Star Wars: The Old Republic
Modern online role-playing games have a tremendous obstacle that they must face, one that has been shared by girlfriends and psychiatrists the world over since 2004: How to beat World of Warcraft. Within a genre, there are only so many tinkers a developer can make to a formula before that beautiful balance is ruined, and the players become outraged by imbalance or a lack of features that they could find elsewhere. So the question remains that if Blizzard has seemingly happened upon perfection of the recipe, how can a developer hope to step into the ring and come out on top? The trick, is realizing that Blizzard hasn’t.
BioWare makes great role-playing games. It’s safe to hit the starting line acknowledging that. So when they set their sights on the massively multiplayer online variety (MMO), you can bet that the final product will be worth your attention. But what is really needed to topple Blizzard’s behemoth World of Warcraft? Competitors often stumble at a critical junction while feeling their way around the answer to this question: spending way too much time trying to flesh out background lore to compete with Blizzard’s fantasy setting. The problem is that this pursuit leaves new MMOs feeling overly talkative on the first date, as they try to pound years’ worth of catch-up storytelling into your playtime. Thankfully, BioWare has leapt past this challenge by focusing on a universe that has already been thoroughly and richly populated by stories, ideas, and memories: Star Wars. By overcoming the need to justify its lore, Star Wars: The Old Republic moves straight on to the good stuff: gameplay.
Picking your faction will not only determine the available race choices, but classes as well. Put simply, pick Republic if you want to be a snivelling do-gooder Jedi type, or Empire if you want to blow up planets with the Death Star (figuratively). Do you want to fulfill your life-long desire of wielding a lightsaber, or simply shoot anything that looks at you the wrong way? You won’t have to put too much thought into the type of character you want to play beyond your faction – just pick the race that looks best, and the kind of weapon you’d imagine yourself holding in a tight spot. The rest you’ll get to flesh out on your own.
Of the four classes that the player has to choose from, each boasts a unique resource system – gone are the days of mana – two advanced class options available at level ten, and three talent trees for every advanced class (most of which house at least one healing or tanking tree), meaning if you and the guy next to you both start out as Sith Warriors, it’s not likely that you will wind up filling the same role or even playing the same class by the time you’ve reached the level cap. The only downside to the class evolution system is that advanced classes hold on to their resource system and typically, their weapon and armor availability. Tag this onto the fact that all of the races are humanoid and look physically identical in any set of armour, and you may be met with the feeling that there are a hundred of you running around at any given moment. Take a deep breath, and shoot a droid for no good reason. You’ll feel better.
When you’re comfortable in your new shoes, it’s time to start levelling. Every base class has a unique series of quests that progress across planets as the player does. This results in the Jedi Knight, for example, having access to quests and places that the Trooper won’t. Add in five specific questing companions (AI party members), relationships with them, and quests that automatically update based on their completion, and you have one very personalized and streamlined experience.
Interestingly, decisions you make throughout will determine the morality of your character, the way allies react to you, and in some cases, even your appearance. Kudos to BioWare for bringing interactive storytelling into the realm of MMOs; let’s never turn back. For example, you are tasked with collecting ten droid parts and burning down a factory. Sounds like your average fetch quest, no? Now what if you were approached by a worker in the factory, who pleaded for you to give the other workers the time they needed to escape safely? Would you choose to let the workers live, or shoot the interloper and finish the job? Enter BioWare’s signature decision-based questing. It’s sharp, it’s exciting, and it works.
Now it’s time to get your hands dirty, and the journey to level fifty will feel just as painless as your professions do. Enemies in The Old Republic typically come in packs of three, and are all usually dead within ten to fifteen seconds. This may sound odd, but it adds a flavour of realism and more importantly, power that you simply can’t find elsewhere. Shoot a Republic rebel with a missile, and you can bet he won’t be getting back up.
Though it may take some time to get used to the absence of an auto attack – meaning all of a character’s attacks must be initiated by the player – you will most likely be engaged in mastering your class’ unique resources and combat mechanics. Bounty Hunters manage rising heat levels, Sith Warriors build and spend rage points, whilst Imperial Agents use energy and can take cover behind objects, akin to Gears of War. It is important to note that the eight advanced classes mirror that of the opposing faction right down to the talent trees, meaning a Sith Sorcerer plays in the exact same way that a Jedi Sage does, and so on.
By the time you reach the level cap, your character will have a personally forged back-story, and you will feel all the more attached to him/her having done so. Though this is a new spin on questing that gives levelling and character progression some much-needed rejuvenation, it also comes with a drawback: those who stay on the middle-ground have yet to see any reward. This means you’ll have to choose ahead of time whether you want your character to be light or dark based, or face the disadvantage when it comes time to cash in that attitude for some gear. This creates instances where you are faced with what you want to say versus what you should say, and I’ll admit that there were times when my dark Bounty Hunter did things that even I felt uncomfortable with. It’s a double-edged sword that comes to the fight with more pros than cons, but definitely makes the player feel like their character is bound to a separate set of beliefs, and is more a separate entity than an extension of the player, which can sometimes muddy the immersion.
While your companions help to rough up the galaxy’s meanest baddies, they can also be sent to do your bidding via collection and manufacturing professions. If you thought BioWare had reached the peak of revolutionizing the way these games were played, think again. No longer will you spend hours tinkering away at Blacksmithing or Tailoring. Star Wars: The Old Republic gives players access to one production and two collection professions. Click on a companion, send them on a quest to collect a specific type of resource, or queue up five production items, and simply continue questing or go make a cup of coffee. It’s that simple, and makes professions bearable again.
BioWare has succeeded in creating an experience that is unique to the genre. There are, however, a few wrinkles in The Old Republic that still need to be ironed out. Travelling can be a huge time sink, especially when flying between planets and systems and traversing the god awful spaceports. Along with a pile of quests, a class related story, and spaceship based missions, things can feel a bit confusing at times, even for an MMO veteran. Keeping tabs on multiple fronts will be key to maintain any kind of idea what you’re doing by the end of a mission. My biggest disappointment, however, was with the textures. Even on the highest settings, Star Wars: The Old Republic just couldn’t live up to the competition when it came to texture and model detail in general. Hopefully this is something that will improve as the game ages.
If you can see past these relatively basic setbacks, The Old Republic will reward you with an online role-playing game that is unlike anything else you’ve played in the genre so far. That alone makes it worth checking out, but with some surprisingly balanced player versus player content right out of the gate, and content updates rolling out already, you’d have to be mad to pass this one up. Blizzard had best keep an eye on this one if it doesn’t want to be swallowed up by the kind of quality storytelling and personalized quests that players have been begging of the genre for years. Star Wars: The Old Republic will happily gobble up your time, and it’ll do it in the best kind of way.