Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Dec 21, 2011

At long last, BioWare and EA have flung wide the doors to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Can this new take on the MMORPG make the jump to hyperspace?

The Pros
  • BioWare-style storytelling flawlessly integrated into MMO gameplay
  • Huge game with hundreds of hours of content
  • Companion system ensures you can always progress
  • Fast-paced and rewarding PvP Warzones
  • Top notch music and voice acting
The Cons
  • UI needs to be more customizable
  • Needs more explicit tutorials for non-MMO players

Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

After many years, numerous jaw-dropping cinematic trailers, and countless X-Play preview segments, Star Wars: The Old Republic has finally gone live. BioWare has long-stated that their ambition with this sprawling massively multiplayer online game is to deliver essentially eight new installments of their lauded Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series, one per character class. It’s an impossible goal, one that strains the limits of credulity and, most likely, modern game development. Yet, after nearly a hundred hours of play time on numerous classes, I have to admit that, as far as I am concerned, they have actually done it.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (henceforth SWTOR, pronounced either "SWO-tor" or "sweater" depending on your preference) takes place about 3500 years before the films, but you might have a hard time knowing that by looking at it. Most of SWTOR will be familiar to any fan of the films, right down to Fett-ish armor on the Bounty Hunters and clonetrooper armor on the Troopers. This rather ingenious move allows the game to present familiar Star Warsian archetypes without getting bogged down in the film era timeline and characters.

 



You have eight classes to choose from: Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler and Trooper on the Republic side and Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter on the Empire side. Each has its own storyline that is entirely different from the other seven. As a fairly hardcore Star Wars fan, I ended up drawn to the Imperial Agent more than the others, primarily because it’s the only class without a movie archetype behind it. While the Smuggler class is obviously going to be a Han Solo-esque story and the Bounty Hunter is going to make you into a Fauxba Fett, Imperial Agent explores a fairly uncharted nook of the Star Wars galaxy. It was refreshing to play through a Star Wars story that was able to surprise me.

Of course, if you’re more into swinging a saber or suiting up in plasteel heavy armor, SWTOR has interesting and well-written stories for you in those classes, too. BioWare’s hallmark has always been storytelling, and they have managed to merge high production value story scenes with MMO gameplay in a disturbingly compelling manner. Every character you interact with is fully voiced, from the main characters in your storyline to the lowly trooper who needs a hand killing ten enemy snipers in the field. This adds a tremendous amount to the game, and even members of the G4 staff who expected to skip through the cutscenes have found themselves watching every one of them. When your character needs to say something, a Mass Effect style choice wheel pops up and you choose the tone of the response, with the traditional KOTOR reward of Dark or Light Side points for specific choices. If you’re in a group of players, each player picks a response, and the game rolls a number for each player to determine who gets to actually speak in the cutscene.

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The story and its presentation pulls you into the world in a way unlike any other MMO out there. While everyone who played World of Warcraft was attached to their characters because of the time put into them and their utility in the game, your SWTOR character are actually, well, characters. You don’t just care about what gear they’re wearing or what their crit chance is, you have a clear idea of who they are thanks to the storyline and your choices in it. When I play through a quest, I not only hope I get a good loot drop from the boss, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to my Agent from a narrative perspective, too.

As far as the actual gameplay, the old "WoW with lightsabers" chestnut manages to be both right and wrong. You do spend a lot of time killing a certain number of things or gathering a certain number of items, and WoW players will find a lot of familiar quest design here. However, the actual combat is different in that it does not use WoW’s queue system and auto-attacking. Each attack in SWTOR corresponds to a press of a button as it happens, and the result is a more action-oriented feel to the combat. It probably resembles City of Heroes/Villains more than anything else, but comparisons to other MMOs pretty much go out the window when your Sith Marauder is flying through the air about to bring his twin lightsabers down on a boss monster’s head.

 



Interestingly, BioWare made sure that everyone could play SWTOR even without other players around. Each class gets a group of companion characters that can serve different combat functions, from tanks to healers to damage dealers. This means that squishy mage-types will be able to have a tank around to soak up damage, and low-damage tanks will have a high-damage buddy to help make progress faster. You’ll find yourself quickly overwhelmed if you try to take on group instances or Heroic zones on with just you and your companion, but normal quests can always be tackled in this manner, guaranteeing that you can always make forward progress in the game, even if you don’t want to group with other players. It’s a brilliant system that will likely open the game up to people who aren’t as experienced or even interested in the MMO aspect of things. SWTOR is pretty good about giving you a variety of things to do on top of the story quests. Heroic areas and quests force grouping up with others, and the vast majority of pick-up groups I’ve been part of have been enjoyable and successful, at least so far.

Flashpoints are story-driven instance missions that are generally tougher than in-world Heroics, and generally result in some of the best loot. The Flashpoints are where the group conversation mechanics really get a chance to shine. There are also Operations, which are the SWTOR equivalent of raid dungeons, but since very few have actually hit the endgame content at this point, and I’m not one of them, I can only tell you they exist.

PvP is somewhat limited at this point, featuring three Warzone maps to play and of course the usual in-world combat between factions. Thankfully the three Warzones are tremendous fun and very different from one another. Huttball is a gladiatorial/sporting contest that challenges two teams to move a ball down a trap-laden field to score at an opposing team’s end zone. Voidstar is an attack/defend style map similar to the Rush gametype in Battlefield. Alderaan, my personal favorite, is a Conquest-style map in which the teams try to control three turbolaser cannons. Each cannon under your control continuously fires at an enemy capital ship hovering in the distance, and whichever team shoots down the enemy cap ship first wins. More content is obviously on the way, but this first taste is a very positive one. The objectives are interesting and the rewards are substantial.

SWTOR features a very unusual crafting system in that your character doesn’t actually do any of it. You acquire three crew skills early in the game, one for crafting, one for gathering resources, and one for "missions." You can send your crew members out on quests for the latter two, which causes them to disappear for a set amount of time and bring items back when they return. They also handle all the crafting. You just queue up to five items for them to make and they go off and make them for you. The advantage of this is that you can go do other stuff while your crew grinds for you. For instance, once you get your ship you can take on action-based space missions whenever you like. These are tube shooters, like Space Harrier or After Burner, and are a great time killer for when your crew members are out on crafting missions.



The trouble with the crafting is that it’s not very clearly explained by the game, and can require a lot of trial and error to get your head around. In fact, one of the game’s only serious flaws is that it’s most likely going to be somewhat impenetrable to someone who has never played an MMO before. Since I have to assume one of the goals of SWTOR is to get Star Wars fans who have not played MMOs to try this one out, it seems like SWTOR should have a much, much more detailed tutorial feature. The first planet for each class serves as something of a ten-level tutorial, with rudimentary tooltips popping up regularly, but I really think it needs a super-basic handholding mode. Ideally, when you create a character it should ask "Have you ever played an MMO before?" and if you say you haven’t, it very clearly walks you through what everything is from the ground up. It’s easy for those of us who have played MMOs for years to intuit many of SWTOR’s interface quirks and game mechanics, but a decent chunk of this game’s eventual audience may actually need things like "cooldown" and "agro" explained to them. Hopefully a future content update will address this. For now, if you’re an MMO newbie, just make sure you have an experienced friend around to help out.

It would also be nice if there were more options when it came to the user interface. The UI is surprisingly rigid and unscaleable, and the freedom to shrink elements of it and move things around would greatly improve the experience. Again, this is a minor issue, but one that will hopefully be remedied in the future.

The amount of content in Star Wars: The Old Republic is astounding. The fact that it is all incredibly damn good is borderline miraculous. We’ve known for some time that this was a tremendously ambitious project, but it’s not until digging into the game for a hundred or so hours that you start to appreciate just how damn much there is to be played here. A wide variety of players in the G4 offices have been thoroughly hooked. From MMO fans who don’t care about Star Wars to Star Wars fans who have never played an MMO to BioWare fans who don’t care about Star Wars or MMOs, reaction has been universally positive.

I honestly have spent the last few years very seriously doubting that even BioWare could pull off something as frankly crazy as what The Old Republic is attempting to do. They have succeeded far beyond my admittedly high expectations. As a KOTOR fan, I finally have my long-awaited sequel(s). As an MMO fan, I am hooked. As a Star Wars fan, I am enthralled. I’m not going to lie to you - a good chunk of this was written while waiting to get through a server queue. I’m willing to bet a good chunk of you read it while doing the same, so let’s all Alt-Tab over. We have a lot of game to play.