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Released: December 20 2011
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Over the last few months, I’ve slaughtered Sith, Jedi, jawas and a couple of Hutts. I’ve brought worlds to their knees, become best buddies with a hideous force eating monstrosity and called countless people “nerf herder” (including Liam and Andy). Yes, I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Enough so that I have a big ol’ mean Sith Assassin sitting pretty at level 50 and fair few alts climbing their way up the leveling pole, anyway.
There’s a lot to like about BioWare’s contribution to this increasingly saturated MMO market. I’m a sucker for a good story — which makes my love of MMOs all the more bizarre — and the narrative is probably one of The Old Republic’s strongest elements. It’s no wonder that it took so long for us to get our hands on the game as it contains eight fairly well written, fully voice acted stories intertwined with the over arching tale of the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire.
In other MMOs my investment in my characters never goes beyond the amount of time I’ve put into them, but in this space opera my investment stemmed from the fact that my Assassin, Soluum (I was really scraping the barrel for Sith Lord names), was a campy psychopath with a fetish for electrocuting everyone. He was wonderful. He had personality, lots of it, that’s not something I ever imagined saying about a player character in an MMO.
These slow burning tales of deceit, adventure and possibly even romance feel very disconnected from the rest of the game, unfortunately. The moment you step into a story instance, signposted by a giant green forcefield, you’re playing a character with a past and his or her own motivations. Outside these instances you’re often relegated another Assassin or Bounty Hunter, spouting canned — sometimes rather amusing — phrases while participating in a boring war. There is a mind boggling amount of dialogue, however, so the canned lines are forgivable much of the time.
While the class missions offer plenty of motivation to keep playing, far more than leveling and looting provides on its own, the planetary storylines are as dull as they come. Every world has the same sort of mundane conflict between Empire and Republic and most amount to killing things or collecting things. Sometimes I came across an interesting situation or character, but after the first couple of worlds they all start blending into one.
BioWare had a great opportunity to make the missions engaging beyond the dialogue by offering actual roleplaying instead of straight forward combat, but they missed it. If you strip out the conversations, it’s not far removed from what you will find yourself doing in any number of the game’s competitors.
To keep you company on your journey to greatness, you collect a motley crew of companions with their own back stories and personalities that can be pandered to in attempt to increase your influence with them. While the various crews are a colourful bunch and frequently helpful, they often seem more like pets. There are surprisingly few opportunities to chat to your companions, though they tend to enjoy spouting mildly annoying one liners during combat.
You won’t choose to spend a lot of time with a specific companion because you like them; you’ll spend time with them because you need their class. As a DPS Sith Assassin the only common sense companion for me was the tank, Khem Val. The mechanics made my mind up, not the narrative. Mechanically speaking, they work well, though. It’s very handy to be able to summon your companion to aid you if you need a party of four but can only find two other players.
Your crew are indispensable as crafters, too. All players get three crew skills made up of crafting, gathering and mission skills. At any time during the game you can send your followers to gather items or perform missions for rewards and then have them use those materials to craft you an item. It means you can get on with actually playing the game, instead of hunting down nodes all day long or standing about crafting, yourself. That constant forward momentum explains the lack of grind, generally.
Combat is well designed, though I found that guns made for much more enjoyable weapons than lightsabers. It just never really felt like I was using a lightsaber, it might as well have been a glowing stick. That said, the combat animations look good and battles are fast paced and rarely demand that you stand still for very long. Most of the time you’ll be fighting large groups of foes and seeing so many felled in quick succession really made me feel like a force to be reckoned with.
For the most part, the skills make sense and each class has a surprising amount of utility and flexibility, increased further with the Advanced Classes unlocked early on; at level 10. Talent trees are more about adding a few percent of x to ability y than actually building an interesting character, unfortunately. However, anyone familiar with modern MMOs will feel comfortable with it.
What are the moral implications of butchering foes by the thousands? Well according to BioWare there aren’t any. The morality mechanics in The Old Republic are the most arbitrary of any of the developer’s RPGs and don’t seem to exist outside of conversations. While there’s no doubt that giving players the opportunity to take different paths and achieve a variety of outcomes makes the game more engaging, after the event plays out in the dialogue cutscene it might as well have never happened at all.
The light side/dark side malarkey is as confused as it has ever been and is entirely inconsistent. Despite this, at the times where it does make sense, it can really heighten the drama and make you feel like you are building a unique character, even if that is just a clever illusion.
This wouldn’t be an MMO without tons of group content and in this respect BioWare have done a superb job. Every area has a few Heroic Missions, requiring you to group up to take down especially powerful enemies. The Heroic areas tend to be near places where you will be questing and playing on a server with a healthy population ensures that you’ll usually be able to find people willing to team up.
Flashpoints are instanced multiplayer missions akin to “dungeons”. They tend to provide sufficient challenge at the appropriate levels and some of them even have interesting stories to keep you motivated. Later Flashpoints offer more creative boss battles that require quick thinking and team work, which makes finishing them all the more satisfying. At level 50 Hard Mode version of earlier Flashpoints are unlocked as well as Operations, the raids of The Old Republic.
While multiplayer conversations can take place elsewhere, the Flashpoints are where they are really showcased. They work surprisingly well, too. After selecting your response there’s a dice roll to determine who gets to speak, everyone gets social points (to spend on a variety of generally useless cosmetic items) regardless of their roll, while the winner get’s the greatest amount. If you made a moral decision then you get the appropriate light or dark side points for your choice, not for the action that played out. So your goody two shows Jedi won’t get dark side points if a cruel smuggler wins a roll and murders some poor chap.
As a lover of well realised, alien worlds, I felt a little bit let down by The Old Republic. There’s a huge amount of interesting world building going on, but the actual locations are drab and depressing, lacking in character entirely. Other than the hordes of enemies, most worlds are fairly quiet and devoid of life.
Recognisable locations from the films and games go a long way to making you feel like a part of the galaxy, but they are too few compared to the endless parade of instantly forgettable military complexes, featureless settlements and forests, plains, deserts and tundras that could have been ripped from any number of fantasy games. They are methodically designed to allow players to gather as many missions as possible and complete them all rapidly before nudging you towards the next location. It makes questing a breeze, but it makes revisiting them with another character a chore.
Although the experience may not be particularly visually stimulating, it is an aural treat. The Old Republic has, hands down, some of the best music I’ve ever encountered in an MMO. The stirring orchestral score makes everything seem so much more impressive and dramatic — accompanied by the sounds of blaster fire, lightsaber strikes and the occasional explosion — it’s a joy to listen to. The voice acting is equally impressive. There’s a lot of well known voice talent behind these characters, and it shows.
PvP is an entertaining diversion, though lacking in diversity with only three Warzone scenarios available (with more on the way) along with the open world PvP, which is a bit messy. The Alderaan Warzone is a simple capture and hold deal, though the capture points being turrets that continually blast the enemy’s ship is a nice touch. The Voidstar is an assault and defend scenario, with the attacking team attempting to blow through sealed doors as they make their way to the computer core before the time runs out. The third Warzone is my personal favourite: Huttball. A violent and popular spectator sport where two teams duke it out to carry the ball passed the opposition’s goal line. It’s got multiple levels, fire and acid traps and big jumps and it’s rather a lot of fun. And remember; don’t kick the ball, Hutts don’t have feet!
Space combat is a fun addition to the game even if it’s all a bit meaningless, but you’re flung into some rather large scale and exciting battles in short, bite sized chunks. Nothing amazing, but damn if it isn’t a good way to waste five minutes. Numerous ship upgrades and medals encourage players to invest more time in it. If you don’t it’s no loss, but it’s nice to have a reason to keep coming back beyond the enchanting prospect of blowing up more ships.
The Old Republic is an impressive attempt at marrying two very disparate styles. As an MMO it’s up there with the best of them, offering hundreds of hours of content and a decent list of interesting features. When it toes the genre line, it does so in a polished and painless fashion and when it tries to break free from the genre’s limitations it offers something new and intriguing even when it trips up.
As a representation of the Star Wars universe it’s a mere shadow of it’s predecessor, Knights of the Old Republic, and makes one wonder how many concessions were made to fit it into the MMO sphere. If you’re looking for a new MMO that isn’t too far removed from the genre mainstreams, then you really can’t go wrong here, but if you’re looking for something that takes a truly fresh approach then you’re barking up the wrong wroshyr tree.