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3,600 years before Luke Skywalker was bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16, the galaxy was enveloped in an all-out war. After over 20 years of fighting, the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic met to forge Treaty of Coruscant, a document that ended The Great Galactic War in an extremely uneasy stalemate. Battles and skirmishes still flare up in the years following this agreement, and the universe is on-edge at all times. It’s here, during this Cold War, that the most important MMORPG since World of Warcraft takes place.
The main reason for the high expectations comes from the developer: BioWare. Being the creators of the Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age franchises means that the studio carries with it an air of quality, and not since Blizzard has such a well-respected developer entered into the MMO arena. It’s also a Star Wars game – and an expensive one to boot – all of which set expectations sky-high. Does BioWare break the mold? Or is SWTOR just “World of Warcraft with lightsabers” like many have predicted?
Above: BioWare totally captured the Star Wars vibe
Utilizing a setting thousands of years before A New Hope allowed BioWare a lot of freedom with its MMO, and it took full advantage of everything the era has to offer. Several hundred years after Knights of the Old Republic there are still plenty of Jedi and Sith rampaging about the cosmos, giving BioWare the license to include Force-using classes while abiding by the canon. Both sides have two Jedi and Sith classes, with the Sith Empire getting Bounty Hunters and Imperial Agents to the Republic’s Smugglers and Troopers. Breaking it down even further, each class is specialized at level 10 – a permanent focus that allows for extra customization. We could play our Sith Inquisitor as a healer or damage dealer by choosing to go Sorcerer, or as a double-sided lightsaber-wielding stealthy tank as an Assassin. Choosing a specialization provided us with a traditional talent tree to further shape our character, and though they’re arguably more impactful than those found in other MMOs, were still fairly recognizable to anyone who has played a game in the genre.
While BioWare took some strides towards reinventing the genre, much of their game is still locked in the past. Combat, for instance, is fundamentally the same as every other MMO on the market. You’re playing whack-a-mole with a few bars full of abilities, tapping the corresponding number when the skill you want to use pops up. It works, just as it did in EverQuest eleven years ago, but it’s a mechanic that’s begging for an overhaul. The basic system that alerts enemies to your presence, too, is in dire need of work – as gaming evolves it becomes increasingly puerile that foes in the same room as us will wait to be approached before attacking, even as we brutally murder their friends ten feet away. Some other areas of SWTOR aren’t even as advanced as other modern games in the genre: the UI isn’t nearly as customizable as it should be, and there are many convenience features (a competent looking-for-group tool and HUD customization) that are flat-out missing.
But BioWare’s plans never included throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All along their goal was clear: put story first. And these promises were not oversold. The Old Republic is, first and foremost, a story-based game, and since there are eight different classes to choose from, it’s actually sort of eight story-based games. Each class follows a unique plot line with interesting characters, fun missions, and stories that live up to the Knights of the Old Republic name. We saw a few of the classes’ quests unfold, and it genuinely feels as though each could have been its own full game.
They would have been very different games, too - our Sith Inquisitor’s plot was very political, with Shakespearian twists and turns, whereas the Bounty Hunter’s story was more fun, feeling like a space western set in the Star Wars universe. Leveling up was much more entertaining than it typically is in MMOs, and everything unfolded naturally (check out our impressions of levels 1-15, 15-30, and levels 30-45).
Melee DPS (uses dual lightsabers)
Melee DPS/Tank (one lightsaber)
Ranged DPS/Heal (one lightsaber)
Melee DPS/Tank (double lightsaber)
Melee DPS (uses dual lightsabers)
Melee DPS/Tank (one lightsaber)
Ranged DPS/Heal (one lightsaber)
Melee DPS/Tank (double lightsaber)
Each faction has a large number of quests that are shared between all of the classes, but all of the characters have their own dialog options, making repeating the same generic quests with a different class a fresh experience. The dialog never felt like filler, or a time waster, or a distraction. On the contrary; it made The Old Republic feel like the first MMORPG that was actually a complete game. It made us excited to replay the game once we finished our first run through, and anxious to see what the other side was like. But we didn’t have to do it alone. Besides being able to adventure with other players, every character will also end up with a ship full of Companions that can assist them in battle, each of which has their own unique personalities. We didn’t fall in love with each and every Companion we found – some were actually quite annoying – but we did end up with a few favorites. We liked that we could give them equipment to make them more useful in battle and gifts to raise their affection, which improves their proficiency at Crew Skills.
And, just as BioWare promised, the game is fully voiced, a novelty that never gets old. Production values are off the charts, with well-known voice actors playing major parts in the stories. There are some repeated sound clips from time to time, which becomes more evident as the game gets further along. It worked regardless, and made the game’s quests – which all too often dipped into the paltry pile of MMO clichés – have more meaning. Even though we were killing ten rats, blowing up six bases, or downloading data off of a computer at the end of a dungeon, we knew why, and we cared about it.
Above: Explosive battles? Awesome action? A Sith craves these things
More importantly, the stories do more than add context – they’re good, too. BioWare’s signature style of strong writing is consistent throughout the entire experience. Some dialog options will even have moral repercussions, sliding your player towards the light or the dark side of the force and giving them access to different cosmetic items depending on the side they end up on. Though we thought the choices were interesting and added to the story, we quickly realized that picking a side and sticking to it was the best way to get good items, essentially forcing our hand for the rest of the game.
Above: Even though it got boring after a while, Nar Shadda was definitely unique
Several elements of the MMO genre are necessarily modified when the setting takes to the stars. Instead of dropping players onto a supercontinent and having them travel between zones, the game’s locations are spread throughout the galaxy, with each planet equating to about the same amount of content that would normally be found in a traditional MMO zone. On the one hand, it makes the game, on the whole, feel smaller, since no one planet is all that massive. Some are large and expansive, but there’s never the feel of living in a single, massive, cohesive world that some other games conveyed.
With this bad comes some good: the planets are much more diverse than typical MMO zones. The wildlife varied drastically between planets, as it did in the films, and the story changed more drastically depending on the planet we landed on. Tatooine has both Imperials and Republic forces fighting against the Sand People and Jawas while taking orders from officers complaining about being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, whereas traveling to Alderaan threw us into the middle of bitter political battles, and had us working with prestigious families and royalty.
Other planets, like the crime-ridden planet of Nar Shadda and the massive megacity of Coruscant, bring an urban flavor and maintain a wonderfully Star Wars feel, reminding us of the better parts of the prequels as we traverse city streets battling gangs and muggers instead of slaughtering tauntauns. The later planets actually move the story forward, with Taris and Corellia doing a great job at making you feel entrenched in a war of galactic proportions.
Another element that both improves and takes away from the game are instanced areas, which are used more fluidly and dynamically than they are in any other MMO. Quests usually start in an open area, but will eventually include passing through a translucent green door that creates a separate version of the area you’re walking into for your group. It’s completely seamless, with no load times or lag, and can provide you with a private dungeon or a single room in a massive city. Even in a game full of brilliant steps forward, this single element might be the most innovative aspect of the entire experience – gone are the days of standing in line for a boss to spawn, waiting around to loot an objective item, or fighting through overcrowded dungeons with two-dozen other players. Most of the time. There are still occasional spots like this in the open world, but they’re less frequent, and almost feel as though they were included just to prove how much better the instanced areas are.
There’s a downside to this, however. The Old Republic can be lonely. If you’re playing alone, which you’re completely able to do for a majority of the game (save for the “Heroic” missions, which are repeatable mini-dungeons that require a group), you might not run across too many other players in the open world. We passed the occasional ally on a speeder and ran into groups of players while visiting encampments to get new quests, and we constantly saw people in major cities, but when we were questing, if we didn’t bring a friend, we’d feel a little alone. Some might enjoy this solitude, while others could be turned off by the lack of constant interaction.
It didn’t bother us all that much, since we just made sure to always bring an ally around (and having a companion by our side helped, too), though it lacks the “massively” element of some other massively multiplayer online games like Rift, where we were constantly engaging hundreds of players at once in absurdly large battles. It has some interesting open-world elements, like “Area Quests” unlocking as players travel through different areas of the world and a few open-world PvP arenas, but a majority of the game is guided more heavily than it is in most other open-world MMOs.
Above: Take a tour of the ship and see some space combat
Traveling from planet to planet in The Old Republic takes a little bit of time. We had to sit through five loading screens on our way from Tatooine to Hoth, which included a necessary stop to a space station above Hoth that serves no purpose outside of the story. It’s a bit of a hassle, but we usually didn’t mind it, mainly because traveling between planets allowed us an excuse to use our ship. Around level 15 every class obtains a class-specific light-speed-capable ship, which serves as the main interplanetary transportation in The Old Republic. It almost takes over the need for player housing save for the fact that there’s no physical customization to speak of, which is a shame, but we were able to pop open the hood and tinker around inside, upgrading elements of the ship for space combat.
Ship combat missions equate to a minigame in SWTOR, playing out like a simplified version of Star Fox where you only need to use the mouse to maneuver your ship and attack others. Despite being fairly simple, the missions are exceptionally fun, and the reward of bountiful credits and experience make it more than a time waster. We genuinely enjoyed taking our ship for a spin to complete missions, even if the later space levels became dramatically more difficult to the point of brutal frustration.
Above: Press the space bar to do a barrel roll!
Still, we wish that the ship played a more important role in the game. Being able to customize the interior or exterior would make us feel more connected to our story, and the inclusion of cooperative space combat missions would take the minigame from something of a novelty to a strong social inclusion. We’d even settle for the choice to display story-related items in our ship, letting us have something to show for our galactic adventures. We’ll wait for an expansion before we actually complain about the lack of a free-roaming universe, but if that doesn’t eventually get included in some form or another it will be a wasted opportunity.
Above: We let them do the work while we have the fun
Crafting and gathering are found in almost every major MMO, and The Old Republic is no different, but BioWare put a unique spin on the formula in a few interesting ways that make for a much better integrated experience. Players can learn three “Crew Skills,” which level up like traditional crafting and gathering skills, and send their Companions to do the work for them. Instead of slaving over a hot crafting table for hours, we sent our companions on missions to gather different types of materials and craft gear. Sure, you lose the experience of watching a bar go up and standing in one place, but you gain the ability to craft while doing other things, and that’s a swap we’re willing to make.
Crew skills aren’t the only wrench BioWare threw into the works. Also added is the ability to “Reverse Engineer” crafted goods – an act which breaks down the crafted item to regain some of the material components. This isn’t an original idea in and of itself, but it lends itself to a bigger, unique aspect of crafting: discoverable schematics. Reverse engineering an item has the chance to unveil a better version of that item, and reverse engineering that can yield an even better version – and there are a multiple upgraded versions of each.
Above: When Companions are at work they literally go to the crafting table on your ship
It’s costly, and success isn’t guaranteed (sometimes we reverse engineered an item dozens of times to no avail, other times we were rewarded with a new schematic almost immediately), but it made it possible to create truly enhanced gear with the perfect stats for our class.
Another fold added to The Old Republic’s items comes in the form of Prototype gear. With these items, all of the stats come from the Item Modifications it’s made up of, letting us upgrade the items we had with better Modifications, or rip out the Modifications from our old gear to put into our new ones. In World of Warcraft, we’d enhance our gear with gems.
Above: Prototype gear also allows you to make cosmetic choices
In The Old Republic, some of your items are literally only as good as the Modifications they’re made up of. Different items accept different types of Modifications, and they can be ripped out and swapped between items for a price. It’s a brilliant system, and makes upgrading gear steadily possible, instead of just outright swapping items every few levels. It also means finding an item we couldn’t use didn’t mean we were forced to sell it – if the Modifications still worked for us we could remove them and add them to items we could use.
One area where BioWare made very little attempt to innovate is in the PvP combat, which is essentially copied straight from the modern MMO formula. They do some things better, some things worse, and some things differently, though we’d certainly love to see them expand it to fit more in line with the rest of the game. At launch there were three Warzones available.
Above: The only rule of Huttball? No kicking, because "Hutts don't have feet"
There’s a fairly typical assault mode, where one team defends a series of doors while the other tries to plant bombs on them; a capture-point mode on Alderaan, where points activate turrets that fire on enemy ships; and Huttball, a more unique mode where mixed-faction teams attempt to carry a ball over a goal line.
Winning in PvP rewarded us with Commendations we could use to get better PvP-specific gear – just as it does in every other MMO on the market. None of the Warzones are exceptionally strong (though we’d be lying it we didn’t admit our guilty pleasure for Huttball), and it feels like they all need some work when it comes to balancing, but they’re all a good deal of fun if you’re in a good group. If you’re not, you’re going to have to deal with the typical issues of players not understanding the rules, being matched against pre-made groups, and the occasional problem in Huttball where the mixed-teams will result in teammates helping the opposing team because their guild is represented in it. It’s all stuff that should be worked out soon, but the foundation is definitely there for success.
Above: Griefing and spawn-camping isn't fun for anyone
Open-world PvP is also available in a number of different areas, but at launch there's nothing organized going on. Instead, it's mostly filled with roving groups of gankers - griefing players taking advantage of the fact that, for some reason, NPCs won't defend their faction. Even though there are high-level guards wandering around the faction cities on end-game planets, they just sort of stand around while their cities are invaded. It's either a bug or bad design - either way it's annoying, and something BioWare should attempt to fix. Hopefully, by fleshing out the level 50 PvP planet of Ilum more, it will help give players incentive to move their PvP there, so lower-level players don't get spawn camped on PvP servers.
Every plotline’s conclusion is left open to support future extensions of the story quests, but, alas, the story itself eventually ends. After 150 or so hours we hit the level cap and started looking to the end game for content. What we found wasn’t all that surprising, though it was a bit disappointing: besides being able to better compete in player-versus-player combat, we found a number of hard-mode versions of the same Flashpoints we had already completed on our quest to 50 and a few eight and 16-person raids.
SWTOR’s Flashpoints are the game’s instanced dungeons. They tend to seesaw between being fantastic, story-driven adventures, or plotless and utterly dull. Going back and completing them on harder difficulties rewards players with tokens they can use to buy better gear to complete harder Flashpoints which reward different currencies which are used to buy better gear used to complete harder Flashpoints. It’s a grind – a treadmill – and it doesn’t take advantage of any of the game’s unique elements. We were disappointed that BioWare didn’t do more with the end-game, as it's another area of the genre in dire need of innovation instead of repetition. As far as generic end-game instances go, however, SWTOR’s are about on par with every other game’s.
One area of the end-game we weren’t able to test much was the Legacy system because, well, it’s not entirely done. Around level 30 we unlocked the ability to create a unique last name that would be shared across our characters. At this point a Legacy bar appeared under our experience bar and we began to earn Legacy levels. Right now they do… nothing, actually. Going to the Legacy page reveals a “Future Legacy features coming soon” message. Creative director James Ohlen has commented that the Legacy system will be updated to “include being able to shape your Legacy’s family tree,” but beyond that all speculation is just that – speculation.
Above: Going so fast the stars turn into lines
Rumors are it might involve being able to unlock new customization options, being able to share experience between characters, or even unlocking new passive buffs or races to use in the character customization. While this sounds all well and good, we really wish it was available for launch, because all of the ambition in the world doesn’t change what the Legacy system is right now: a last name and a purple bar that doesn’t unlock anything. We’ll be keeping an eye out for news surrounding the Legacy system, though, as it seems like a genuinely interesting idea that plays right into SWTOR’s many, many strengths.
Above: We got to check "walking away from an explosion" off on our bucket list for 2012
BioWare did a fantastic job of bringing the Star Wars universe to gaming in a bigger, better way than ever before. Many of the mechanics that are in place need work, but the emphasis on story is absolutely unparalleled in the genre, and the game is paced in such a way that it should be a treat for those new to MMOs. Where it falters is in properly combining the game’s innovations with the genre’s oftentimes archaic mechanics, and that’s something that will hopefully be phased out over time as BioWare enhances the end-game content and expands on the Legacy system to further incentivize players to come back for more.
World of Warcraft? No. It couldn’t be. Not at launch. Right now there are too many problems, and World of Warcraft had a really, really, really long head start. It’s certainly better than WoW was within the first few years, and it definitely has the capability of being better in the long run, but at launch it’s just not there.
Knights of the Old Republic? Depends. If you’re looking for a single stand-alone Star Wars story, Knights does a better job. If you truly want to be immersed in the world of Star Wars, and you’re interested in not one, but eight different epic Knights of the Old Republic-style tales, than SWTOR is the one to go with.
Star Trek: Online? Yes. Star Trek: Online’s space combat was fun, but the ground game was a mess, and the updates never fully pulled together the elements of the game to make it feel like a cohesive experience. Even after a few years of patches, Star Trek: Online is a weaker game than The Old Republic, and that's something that likely won't be fixed with an update.
Massively-multiplayer online games are always a work-in-progress, so it’s not surprising that Star Wars: The Old Republic’s launch wasn’t flawless. What matters is that it’s an extremely satisfying experience that sets the stage for a bright future, so long as BioWare continues to support the game for the coming years with constant updates.
Note: This review is a living document. MMOs are constantly evolving, and if we see big changes we’ll update the text with links to articles detailing those updates.