*First note: 95% of my gameplay experience had to be relegated to very low settings on my laptop. Technical experiences WILL differ.*
*Second note: All online experiences are limited to the Sanctum of the Exalted role-playing server, the Ebon Hawk role-playing server, and the Public Test Server. Experiences with the community MAY differ.*
*Third note: Gaming experience from launch until now (Patch 1.3.3) will be mentioned. Improved experience from patches will not drastically change the overall score.*
One of the most surprising game announcements of 2008 was Bioware’s “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (SWTOR), the first attempt by the developer to enter into the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre. Vaunted for its ambitious aim in creating eight separate storylines, with four similar archetypes on the Republic and Imperial side, within an MMO-verse already showed just how bold the title would be right from the start. After years of anticipation and some of the most dazzling CGI trailers to ever promote a game the time has now come to ask (pardon the clichéd question): Is this the MMO you’re looking for?
Conflict between a Sith Empire unknowingly withdrawn for centuries and the Galactic Republic has once again brought the galaxy to complete turmoil only three-hundred years after the events preceded in the Knights of the Old Republic series. Brought out of hiding by their enigmatic emperor, the Sith Empire instantly retained entire quadrants of the galaxy in a short time. Explained further within hidden in-game extras, novels, and comic books, the Sith employed several detrimental alliances and ruses that eventually led to the destruction of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, forcing the Republic to sign The Treaty of Coruscant (creating “no-fly zones” for both parties) and triggering the Jedi to retreat back to their first home: Tython. The game starts 10 years after these events.
Upon viewing the unforgettable crawling text, bolstered by John Williams’s original score, you’re transported back to that galaxy so many have to come to enjoy. Within one of the eight self-contained stories, you’ll more than likely be familiar with the general tone within most: the puritanical Jedi Order will have cases of students being enticed into making emotional attachments, those in the Sith Order will attempt to carry out assassinations against higher-ups for personal gain, and those directly salaried by the Republic or Empire will be tasked with missions involving subterfuge to showcase their patriotism.
Since my main focus on story is-unfortunately-limited to only experiencing the complete narrative (from level one to fifty) of my Jedi Knight, the crux of my complaints and praises rests mostly on this experience. Learning the ways of the Force on Tython didn’t come without its own share of appealing quandaries that would challenge the physical and mental fortitude of my character. Within the first ten levels, Jedi Knights (and Consulars) are greeted by characters that will challenge the Jedi Code in regards to chastity, revenge, and goodwill to those that are different from you. While all of the excellent metaphors and symbolic representations found within the sub-text are due to the source material, the consistency is still appreciated. The major fault in the Jedi Knight’s story would be the banal second act. Before reaching the admirable send-off of this act, I had to save a different planet from a trite cataclysmic device and a different Jedi Master back-to-back. This didn’t terribly harm my thoughts of the whole narrative simply because the idea of an MMO giving me an immediate sense of worth to everything that was happening in my storyline was something I had not experienced before.
Despite my limited time with the Rep. Trooper and Imp. Agent story, I’ve found myself more engaged in the attitude of there being less of “choose light side or dark side” and falling closer to the idea of making decisions more beneficial to your allegiance, regardless of the choice being malevolent or benevolent. This also made me feel a greater sense of freedom in how mission choices could be made. One moment I could be succoring a grieving parent and the next moment conniving with seedy merchants in taking stolen goods, both of these possibly being more valuable for my side. The plot elements for these two classes also feel more grounded because of it mirroring that sense of despotism noteworthy characters reveal they have for their government. On top of all this, SWTOR also offers datacrons that slightly improve a certain stat and reveal a range of Star Wars canon that predates the events of the game.
Overall, the story carries a dash of disappointment in two ways for those who venerate its spiritual predecessors: a slight uneven quality between the classes’ main storylines and some of Kreia’s interesting conjecture from KOTOR II becoming dismantled. Nevertheless, the incredible advancement of having a MMO story with characters that even the most casual players will recognize cannot go unnoticed.
It won’t take long for anyone to become rapt in the multiple amounts of different planets the game has to offer: arcades of older Jedi/Sith structures loom everywhere on the Force users starting planets, verdure spread out across all planets reminiscent of earth, and business or political districts of awe-inspiring scale are some of the few praises to be given. SWTOR’s appropriate mixture is mainly an artistic and technical synthesis of the "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" TV series (the more recent one) and "Mass Effect." The main detriment to be found in the artistic design is how often so many missions require you to venture into such cramped spaces. With artists that are capable of such awesome detail in the vast expanses of the more popular planets in Star Wars lore, it’s such a shame to see any level design feel wasted on claustrophobic reprints that are just slightly rotated.
Until a few recent titles entered the genre, many MMO players, both part-timers and veterans, worry about crashes or an immense amount of multifarious bugs. Thankfully, SWTOR succeeded at having a relatively smooth launch; however, technical inconsistencies have slightly hampered my experience. One of the main selling points for this game is immersive storytelling through cut scenes. The problem this entails for lower-end users (possibly middle-end as well) is the frame rate drops within scenes depicting as much action in the background as the movies. Even when playing the new Novare Coast opening, my average fps feels as if it drops into the fractals. While a ton of work has done in alleviating problems for low-end users and improving textures for high-end users, it’s disheartening to still see such an inconsistent transition from 60 fps to single digits because of demanding in-game videos.
The meticulous care for the sound design across voice acting, soundtrack, and more is simply astounding. While the august soundtracks of the films do echo many tracks in the game-as with almost every other Star Wars game, there’s enough variables subsumed into most background music for it to feel properly older than the trilogies. Given the praise received in past Bioware titles, any sort of accolade given to their searches for excellent voice acting would be a bit redundant at this point. The idea of having so many great voice actors trudging through the highest stack of dialogue ever released for a single game (to date) baffles me; even the delivery when the writing falls flat is a wonder to behold. All the more so, details of a lightsaber’s hiss when kissing metal or the satisfying thumps of shooter classes hitting someone also add to the frenzied destruction.
The devil is in the details. There are a few problems to be found with the inconsistency in level structure, frame rate, and bug issues; however, the whole amount of thoroughness in both sound and graphics design bolsters SWTOR to unexpected heights.
The taciturn opening preceding the crawling text also tells much about what to expect from the gameplay: a visit into the distant past of MMO’s, rather than the future. It doesn’t take long to notice a familiarity from recent heavy-hitters of the genre: the selection of human or humanoid characters feels pretty basic (at the moment), quests are typically structured to the ‘kill or gather’ grind seen in years past, and the UI is fairly similar to World of Warcraft. What SWTOR does differently with the quest structure solely rests on your appreciation of how the story is presented. The idea of being compelled to understand the motivations of non-playable characters remained astounding to me throughout most of the game. What makes certain plot twists so great in this MMO was the ease of following along with everything transpiring around me without being fettered by text blocks.
Companions are another nuance that separate SWTOR from others in the MMO genus, and arguably the best wrinkle in the game. With your first one acquired around the fifth or sixth level, advantages of having a companion will immediately display dramatic effects for certain classes. Whether you’re a healer or a major damage dealer, attaining the companion that exudes all of the opposite qualities diminishes a great amount of stress from most skirmishes. Not only for combative roles, they’re also capable of tasks like selling vendor trash or leveling up your gathering/crafting abilities as you simultaneously focus on quests. A companion’s plunder may reap greater rewards with a higher affection meter attained through proper dialogue choices and gifts. Even having this gamut of different personalities on your spaceship as you travel to different planets allows you the opportunity to understand the history of these compatriots. No opportunity is left unnoticed in allowing your ragtag bunch to make leveling, and your experience in general, feel more enjoyable.
SWTOR’s surprisingly funneled focus on the character, rather than the hundreds of players surrounding them in the environment, is what makes this grand scheme of mixing single player and massive multiplayer role-playing feel so fulfilling. Copying Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel, choices are separated into three portions on the right hand side: neutral being the middle option and the binary light side/dark side choices placed at polar ends. Throughout the entire journey, the story partitions into small instanced zones which are green-lit for the correct character class. The disappointing part of this segregation is how everything outside of these areas remains unaffected to whatever actions you’ve made. Moments of effective storytelling to your surroundings can be found in four-man instances, dubbed Flashpoints. During important moments, each member of your squad will choose a given response; the responses are then then shuffled into the same system as a loot roll for the winner’s response to be played out. While your choice still grants light side or dark side points, more social points are awarded to the member with the highest roll. Bioware’s dedication in fully-voiced quests does make the employments of text blocks feel archaic, but the idea of nothing changing once you’ve left that small instanced area eventually leads to the notion that so many of these actions are just…surface area. When actions do feel remedial in flashpoints or eight/sixteen-man raids, named Operations, the effect is quite stirring.
If fighting AI combatants is not your thing, player-versus-player (PVP) matches across four different arenas will satiate your desires. From level ten and up, players can test their mettle in varied capture and hold or objective-based matches. They’re mostly the standard affair you’ve come to expect; however, Huttball, my personal favorite, retains some more sporty elements from rugby. After witnessing miscellaneous fixes, the addition of a new map (thus far) and the recent inclusion of ranked PVP warzones-currently in the preseason, SWTOR admits to following closely to those that have come before; however, the confrontations are still hectic and fun to play.
As a whole, the combat and UI mostly keeps in uniform with what you’d expect: Hotkeys and cool downs are at one of their most polished moments and the ‘holy trinity’ combination of the tank, damage dealer, and healer is unchanged. Certain nuances like there being no auto-attack does train your finger dexterity and sharpen your focus, but this and other variations to the formula only do so little to feel different. Even recent patches like 1.2, which undid the previously inflexible utility bar, bear a reminder of which games they've heavily relied on. Not all of this criticism is meant to smear the gameplay; on the contrary, with Bioware’s intention of providing a well-regarded system and making subtle touches that remove the need to find the correct mods on random sites makes it easier for everyone to enjoy the same game. Its penchant for the flavor that has come before is obvious, but the production values and subtle tweaks bring a more immediate impact and in turn make the gameplay feel more visceral.
There’s also another break to the formula in the form of space combat, though it’s disappointing. Accessing your ship’s console brings up missions for you to complete on your galaxy map. Whichever mission you choose, the flying is always moving back and forth across the x and y axis while droves of fighters and cruiser guns reuse the same patterns while you barrel roll and shoot your way out of trouble. It’s a fun break to be had when you're waiting to find a group, but ultimately becomes more of a fix than being something worthwhile. Competing with friends on leaderboards or some form co-op/versus would have been a nice touch.
In the end, SWTOR feels like a game that’s assiduous when attempting to further expectations in artistic design, sound, and storytelling yet only dares to traipse new gameplay ground with a healthy number of nuances and a great level of polish. So what exactly is SWTOR at the end of the day: a single-player RPG or an MMO? I personally find that to be the beauty of the question. By instilling each and every character with a sense of place within an allotment of people in a random server, story progression becomes more relevant than getting to the maximum level. It may still be hampered by mechanics you’ve seen a long time ago, but attention to new refinements in the genre make it stand out far, far away from anything else on the market.
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