In my time reviewing games I have never really been tasked with reviewing one that will be a completely different title a year, possibly even mere months after my review is posted. That is what I have been tasked with doing in reviewing Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. It is the RPG veterans first MMO and one that has had considerable expectations attached to it, not to mention a whole big pile of cash. A lot depends on it and while I can’t tell the future I can tell you that I have really enjoyed the journey from level 1-15 (ish) for my character and am eager to play more. So this review will serve as a “living” document that will progress with me. What I can say is that based on the twenty or so hours of content I have played I would recommend this game to anyone interested in the genre or Star Wars.
I have had a fair amount of experience with MMO’s in anticipation of playing this game and have constantly found that the “massively” nature really ruins the main focus of why I come to RPG games: the story. Having to wait for events in the world to reset or see a queue of characters waiting to be told that they are the unique hero just completely took me out of the world, not to mention that most of these people were horrible and had no bones about letting you know it. TOR goes to massive lengths to solve this issue and is at once it’s strongest suite and one of the most annoying things about the game.
In The Old Republic your character will have a story based on their class. For instance I chose to play as a Sith Inquisitor, a dark Jedi with a deadly combination of force and lightsaber skills. Your story begins on Corriban and will focus on the cut-throat world of becoming a fully fledged Sith. In a normal MMO the quest givers specific to you would still be swarmed by other people playing your class by Bioware solved this issue by smart use of instances. These are areas of the game world that are specific to you and you alone and alongside the massive quantity of voice work and conversation options does much to make your care about the story.
Conversely this heavier than normal instancing of the game world can make some of the cavernous game environments seem quite empty at times but you are never far from a hub swarming with player characters sitting around or jumping in the air like any other MMO. If the player base does not remain stable (which I think it will) having every area of the game looking so empty and huge will be a real detriment to the game.
And this very definitely is an MMO. The combat is of the same “healer/tank/dps” model popularised by World of Warcraft. You activate powers by pressing hotkeys and combat is done by addressing an enemy and trading blows with them until they die. Thankfully, the “collect ten of X item” quests are almost always optional or simply involve killing a certain enemy rather than killing scores of enemies while waiting on a random item to drop out. That said, if you have played an MMO before much here will be familiar to you.
Quests are arranged in levels with some being labelled as “heroic” and requiring you to get in a group while Flashpoints function as raids. If you, like me, aren’t into the idea of partying up with strangers then the game will provide you with a ready made companion who can also handle your crafting. You do this by training them in the appropriate skills for what you want and then send them out on missions to gather materials and level up in the skill. It certainly beats having your own character grabbing a pick and chipping away at rocks while you should be having fun.
If those two paragraphs confused you then the way these concepts are initially introduced to you in game will make your head swim. Tutorial text could remain on screen longer but you will get the jist of everything with a quick visit to the in-game Mass Effect-esque codex. By the time I had left the first planet I had grasped everything an was ready to specialise my class and really get stuck into the games first city.
For me this was Dromund Kaas, capital of the Sith empire and graphically very pretty. The city itself is all massive spires stretching upwards while outside a deadly jungle is patrolled by wild animals, Mandalorian mercenaries and rogue Sith. The city is alive both with players and rambling groups of NPCs and there is usually plenty to do. While it lacks the character of the city hubs in other Bioware titles (Ilium this ain’t) it is superior to any hub I’ve seen in any other MMO. This saying can pretty much be applied to everything I have seen so far in the game. I looks amazing but amazing for an MMO, the story is fantastic but fantastic for an MMO. There is enough Bioware in here to keep fans happy but please don’t expect KOTOR 3 (and definitely don’t expect the KOTOR 4,5,6 stuff that was trotted out pre-release) or Mass Effect. The MMO aspect of this game just can’t allow that level of detail for each player. Still, once you go in fully aware of just how much of an MMO this is you are going to have a good time.
The story elements of the game also apply to planets. Your quest log will contain entries for class quests, which will move on your story, and planet quests which are just the ambient things happening on a given world. On Dromund Kaas this includes a slave rebellion, a crazed Sith conducting dangerous weapon experiments and even some ties to Revan. Your class quests will generally bring you into the same area the planet quests are taking place so you will never miss out on anything unless you want to. These quests will also offer opportunities to gain light and dark points which are just starting to make a difference to my character now. The writing for these moments has generally been well done so far with the dark side choices offering some deliciously evil pieces of dialogue.
*UPDATE* Part II
Last time I explained some of the ground work that The Old Republic does before letting you out into the big wide galaxy. It lays down the basic “rule set” for you chosen class and introduces the story beats you will be following for the next hundred or so hours. With a fairly firm grasp of the game under my belt I set myself to exploring the “massive” part of the game and discovered that sometimes people are nice on the internet.
I started a new character in a move that is apparently known as “re-rolling”. I did this with the intention of doing some of the lower level group content lest I jump into something way out of my league with my main character who was hovering around something like level thirty. This involved doing some of the first heroic quests in the game and spending around twenty minutes spamming “LFG (looking for group) quest name”. It took a surpringly long time to round up a posse of four people; this is probably the most severe problem I’ve encountered with the game so far. I think it’s down to the instancing of the game since the server activity list is always constantly going between heavy and “very heavy”. This problem became far less severe when I met up with a solid group that I continued to hang around with.
The group dynamic is really pretty fun with each character playing a different role. Some “tank” which means they have high health and are designed to draw the attention of enemies. My character filled the role of DPS which meant I hit hard but couldn’t take punishment myself which meant I relied on a healer to their job and a tank to keep enemies away. It’s a time tested formula but one that works and really comes into it’s own when you are joining up with a group and seeing snippets of their own class stories. It began to feel like we were a Star Wars team made up from Sith, bounty hunters and a duplicitous agent. I would love to see some kind of group storyline be implemented somewhere down the road to extenuate this feeling even further.
Next up we rolled into some of the games “Flashpoints” which are big, marquee quests that throw your group into a crazy situation. The first of these on the Sith side is called the “Black Talon” flashpoint and sees your group fighting their way through a stricken starship. Along the way you get to decide whether to flush someone out an airlock amongst other decisions. I knew I was with a good group when we constantly unanimously decided to do the dark side option. If you are in a more morally diverse group a random roll decides on what player gets to decide the outcome of a conversation. The flashpoints I’ve played decline in quality right around the middle of the game but have since started picking up again.
Aside from tooling around with my group I have also turned into an starship ace while also maintaining a life as a kind of intergalactic Delboy on the side. The space combat plays like Star Fox or perhaps more relevantly the space sections of Rebel Assault. You are given a few objectives, usually stuff like shoot down X number of enemy fighters or disable systems on an enemy capital ship. I found these sections fun and a nice way of changing the pace but there is no denying that they are nothing more than pretty shooting galleries with a Star Wars theme but for being side-content in an MMO that’s still incredibly impressive. They can be accessed anytime and helpfully tell you what level of upgrade your ship should be carrying before taking them on.
They were especially welcome when I felt bored with the planet I was on, which would usually happen towards the end of my time there which usually took around fifteen or so hours. There’s no doubt that things can become a bit of a slog, especially when you return to the space port eager to to continue your story only to be told more quests are available in what is termed a planet’s “bonus series”. Thankfully, the game has enough to do on the side so you can detox before jumping back into these additional missions, like selling all your stuff to other players!
When I wasn’t in space I was at the Galactic Trade Network selling stuff my droid companion had collected on his crafting missions. I quickly found that raw materials sold for a far higher price than actual items so took to selling massive stacks of the various materials for gigantic profits. Few things are as satisfying as seeing your in-game mail indicator light up and knowing that it’s going to contain 20,000 credits. Consequently I have access to excellent gear and, more importantly, gear that can be modified. It’s good to be powerful but even better to be powerful because of changes you have made to your own gear.
I really hope that Star Wars: The Old Republic is a success. I have deeply enjoyed the time I have spent within the game and will continue playing until I am bored of it. Before I jumped in I was massively opposed to the idea of a monthly subscription but can see that the huge amount of content on offer in The Old Republic really justifies it. The player count is still strong and everyone talking on chat seems happy with the game, just don’t mention World of Warcraft in a positive light unless you want to start a flame war in the chat. I’ll say again that I really think Star Wars: The Old Republic is the furthest the genre has come in it’s modern form. It offers a stable, fun and good-looking experience set in one of the most enduringly popular fictional universe ever created and I think that is at least worth a look for a month or two. We’ll be checking back in with the game in Summer to see how it’s doing but for right now I’m giving it a definite thumbs up.