Posted Thu, Dec 22, 2011 by Sardu
The Old Republic is an extremely accessible game thanks in large part to sticking to the tried and true formula of keeping enough content solo friendly to allow players to advance through experience levels at their own pace. However, unlike most MMOs, where the negative tradeoff is that worthwhile group content is reserved for endgame dungeons or raids, BioWare has built many of the core game systems with the massively multiplayer environment in mind.
Perhaps the most unique of the bunch, the Social Point system is really the first of its kind in that it offers players a parallel advancement path and tiered reward structure focused wholly on grouping up with other players for PvE activities. Points are earned primarily through the game’s dialog system, which rewards players for making conversation options as a group vs. going it solo while out questing. It's a basic system overall, but still rewards players for grouping rather than simply making things easier to kill, which is the sum total of what the industry has had to offer to social gamers thus far.
SWTOR also has a sizable amount of group content available across all level ranges, introducing players to it as early as level 5; something that’s all but unheard of in the modern MMO era. By the time you reach level 10, two of The Old Republic’s primary multiplayer systems unlock: Flashpoints and Warzones. Flashpoints are essentially repeatable dungeons, while Warzones offer players an arena-style PvP system complete with yet another parallel advancement path and reward structure.
It’s readily apparent that BioWare intends for SWTOR to be played as a social game, though it’s still got a ways to go in terms of providing players a better set of tools to work with. Given the web tools offered by BioWare to encourage players to form guilds prior to the game’s launch, I was pretty shocked to discover that the in-game tools for guilds are stripped down to the bare essentials. Proper tools for finding groups are also all but non-existent. Social Points and non-instanced Heroic group content may take the game two steps forward, but having to revert to broadcasting LFG in general chat is one giant leap backwards for the genre.
After a long series of mostly underwhelming big budget subscription-based titles in the MMO market, today's gamers need something more than a launched product, however polished, in order to really attach to an MMO. We need a roadmap for content and features, or at least an idea of when we can expect something new and shiny. With SWTOR, we have neither.
What we do have is a bevy of post-launch promises but no real expectation of what will be available when. Worse. the gameplay experience seems so fragmented by class stories and concentric niches (like PvP) that it's hard to imagine a one-size fits all content update that will appeal to the alt-spawning mid-level mainstream.
As a subscription-based MMO proponent, I'll note that SWTOR simply wouldn't have happened as a free-to-play game (Clone Wars Adventures is as far as Lucasfilm is going in that direction). And I'm acutely aware that taking value points off of the fullest-featured MMO in history because of a lack of concrete post-launch promises seems unfair. Usually we have the opposite problem. Yet gone are the days when developers could sell the MMO itself as a $15 / month service apart from a steady and predicatable stream of new content and features. We need something to go on, BioWare.
If SWTOR has an Achilles heel, for me it would have to be in the lasting appeal category. True, each of the 8 classes in the game has a unique storyline for you to experience which in and of itself offers a high degree of replayability. But, unfortunately, class quests are only a small portion of the content on each planet, so you really only get a unique second run through the game if you opt to play a class on the opposite faction.
A distinctly linear path through content is by no means unique to The Old Republic; in fact it's plagued the MMO industry for years. Most of the time this is addressed through expansions or larger content updates that offer players alternative paths through the mid-level range. But one thing that is unique to SWTOR is that, while class stories are its greatest strength, they also leave little room for expanded content through the mid-levels.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of other activities for players to enjoy as an alternative to playing through the same quests, on the same planets, in the order 4 times per faction. But with the exception of flashpoints, other core systems such as warzones or space battles may be repeatable, bite-sized chunks of fun, but also offer too little variety to keep players interested over the long haul.
The Star Wars saga has seen many twists and turns since I first experienced A New Hope on the big screen back in the late 1970s. Fans of the original trilogy squinted sideways at the prequels, and more often than not refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Clone Wars branding. In the realm of video games, the IP has also taken a bit of a hit thanks to a long string of largely forgettable titles, with only a few that have managed to capture a bit of the magic sparkle that made the original films so memorable.
With The Old Republic, BioWare has managed to not only bring that magic back to the Star Wars saga, but has done so by giving the MMO industry a much needed, story-driven shot in the arm. Rather than simply adding story as another pillar of MMO gameplay, it is neatly interwoven into nearly all aspects of SWTOR to great success.
While the game largely adheres to the same, overused template when it comes to combat, progression systems, and itemization that many MMO gamers have grown weary of by this point, it represents the pinnacle of what can be achieved within that particular framework. If World of Warcraft marked the beginning of a new era for the MMO industry back in 2004, then The Old Republic will no doubt be long remembered as the title that helped bring that era to a close on an astoundingly high note.
That's not to say the game isn't without its flaws. The archetype / advanced class system, disparity of warzone maps for hardcore PvP enthusiasts, and linear planetary progression paths are all areas that can thankfully be addressed with future content updates. However, as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so even if fixes to these troubled areas are just over the horizon, we unfortunately can't count them as part of the launch product gamers are currently paying to play.
Still, Star Wars: The Old Republic is an excellent game overall, and one well worth spending your hard earned dollars on. Even if you play it for the expertly crafted class stories alone, you're sure to get more entertainment-per-dollar than any other RPG released this year. And yes, that even includes the current critic's darling, Skyrim.