWOTR is the first to actually let players roleplay with moral and social implications to their responses. It's this small addition that sets The Old Republic apart as a truly unique MMO.
What starts as fairly standard character creation quickly turns into development of a persona that's all your own. With class, race and gender-specific talking points laced through a large number of quests, there is ample opportunity to explore your avatar's place in the Star Wars universe. Whether it's balancing that means balancing the delicate motivations of a Smuggler or Bounty Hunter, or dancing the along the balance of the force as a Jedi or Sith, there's plenty of opportunity to roleplay a character defined by your choices.
HOKEY RELIGIONS AND A GOOD BLASTER
This contrasts the variety of choices presented in the mechanical aspects of character creation though. Like most MMORPGs, stats modification is inaccessible outside the gear you select and skill trees are limited to a few linear paths. This helps keep each class feeling unique, but offers little in the way of variety; every gunslinger and lightsaber swinger plays pretty much the same.
With such care taken to ensure that each class progresses in a predictable way, there's a good balance of roles to be filled for a full party. These roles are mixed in a non-traditional way with players getting a better balance of support and combative abilities. This means no more sitting on the sidelines while your friends have all the fun if you choose to take a healing role. It also means that combat-heavy classes also have a their own methods of recuperation, should their healer ally be drawn into the fray.
While this does wonders for creating a more empowering experience, the lack of reliance on other players also diminishes a lot of the group-play focus. For a majority of the game, you won't need to party up and when you do it's usually just because the mobs in your given quest are too powerful. Very rarely does this translate into squad strategies or combo mechanics, as every player is self-reliant and human nature leaves everyone wanting to play the hero. Teamwork is not needed, even when in a team, and on that level SWTOR fails as an MMO.
I'VE GOT A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS
Combined with the player-centric dialog trees and class-exclusive quests, the game can feel very much like a single-player title with other folk running around and occasionally intersecting your campaign. It's not an altogether bad trait for an MMO destined to draw in a lot of first-timers, but experienced players looking for that in-depth group experience will be somewhat disappointed.
With that in mind, the game does all it can to ensure that the game is a lot of fun, even on your own. Combat is laced with a unique Star Wars flavor with cover-based firefights and force powers that are a thrill to execute. The range of options in each class arsenal is diverse and exciting, whether that means hurling thermal detonators from above in your jetpack like Boba Fett, or slinging lightning at them like Palpatine. Though narratively removed from the best of the series' films, all of the keystones are hit and provide the opportunity to replicate the coolest aspects of your favourite characters.
Artistically the game isn't a powerhouse in the graphics department, but it does offer a clean, minimalist rendition of the universe. Similar to the styling of the Clone Wars animated series, the game uses neat lines with a slightly cartoonish edge to provide a look that's detailed and textured, but doesn't break low-spec machines. A more photorealistic approach like that seen in The Force Unleashed could have looked better, but for the traditionally curbed design MMOs require, the game looks great.
LESS THAN TWELVE PARSECS
Through the early levels -- before players have an opportunity to travel in their own spaceship -- environments can grow repetitive and stale, but the later content gives plenty of variety as players hop between worlds with unique terrain. Unlike most fantasy worlds, SWTOR isn't bound by the law of transition that requires every territory to merge into the next, and thus every planet can have a wildly different aesthetic without a lot of muddied blending on the fringes.
As you travel between planets, the game does give you the opportunity to pilot and fight in your ship. Relying on tunnel-run mechanics borrowed from classics like Rogue Squadron and StarFox, it's fast-paced and feels true to the films. It lacks the technical variety of the space combat in Star Trek Online or EVE Online, but it's far more exhilarating. The segments look fantastic too, with ships intersecting paths and flurries of missiles and lasers whizzing past the player. It's a wonderful way to punctuate between-mission tedium, but could stand to be more frequent.
Despite this geographical diversity, SWTOR eventually falls into the same traps that most MMOs do by offering too few unique quest objectives. They may be dressed differently and the animated cutscenes help sell the story a little more, but most of the time players will find themselves fetching items, cleansing areas, or traveling to some location to speak to some other NPC. There are dungeons to delve and bosses to beat, but these are the highlights of the game and not the meat. Like every other WoW-killer before it, The Old Republic just can't shake the standard quest design and suffers just as much for it.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU
Of course, it's a point of contention whether Star Wars: The Old Republic even needs to be a WoW-killer to be enjoyable. In many ways, it's definitely trying to best the king of MMOs but in many more ways it's trying to do its own thing. Never before has an MMORPG placed such significance on story and letting players flesh out that story with their own choices. It goes so far to create something new with this concept that going back to older games, it's sorely missed.
If Star Wars: The Old Republic succeeds on one level, it's undoubtedly its ability to present traditional MMO mechanics with a heavy jolt of flavor. Nothing feels throwaway, and by adding a heavy dose of narrative, even the most mundane quests have some air of importance. This isn't a world-shattering addition, nor would it save the game if it were less technically proficient, but it does set it apart within a sea of clones.
If you're the kind of player who's casually interested in MMOs, Star Wars: The Old Republic might be the right entry point for you. It's easy to pick up, offers a familiar setting, and doesn't rely on dense mechanics or teamwork to play. MMO veterans will still really enjoy themselves, but it might not make the best addictive substitute. Regardless, the game is a success and if you've ever swung a broomstick around your bedroom, making buzzing noises with your mouth, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.