Star Wars, The Old Republic: The Evolution of Gaming?

We’ve seen Star Wars games by the dozens and MMORPGs by the handful. Even a Star Wars-based MMO is nothing new. The franchise alone doesn’t always sell games, which are inevitably judged on their own merit.

So what makes EA and Bioware think they can profitably challenge industry behemoth World of Warcraft and its competitors? Is the Force with them?

I tested Star Wars: The Old Republic this weekend, possibly the most ambitious game ever made. It was innovative and surprising, and takes the genre in new directions as promised.

Despite epic cinematics, I was initially underwhelmed. I found the launcher uncommunicative and character creation bugged (though that seems specific to my machine). The first quests did not impress and the starting area was overcrowded, a problem I expect modern MMOs to solve.

Quests, Dialog and Story

It wasn’t until level 3 that I noticed: Every quest began and ended with voice-acted cutscenes. There was no reading text on screen to learn objectives (unless I forgot). This is a huge departure from traditional MMOs.

Another innovation was my option to choose responses in dialog, whether mundane or contentious, magnanimous or witty. Then I remembered: This is a Bioware game. Plot and storytelling are their hallmarks.

SWTOR plays like Bioware’s single-player games, but more refined. Some quests have more than one ending: Two courses are proposed, and the player decides where his allegience lies. It also offers surprising depth for an MMO. Questionable decisions will be challenged by your superiors and colleagues, and often there’s a second (or third) layer of intrigue to discover.

Mulitiplayer Dialog

What happens for group cutscenes? Some are specifically designed multiple participants.What happens when you choose, “Yes, I’ll help you” and your groupmate chooses “Shut your cakehole”?

First, if there are Light/Dark Side or influence points to be gained/lost, you’ll get credit for your answer. Second, the game randomly decides whose response to use (like a loot roll) which determines the course of the encounter. This makes conversations unpredictable and even more entertaining than the solo variety.

Waiting on groupmates to respond can sometimes be irritating.

Alignment

Keeping with “Old Republic” tradition, characters in SWTOR earn “Light Side” or “Dark Side” points for actions that are good evil, regardless of faction. Your Jedi Guardian can fall to the Dark Side; your Sith Warrior can find opportunities for compassion, sometimes costly. Alignment dictates which gear you can wear or wield, and can affect your appearance.

Classes

The player chooses from 8 base classes (four per faction), each with 2 “advanced classes” selectable at level 10.

Class Plotlines

Typically, “alt” characters offer new abilities but the same quests. In SWTOR, each class has its own plotline, with unique story and quests all the way to level 50. Much of the replay value comes from seeing new content.

Companions

“Pet Classes” are a staple of MMOs, but SWTOR gives the old mechanic a new spin.

Every class gets “pets”, only they aren’t just pets, they’re companions: NPCs with their own motives, gear and abilities. Sidekicks have been a staple of the Star Wars universe: Luke had R2D2, Han Solo had Chewbacca. Your character should be no different.

Each class will eventually win the allegience of several companions. They can aid you in combat, react to your decisions, or even run errands for you, such as selling the junk in your inventory. Some can even be romanced.

Skills

Your SWTOR hero is a great delegator. Rather than collect every recipe, treasure, crystal and component yourself, you will instead send companions on gathering missions or crafting assignments. This allows you to continue your quest uninterrupted, though you’ll miss having your sidekick in combat until he returns. Once you’ve discovered mutliple companions, you can even send them on multiple errands.

Another innovation of SWTOR is that companions are smart enough to access your bank inventory for materials, not just your backpack.

Bonus Quests

Most of the “kill X enemies” quests have been demoted to “bonus” quests: They aren’t important enough in their own right, but hey, while you’re accomplishing your true goal, there are additional rewards for slaughtering sufficient bad guys.

Instanced Zones

SWTOR uses instanced zones to reduce population. While I welcome the crowd control, unfortunately it’s a hindrance to grouping. Inviting someone from a different world instance will result in “I’m by the fountain too. Why can’t you see me?” And while it appears there’s a simple “change instance” feature on the map, it hasn’t yet worked for me.

The Game World

Except for newbie planets, the game world is appropriately huge, at least at low levels. Coruscant feels multilayered and overpopulated, from beautiful surface architecture to underworld industrial slums. Tatooine features wide expanses of endless desert, requiring a vehicle to navigate with any speed. The skyscapes are beautiful.

There are 17 planets listed, offering a much bigger galaxy to explore than previously seen in Star Wars games. Even Galaxies only has 12.

That said, the planets feel fairly linear with a clear progression of Class quests to higher difficulty/futher areas, supplemented by scaling side quests. It will feel huge at first, but most MMOs shrink rapidly.

To aid in exploring such expansive areas, players are offered taxis to noteworthy locations, plus a “summon taxi” power on 30-minute cooldown. At various levels, you’ll receive out-of-combat sprint and a range of vehicles with different speeds, plus the player’s own ship for interplanetary travel.

Your Ship

Mine came with its own droid companion; perhaps other classes meet a different first mate. Your “captain’s locker” offers bank access, there’s a holoterminal and you’ll find the galactic map aboard the bridge. Select a planet, and through the viewport you’ll see the jump to lightspeed.

Irritatingly, just boarding cuts to docking/undocking cinematics and load screens. Until this is streamlined, don’t board unless you have somewhere to go.

I was also irritated that I couldn’t rename the ship, and so far there are no options to customize the interior, even with minor decorations.

Space Combat

Based on other reviews, I didn’t bother. Other critics claim it has a constrained, arcade-like feel. If 3D ship combat is your main draw for a space-based game, I suggest you consider EVE Online, whose module-based fighting is second-to-none in far future realism (which has its own drawbacks).

While some speculate on the potential, for now it’s an afterthought for the developers, ergo an afterthought for me. Meanwhile, it’s enough to have a ship to walk around in and kick my feet up while AFK or crafting between worlds.

The Interface

SWTOR’s UI is clunky and unforgiving, though not the worst I’ve used. It has an aesthetically pleasing “in universe” motif. Questquivers even lack the now-traditional exclamation point, instead featuring a memorable in-universe symbol.

Only the chat window can be moved or resized; other components are fixed wihout even a UI scale to reduce them. Some elements, like the “second” bottom actionbar appearing below the first, are downright annoying and waste a lot of screen space. There is no support for macros.

Coming from addon-ruled WoW or fully customizable UIs like Rift and Champions Online, this is a leap backwards. Bioware’s single-player experience has ill equipped them to anticipate the UI demands of online players.

The minimap will usually lead you in the right direction, or even to the right stairwell or doorway when you’re in a different zone. Mousing over different icons will tell you exactly what they are, or which quests they indicate. New players will be confused when two quest markers point in opposite directions: Every time you change floors or buildings, one of your quest markers says you should turn right back around. This can be mitigated by tracking fewer quests.

The larger map goes transparent during movement, allowing you to move and navigate simultaneously, and clicking a transition point will show you the next area (if you’re explored it). Unfortunately, the large map only tracks one thing at a time, meaning it won’t show both vendors and trainers simultaneously (though the minimap does).

Powers and Combat

MMO veterans will notice there’s no autoattack. Each class does get one “free” power, but it must be spammed if you need it repeatedly.

Melee classes feel fast and furious, wading directly into the fray, usually with a closer. Blaster classes can take “cover” behind objects, bringing up a contextual action bar, much like stealth does.

Annoyingly, ranged characters hover in limbo until level 10 since they could become melee at that point, powers reaching a pathetic ten meters. Your “ranged” Jedi will have to walk very close to enemies.

Some of the powers are interesting, but others feel uninspired. For example, the Jedi Consular’s “throw an object with the force” summons a random object from underground. After seeing DC Universe Online use existing world objects for telekinetic throwing, this is dissatisfying. To further confuse you, “Telekinetic Throw” does not hurl an object with the Force, it hurls scattered debris. The power which throws an object is called “Project.”

Combat is alternatingly challenging or mundane, repetetive in typical MMO fashion. One twist offered by SWTOR is that instead of just standards and elites, enemies come in a range of classifications: Weak, Normal, Strong, Elite, Boss. All fights are not created equal.

Little about combat was innovative or groundbreaking; it maintains the expectations of the genre, which isn’t all bad.

Fortunately, SWTOR combat feels firmly rooted in the Star Wars universe. Blaster fire and lightsabers are the norm.

Music

The game features soundtracks from the movies (of course), but also tracks by several composers (now a requirement in quality MMOs) which match the original themes in flavor but lack the garish repetition. Music cues enhance paritcular scenes or moments, but will not play endlessly.

There is combat for music, but it doesn’t play every fight. This makes the game feel cinematic without being oppressive.

Graphics

The graphics are mediocre like most MMOs. SWTOR is prettier than WoW but less hardware-efficient than RIFT. You won’t be impressed by character models, but they are good enough to sell the action in cutscenes and combat.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

For a game so focused on story, SWTOR breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. For example, companions are different for each class, but all Jedi Consulars have the same first companion. Not just the same race/class, but the same name and backstory. A simple name generator would add to suspension of disbelief.

I have mixed feelings about the “you’re the wrong class” curtains which block story areas. On one hand, it’s nice to know there’s nothing there…though there are plenty of other empty rooms. On the other hand, they’re distracting. Film sets don’t have backdrops that say “Behind here are props for a different movie! Don’t peek!”

I’d rather the barriers were invisble, the areas empty and easily ignored, or even filled with monsters if it’s a combat area. Keep as much behind the curtain as possible (without advertising it).

Conclusion

The Old Republic has problems, some of them glaring. The UI is atrocious and space combat an afterthought. The Codex (in game database) is not searchable and there are some obvious bugs. Some of these may be solved by launch; it’s doubtful all of them will be.

Despite this, SWTOR looks more polished in beta than WoW did at launch 7 years ago. Additionally, it offers a story experience — pardon, 8 story experiences — to rival most single-player games. If you can view group content and social interactions as a bonus, it’s one of the most impressive games ever designed.

Those who expect fast-paced action will be disappointed by the game’s deliberate pace. Leveling is much slower, especially if you consider every decision and hear everyone out. If you enjoy games like KOTOR, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age, if you enjoy the RP elements and decision-making, the MMO components will be icing on the cake.

SWTOR may not take over the industry, but it makes a fair bid for up-and-comer. And they have added at least one subscriber in me.

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