When Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released back in 2003, it renewed my fascination with the Star Wars lore. The old became new with a different set of heroes and a brand new world crafted upon an old one, regardless of the fact that it took place ten
thousand years before the original films.
In 2008, BioWare announced The Old Republic, an MMO “sequel” to the KOTOR universe, and I have been waiting with baited breath for the release ever since. It may have taken an extended delay or two in order to get released, but BioWare’s first foray into the MMO world has finally arrived. Does TOR live up to the company’s legacy? Read on to find out.
The biggest feature that SWTOR brings to the table is a completely fleshed out storyline
that will greatly differ depending on which class you choose. It’s an incredibly tall order and definitely a stroke of luck that the first developer to take on such a task is none other than BioWare. Their experience in this regard all but ensured they would pull it off with flying colors, and so they have.
Fans of the original KOTOR will be pleased to see many familiar names, faces, locations
and environments. The hardcore fans of the lore will also be able to connect the dots and see
the bigger picture that has been written in the prequel novels. Players, who aren’t familiar
with the lore won’t be completely lost, but they will feel a large number of storylines go
over their heads.
While the script is done very well, the game’s dialogue choices are tied to the same three-choice system that Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2 rely on. Meaning, there are several occasions when the dialogue option you select won’t necessarily match what you think it means. It won’t be enough to make or break a quest, but overly ambiguous statements will pop up sometimes, prompting you to say something you didn’t think it would. However, you can always hit Escape to re-do the conversation and make up for the lost ground.
Not content with just adding a story element, BioWare went even further by adding in
different dialogue options, à la Mass Effect, that boil down to light side and dark side decisions. These choices will alter side-quests, giving you different rewards and perhaps even a letter from someone you helped or scorned along the way. The downside to this is that regardless of choice, the consequences are mostly superficial. This is all the more apparent during the end-game where everyone is doing Op missions (i.e. Raids) and you realize that your choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Even so, it’s hard to fault BioWare for this. If they somehow secluded players from others
based on the choices they had made, it would isolate a large portion of subscribers
making for an incredibly disjointed experience. While they did manage to avoid such a pitfall, it’s still a little disappointing that your decisions don’t have much effect.
The biggest down side here is the lack of a grey area – most decisions are very black and white. As a result, morality meters are very standard and cliché at this point. It’s hard to deliver the “Choice vs. Consequence” style of moral ambiguity that The Witcher 2 provides, but when your options boil down to “Save a Puppy” and “Eat a Puppy in Front of its Puppy Family”, it can get rather tiresome.
However, the concept of a light and dark choice gives players incentive to re-roll
characters and play them as a different alignment. This is coupled perfectly with the
advanced class system, as it makes for a somewhat unique experience for people that want
to really see everything.
Along with the story, BioWare has also introduced the somewhat original idea of
having companions to bring with you during your travels. Each class has five different
companions, each with a specific role (dps, tank, healer, etc). As in most BioWare games, you can increase your affection with all of them, which will increase their stats, their ability to romance, to perform crafting abilities (it wouldn’t be an MMO without crafting) and the standard companion-specific sidequest.
As with most RPGs, companions can make or break your experience in an RPG. Thankfully, BioWare has lived up to their usual standards and given each of your companions a completely unique personality that will separate them from everyone else without coming off as a cheaply written polar opposite. The depth that each companion has is really what makes questing and leveling so much fun.
Outside of contributing to the story, the companion system allows for a much better time while leveling. Every companion has a specific role to fill and they are melee or ranged healers, dpsers or tanks. Thankfully, every companion is always swappable, allowing you to switch companions on the fly to suit the specific situation.
SWTOR boils down to two factions – Republic and Imperial – each with four different classes,
and each with an advanced class in which you can specialize. Every advanced class can spec in some sort of DPS form or choose between tanking and healing. Imperial Agents, for example, can either specialize in stealth and melee, or long-range sniping, providing vastly different play styles.
In terms of gameplay, you can expect some rather generic MMO style of point and click, or hitting your number keys several thousand times to do the same types of moves over and over. This is especially true once you have found a good key rotation that allows you to tank or DPS to the best of your abilities.
It sounds monotonous and boring but that’s only because it is. It’s really pretty standard as MMOs go. However, all RPGs have their own brand of repetition, and as with most top-tier games, it’s everything else that makes you come back for more. SWTOR is no exception. Just like every other MMO, there can be some thrilling fights that have you paying close attention to your keystrokes, while others just have you mindlessly walking/running/driving/flying to the next location where you will more than likely do the same type of task you have done before.
As a nice change of pace from the gameplay that takes place on foot, you’re also given your own ship with which to engage in space combat dailies. These missions take place on rails, usually having you escort another ship, assaulting an enemy space station, dodging and weaving through an enemy fleet, etc. They’re not particularly involving and it’d be nice if there were more of them, but they’re flashy, simple diversions and provide a boatload of experience points.
When it comes to the design, SWTOR is really a mixed bag. There are several dozen planets, Flashpoints (i.e. Dungeons) and environments to explore with most of them being fairly different than the last. There are forests, deserts, ice-filled tundra, as well as bustling cities lit up in neon. There are also a large number of sites, levels and areas that are lifted straight from the Knights of the Old Republic lore, which is sure to give long- time fans more bang for their buck.
The downside is that most of the side areas, including caves, are incredibly repetitious, and it’s made all the more apparent if you are questing with a friend. While BioWare did a
great job with having each class-specific mission within close proximity to others, there is a
greater sense of repetition as all these side areas are almost identical. It’s certainly nothing
that should make or break your experience, but it is noticeable.
What is more noticeable than anything, are the bugs. There are several graphical issues such as tearing and there are definitely improvements that need to be made with the UI. The cluttered “Auction House” (known in-game as the Galactic Marketplace), and the lack of a proper LFG Channel are just a few of the numerous little things that SWTOR is desperately missing. The good news is that these issues are, in-fact, fixable. At the moment, however, BioWare seems to be too busy trying to bring out new content (1.1 patch) instead of fixing pre-existing issues.
While the game will not win any awards for graphics, it is certainly nothing to scoff at. What it lacks in graphical power it makes up for with charm, style, and scalability. The game seems to run quite well on a variety of systems, which is good news for those without an especially powerful PC. The biggest issues I have with the game’s presentation isn’t the design so much, but more about the graphical glitches that seem to permeate the game. There is texture popping, character’s skin being black as a shadow and some NPCs will be missing their own eyes. It’d be nice to see some of those issues taken care of, as they can really take you out of the experience sometimes.
Speaking of NPCs, it’s no surprise that the voice work is spot-on – it’s essentially BioWare’s trademark. The voice cast is absolutely massive, with some of the vets in the genre making their presence known as either main characters or minor ones, but all of them add to the overall experience and immersion. It’s almost not fair to point this out, since BioWare has historically done this better than any single company in the business.
SWTOR does everything it can to blend several genres and several types of fans together for a cohesive, overall experience. First, it attempts to create a game that features a fully-fleshed
out storyline, something that’s practically unheard of in MMO’s today. Secondly, it focuses on the casual gamer, rather than the hardcore one for its main demographic.
Obviously, these changes have really polarized the fan-base. More hardcore MMO players have taken to bashing the game on sites like reddit, saying that a story is not why the hardcore player comes back for months on end. They certainly do have a point, as the MMOs that last don’t usually do so because of their stories. However, the introduction of a storyline with the sort of teammates that only BioWare seems to be able to provide, is a way to get in a whole new generation of gamers. At the end of the day, BioWare isn’t trying to take WoW’s subscribers. Rather, it’s trying to attract the people who don’t play WoW precisely because of its lack of story and substance.
When looking at SWTOR’s parts and adding them up, it’s certainly a fantastic game that
warrants playing, bugs/glitches/incomplete features aside. The concept of throwing in a story and making players actually role-play their characters seems like the next logical step in the genre (you can’t spell MMORPG without RP, after all). Hardcore fans may not be up for the casual experience, but the wonderful thing about SWTOR is that it merely wants to exist, not rule the genre. There is plenty of room in the market for both types of MMO players and I’d have it no other way.
[The longevity of an MMO really comes down to having stellar end-game content. Since Matt is only level 46 as of the time of this writing, we’ll be posting a follow-up to this review that will look at end-game content (while including the new 1.1 patch that was released), as well as PvP and more of Matt’s experiences and thoughts.]
Star Wars: The Old Republic was released on December 20th, 2011 for the PC.