The words “World of Warcraft killer” have been ones that have plagued the development of Star Wars: The Old Republic since Bioware’s earliest announcement of the game. The belief by those using it seems to assume that of all MMO’s to have been created since Blizzard’s triumphant conquest of the genre, this is the one to realistically threaten it’s continued – if slightly dented – existence. An overly optimistic assumption to make perhaps, even with a strong history of great single-player-focused RPG’s behind them, Bioware certainly face more than a few obstacles in tempting the millions of current WoW subscribers to abandon such an immensely popular game. The fact this review can’t even open it’s first sentence without mentioning Warcraft is a sure sign of just how hard a time any developer has in breaking out in a genre that has been cornered and subdued by Blizzard for nearly 6 years.
Yet, it’s difficult not to make comparisons. The Old Republic, for all the talent behind it, certainly can’t hide where its influences came from. The first ten levels are so fondly familiar that the initial phase of being introduced into this bright, colourful interpretation of the Star Wars universe feels a little too samey. Being Bioware’s first MMO, and in fact their first online game, you can learn to forgive the developer for sticking close to what has already proven to work. It’s certainly a criticism you can also levy at the dozens of other massively multiplayer online games that have been released over the years. Yet in spite of any leniency you may give, that early level climb can’t help but feel a little underwhelming.
The upside is that while the game-play itself struggles to find an identity of it’s own during those early first few levels, the actual story presented is quite engaging. Story being that one thing all MMO’s seem to struggle in peddling to their player bases of thousands, often relegating details about the world, factions and the countless other incidental events to the background. The Old Republic on the other hand is quick to make you feel a part of the galactic events playing out in it’s own imagining of the Star Wars saga’s distant past.
Set 3,000 years before the events of the original trilogy, The Old Republic takes place at a time where the Galactic Republic maintains a tentative peace with the Sith Empire, all while both sides secretly prepare for an all-but-inevitable war with one another. Throughout there’s a foreboding sense of a greater conflict about to emerge, but where that particular story arch may eventually head remains secondary to your own tale. Every one of the 8 classes gets a story, a fully voiced cut-scene intensive tale unique to each class that thrusts you through your own personal adventure. It hits you as soon as you begin, introducing characters and situations in a style more suited to the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age than they are with anything associated with the traditional MMO. What’s surprising is that for the most part it works really well.
Dialogue with non-playable characters acts out as it does in any other Bioware game, with fully voiced sequences in which you can choose appropriate responses. Occasional moral choices also appear from time to time, altering your alignment to either the light or dark side of the force regardless of which faction you’ve taken up arms for. The main story itself develops naturally with the rest of the game, with missions gently nudging you towards planets more suited to your particular level. And it wouldn’t be a Bioware game if it didn’t also come loaded with twists, betrayals and revenge plots to keep the tale from sagging. In a genre where story seems so often ignored or forgotten by those playing, Bioware do an excellent job of giving you a sense of purpose throughout, and an actual end goal to work towards beyond the selfish desire of loot hoarding.
If it’s intently story-driven nature falters anywhere it’s with the general day-to-day missions beyond the main story that clutter up quest areas. Some of these can themselves provide their own neat little adventures, with some missions eventually sprawling off into huge quests rife with political intrigue and more detailed information about the greater threats beyond simply you. But many one off missions feel overburdened with huge rafts of dialogue that either feel ultimately pointless or just flat out boring. Given how you’ve so much information to keep track of, having so many voiced quests can make you lose sight of the more important missions.
Flashpoints (Old Republics version of Dungeons) also succumb to the trappings of a fully-voiced narrative, which is an unusual decision given how you’ll be tackling these with groups of other players. Bioware gets around this by allowing each member of the group to get randomly selected to initiate dialogue with mission critical characters. It’s something that works well, allowing the overall plot punctuating the flashpoint to remain intact whilst maintaining the freedom for players to interact with it.
Here however, the moral choice system can have drastic consequences. There’s always a moment in Flashpoints where a ‘Light’ or ‘Dark’ choice has to be made, and depending on which is chosen the course of the rest of the flashpoint can be altered, and not always for the best. A bad decision can often mean the strength and number of opponents you’ll face could increase dramatically, whereas the light option gives you an easy ride. This adds an interesting new dynamic to how you group with others, as you’ll often always be at the mercy of how other people play. Ultimately, if you’re not given the tough choices to make, you’ll instead have to rely on how evil or godly your team-mates have decided to become.
Old Republic splits it’s eight classes between the Empire and Republic, mirroring their roles for each side but packing them with enough unique abilities that all manage to feel distinct. Each fall into the familiar templates of tank, DPS and healers. At level 10, classes can also advance into one of two specialist roles, where the important decision of deciding how you eventually want to play much be chosen, splitting the initial eight classes into potential 16 hybrids with their own set of abilities to master.
For the most part the classes themselves tend to be more enjoyable than the usual array so often relied on by MMO games. And despite having half of it’s class roster occupied by force-using light-sabre-wielding Jedi and Sith, it’s the other more conventional blaster carrying classes that tend to be more enjoyable to play. These mix methods of attacks and usable abilities far more interestingly. The Bounty Hunter becoming a formidable damage dealer at virtually any range, shooting off volleys of rockets via a jet pack jump from a distance, destroying health of enemies with missiles at mid-range before going in for the killing blow with a close quarters blast from the flame thrower.
The smuggler, on the other hand, balances lighter armour with an ability to use cover and produce suppressing fire from the comfort of a handily placed barricade, a class role more in line with the style of play in Mass Effect than anything you’ll find in the MMO genre. The game doesn’t wait to give you some of the best class abilities until later levels, providing a steady surplus of new skills that give combat a more tactical and enjoyable presence than the rampant and repetitious hammering of number keys.
In actuality it’s not until you reach level 10, having gathered enough skills to dish out some serious damage and choosing your final advanced role, that the initial disappointment of the starting zones begins to fade. Once you venture forth into the stars, stopping off in familiar destinations such as Hoth and Tatooine, the pace and desire to explore steadily increases. It’s an adventure you never experience alone either, and if not grouped with another player then the AI controlled companions you can recruit provide some much needed company.
These each come with their own stories, often tied to your own but occasionally giving you missions that can increase their affection of you. They also provide an additional pair of hands in combat, their skills sets varying from combat to healing roles but each a valuable asset when other players aren’t willing to lend a helping hand. They get burdened with the tedium of crafting as well, and can be sent off to collect resources or create items while you go off and do something more interesting. A design decision that realises the act of painstakingly scouring the land for raw materials takes up precious time from doing something much more important and fun. Up to several companions can eventually join your crew, and each can be sent off to run errands.
‘Crew’ being the operative word there, Old Republic also gives you your own starship around the level 15 mark, which allows you to store items and interact with companions, but, more importantly, lets you zip across the galaxy to new worlds. You can also use it to engage in bouts of space-based combat, but anyone with grand ideas of reliving the days of X-Wing versus Tie fighter may be in for a disappointment. Not only is space combat 1-player only, it’s also presented in the form of an on-rails arcade action game.
New battles appear as you level up, thrusting you into what look like huge epic fights as Imperial and Republic battleships float past one another, guns blazing. While the combat itself merely funnels you down a corridor past these, picking off fighters silly enough to charge into view or blowing away the turrets of a space station, they remain quite enjoyable. In fact, while being denied the opportunity to engage in huge space battles with other players feels like a missed opportunity, these still remain hugely fun, dishing out ship upgrades and commendations to buy specialist items as rewards.
That lack of organised Player versus Player space battles is lessened by the presence of regular PvP battle arenas. Again at level 10 you can choose to dip in and out of these encounters whenever the fancy takes you, and despite having little experience with how groups of players interact with one another, Bioware do a decent job of crafting these battle arenas. They range from type to type. Voidstar takes on the form of an assault-style game, with one team attacking the power core of a starship while the other has to defend it at all costs. Huttball on the other hand is a deadly sports game where players must grab and score with a ball in the centre of the arena, picking up and using deployed abilities spread throughout. It’s also the only game mode where you can play against people on the same faction as you.
Alderaan, by contrast, is a huge battleground for Republic and Imperial players who must each gain control of huge turrets to destroy the other team’s floating sapcecraft that dispenses reinforcements until it’s blasted out the sky. There’s enough variation to prevent the sense of repetition, but the PvP matchmaking system doesn’t yet allow you to pick and choose which of these zones to play in, instead randomly dropping you in which ever comes up first. These are also the only three PvP arenas up and running at the moment, so anyone seeking a more sustained Player vs. Player system may instead find more enjoyment out of a dedicated PvP server.
Whether it’s gaining more insights into the grander story, mucking about for a brief spat of space combat, grouping up for flashpoints or taking the other faction on head to head for glory and wealth, there’s very rarely a shortage of things to do. Furthermore the influx of experience points and cash comes so thick and fast that levelling up through the 50 levels never becomes a chore and, mostly anyway, avoids the sense of pointless grind, though quite how end game content will work out in the long run is something that no-one can predict right now.
There’s a lot of good things to say about The Old Republic. Where other MMO’s failed in their desire to repeat Blizzard’s success by falling in line and providing a shot for shot remake of WoW, Bioware seems to understand that to stand out in this crowded genre you really have to try something different. SWTOR certainly succeeds at doing that, a focus on single player inspired story gives this game an edge few others can ever hope to match, but to attach the words “WoW killer” at this early stage seem pre-mature.
The problem facing SWTOR is that it remains to be seen whether or not what it does will be enough to sway peoples opinions and allegiances. We’re at a time now where even World of Warcraft’s vast player base is starting to shake, it’s subscribers now on a small but noticeable decline, and the announcement of a new expansion getting little more than a muted response. It’s a sign that perhaps people have begun to tire of the perceived norm of the genre on the whole, and mixed together with countless free-to-play MMO’s, Old Republic must stand firm and update accordingly to feel modern where some of it’s ideas already feel outdated. Time will have to tell, though regardless of a slightly shaky start and an uncertain future, Star Wars: The Old Republic stands a far greater chance of succeeding than those that have come before it.
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