Star Wars: The Old Republic
So this is the one we’ve all been waiting for. The hype has been immense. The noise from the haters on one side and the fanboys on the other has been unbearable. The mmo genre has been in a precarious state for some time. The looming shadow cast by the current sequoia of the MMO (WoW) world has made it hard for any of the other saplings to get some of that sweet, sweet, sunshine (cash) and the pickings have been slim lately. As a result, many MMOs have been switching over to micro-transaction models that bolster the short term player and cash numbers but are questionable for the long term health of the game. Can The Old Republic be a new hope to the subscription based model? (had to do it) First question to answer even before that however is: Does SWTOR even qualify as a MMO?
To answer some of that question, you have to look at the MMO market as a whole. In the early days of Ultima Online and Everquest, grouping was not something you had the luxury of doing or not doing. It was an absolute requirement in most cases. As the years went on, people did not like the forced aspect of grouping and developers supplied their demands with more solo friendly MMOs over the years. People increasingly began to treat their MMO of choice as a single player affair. Or in some cases as a co-op, playing only with people they knew or were in a guild with, effectively shutting out and ignoring the rest of the population. I liken it to the “other driver” syndrome. Many people, while driving, will often remark how all the drivers around them are terrible drivers while not realizing all those other drivers are saying the same thing about that person and all the other drivers around them. The same principle applies to MMO players. Everyone else sucks except me. This is the driving attitude that has led to the solo-ification of MMOs in general. What SWTOR has done, has taken this concept to a whole other level.
We have seen some new technology come out of MMOs over the years and Star Wars has decided to use them to an unprecedented degree. Specifically, I am talking about Instancing, and Layering. The early areas of the game are full of personal instances for you that are used to forward your class quests. Gone are the days of needing to kill a specific monster to complete your class quest and having to wait in line with several other people who are also there to kill the same monster. You run into your own little private instance and there is the bad guy, spawned just for you. There are also instances for group quests as well. It works the same way. It allows you and your group to run into the area and complete the tasks needed for the quest without having to fight multiple other groups for kills or items.
In addition to this, they have also decided to make all of the zones in the game layered. So instead of having 500 people running around Korriban at one time causing strain, lag, and poor fps, they decided to put 100 people on five layers of Korriban instead. The pros to this of course are the opposite of the things I just listed about lag and low frame rates. The Cons to this are a smaller pool of players to group up with to do things. But since they (rightly) figure most people play solo anyway, the good outweighs the bad. So when people say that the game plays and feels like a single player game, they are not far off from the truth. This game does stretch the definition of what a MMO is and what it should be, no doubt about that. The question is, does that make it a bad game? Well, let’s back up a bit and start at the beginning. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Okay, okay, just kidding.
You start by picking a faction. You can pick either the Republic or the Empire. Either faction has 4 classes which are Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler, and Trooper for the Republic. Empire has Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Bounty Hunter, and Imperial Agent. Each Faction has two starting areas apiece. For example, on the republic side Jedi Knights and Consulars share the same starting area and will share many of the common quests of that area that are not class specific quests so there is some overlap.
After that you pick your race. There are several to choose from for each class but not every race can play every class. A common complaint is that given all the varied and strange looking creatures that inhabit the Star Wars Universe, the number of available races to choose from is pretty small. I kind of agree. While I think there is a decent amount of choices available, they all pretty much boil down to Human, or Human Looking with different color skin and weird **** on your head. There are four body types to choose from. You have your tiny small guy, thin normal guy, beefy Brock Samson type, and Darth Peter Griffin. After that you do your basic customization by picking hair, eyes, and so on. I’ve also seen people complain about this as well. I found the amount of choices to be adequate. I created 8 different characters and managed to give each one a distinct, unique look from one another.
After you get all that stuff out of the way, you begin by being introduced to your classes part in the story and start your journey. As far as game play goes, SWTOR doesn’t go out of its way to take any chances or innovate. They stick in safe territory here. If you’ve ever played WoW or Rift before, the combat will feel instantly familiar to you. Even though it is not original, I can’t list it as a negative. The combat feels fun and while it is not quite as responsive as the combat in WoW, it comes closer than any other MMO has in years. And yes, that is a good thing. When you use a skill, it generally happens and the animations are fluid. There are a couple of problem skills however that could use a little work. You have your melee and ranged classes, tanks, healers and dps. All of your basic, standard, MMO fare combat wise. The talent tress of the classes are also pretty unoriginal and will be very familiar to any MMO vet. At level 10 and after you leave the starting area, you pick an advanced class. It is fancy wording for deciding whether you want to be a Tank or a Healer. Here is an area where I wish they would have borrowed from Rift and let you have multiple roles that you could swap in an out of. Anyway, what helps these things out is the Star Wars spin on them. You aren’t doing a Heroic Strike with your greatsword, you have your lightsaber instead. That is a big draw alongside the fact that after years of fantasy based MMOs, there is now another Sci-fi option available (along with games like Eve and Star Trek)
One area SWTOR did decide to try something a little different is to borrow from their Dragon Age and Mass Effect games by using their companion system. This is a slight twist on pet classes that other MMOs have by having the pets be people that can run off to sell your junk for you (Which is a great feature also borrowed from some single player rpgs) and craft your goods for you. If you’ve played DA and ME before you will know how this works. For example, if your companion is a smartass who likes to say sarcastic things, then if you give sarcastic smartass replies to NPCs that you talk to, you will earn affection points from them. It works both ways though. If your companion is nice and kind hearted, those smartass replies will get you negative affection points instead. This can be remedied by bribing them with gifts that you can buy for them from certain vendors in the game. In a game that can feel sparsely populated in some areas, it helps a little to have a companion by your side, even if it is just an AI one.
One final thing I like was the music in the game. It’s very well done. I’ve always been a sucker for Star Wars music. The old John Willams stuff, the new chanty choir stuff. All of it.
Now that we’ve covered the light side of things, we must turn to the dark side for a moment. While the game is fun overall, it is certainly not without its fair share of flaws. The most glaring of which in my opinion is the UI. It is a barebones UI with little to no customization options, which in this day in age is a little surprising. There isn’t even a combat log, which is something a game like Everquest had over 10 years ago. The UI needs some much needed attention in upcoming paches. Also, their version of the auction house is pretty atrocious. Not user friendly at all and missing basic functions like sorting armor based on piece. You can search for heavy armor but if you want to search for a helmet you have to manually type in the filter rather than choosing it from a dropbox.
Also adding to the “It’s not a MMO” argument is the fact that SWTOR is linear and not so much a world, let alone a galaxy, as it is a collection of rooms. It was rather disappointing, I must say, after finishing my Jedi Trials with my Consular and heading to the city of Courscant to see that the entire zone was just a collection hallways and rooms. You could not go off the beaten path to explore the city. It definitely adds to the single player vibe of the game. There are some planets (zones) that open things up a bit a let your roam but they still feel a bit small compared to your average zones in other mmo games.
Another flaw that I do not like at all is how they decided to implement the Light Side / Dark Side choices. Bioware loves to put the players in moral quandaries all the time and here in this game is no different except for one major difference. It is the illusion of choice. The only choice you have is at the very beginning. You have to decide at that very moment if you are going to be a character attuned to the light side or the dark side. In some of their other games you can have some depth to your character. He can be morally ambiguous. In SWTOR it is either all or nothing. Early on you learn that there are certain items in the game that can only be worn or used depending on your attunement level. A weapon might have a requirement for Light Side I, for example. This means you need 1000 light side points to use it. The only way to get these is through picking good or nice or noble type responses during quests and conversations. So you might come across a guy who in your mind clearly deserves to die but you need those light side points so you pick the option to let him go instead. Sure, I guess technically you can play a guy who is nice sometimes and bad sometimes but all you are doing is locking yourself out of being able to use certain items later on the game. So choose. You are either a White Knight or an Evil Dick. There is no grey area. So the whole choice thing is a bit of a letdown for me. I thought I would have more options of being something other than Dudley DoRight or Snidely Whiplash but that’s pretty much it.
This is more of a personal gripe of mine too but it’s like they knew the game felt kind of like a Mass Effect game especially if you were playing a class that didn’t have lightsabers so they went out of their way to stick as much Star Wars imagery in as many places as they could and it got to the point where I actually found it kind of annoying. What I mean is that everything you see in the game vaguely resembles everything you have ever seen in a Star Wars movie whether or not it makes sense. All the protocol droids for the Republic all vaguely look and even sound like C-3P0. Why? Oh, so you can say, “OH, I Am playing Star Wars. What fun!” Isn’t this supposed to be taking place thousand(s) of years before all the movie Star Wars stuff? Nothing we have today resembles stuff we had 1000 years ago because none of the stuff we have now even existed then. Even little things they copied. Like remember near the end of The Phantom Menace when Darth Maul was pacing back and forth waiting for those shields to drop so he could get back to fighting? I just thought it was something they added to give the character a little more depth since he had almost no lines of dialogue. It gave him a little personality. But no! It’s actually a technique they taught all of the sith 1000 years ago! Yes, pacing back and forth is a taught skill in the Star Wars universe apparently. It’s all here. The Hutts have people in carbonite. Do we still use ancient Egyptian embalming and mummifying techniques on people? I can go on and on but it’s like I said. They crammed as much Star Wars imagery as they could in this game. I know, I know, it’s fiction, it’s a game blah blah…I can only stretch my suspension of disbelief so far, don’t abuse it.
A tiny, minor nitpicky thing that I have to mention is that during cutscenes and especially with females, there is something weird going on with the upper lip and teeth during conversations. It is some animation that could use some cleaning up. Once I saw it, I could not unsee it and now it is to the point of distraction. The upper lip moves but the upper teeth are bared while this is going on. It just looks off. Like Mr. Ed or something.
Even with its problems, I still find SWTOR a lot of fun to play and I am enjoying it. Whether I will still feel the same way or not in a couple of months time remains to be seen. It will depend on how much effort EA and Bioware puts into the game through patches and content updates.
After all is said and done, what we have here is a flawed gem. It has a lot of potential but will need a some polishing up around the rough edges.
+Star Wars music
+Combat is fun
+Story is well done for each class
+Cinematic cut scenes immerse you in the game
+Companions are a nice touch
-Unoriginal talent trees
-Some Linear zones
-Tried too hard to make everything resemble something from the movies
-Light side/Dark side choices are meaningless once you’ve picked a path