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Star Wars: The Old Republic

Title Star Wars: the Old Republic
Developer Bioware
Type Massively Multi-player RPG
Platform(s) PC
Kelly Score ™ 95 / 100

Massively multi-player role playing games have, with very few exceptions, a standard motif.  You create a character, complete a few “orientation” or introductory quests, and are then left to your own devices.  Thousands of boring and repetitive quests combine with your character having complete lack of any perceivable impact or even place within the background story to encourage a kind of hamster like behaviour.  You run in your little questing “wheel”, seeking levels or gear to help you continue to run in that wheel.   Your long term goal: running in the wheel long enough and fast enough to eventually jump to the big, shiny end game hamster wheel of raid content.  Raiding is where you get to spend all of your time staring at a wall, or the back end of some other person’s character, for hours on end as you beat some giant monster to get more shiny gear so you can do the next bigger raid.  Most people don’t even read the story associated with each quest, and in many MMOGs that is a blessing: the stories are vanishingly thin and comically trivial.  They have to be, since your character has no impact on the world whatsoever.

Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWtOR) breaks out of that motif.  It plays more like a single player RPG, where your character is the hero of his or her own story.  Other players and “group” dungeons (flash points, operations, and Heroics in SWtOR parlance) certainly exist, but the personal story your character is playing through is paramount.  It is a refreshing and welcome change, even though the basic mechanics of the game are otherwise pretty traditional.


The Story is the Thing

SWtOR is all about the story.  It is important to put this in perspective: many readers will likely say “but all MMOGs have a story!  Just read all of the quest info.”  True, many MMORPGs have a tremendous amount of background lore: several novels worth, at least.  However, that lore acts purely as a background, and your player barely interacts with it.  Quests may mention (for example) the King of Hubbabubba, and if you take the time to read many of these quest descriptions you might perceive some relationship or additional bit of lore linking them together with in some interesting fashion.  However, the quests have no impact on either your character, your interactions with other NPCs, or the Kingship of Hubbabubba itself.   Only the quest reward and the experience points it brings matter.  Watch how most players deal with quests: the quest dialog pops up, they click to accept the quest instantly, and off they go to kill sixteen kobolds, or gather nine Tears of the Bubba, or what have you.  In fact, most games even conveniently place all of the quest givers in a  single location or “hub” so players can click through and accept/complete as many quests as quickly as possible.  A few hours later, you gain a level, and move to the next quest hub.  Or perhaps you come back and take the same quests all over again, to get another level.

It is perhaps worthwhile to spend a moment giving some story-based context given the importance of story in SWtOR.  The world of the Old Republic is set about 3,000 years before Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and their friends.  In this era, users of the Dark side of the Force are openly practicing their  dark ways on the side of the Sith Empire, and the Light side exists as the Galactic Republic.  However, the power balance is fairly close: the Republic has recently largely destroyed the Empire forces and, in fact, had thought them utterly defeated.  But the Sith are like cockroaches: they don’t die easily, and they have sprung back up to recapture their main world, Korriban.  It is wise to mention at this point that I have played a single character, a Sith Inquistor, and so only know of the other classes and their stories indirectly.

In SWtOR, each class has a complete story sequence carrying them from level 1 to level 50.  There are massive story sweeps, with tangible changes to the people and places you interact with.  You gain friends and enemies, and alter the relations between factions.  Your intangible power and prestige in the story changes, as your character grows from a young peon, through promising apprentice, and ultimately to a true power to be reckoned with.  And yes, you get experience and gear, and can complete dozens or hundreds of less-relevant side quests along the way.

For most of the time the game plays exactly like a really, really big single player RPG.  If you’ve ever played any other Bioware games like Knights of the Old Republic, or Mass Effect,  or Dragon Age, you know exactly what kind of game to expect.  You gain companions, and can choose to make your character good or bad (and observe how the non player character’s reactions to you change), through the beautifully crafted and expertly voiced story chapters.   Unlike the single player Bioware games, however, there are other players around.  You can join with them to accomplish more difficult goals.  Those “flash points” and “operations” I mentioned earlier come into play here.  But the main benefit to these multiplayer instances isn’t simply loot and experience: completing them grants you more access to the story, and more options to define who your character is through dialogue.

The story for each class is complex with many well-drawn foes and friends, and plenty of opportunity to make your character’s personal mark felt on the progress.  It is important to note that this is the very first time I have ever played a MMORPG where I actually wanted to play *just* to find out what happens next.  It is a tremendous single player experience with optional multiplayer content and, if you like that, you are in for a treat.

Beyond the Story

I can hear the MMOG folks out there screaming “but what about the end game?  How about the raid content/PvP?  Are the guild tools fully featured and reliable?”  I’ll be perfectly frank: if you don’t care about the story, and mainly just want PvP and big raids, you probably should consider another game.  Or at least a different review: since I don’t care about that stuff, I have very little awareness of how good or bad SWtOR is at satisfying your raiding/PvP/guild organization interests.

From what I’ve heard, however, there are some interesting ideas and some serious problems.  Like with any MMOG, it is entirely possible to power through all the “story” content and get to the maximum level (50) in a week or so of 16+ hour days, especially if you ignore all of the side quests.  I shudder to think of the incredible waste that would entail, but whatever floats your boat.  Once you arrive at maximum level, there are some novel PvP activities, encompassing both faction (Rebel versus Imperial) and team (e.g.: Huttball) competition.  For smaller groups, there are high-level operations and flash points, with selectable levels of challenge (e.g.: easy, normal, hard, nightmare).  On the problem side of the scale are the usual issues with balance: the open world faction PvP areas can be gamed and spawn locations camped, the game lags terribly when large groups (over 50) are involved in battles, and it is possible to reach maximum rank in some competitions in a matter of a week or less.

The early indicators are that the end game raids/PvP are not much better or worse than other games, but that there isn’t enough of it nor is it challenging enough for the long term.  I expect Bioware will invest a lot of time and money correcting this, which is terribly unfortunate: their strength is the story and they should stick to that as their differentiator.  As far as I’m concerned, the folks who don’t give a damn about the story and power through to the end game should go to another game entirely: there are dozens focussed on their predilections.  There is really only one MMOG currently available that can appeal to those who enjoy the story: SWtOR.  Yes, story is incredibly expensive and time consuming to create, but the people who enjoy it will stick around so long as there are new “chapters” to explore.

Conclusion

SWtOR is a fantastic single player RPG with a MMOG attached.  If you enjoy Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic, then buy SWtOR now: I’m 99% certain you won’t regret it.  If my experience is any guide, I have played probably 60 or 70 hours getting my Sith Inquisitor to level 30.  There is probably 70-120 hours of well-crafted and enjoyable story content to get to level 50 for each class in the game.  That makes SWtOR a tremendous bargain, on the order of a game like Skyrim, even if you never interact with any other players.  And if you have a few friends to join you in the world, you’ll get tons of extra fun.

If you want PvP, big guilds, and raid content, I suggest you look elsewhere.  SWtOR has these things, but they are less mature: and you already have dozens of games to choose from that focus on those things,  so get the heck off of my playground!

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