Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
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 developers 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 worlds largest birthday cake, that doesnt 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 Republics 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.
Gameplay - 90 / 100
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 weve 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.
Graphics - 87 / 100
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. Theres a certain sweet spot you need to aim for. Shoot too high and youll 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 SWTORs distinct planets are some of the most graphically appealing Ive 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 SWTORs roses, perhaps the biggest graphical thorn are the character models. Looking back to the original Knights of the Old Republic titles, its 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.
Sound - 95 / 100
The Old Republic comes wrapped in an audio package that youd 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 Republics music, but theres 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 Id 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.
Multiplayer - 90 / 100
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 games 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 thats all but unheard of in the modern MMO era. By the time you reach level 10, two of The Old Republics 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.
Its readily apparent that BioWare intends for SWTOR to be played as a social game, though its 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 games 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.
Value - 77 / 100
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.
Lasting Appeal - 82 / 100
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.
Pros and Cons
- BioWare is at the top of its game when it comes to story, which is perhaps SWTOR's greatest strength.
- Companions and their associated assortment of crew skills greatly enhance the overall gameplay experience
- The decision to go all in with fully voiced player characters and NPCs has paid off in a big way.
- As amazingly written as the class stories are, each faction only offers one unique path through content up to the endgame.
- The advanced class selection system does a pretty poor job of offering enough information to players about a (currently) irreversible decision, where the only recourse is to start over again on a new character if you're unhappy with your first pick.
- Warzones can be great fun for both casual and hardcore PvP players, but sorely need to be broken down into smaller level range brackets, and a wider variety of maps.
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.
Overall 88/100 - Great
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