Star Wars: The Old Republic Not A Review Thing: Part 1
(Given the super crazy expansive scope and ever-evolving nature of an MMO like Star Wars: The Old Republic, a review in the traditional sense doesn’t make a lot of sense. Game reviews with scores attached to them tend to be pretty definitive but with so much time needed to explore and judge of all the content here we’re going to do things a little differently. So here’s our first of many looks at BioWare’s hotly anticipated MMO.)
A Star Wars MMO made by BioWare. It’s a match made in heaven.The EA-owned RPG development house has already displayed its understanding and reverence for the Star Wars IP by initiating the KOTOR franchise. Suffering more than a little orc and elf fatigue in our MMOs, the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic seems like it’s doing everything right. At least that’s how I felt about the game two and a half years ago when I saw it unveiled at E3 2009. Since then there’s (understandably) been a lot of angst among BioWare, MMO, and Star Wars fans alike about The Old Republic. As with any game that has spent this much time in the spotlight, it’s inevitable for fan expectations to get wildly out of hand. And when rumored numbers emerge about how many people have been sucked up by BioWare Austin to finish this project and how many large sacks of money EA has thrown at the development and marketing of this game (Like 200+ fulltime employees and $80 million according to Gamasutra), it’s not difficult to understand why it feels like so much is riding on this launch. All of this had led to what is most definitely one of the most talked about and anticipated games of the last few years. And now it’s finally here.
So far I’ve played my way through the first 17 levels of the Imperial Agent class (plus 12 or so levels with a Sith Warrior during the beta). I hope to play a crap ton more (that whole holiday break thing might put a bit of a damper on this) all while bringing my impressions to you as I dig into the nitty-gritty of the different aspects of The Old Republic.
I’m going to say this up front: expect plenty of references to World of Warcaft throughout this journal because 1) It’s the MMO that I’ve put the most time into by a long shot, 2) Statistically speaking, it’s probably the MMO that you’re most familiar with, and 3) BioWare hasn’t really shied away from comparisons themselves (and in some cases encouraged them). This is most likely because Star Wars: The Old Republic is WORLD OF WARCRAFT BUT IN SPACE. Okay, maybe that’s being a little reductive. Most of what The Old Republic does will feel familiar to MMO veterans but the steps it takes to try and bring fresh ideas to the MMO space are (largely) the game’s most shining successes.
Of all the things The Old Republic gets right in its early game, the biggest victory has been making me care about the story. I’m going to recap what I’ve experienced so far in order to make a point: my Imperial Agent traveled undercover as an infamous assassin called The Red Blade to Hutta in order to persuade a powerful Hutt to drop his business with the Republic and instead begin trading with the Empire. I then moved on to Dromund Kaas where I was an integral part in quelling a slave rebellion and uncovering the identity of the leader of a rogue group of Sith considered heretics in the eyes of the Dark Council. And I’ll soon be off to investigate a mysterious attack on an Imperial vessel that was carrying an important Sith lord. My point: even with all the time I put into WoW (which was a lot) I probably couldn’t recap as much story as I just did with those few previous sentences from my first 17 levels of The Old Republic. Being a Star Wars geek certainly helps my enjoyment and understanding of the lore, but even without that background it would be hard not to appreciate the (mostly) spectacular writing and voice acting.
Of course, as has become the BioWare standard, most of the narrative here is delivered through conversations with NPCs and dialogue options. It’s something I like to call the BioWare Illusion of Choice. You start at Point A and no matter what dialogue options you pick you’ll always end up at Point B. I don’t mean to be a vibe harsher, but it’s kind of the unflattering reality of these design choices. Star Wars: The Old Republic is just as guilty as the Mass Effects and Dragon Ages (if not more so given the need for a static world in an MMO). But as a mechanic to help craft who your character is in your own head, this works just as well as it ever has.
The closest the dialogue choices ever get to being consequential is when you have to make a light or dark side decision (indicated with the blue or red symbol for each side when you hover the mouse over those conversation choices). These decisions tend to be painfully binary (kill the children or save them) and I’m still very unclear as to the benefits of earning alignment points. More on this as I figure it out!
So here’s a consequence of the whole virtual world mechanic in MMOs: oftentimes the narrative surrounding the game is directly at odds with the whole massively part of the game. Yeah, you’re the chosen one. But so is everyone else around you. And with The Old Republic putting such a heavy focus on the narrative, it only highlights this disconnect even further. Some of the story elements seem to account for this more than others. As the Imperial Agent on a top secret mission on Hutta, I feel like that doesn’t necessarily have to be a unique experience whereas the Sith Warrior starting quest of “you are super powerful with the force” kind of loses its impact in the MMO world.
That being said, BioWare has cleverly managed to weave the narrative components into the social components with what is my personal highlight of the game so far: Flashpoints. Flashpoints are basically the equivalent of four-man dungeons but with story beats as you play through them. I’ve only completed one but I’m already convinced they’ve managed to make story relevant to group play. You enter conversations as a group and each player rolls to see which character gets to speak. There were at least half a dozen of these encounters peppered throughout the Flashpoint. It’s amazing how mundane dungeons in other MMORPGs seem in retrospect once you experience The Old Republic’s Flashpoints.
And that’s about all I’ve got for The Old Republic right now! Next update I’m hoping to talk more about the space combat stuff (I just got my spaceship!) and the crafting and companion systems (which tie into each other quite nicely). And if everything goes according to plan of course I’ll check out PvP and some of the higher level areas and flashpoints. In the mean time may the Force be with you. Or something.