One of the world’s most recognizable IP’s; a Hollywood blockbuster sized budget; and a world class game developer; does the game hold up after the long wait and all the hype?
For me it did. I’m a pretty patient guy and I know what I want out of a game. As the game developed, I listened to BioWare and what they were promising me. Star Wars: The Old Republic, behind the team that’s brought some of the most acclaimed RPGs of the last two decades, delivered on the latter half of the term Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. I’m grateful for that.
We know BioWare can make a damn fine game. From the Mass Effect series back to Baldur’s Gate, they know how to get a player hooked. MMOs aren’t exactly their modus operandi, though. For this, EA brought together a team including members of Mythic, makers of Warhammer Online. This should be a winning combination, right?
The answer to that is fairly complicated. Like all games, there are aspects where The Old Republic soars. There are also parts of the game that fall completely flat. I’ll start with the good.
The story and leveling experience are top notch. Not just good, but better than any MMORPG before it. There are multiple factors that contribute to this, but none is more apparent than voice overs. Somewhere after 200,000 lines of dialogue and a Guiness World record, you get an absolutely unique experience from character creation to end game. I don’t know how I can ever go back to the old standard of text boxes.
The real success of implementing this style of story telling into an MMORPG is the death of the grind. Sure, in the very back of my mind, I’m aware there is a max level and I want to get there, but that’s no longer my only goal. Instead, I’m focused on progressing the story and my character, not just the levels. Voice acted interactions gives personality to character in The Old Republic, which, let’s face it, is what Star Wars should be all about.
As the player, you are forced to make real decisions. This is very lacking in MMOs, but is something I love about single player RPGs. By giving the player options, the story has different possible outcomes along the way. The reasons you make these choices can vary as well. Character progression in The Old Republic is multi-faceted. A player could be motivated by the faction they chose, the personality they’ve associated to their character, Light Side or Dark Side gains or companion affection.
I rarely came across a decision that positively affected all of these factors. As someone who is traditionally lighter on the role playing side and higher on stat progression, I found myself wanting to make choices based on a priority list of Light Side vs. Dark Side, companion affection, character personality and finally, faction allegiance.
This priority wasn’t always set in stone and varies from person to person. Hell, I even adjusted it based on which class I was playing. My Imperial Agent highly reflects that list, but my Smuggler does not. On the Smuggler, I picked my dialogue based on financial gains, whether or not there is a ‘flirt’ option, light side points, companion affection and then faction. I’m more comfortable as a rogue agent than a slave to the Empire or Republic. BioWare gave me that option.
While the story arc keeps you hooked over the long haul, combat animations, space battles and companion characters will offer plenty of quick distractions. Too often, watching your character swing away at a mob in an MMORPG can seem like watching a guy chop wood for a few hours. TOR offers up plenty of unique animations for special attacks that leave you waiting for the new ability to come off cooldown, just so you can see how awesome it looks again.
An easy example of this are the Bounty Hunter’s devastating are of effect attack, “death from above,” where the character fires off its jet packs, hovers above the ground and unleashes a flurry of rockets. The Smuggler’s “dirty kick” crushes it’s opponent in a very sensitive spot. Your inner immature child will giggle every time you fire off this ability.
Space battles offer a nice break from the standard questing, dungeon exploring and PvP matches. It’s a simple on-rails mini game, but it invokes memories of epic scenes from the movies we all love. The experience earned from completing space missions is actually quite substantial, making it a welcome addition to your leveling routine.
Companion characters are another staple of BioWare storytelling that lends itself perfectly to the MMO experience. Again, a game world in an MMORPG can feel predestined, like you have no influence over it. Adding companions continues the trend of giving the story personality and player ownership.
The galaxy is a large and foreboding beast. Planets act as small continents, with each broken up into smaller zones. The size and scope of this game cannot be overstated. Each class offers up over 100 hours of questing that is not shared with any others. That equals out to over 800 hours of unique questing experiences. That’s just the class specific questing. Each zone houses many side quests that are open to each faction.
Not everything in The Old Republic is a hit, however. From the start, the game can be confusing for someone who had never played an MMORPG before. A simple tutorial would do wonders for new players. Without in game help, newbies should enlist experienced players for advice to get the most out of the early levels. BioWare has since announced plans to start developer blogs and posts to aid new players, but that only helps those who are seeking it outside of the game.
Frame rate issues, bugs and dramatic ability delays also plagued the game at launch. Small fixes are rolling out with each patch to help alleviate these problems, but players were disheartened by finding the game unplayable in certain situations after launch. All MMOs are works in progress.Still, it’s up to the developers to keep up with the player base.
The user interface could really use some love as well. I don’t understand a AAA title like this coming out with a static UI. At the very least, you should be able to move and re-size visible elements. Customization is in the works for a future patch, but that seems to me like more of a launch feature.
My largest complaint about The Old Republic is redundancy. All of the races are stunningly similar. I would agree that the gnomes and dwarfs have all been done before, but of the nine playable species, only the Twi’lek stand out. With a full set of gear equipped, the race of a player is indeterminable.
The similarities carry over to environments. Fleets for the Gallactic Republic and Sith Empire are exactly the same. Spaceports and orbital stations associated with some of the planets are eerily identical. On any given planet, room design and layouts are repeated. They can easily get tiresome after a long series of questing in settings that all look the same.
There are exceptions. Belsavis was one of my favorite planets to quest on. The landscape changed from zone to zone and the final area I was sent to quest in had an incredibly dramatic effect to it. These are the fond moments I recall from single player games or raid encounters from other MMOs, but out in the open for everyone to enjoy.
Many of my criticisms of the game are direct criticisms of the MMORPG genre. A common example concerns quest design, what’s known as “fetch quests.” These are tasks given to you by an NPC where they ask you to go collect a certain number of items or kill a certain number of mobs then return to them for a reward.
The practice itself is tedious, but is a welcome alternative to simple mob grinding. BioWare followed in the direction of successful games that came before them and wanted to offer something familiar to fans of the genre. The Old Republic is not a redefinition of the MMORPG, but it is a refinement. This game is another step in the right direction.
PvP offers variety in their map design. There are currently only three instanced matches to play, but each are well thought out. Alderaan is the classic capture point map, The Void Star is an attack and defend style instance and Hutt Ball is the diamond in the rough. Hutt Ball is hard to describe. The map has two end zones which players will try to cross while holding the ball. Upon entering the match for the first time, you learn a ground targeted spell to pass the ball, which will come in handy (pro tip: bind this ability to a key you can reach). With a number of death traps and vertical elements, Hutt Ball is quite unlike any PvP map before it.
Flashpoints and Operations fill in the gap for PvE content and offer their own spin on dungeons and raids. Instanced encounters are a mix of the story telling dialogue from the rest of the game with the familiar combination of trash mobs and boss fights. Every once in a while there are puzzle elements thrown in to make things interesting.
For gamers who are new to the genre and MMO veterans alike, SWTOR has a lot to offer. This can easily be your main game of choice. If, however, you are content with your current subscription game, it might not pull you away for good. That’s the beautiful thing about this time in PC gaming. There are perfectly suitable choices for all types of players and The Old Republic is no exception.
If you’re looking for a solid multiplayer game with loads of story, this is it. The PvP has playful and inventive elements and the PvE is satisfying. The classes have play styles and mechanics that are unique to The Old Republic, which says a lot. There is a bright future for this game that isn’t fully realized. I, for one, can’t wait to see it outlast the growing pains and inevitable series of exploits, bugs and class balance issues that all MMOs face.
Full Disclosure: CraveOnline was sent a review copy of Star Wars: The Old Republic by EA Games on its release date of December 20th, 2011. We played over 167 hours before writing up this review.