Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
Yes, after a lengthy wait, Bioware’s next game set in that far, far away galaxy we all love so much has arrived. And it’s lush, full of light-sabres and speeder-bikes; Force-powers and spaceships; it even has a few Jawas kicking around making funny noises… but it’s an MMO.
This can’t be good.
The Knights of the Old Republic gameplay has always had deep roots in its own interpretations of the exquisitely deep Dungeons & Dragons rule-set. Many-sided dice decided the outcome of so much within these worlds that the transition to MMO-hood seemed fairly straight-forward. And it has translated well, for the most part, but with it come all the problems that stem from attempting to fill the dusty and over-used mould that is World of Warcraft. Lets start at the top.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is set about 200 years after the end of the KOTOR games, at a time of social and political upheaval withing the galaxy. The Sith have returned to their old stomping-grounds on Korriban, and the fallout from the destruction of the Jedi academy on Dantooine is still being felt two centuries after. Starting again on the lushly verdant world of Tython, the Jedi are more or less on an equal footing with the dreaded Sith, and the wheels of conflict are starting to turn. I started my journey as a Jedi Knight, gifted in the Force and lacking in a coherent back-story… but this is an MMO, so that’s to be expected.
Of course, you can be a Smuggler instead, or maybe you prefer red light-sabres and pasty complexions, and decide to become a Sith Warrior – there are several pleasingly diverse paths to choose from as you begin, and all of them have very different styles of play. Even better, your class and allegiance have little bearing on your characters outlook and ethics – you want to be an Imperial Agent who is actually a nice guy, working hard to save lives and keep the Empire free from evil, this is an option.
The big carrot at the end of SWTOR’s stick is, of course, the dialogue. Sporting the same clever dial-a-response interface as Mass Effect, every conversation in the game is scripted and spoken. This doesn’t sound like a massive deal, but it is alarming how much it adds to the game. It absorbs you in your respective characters story far more effectively than the usual MMO box o’ text, and gives the whole game a pleasing sheen of personal involvement. Your response options swing between mighty, selfless hero to snarky, murderous sociopath – certain responses even altering your Light/Dark alignment. Focusing on a particular side of the Force-coin can even give you special rewards for your heroic/heinous deeds, such as special titles or weapons that can only be used by your particular ethical affinity. A Jedi who spends his time being a right bastard, for example, can swing around with a lovely blood-red light-sabre after gaining a few dark-side points.
Allowing for individualism is something most MMOs don’t bother with these days. The focus on stats and numbers generally don’t allow for that kind of diversion – people of a certain level gravitate to the best gear they can use and end up all looking alike. SWTOR (sort of) dodges this problem with customisable gear – orange-named items and armour that, through using various slots within, can be upgraded along with your own levelling. This also forms the back-bone of certain professions within the game, allowing you to construct modifications as you play and maintain your edge without the need for constantly gear-hunting and grinding. This ties in well with the crafting/gathering skills quite cleverly; you can only have one companion with you at a time, the rest are back at your ship. Rather than being idle, however, you can order them on various missions of their own, harvesting resources or searching for loot, and even creating items and mods. Yup, you heard correctly – SWTOR has remote-controlled crafting.
So far, so good, so Warcraft. And that’s the problem. There has been a rampant upheaval in the MMO genre over the past few years that seems to have just about destroyed all semblance of original thought. The towering success of World of Warcraft, coupled with the abject failure of just about every attempt at originality in an MMO of recent memory has taught developers a harsh lesson – stick to what works. The end result of that particular modus operandi is, of course, a complete lack of distinction and a stately march of games that are essentially exactly the same. Bioware, while clearly having pulled out all the stops to make The Old Republic as streamlined as possible, have created a game that can be summed up almost completely as “WoW with Light-sabres”. Yes, the plots and quests are far more entertaining. Yes, the spoken dialogue is fantastic. And yes, SWTOR is a better game for all the streamlining and cutting away the useless chaff that has become synonymous with the term MMO. But it still plays exactly like World of Warcraft, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, Conan Online, RIFT, et all.
Is this a bad thing? If you are the kind of chap who buys FIFA every year because of a single improvement, then perhaps not. But then, you are also an idiot. And now, as most higher-end MMOs such as DC Universe Online have gone free to play, there are far more options for the inexplicable multitudes of WoW-clone fans to get their kicks for free – making Bioware’s effort feel crushingly mis-timed. Of course, there is a twist to all this negativity. You see, as an MMO, SWTOR may have a bigger shadow than its ageing and crusty precursors, but it endears no-one who ever found WoW eventually boring (like me). But as a KOTOR sequel?
Oh my goodness, it’s lovely.
It is honestly as simple as that. If SWTOR had been exactly the same as it is now, but offline, with a one-off cost, it would have me recommending it out of my ears. Doubly so due to the sheer wealth of content for all the classes, the expansive galaxy to explore, and so many interesting people to meet and subsequently murder with twin light-sabres… it’s a hell of a ride. In fact, ironically, you can play the entire game solo if you are of a mind. You will miss out on certain group-quests (called Flash-points, inexplicably), but the core of the game is designed as a solo exercise. But the question remains – would you pay 9 quid a month to play a single-player game?
But it’s not single-player, it’s an MMO with a monthly charge. And as an MMO, I honestly think it’s too little too late for that particular genre. With the revolutionary Guild Wars 2 on the horizon (which has no subscription charge), and with so many big-names turning to the Free-2-Play motif, it comes across as one of the last of an already dead breed. I would say it’s a shame, but I honestly can’t. The WoW-styled MMO design philosophy deserves nothing but a shallow grave with the epitaph “Dog Urinal” emblazoned on its headstone. It’s just a shame Bioware weren’t willing to try something a little different.