How does one go about reviewing an MMO, especially one that has been under development for so long and also happens to be one of the most expensive games ever designed? As we’ve seen with World of Warcraft, MMOs are hardly stagnate creatures as they are constantly changing, with features, content and gameplay mechanics evolving over time. Version 1.0 of World of Warcraft is a pale shadow of what the mammoth game has become, especially with the release of Cataclysm, which saw the entire landscape of Azeroth change dramatically.
While it is easy to develop a sort of “wait and see” attitude towards The Old Republic, Electronic Arts and BioWare have a lot riding on the game’s potential for success and the online game has been heavily hyped. For $60 and a $15 monthly fee, people are going to want to know whether Old Republic is going to be worth their time or destined for Free To Play territory like DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. In order to give you the best write up possible, you’re going to have to strap yourselves in. This is going to be the biggest review I’ve ever had the chance to do and I’m going to be as comprehensive as possible.
Let’s get right down to it. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a fun and enjoyable product. From the beginning, BioWare set out to develop a different kind of MMO, one that was less focused on mindless questing and grinding and instead rely on the company’s penchant for storytelling. While the similarities between Old Republic and World of Warcraft are easy spotted, the final product really doesn’t feel like a mindless Star Wars re-skin. World of Warcraft, for better or worse, set the standard for how an MMO should be played is the solid foundation Old Republic is built upon. Old Republic successfully blends in the mechanics that helped make World of Warcraft a phenomenon while adding a strong story driven, character-centric experience that the other game lacked.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is set during the richest periods of Star Wars history, thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader but hundreds of years after Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. After having been defeated by the Republic during the Great Hyperspace War, the Sith have gone into retreat to lick their wounds. After centuries of peace in the Galactic Republic, the Sith have returned to launch a swift, two front assault on the Republic’s homeworld, Coruscant, and retake the Sith homeworld of Korriban. An uneasy truce was struck between the two factions but already there are reports of skirmishes between the two, once again threatening the galaxy with war.
The Old Republic shares many, many similarities to World of Warcraft. You’ll traverse the game world exploring locations both old and new from the Star Wars universe completing quests, fighting enemies, running dungeons and fighting PvP battlegrounds. Where Old Republic greatly differs from Blizzard’s MMO is the game’s cinematic flair and the feeling as if your character is making an impact.
When starting a game, you will be prompted to join a either a PvE (player versus environment), PvP (player versus player), RP (role playing) server or all three – there are no restrictions on how many servers you can occupy. PvE is all about you against world, PvP allows open conflict between the two factions while RP is a total, in-character role playing experience. After choosing a server, you’ll pick a faction: Galactic Republic or Sith Empire. Choosing one will present you with a short film made by some of the best CGI artists in the business that highlight the struggles your faction faces in dealing with the opposing force.
Each faction has their own set of character classes built from archetypes established by World of Warcraft. From the Galactic Republic, you can either be a Jedi Knight (tank), Jedi Consular (mage), Smuggler (rogue) and Trooper (hunter). For the Sith Empire, you get a Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Imperial Spy or Bounty Hunter. Each faction has their own set of races to choose from,including Human, Zabrak (Darth Maul’s species), Cyborg, Chiss, Sith Pureblood, Miraluka (Visas Marr’s species from KOTOR II: The Sith Lords), Twi’lek, Mirialan, and Rattataki (Asajj Ventress’ species). You’ll have a full set of customization options in order to create your own distinctive character by manipulating skin tone, hair style, build, facial complexion and ornamentation (scars, jewelry, tattoos, etc.).
From here, your story begins. An opening crawl outlines your role in the galactic conflict before dumping you into the starting area. In a nod to Dragon Age: Origins, where you start the game is dependent on your class. For example, Sith Warriors and Inquisitors begin on Korriban, Smugglers and Soliders start on Ord Mantell and Imperial Spies start the game on Hutta. The story is told through the numerous quests you will undertake, given to you by masters and mentors that see you travelling through all parts of the galaxy. Unlike World of Warcraft, where quests are presented as boxes of text, you’ll sit through fully voiced cutscenes and can interact by choosing dialog options, some of which will affect your Light or Dark Side alignment. By sticking to one alignment or the other, you’ll find that some equipment will be made available to you and others locked out.
Although the majority of the quests involve you killing X number of Y or shutting down X number of generators/shields/etc, the setup for these quests are well done. While playing World of Warcraft, I would often find myself automatically clicking the “Accept Quest” prompt, not knowing or caring about why the NPC needed ten bear claws and seven spider silks. In Old Republic, I have a high ranking Imperial officer talking to me, in voice over, the steps needed to quell a Republic-sponsored rebellion. Granted, I’m still doing the same style of Warcraft quests, but the well directed cutscenes and great dialog go along way in keeping me interested.
Character development is primarily dictated by experience earned during combat. Combat involves using a set of abilities in order to take down enemy mobs. Each ability features varying levels of cool downs which can be reduced by assigning points to a skill tree that opens up after level 5. While given three separate trees to work with, like Warcraft, you’ll ultimately focus on two out of the three. When your character reaches level 10, the game prompts you to choose a class specialization that will lock your character on a specific path of development. For example, my Sith Warrior has a choice of becoming either a Sith Juggernaut (Heavy Armor specialization, single lightsaber, shield) or a Sith Maruader (Medium Armor specialization and two lightsabers).
If you want to take a break from questing, the game offers some familiar diversions. There’s a full PvP component that allows both factions to engage in open conflict with one another on any shared planet (provided you are flagged as PvP) and in Battlegrounds. These skirmishes are very much like World of Warcraft’s own capture the flag/territory matches. Obtaining a starship, which serves as a mobile base of operations and gets you to and from planets, will open a series of repeatable space combat missions such as protecting a VIP, assaulting a Republic listening post, or hunting down an ace pilot. Don’t expect anything on the level of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter as each space mission is essentially an on-rails shooter with some light maneuverability control. Granted, keeping these sequences on-rails doesn’t sound like fun, but watching Republic and Sith battleships and cruisers blast the crap out of one another as you fly past shooting down fighters and turrets can be a bit of a thrill. You can outfit your ship with better equipment, granting better shields, stronger laser cannons and more missile slots.
For a large portion of the game, Old Republic is very solo friendly. While you can partner up with other players to take on more difficult portions of the game, the majority of it can be handled on your own. When you reach level 8, you’ll earn your first computer controlled companion who will follow you on your adventures and offer various support functions such as healing or tanking. The game encourages you to develop an emotional connection with your companions as all of your in-game dialog options either increase or decrease their level of affection towards you. Giving gifts to your companions will also affect this rating. None of the dialog options outright indicate whether or not your partner will approve of your words forcing you to consider their own feelings, values, motivations and beliefs.
Companions will also handle all of your crafting needs. They can learn up to two crafting skills and one profession, all of which can be used to collect materials in order to make usable items such as armor and weapon mods. Collecting materials throughout the game world is done by locating randomly generated rubble piles, dead organisms and computer systems but you an also send your companion out on missions to obtain these items. These tasks cost you a small number of credits and keeps your companion busy for several minutes, leaving you to fend for yourself. You’ll get more companions later on in the game, but initially you’ll often be left alone in the wilds. When they return, they will either give you the materials or fail the task, yielding no rewards. You’ll never craft items yourself. Companions will run off for a full minute and come back to you with the object. While it is nice to delegate this task to your allies, the process takes way too long and shortening it would be a worthwhile game fix. Visiting crafting trainers will give you more things to build with the items your companions collect. You can profit off the items you create by selling them in the Galactic Market to other players.
There are several areas in the game that will require the assistance of player groups. While anyone can help you out with quests, Flashpoints are going to require a full party. Flashpoints are Old Republic’s dungeon raids, sending you through large, multi-layered areas filled with enemy mobs and elite bosses. Apart from getting help from other people, partying up opens up some really cool group dynamics that no multiplayer game I’ve played has done before. When interacting with NPCs in Flashpoints, each player will have the opportunity to respond by selecting a dialog choice. After the party’s choices are made, each player is assigned a random dice roll and whoever gets the highest roll is given charge of that part of the conversation, the camera focuses on them and are awarded more Social Points than the rest of the group. Earn enough Social Points and you’ll increase in rank, allowing you to purchase special items and equipment.
While most of the dialog choices in Flashpoints are superficial, some have the power to influence the direction of the story. For example, the first Flashpoint tasks your party with deciding whether or not to kill the captain of an Imperial transport. Killing him will force the Flashpoint to go in one direction while sparing him will lead it another. No matter which branch your party takes, it will inevitably lead to the same conclusion but it is a great way to mix things up, offering a random experience each time (that is, unless you coordinate with your party beforehand).
When it comes to regular quests, party members are unable to influence conversations set within someone’s story mission or if they happen to be too high a level than their partner. In a particularly cool Star Wars-y touch, if you are too far away from your group after they initiate a conversation, you can communicate by holo transmission, allowing you to still be a part of the cutscene which renders your character as a blue hologram.
The Old Republic adopts the similar visual style used for both Knights of the Old Republic and Knights of the Old Republic II. Everything in the game, from character models to the environments are incredibly slick and polished. Characters, whether they be NPCs, companions or yourself, are very detailed,despite their cartoonish appearance. Character wardrobes are indicative of their class type and will change often as you collect different types of gear.
By incorporating space travel, you’ll experience significant changes in scenery. From the dark forests of Dromund Kaas to the sun-bleached sands of Tatooine, there is always something new to see during your intergalactic tour of the Star Wars universe. Several of the game’s space missions are pretty, such as the Saleucami raid and the attack on a Republic space station.
The problem I had with World of Warcraft was that I found the game difficult to enjoy as it wasn’t long before I grew tired of the grind. Even though I have logged in about 42 hours with Old Republic, I have yet to feel bored. Although you are still completing tasks that require you to collect a certain number of mission-specific items or kill a number of people, receiving these quests from fully voiced characters that are a part of my personal story carries much more resonance, weight and purpose than World of Warcraft. It also helps that the end of these quest lines offer up some great payoff moments.
Another area of World of Warcraft I couldn’t get into was the lore because I never played any of the previous games. On the other hand, I’m a big Star Wars fan and the Old Republic era has always been my favorite. This is a time before Darth Bane instituted the Rule of Two, which means legions of Sith fight legions of Jedi for the fate of the galaxy. A Mass Effect-style codex tracks all of the game’s lore, detailing histories and meanings behind characters, places and planets in your story (this information will be different for other character classes). Getting to experience this particular period of history in the Star Wars universe is exciting to me and I look forward playing through other character stories vastly different from my own. That said, the game’s length is no slouch. I finished the story’s prologue after about 10 hours and 42 hours later, I’m still in chapter one. Old Republic is the kind of game that will keep you busy for a long time.
The Old Republic is a big gamble for Electronic Arts and BioWare, both sinking millions of dollars into the game’s development. I’ve found it to be a great adventure right out of the gate, but it is too early to tell if it will stand the test of time. BioWare is committed to adding new content and the first content pack is expected to arrive within a few months. Content is a major factor in the survivability of MMOs and I am certainly excited to see what they’ve got in store for the future.
Throughout this review, I’ve forced myself not to address the elephant in the room: Is Old Republic a World of Warcraft-killer? In my mind, the style and presentation of Old Republic certainly sets it apart from Warcraft but I don’t get the impression that BioWare was out for Blizzard’s blood. Both games have their strengths and weaknesses and in my opinion, Old Republic has been a considerably more enjoyable experience. That being said, World of Warcraft veterans may be quick to suggest that Old Republic is simply a clone of their game. In some ways, that is correct, but BioWare doesn’t just blindly rip off Warcraft and instead tweaks a number of their mechanics enough to make them better.
In closing, I’ll say that Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game I never knew I wanted. Years ago, I was upset to discover that there were no plans to continue Revan’s story after Knights of the Old Republic II and instead continue exploring the Old Republic universe through an MMO. After experiencing burnout with World of Warcraft, I had resigned myself to no longer play these types of games. However, I couldn’t be happier with what BioWare has done with The Old Republic and the experience continues to be enjoyable. The bottom line is, after 42 hours, I’m still having a blast.