Date: December 23, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher
It be a glorious day for many people around the world, and I’m not just talking about Christmas here. A game that many have been waiting for has finally arrived, from a galaxy far far away… Star Wars: The Old Republic. The game marks a pivotal moment for BioWare as its first MMORPG, so read on for our initial review.
Star Wars as a franchise should need little introduction; Jedi’s, Lightsabers and using the Force, be it for the Light or Dark side. BioWare should need little introduction, too, as it’s responsible for such epic stories and games as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. So when BioWare and Lucas Arts team up again for another Star Wars game, the world takes notice. This time, things are a little different – The Old Republic is BioWare’s first foray into the world of Massively Mulltiplayer Online Role Playing Games. That’s right, Star Wars is back online!
The Old Republic’s events takes place centuries before the fall of the Sith Empire, so there’s no Darth Vader, Yoda or Obi-Wan to worry about here. Those who have played the original single-player games of KotOR will find the setting very familiar, as TOR is based some 300 years later (the bombing of Taris to find Bastila is a distant memory). War wages on between the Republic and the Imperials (Sith Empire); how you go about this war is entirely up to you.
Creating your first character will be a somewhat experimental affair, and it pays to read up on each one before you decide, although hints are given in-game as to how each class breaks down. While there are 8 classes in total (4 for each faction), each with 2 sub-classes, the game comes down to the big 3 roles, Tank, Healer and Damage; how you go about that role is up to each classes mechanics and specialities. Ultimately, this generalization of 3 roles is a little disappointing, especially coming from Rift and other MMOs where there was at least a dedicated support role (buffs and debuffs).
While creating your character, and before you even take control of him/her, there are a good 20 minutes of cinematics to sit through. The epic opening intro, the glorious faction intro, then the in-game cutscenes of story relating to your class. Story was first and foremost on BioWare’s mind, and it is a key strength of the game. For the number of races that are available in Star Wars, though, most don’t make it to the character creation screen, listing pretty much only humans – some just have extra appendages and/or face-paint.
Every character you talk to is voice acted (some 270 hours of voice-overs in total); all quests, from simple go to X and kill Y, are cutscenes with multiple choice answers. The world is engaging and for the first time in any MMO I’ve played, this is actually the first that takes the story to a fully engaging level, your character feels like a part of the universe, not just one of many.
This onslaught of cutscenes and voice acting has and will drive some people insane, there are very few short conversations, although you can at least skip most dialogue. For those that enjoy story, and want to know why we’re killing everything in sight, this is a welcome change. If you just want to kill-loot-kill, then you will tire of this rather quickly.
There is an up-side to the conversations though, especially when it comes to handing in quests, you are often presented with multiple choices, light and dark side actions. BioWare is not afraid to throw morally ambiguous situations at you too, deliberately putting you in a tough spot.
Some refugees have no credits, the older gentleman would normally go scavenge for powercells and sell them on to make money to feed his family. He is now injured and can not provide; he asks you for help. You go forth and collect the powercells and enter a station to recharge them, only to be stopped by one of the workers. He explains to you that if you continue, the workers family will be killed for his incompetence by allowing people to steal from that station. So, let the refugees starve and save the workers family, or recharge the power cells and let the worker’s family die… choices, choices.
The reality of the actions probably has little impact on the world, or even further down the story (except for certain class specific quests), but this is a great change from the normal hand-in and profit quests. There are even chances to squeeze a few more credits out of people, either through persuasion or threats. Treat people right, and they may even send you mail with complementary items and/or credits.
The ambiguity of these choices has even deeper routes as it’s possible to make a Light side Sith, or a Dark Jedi. You are still bound to your faction, but your disposition may be somewhat ‘against the grain’.
The involvement of the story, all the conversations, voice acting and so forth, can lead to a somewhat odd feeling. This feels like a single player game. Everything you do and who you talk to, it’s directed at you specifically. I even found myself looking for the save button before jumping into a conversation, wishing to experiment with dialogue options. When you team up with someone and play the game with them, doing the same quests and such, then it becomes different.
The game encourages social behavior with social points, earned by partaking in quest dialogues with other people. When you engage in a conversation with a party member, you are both given dialogue choices, sometimes the same, sometimes different. When you select an option, it rolls a random number, the highest score becomes the answer. If you both select the same answer, you get more points. You still get points if you select different answers too, and it even lets you see the result of actions you had no access to, like ‘Flirt’.
Yes, you read that correctly, it’s possible to flirt with NPCs, and even partake in romantic relationships with your companions (personal allies you pick up along the story), complete with ‘fade to black moments’. The usual BioWare stuff.
Speaking of companions, as you progress through the story, NPCs join you in your adventure, lending a helping hand in fights (as another damage, tank or healer). This kind of mechanic reenforces the single player feeling further, since you don’t always need another person to play with, your companion will do. But companions go deeper than that, they also provide access to the crafting system as well. Sending them off on missions to gather materials and such. The more you interact with them, the more effective they become in combat. While it’s possible to get them into a bad mood with you, I doubt it’s possible for them to leave your service, which seems odd.
Combat is a little more energetic than your standard MMO. You very rarely come across a single target pull, and if you do, it’s usually an Elite or Champion. This greater number of opponents does mean you have to think a little before jumping into combat; who to prioritize first, is there cover available for characters that can make use of it, any environmental objects a Jedi can throw at things, what’s the best way to group them up and Area-Effect them down. Fights can be over very quickly too, adding to the energy of the game as you keep on rolling to your destination.
Later on, you will acquire a personal spaceship as your means of transportation and safe-haven for your companions. It’s also possible to get into dogfights in space, while it acts like you’re on a rollercoaster (you are constantly moving forward, with the only controls being minor movement, rolling and shooting), it’s still a very fun experience.
Problems arise with combat later as you are given more and more abilities to play with, each on different cooldowns, some reactive and such, and there are no macros in-game. In fact, SWTOR is very much against macros, even so much as spelling it out as a bannable offence in the EULA (ironic, given the number of macro-centric gaming peripherals out there, some specifically targeted towards SWTOR).
That results in your toolbars filling up with abilities, with no way of stacking them (placing cooldowns on your spam friendly keys). The thing is, there are more skills and objects to use than there are action-slots available, leading to a lot of clutter as you struggle to find the ability you want. However, macro support will supposedly come later, but how much later is anyone’s guess.
The other problem as well (although some may be fine with it) is the complete lack of user interface adjustment. Only a handful of elements can be moved around. But the action bars are fixed where they are, and you can add 1 more row to your bottom bar, and 1 column either side of the screen, not within easy reach. As a personal issue, the size of the health bar is incredibly small and thin compared to its importance. It’s also tied into the actionbar, adding yet more clutter with no way to move it. As it stands, it’s not very ‘glance’ friendly due to its size.
Other issues crop up as well, such as gear comparison. When you hover over an item, it will very clearly compare it to your currently equipped item, even listing the total point improvement it will provide, but when trying to compare a companions gear, it will still list your personal gear as the comparison.
While it is still early days, I’ve tried my hand at as many activities as possible. Flashpoints are the equivalent of dungeon instances in any other game, providing an opportunity to test your skills with friends on some of the more challenging experiences of the game, introducing mechanics and playing your role as a tank or healer. Heroic zones are areas in the main quest zones that provide more of a challenge than the usual riffraff running around and give the more casual players something challenging to fight (coming in 2 and 4 man flavors). Get enough people together to form an operation (20 man raid), then there are world bosses to take down for each leveling zone.
Speaking of large groups, there is a very interesting system in place on each server to alleviate the all too common overcrowding issue in leveling zones. SWTOR takes instancing to a new extreme. Each server can have multiple instances for each zone, allowing people to move between them to a less populated area.
All class story scenes are in their own instance, as well as story quest zones, preventing you from tripping up over someone else and waiting 10 minutes for a boss to respawn (although, waiting for respawns is still an issue for common quests). Every player has their own spaceship later too, which is another instance, space-fights are instanced too. Thousands of people on a given server, yet you will only see a handful running around at a given time.
Another major benefit is the fact the game is international, meaning people in Europe can play on the US servers, and vice versa, no region locking going on here (though keep an eye on ping times, from here in the UK to the US server, pings average between 140-180ms).
Graphically, SWTOR isn’t your usual AAA, super cinematic, ultra realistic monster. This is an MMO after all, and it needs to account for a large number of people on the screen, in different equipment, with lots of effects going off at the same time. As such, much of the game is subdued to make it as friendly as possible. This isn’t to say that it’s graphically poor, in fact, it’s extremely well done. The environments are beautifully varied and very well styled; a very dynamic game, especially in cities and clubs (holo-dancers on tables, neon signs and such).
One major consideration should be taken into account with this game; it takes up a whopping 20GB and comes on 3 DVD9s. Those with bandwidth or speed restrictions should seriously consider the retail version.
Ultimately, the $60 price for the game comes down to whether you think it’s worth it. Currently, there is no free trial (not surprising, given the size of the game), so it’s a little difficult to judge. Since this is still early days, I can’t give a definitive answer. But first impressions are extremely positive, it’s new, it’s exciting, and there’s a story to back everything up. When the endgame starts at level 50, we’ll see how it fares, since that will be where everyone ends up and when the real game begins. For now, I’ll try and break it down as best I can…
If you are a BioWare fan who has played and enjoyed the original Knights of the Old Republic, SWTOR is a fine addition despite being an MMO. If you are a Star Wars fan, then you have probably already bought the game and hit level 50. For sci-fi fans who are not majorly into Star Wars or don’t know much about the universe, you shouldn’t need to worry as it’s very easy to jump right in and immerse yourself in the story. For everyone else, it may be best to wait for a trial, as the up-front fee will be very off-putting.
I’ll be sticking with it for the next couple months and will provide additional feedback in the future. Feel free to ask questions in our forum and I will do my best to answer them, otherwise, you can head on over to the SWTOR forum and browse there for more information (just try avoid reading too many rants and trolls).
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