Review: Star Wars The Old Republic / Developed by: Bioware / Published by: EA, LucasArts / Release date: Out Now
If you had to create a formula for success, you would struggle to think of a more perfect combination of ingredients than this.
Veteran RPG developer Bioware, creating a big-budget massively multiplayer online game based on what is arguably the reason for why many of us are here, Star Wars. Add together, mix thoroughly, unleash on the world. Not a bad little concoction, but considering the scarcity of space for a newly launched MMO to establish itself, even this dream combination isn’t guaranteed survival. Normally, I would avoid comparing any new MMO release to Blizzard’s ubiquitous money printing adventure, as allowing a game to establish an identity and build a community of its own is considered vital for achieving mainstream success when competing for market share. But what if that wisdom is entirely flawed? What if people don’t really want something new or different after all? What if you gave people something that resembles World of Warcraft, but has lightsabers instead?
It’s a cold and calculating methodology, but it's one EA has carried out with startling precision with Star Wars: The Old Republic. The similarities to World of Warcraft are quite astounding at first - the game engine feels like an exact replica in terms of control and camera movement, even employing similar texture and rendering styles to its visuals. Any WoW player would feel entirely comfortable settling down to this as a potential use for their spare time, which nobody could argue is smart business.
For better or worse the mechanics popularised by WoW are now design staples ingrained into the development language of the genre, and while its core gameplay might not be revolutionary, SW:TOR does the basics of cooldowns and hotbars well enough to entertain, and once its early levels are out of the way it becomes increasingly enjoyable. As your character grows and develops a range of abilities to play with, a well realised world for the loosely canonical Knights of the Old Republic series to play out opens up for exploration. Taking its design cues from the Lucas bible, it feels far less of a generic expanse than many of the D&D derivatives we end up playing online, with famed locales such as Tatooine and Alderaan recreated to do battle within. Where the playspace of Cryptic Studio’s Star Trek Online felt like a bland extraterrestrial anywhere, the iconic nature of the universe in The Old Republic adds a welcome sense of recognition and importance.
Character creation is a little underwhelming in terms of modification and genuine personalisation, so the most distinguishing feature between you and the rest of the population will end up being your choice of race. All of the recognisable colours of the galaxy are available, from Twilek to Zabrak, to regular old Human. There’s a decent number of sliders and options to tweak, but most of them (much like the dismorphia inducing height and build settings) will not be of particular use or interest. It’s not where you are from that’s important however, as you’ll end up with a suitably cool looking set of gear to match your profession of choice regardless of cultural origin.
Each of the character classes made available are distinctly Star Wars, adding to what equates to an all-round great use of the licence in terms of atmosphere and design. Players can choose from a variety of character types that ably cover the MMO archetypes of tank, damage dealer and the all important healer class. While most players will immediately flock to the Force wielders of either Sith or Jedi designation, there are plenty of other options to choose from that are again quintessentially Star Wars, such as the sinister Imperial Agent or the Han Solo inspired Smuggler class. Initially, these roles are designed for the first ten experience levels, allowing players to familiarise themselves with the basic structure and mechanics of the game. Early areas such as Korriban and Tython are a little uneventful, but serve their purpose of introducing questing and mission concepts to the newbie while gently rolling out Bioware’s expansive lore piece by piece. While the introductory stages can be fairly procedural, its pacing is far from slow, dangling enough proverbial carrots within quick succession to make early level progression a swift experience.
The advanced classes move the player from general solo adventuring in to a role more defined and purposeful, especially in the context of group play. While it’s not overly clear which paths will become available, most of the classes have the opportunity to provide a combination of damage and healing, or damage and tanking in different capacities. Tech trees are vitally important in deciding the eventual build, and the player has the ability to respec their character should they create an unbalanced build, so experimentation can and will pay off.
Combat is fast paced and enjoyable once an advanced class has been unlocked, and the range of abilities and moveset each class is assigned feels just right; Sith Assassins use lightning powers to conceal themselves and inflict stealth damage on their victims, while Jedi Guardians use the force to shield themselves valiantly from oncoming attacks. Bounty Hunter Powertechs use a range of gadgets (yes, including jet packs) while Republic Commandos use heavy weaponry to overwhelm their opposition from range. In group play, each class forms a part of a balanced team to take on the myriad of dungeons and instances that the game provides.
Described by its developers as the “fourth pillar” in SW:TOR’s superiority over its contemporaries is its implementation of Bioware’s famous quest systems. Much like the developers offline titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2, a long and detailed series of missions and quests contribute to the overarching narrative of the game. While the basic town quests usually consist of fairly standard completion requirements, each has a story to it that feels cohesive within the wider universe. Commendably for a game of this size, each quest NPC features a full range of voiced dialogue, and the response wheel allows players to provide a more tailored answer depending on their character preference. For the most part, the different options provide little more than flavour and variation rather than meaningful changes in path, but in a game type that lives and breathes by repetitious actions, any added touch of individuality is always appreciated, and certainly works in a more effective and fun way than skipping past pages of irrelevant quest text just to get to your next objective.
Aside from the vast array of NPC quests available in each zone, each character class has its own unique storyline to progress through, referred to as a Prologue. Boastingly, Bioware describe these as a continuation of the popular Knights of the Old Republic fiction that is so deep, it effectively contains several sequels worth of content. These missions have so far proven to be intriguing, exploring a new sections of the Star Wars extended universe that is relevant, without feeling anachronistic or unjustified as with efforts like The Force Unleashed. Well plotted and decently written, the narrative accompanies the player’s passage to each new planet, allowing the world to expand with a well paced natural progression.
It should be noted that Star Wars: The Old Republic does an impressive job of providing content suited to differing player types. Solo players will be able to level up on at their own pace without having to worry about their gear or character build being competitive, progressing through the entertaining storyline missions and quests. Hardcore players who strive for the best gear will also be rewarded by the excellent selection of dungeons, raids and instances that provide tough group challenges requiring strategy and teamwork to complete. They offer great rewards not only in terms of loot, but to the sense of adventure that the game has managed - even in this early stage - to create. Group play is always an essential ingredient within any good MMO, but a team charging in to a confrontation with a raid boss with lightsabers buzzing in to life is an atmosphere unequalled in the genre. Add the fantastic Williams-like score and those legendary sound effects, and its almost impossible not to be drawn in.
Only time will tell if the game can hold the attention of its audience with a strong endgame with continued support, updates and expansion packs. So far, this is a fantastic new entry in to the crowded market. Star Wars: The Old Republic could finally be that new (but familiar) MMO experience that many have craved.
For our interview with 'SW:TOR' developers Bioware, read HERE.