Posted Thu, Dec 22, 2011 by Sardu
When BioWare officially announced the development of Star Wars: The Old Republic in the autumn of 2008, it was a shot heard around the MMO world. Given the developer’s ever-growing reputation as one of the forerunners in the RPG genre and the critical acclaim surrounding the original Knights of the Old Republic, for many the announcement was a little slice of history in the making.
Between the monolithic Star Wars IP and millions of BioWare RPG fans, expectations have been at an all-time high for The Old Republic to be the next truly massive MMORPG. Not only have gamers clamored for a new title to rise up and be a true contender for the levels of MMOG greatness only Blizzard Entertainment has managed to attain over the past seven years, but they have also put their faith in BioWare as the most likely to succeed in doing so.
But crafting a truly great MMOG experience extends beyond the bounds of hype, massive development budgets, and global brand awareness. Just because you bake the world’s largest birthday cake, that doesn’t mean it tastes any good if all you cared about while baking it was girth in favor of flavor. Has BioWare stumbled upon the magical recipe for MMOG success with Star Wars: The Old Republic, or is it missing some integral ingredients beneath its sugary IP frosting?
Murder, mayham, betrayal, and even the occasional casual sexual encounters are all par for the course in many of The Old Republic’s twisting plotlines. For the most part, each of these elements are either implied, or happen off screen so that the game neatly conforms to the T for Teen rating assigned by the ESRB. Regardless, there are many instances where the storytelling does take a decidedly, however tastefully, turn in the adult direction.
Possibly the highest praise I can give for The Old Republic is that BioWare has managed to successfully transition from being a dominant force in the realm of single-player RPGs, broadening in both size and scope to bring that same great storytelling experience to a much larger audience. In most cases this transition has been executed flawlessly, marking SWTOR as the first MMO where story actually matters. Yet it also neatly bookends the gameplay template we’ve all grown accustomed to over the past dozen years rather than attempting to establish the next great chapter in the MMO history books.
One thing is absolutely indisputable - Star Wars: The Old Republic hit the MMO subscriber market at the place where it's particularly fragile these days - story. And it's not just marketing - BioWare's strength happens to be story, and the game delivers. Whereas other MMOs might keep you playing till 4am to finish a quest, a level, or get an epic piece of equipment, you might just find yourself late for work because you wanted to see how a particular story arc pans out.
But let's be clear about this: SWTOR often falls short of true cinematic impact. As good as the voiceovers are, the camera angles and pacing of the thousands of interactive dialogues you'll experience are frequently off-base. Long trips through headscratchingly large maps like Nar Shadaa to return to mission givers (only occasionally cut short by a holocrom communicator dialogue) lessen the impact further.
The genius here is taking that RPG staple dating back to Zork - the meaningful dialogue - and making it something you want to play, either to gain dark side or light side affiliation, the affection of a companion, or just to simply play the character you want to play.
Key to making story a win are TOR's take on classes and companions. With one exception, BioWare modeled each class after a key character from the Star Wars movies - the Smuggler is a light action-comedy Han Solo experience, the Sith Warrior is Darth Vader, the Bounty Hunter is from the Fett family tree, and so on. The characters are similar enough to their tropes that such comparisons are a no-brainer, but your decisions, light side / dark side affiliation, and companions (not to mention the highly enjoyable companion management minigame called crafting) make your character and level-up experience largely unique.
Some might gripe about how a companion pushes you to make decisions you're not comfortable with, but anyone in a leadership position is familiar with that kind of tension. It's immersive, and unless you're a sold-out, soulless, pure achiever, it simply works.
What still doesn't work are advanced classes. At level 10, each player must choose one of two specialties, called advanced classes. The problem is, as with most archetype systems, players are forced to make an irrevocable choice with too little information. With the Imperial Agent class, for example, your advanced class choices are Sniper and Operative. Both advanced classes offer damage, we're told, but the Operative adds healing and stealth. What the game doesn't tell you is that the Sniper, being a heavy-hitting ranged DPS option with long, highly interruptible ability activation times, is a recipe for disaster in most fast-paced PvP matches.
Regarding PvP, I have to hand it to BioWare for going outside the deathmatch / capture point box with PvP match formats, particularly with the Huttball and Void Star warzones. Huttball is a blood bowl-like combination of soccer and team deathmatch; the objective is to pass and shoot a gargantuan ball into the other team's goal. Void Star, on the other hand, is a three-stage assault / defense map where both teams alternately vie for control of the core of a prototype Imperial star destroyer. The remaining format is Alderaan, a fairly formulaic point capture map.
All three Warzones offer a distinct flavor - most players quickly develop a favorite (one that isn't Void Star), but since you can't queue for maps, only Warzones in general, PvP enthusiasts are forced to play all three. In my opinion, all three warzones inordinately reward melee skills and stealth, so you might want to bring a (close) friend if you're playing a channel healer or ranged DPS class. Worse, the intensity and fast ability-cycling glitz of PvP pushes HeroEngine hard, and server-side lag was a commonplace occurrence in the dozen or so Warzone matches I played.
In addition to the class story and PvP, the other progression system that you could singularly play from your teens all the way to level cap is space combat, which revolves around a player ship unique to your class. Ships run the gamut from the Imperial Agent's Aston Marlin-like X-22 Phantom to the Smuggler's 18-wheeler from space, and can be equipped for Space Combat missions in a similar manner to companions.
Space Combat missions work as a nice 5-10 minute diversion from the occasionally droll level up experience, and missions offer an okay variety kill 'em all and escort missions. But, as with PvP, there's nothing in the way of a tutorial to help you understand hidden mechanics - such as "painting" a swath of fighters and turrets for missile fire by holding the right mouse button. or even that you fail if the time runs out. It works as a decent rail shooter, one in which you'll frequently have to dodge asteroids and capital ships, but there's really no storyline or equipment payoff, apart from more ship equipment.
SWTOR offers two additional progression paths: social points and the Legacy system. Players gain social points by interacting in multiplayer NPC dialogues in groups and tiered, dropship-based raids called Flashpoints. Social points are discussed in detail in the Multiplayer section below, but in a nutshell, social points unlock cosmetic options such as costumes for you or your companions (yes, you can turn your female companion into Slave Leia). The Legacy system allows you to select a last name and gain points toward... something (BioWare hasn't discussed any Legacy details just yet). Both systems come across as half-baked, but in a game this size, something had to come out of the oven a little early.
One of the key building blocks of MMO accessibility is serving up a game client that can run smoothly on the widest array of system configurations. There’s a certain sweet spot you need to aim for. Shoot too high and you’ll leave gamers with lower end systems out in the cold. Shoot too low and hardcore PC gaming enthusiasts will quickly begin searching for a game that pushes more pixels or shades more cells per microsecond.
In terms of the graphics to performance ratio, BioWare no doubt knew early on that hitting the graphical bar of its Mass Effect or Dragon Age series would likely cripple most mid-range PCs in a massively multiplayer environment. But even if SWTOR lacks a bit of high end sparkle, it still looks and plays exceptionally well considering the amount of detail found in most areas of the game.
Speaking of environments, each of SWTOR’s distinct planets are some of the most graphically appealing I’ve come across in my journeys throughout the MMO space. Even on planets like Balmorra, where I may not have enjoyed the base level design, I could still appreciate the grand scale of my surroundings. Other planets, such as Alderaan, have me continually impressed and eager to see the next sweeping vista just over the next hillside.
But if the environments are one of SWTOR’s roses, perhaps the biggest graphical thorn are the character models. Looking back to the original Knights of the Old Republic titles, it’s easy to see a distinct progression that BioWare was likely aiming for, however, the character models stray a bit too close to the Clone Wars end of the Star Wars spectrum for my liking. If you described the environments as “stylized realism” then characters in The Old Republic are more a case of “stylized stylism”. Yes, I just made that word up, but it fits just as awkwardly as the overly portly to overly spindly character models do in-game, unfortunately.
The Old Republic comes wrapped in an audio package that you’d expect from a title bearing the Star Wars branding. Combat and ambient sounds are spot on, and add to the overall immersion and fantasy of stepping into the Star Wars universe as an active participant in galactic events. The same could be said of much of The Old Republic’s music, but there’s also a hitch. Having heard thematic interludes in the style of John Williams' original 1970s score for the past three decades, my ears tend to filter it out more often than not.
For any other game, that might mar the overall score I’d give in the sound category, but The Old Republic is an altogether different beast, thanks in large part to it being the first fully voiced MMO. The cast of voice talent BioWare enlisted for key character roles is just as impressive as the performances by each. Long time BioWare staples such as Jennifer Hale who voices the female version of the Republic Trooper deserve high praise for their work here, as does BioWare for creating the first MMO that makes players actually care about what quest NPCs have to say.