Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game | Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts/LucasArts | Platform: PC | Players: BAJILLION | Rating: T (Teen)
I’ve had a mostly enjoyable ride from 1-50. It’s been filled with lightsabers and force-projected rocks and my sage doing some of the most un-sage-like things imaginable. Informing your troop-mate’s family that he was killed via a spin-kick to the face by a healer has to suck. That said, I’m probably not going to renew for a third month, and I only really renewed for a second month to see if all the talk about Star Wars: The Old Republic being a completely different game for each class was actually true. If you want to know why, read on.
First off, you have to understand that this is an MMORPG released in 2011 by an American developer. This inherently means a few things, but there’s one really big one to consider: it will be compared to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft by everyone and their cousin’s dog’s chew toy.
This isn’t news to anyone, but some folks still insist that comparing a new MMO to WoW is stupid, unfair, or some other derogatory comment that may or may not be recognizable outside of MMO culture. The point is, in many ways, this is very much a WoW clone. With WoW having more subscribers than most other American MMOs combined, even in its decline, the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic would’ve been stupid not to copy a lot of WoW. WoW is who you want your core subscribers to come from, because they’re the ones you know will keep on paying that monthly subscription.
That said, and while the fanboys skip down to the comments to write scathing remarks about what is obvious to everyone that isn’t a fanboy, let’s examine the most important things about a new MMO: What did they clone and make better, what did they clone and make worse, and what’s actually new.
For starters, the questing system itself has, been improved. It is very much a kill X right-click Y treadmill, though, make no mistake. In my play through from 1Level 1 to 50, I found exactly zero exceptions. Every single quest is to kill this many of those, loot this many of these, right-click this many of that. This may sound like a complaint, but it’s really not. If this system didn’t appeal to you in some way, you wouldn’t be interested in any MMOs, and Old Republic has spiced it up with tons of voice acting, while removing the exceptions that make WoW players want to break peripherals.
Seriously, Blizz, pretty much no one likes the vehicles, whether you’re jousting or trying navigate Occulus (BLECH!). Just give it up. Although the nay-sayers are correct when they say that the questing in SWTOR is not entirely voice acted (terminals and aliens that speak a different language, which apparently consists entirely of four different sounds, do not count), it’s close enough, and the dialog can be amusing in ways that simple text cannot. Because so much of the game is voice acted, and you get to choose your responses, questing with a friend can be uniquely amusing.
Unfortunately, the claim that playing a different class is like playing a completely different game falls well short. There are four classes on each of the two factions, technically making eight total classes, and they share a total of four beginner planets. Each of those beginning planets has its own set of quests, but they’re only a tiny portion of the game. After those beginning planets, you share quests with every other class in your faction, aside from your class quests, which will make up about one in twenty of the quests that you will do. So, while the two factions certainly have different quests and stories, the classes within the factions share a lot.
This means that you’ll get two unique play-throughs for your money, with some differences sprinkled in from your class stories, if you choose to play through with other classes. Less so if you choose the classes that share beginner planets. All in all, this isn’t much different than any other MMORPG. In fact, with Cataclysm, I’d say SWTOR is only on par with WoW when comparing the uniqueness of multiple play-throughs on different classes. WoW focuses its differences on your character’s race, while SWTOR all but ignores your race entirely, something I found to be a little bizarre.
Because you can respond to NPCs in different ways, you might be tempted to assume that you will be given different quests, or there will be different outcomes to the quests that you are given, depending on your input. For the most part, you would be wrong. Although there are some exceptions, where choosing a dark-side option ends up in someone getting killed, or choosing a light-side option ends up in a horrible criminal going to jail instead of being murdered, for example, the end result is almost always the same.
In the case of this example, the enemy is never seen again, so, to the player, it doesn’t really matter if they’re dead or in jail – the overall effect on the game is identical. After a while, the illusion of choice will vanish, and much of the dialog starts to feel rather pointless. Aside from accepting or declining a quest, your choices will affect little to nothing.
I found myself mostly picking whatever choices would make my current NPC companion happy. Since some of the companions happen to be rather murderous, and I was aiming for light-side, I should have come off as downright psychotic, as I only chose the nice-guy option when there were light/dark points at stake, and the most bloodthirsty options every other time. However, it made no difference to my overall story, and the NPCs didn’t so much as make a smartass comment about my being such a spaz. I kept doing it, though, because it amused me.
I could say that I was doing it for the companion affection, but the only real perk to companion affection is success on missions, and taking less time to do them. The effects are pretty minimal, though. Even at full affection, it only knocks 10 minutes off a 70 minute gathering mission, and, if the companions with high affection got me more stuff, the difference wasn’t really noticeable.
Character creation is the first thing that you encounter in any MMO, and SWTOR will disappoint most players. There are no real sliders, though they use fake sliders to choose your pre-packaged options in every field, even for body shape, which only has four options. For a brand new MMO, I really expected it to be more Sims 3 and less WoW, but what we got is very WoW, just with more options and the ability to change the body up a bit. You can’t even pick your own voice, since it’s tied to your class, which is especially disappointing as your character will be talking at nearly every quest pick-up and turn-in.
The first time you’re questing with a group that includes another of your class, but of a different race, you’ll be a little startled to hear your voice come out of their mouth. Overall, yes, this is an improvement over WoW, but WoW hasn’t really improved their character creation since they launched, over seven years ago. Even the newer races have about the same number of options as the original launch races. On the other hand, nearly every other MMORPG that has been released in the past few years has a character creation system that is far superior to SWTOR.
Every new MMO seems to think that they need to play with “The DPS, The Healer, and The Tank” concept and, maybe, when some game actually improves upon it, it’ll all be worth it. SWTOR is not that game. Instead of making various balanced classes that could heal, they’ve made a few classes that think they can heal, but find it impossible to keep up with any but the simplest, slowest fights. The Jedi Sage is about the only real healer in the game, at the moment.
Instead of making various types of tank classes, they’ve made ranged tanks, and some tank classes that absolutely hate tanking because most enemies are ranged, initial aggro can be overcome with a single heal from the healer, and taunts don’t actually generate aggro at all. It’s a half-assed attempt at reinventing the wheel and, if this was the best they could do, they should’ve just stuck with a few different kinds of the traditional roles. It’s worth wagering that they’ll go in that direction eventually, anyway.
The SWTOR user interface is, without a doubt, a near exact clone of WoW, only it’s missing two extremely important things: macros and mouse-overs. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that macros and mouse-overs are what make the generic MMO UI functional in the first place. I know there are plenty of folks out there who never used them, and to them I say, good for you! You stayed Amish and are now very comfortable with that horse and buggy. I, on the other hand, have been driving cars for seven years, so forgive me if I find the old ways a bit antiquated, clunky, and slow.
I want to macro my relics, which have use functions, in with other abilities. I want to heal the DPS with a shift-click on their face instead of selecting them, selecting a heal, then selecting the tank again, every single time. That’s three clicks instead of one for every action as a healer that isn’t healing the tank. In response, I’ve stopped healing, and I’ve healed in every MMO that I’ve played, dating all the way back to The Realm (look it up, kids). It took SWTOR to make me think that healing was such a complete pain that I didn’t even want to attempt it anymore.
The UI is also not configurable, beyond choosing whether or not to have action bars, of which you’ll need all of to fit all of your abilities, especially since you can’t macro any of them together. There is no scaling, no moving frames, no customization of any kind. Everything is comically huge, except the few things that are instant-eyestrain-tiny. I’m assuming that this will improve with age, but why anyone thought that they should release the game with the UI in its current state, and no API to allow addons so that the players could improve it, is beyond me.
Crafting has been an MMO staple for nearly two decades now. The general premise is that you gather stuff, which you use to make stuff, which you then either use or sell. How excited would you be if, instead of doing all that yourself, you had companions to do it for you, and it could take over an hour just to gather one material, and it might not even be what you needed? Yeah, me neither, but that’s SWTOR crafting in a nutshell.
Again, they’ve tried to reinvent the wheel, but they’ve put all the extra spokes on the outside. The result is something that can work well enough, but it takes a lot more effort to achieve the same results. The option to just gather materials yourself is there, but it’s extremely slow going, and you might never encounter some of the rarer, higher end materials.
How can a game fail at being in its own genre, you ask? Easy. Make people wonder why it is in that genre to begin with. On the beginning planets (think areas, like The Barrens or Ashenvale), you’ll notice a prevailing theme in chat. People often ask why SWTOR is even an MMO. Once you get past those initial planets, you’ll start to do heroics (think instances, only some of them aren’t instanced), Warzones (battlegrounds) and, eventually, Ops (raids).
The problem with these thinly veiled copies of features that are contained in every other MMO, though, is that the game focuses so much on your own player’s story, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything multi-player, that you might not see a point in ever interacting with others. That’s okay, though. To each their own, right?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to stay immersed within your own character’s story when the NPCs act like you’re the only one of your class that they’ve ever dealt with, and every other person of your class is running around with their very own version of your companions, same unchangeable name and all. I’m not sure if this is made better or worse by the fact that you can “customize” your companions, once you acquire them.
That’s right, that white guy that’s already been in about half an hour of your character’s story? Once you get him as a companion, you can totally make him a black guy, just by giving him a piece of equipment. And that special title that you just got, the one that hasn’t been given to any other Jedi in hundreds of years, and even then only three others? Just ignore the other dozen people running around the room with it over their heads.
Most other MMORPGs at least make some sort of effort to get around the fact that there are literally thousands of other people doing the same supposedly epic things that you’re currently doing, but not SWTOR. Most of the time, it very much feels like you’re seeing a bunch of other people playing the same single player RPG, and they’re somehow bleeding over into yours.
What’s new, though? Space combat! Yes, space combat, at launch! Think Freelancer, if it were a flash-based browser game with only a short paragraph of story for each short mission. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Most players call it a “Starfox Mini-game”, and I’d say that’s a fairly apt description, though at least Starfox had some ridiculous wingmates to keep you amused. Unless you really enjoy it, the space combat is fairly pointless, and you won’t be missing much by just skipping it entirely.
And you get your own spaceship. BioWare pulled a page straight out of their other big space franchise, Mass Effect, in giving the player their own space ship. If you’ve played Mass Effect, then you know exactly what it’s like. It’s pretty similar, except the planets are much larger and there are less of them, so you’ll be using your ship a lot less for traveling.
Maybe this will help you forget that there are hundreds of other players flying around in identical ships, with identical companions. There are other parts of the story, at later points in the game, that make it even more absurd that there are veritable fleets of clones of your entourage flying about in space, but I don’t want to spoil the best part of the game, which is definitely the class stories.
Manipulating your character using the Light and Dark Sides had a lot of potential, but I really feel it falls short of representing the Star Wars universe when, no matter how dark you get as a Jedi, you will never become a Sith. Isn’t that the very essence of everything that is Star Wars? In reality, all the light and dark side system really does is change the look of your face, sometimes give you different dialog options, and dictates which gear you can choose in some situations.
At a certain point, you will be able to pick a last name, which can be applied to all of your characters, in that faction, on that server. It’s a neat concept but, currently, this is all the legacy system consists of. You’ll gain Legacy levels, but they won’t do anything. The Legacy System is something that the developers seem awfully excited about, but there are no solid details on what they’re planning. So, for the time being, you basically are leveling a last name, for some reason.
I do not dislike Star Wars The Old Republic. I think it’s a solid game, and the release was amazingly polished, considering it is an MMO, and BioWare’s first effort in the genre. Then again, any major hitches would’ve been unforgivable, considering the near complete lack of innovation. Even the graphics are, arguably, nothing special, and the sound is exactly what you would expect from literally any Star Wars game.
It’s hard to rate a game like this because, functionality wise, it’s fine. I think we all expected a lot more from BioWare than yet another questing treadmill yet, as far as questing treadmills go, this is one of the best, and the voice acting definitely adds an extra dimension to the otherwise tired formula.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a Mass Effect game set in a Star Wars universe (where good guys can’t fall to the dark side) with a broken/incomplete World of Warcraft UI. If that sounds appealing to you, then dive right in. However, if you’re in it for the raiding or the PVP or any other multiplayer aspect, except questing with a friend, then this is likely the wrong game for you. BioWare gave us no reason to raid here instead of wherever we’re already established, and this is very much a PVE game with a PVP element, as opposed to the other way around.
As an MMO and as a title that can constantly improve (or become worse as has been the case for many of its kind), it doesn’t feel right to assign a score to the title.
- NO SCORE / 10
Star Wars: The Old Republic is currently available for $44.99 with one free month of play and costs $14.99 for a month’s subscription after that.
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was independently purchased by the reviewer.