Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
|ESRB rating: T
release date: Dec 20, 11
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What do you get when you take a game development studio known for crafting fantastic single-player role playing games, add in their first attempt at an MMOG and set it in the most prolific science fiction universes ever created? If you said Star Wars: The Old Republic from EA and BioWare, well you win a Wookie! Prior to launch, gamer's opinions about the game pretty much fell into two camps: "It's going to the best thing ever" to "It's going to fail harder that a one legged man in a butt kicking contest." I had my own reservations with the claim that the game's primary focus was on (of all things) the story. I also had some concerns about how well the combat mechanics would work in non-fantasy environment. So, now that I have been playing the game since it launched on December 20th, the time has come to look at what BioWare has created and try to determine if it's worth your time and hard-earned money. If you don't want to read the whole article, let me spoil it for you: The answer to all three questions is a resounding "yes."
A few days before the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) I had a chance to ask some questions about the upcoming game (you can read that here). While the information garnered though that interview was intriguing on many points, I was still unsure of the overall quality of the game. The question kept bubbling at the back of my mind was this fully realized MMOG or was it a cheap knock off with a few sci-fi gimmicks and a Star Wars logo slapped on it for good measure? I had spent a little bit of time in the Beta, but I had not gotten far enough into the game to really get a good feel for it. Yes the character creation, graphics, soundtrack and quality of the voice work of the fully spoken NPCs were quite good, but again, I wondered was this just window dressing or in the words of a popular phrase from a few years back, just the lipstick on a pig. Thankfully, playing the game has shown that there really is something here that veteran MMOG players, single-player RPG fans and Star Wars nerds will all be pleased with. To put it bluntly, the more time I spend in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the more I am enjoying the game and the more I want to play. That is not to say there are not areas for improvement, but more on that in a minute.
When you first fire up SWTOR you are greeted with a cut-scene that introduces you to the character classes you can play as well as a glimpse of the struggle between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire. The Republic has stood as the ruling status quo for millennia. The Empire seeks to overthrow the current system and impose their brutal rule in its place. Using this classic Star Wars good vs. evil setting allows the player to choose which side they want to ally with while they explore the game world and then one of four classes (later you choose a class specialization making for a total of 8 character classes). Regardless if you join the Republic or the Empire, players progress through and complete missions (i.e. quests) they converse with NPCs and are presented with three different ways to respond through the now familiar BioWare dialog wheel. Depending on which response you choose, it may change your alignment with the Force. More than just window dressing, your Force alignment will allow you to equip gear based on your allegiance.
I don't wanna leave the rest zone.
Just meditating by the fountain.
While the game has been balanced so that the gear you unlock gives neither side an advantage it does allow you to play the character you want. Goodie-two-shoes Jedi? Go for it. Want a bounty hunter that would turn on his partners for a few credits? Yep, go ahead, you evil back stabbing weasel. Interestingly enough, it's entirely possible to go the polar opposite of the faction you have allied with. So, you could have an Empire allied Sith Inquisitor who only chooses the right or a Republic Jedi who is surly and self-centered. There is even a setting you can toggle on and off that will show your character growing more repulsive and evil as you descend deeper into the Dark side of the Force. It's a lot of fun to see the NPC reactions when you choose different responses and it helps keep missions interesting even after playing through them multiple times with other characters.
The graphics are good, but certainly not the same high-res level as Rift. While I assume there was conscious decision made to make the game accessible to players with all levels of hardware, I was hoping for more eye candy and whistle and bells for people with higher end rigs. Sound and music draw from the vast catalog of the iconic Star Wars audio. Lightsabers hum and buzz like a downed power line, blasters scream and shriek as they plow into enemies and thermal detonators whump with satisfying Force when tossed into a group of bad guys. Meanwhile iconic pieces of music from the Star Wars movies along with new compositions of similar quality rise and fall depending on the situation make for a perfect audio background. If there is one shortcoming in the audio department it is in some of the new music found in cantinas. Not all of it is on par with John Williams work, but overall it still fits the Star Wars theme and goes well with the overall story.
Speaking of the which, BioWare has scored big time with their focus on the narrative as each character class has their own unique story thread that they can play through as they level up. Coupled with the stellar voice acting that each mission is presented in cut-scene fashion, this is huge for replay value (and if the player wants to skip the spoken dialog, they can hit the space bar to advance to the dialog choices to move things along). While each character will visit the same planets and run many of the same missions regardless of what class they play, their own character story thread has a differing slant on why they are running these missions and visiting these same planets as everyone else. Again, anyone who has played an MMOG before and has leveled an alternate character class knows how boring it can get to run the same quests in the same areas over and over again. It turns the process of leveling an alt into a chore. Typically, players dread the alt grind and many try to find a way to exploit the game to level faster. However, SWTOR has presented me with a new MMO dilemma: I have alternate character-itis: I cannot settle on a single character and keep jumping between the six different classes I am currently leveling. Mainly due to the character-specific storylines that make me want to see what is going to happen next and partially because each class has its pluses and role to fill when grouping.
Since this is an MMOG, grouping is expected, but as the focus on class stories and spoken dialog indicates, BioWare has intentionally designed SWTOR to be played as a single-player game set in an environment with other players. That is, if you would rather avoid playing in a group setting you can do so. At or around level 10 each class gains a companion that can be summoned (or dismissed at will) to aid you on your missions and crafting. As you get further in the game, you gain your own ship and more companions, each with their own strengths. Some are better at dealing damage, filling the role as a tank or healer and each one has their own strengths in the various crafting roles. Using these companions you can summon the sidekick who best fits the current situation. However, players who choose to solo through the entire game will be missing out on something that makes MMOGs so much fun to play in my opinion: group dynamics. Nothing is more rewarding to me than using your characters class strengths to overcome seemly impossible foes.
8.7 Very Good
Good graphics, great sound, fully voiced missions, strong focus on character story allows single-player RPG experience in an MMO environment, relatively solid launch, Star Wars and MMOG fans should be pleased;
Space missions could be better, crafting system needs more items for lower levels, galactic market interface needs some work, various bugs.