First Look: Star Wars: The Old Republic

I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars: The Old Republic is one of the most anticipated Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games to come out in nearly a decade. When you look at the pedigree, it’s hard to deny that there are a lot of high caliber forces coming together to make this game. Star Wars is one of the most beloved Sci-Fi franchises of all time, Bioware is one of the premiere RPG developers, and Electronic Arts has one of the biggest coin-purses in the video game industry. So with all this expectation and fawning, can the title live up to all the hype?

Let me start by saying The Old Republic doesn’t reinvent the MMO. With the exception of a few technical things, SW:TOR doesn’t really do much that is distinctly new in the market. That being said, it will completely change your expectations for MMOs in the future. Much like Blizzard did with World of Warcraft, Bioware looked over the MMO market and took note of what worked in the genre and attempted to fix the things that didn’t.

While some will debate and disagree, much of the general grind has been removed from the game. Quests that require you to kill 20 gundarks or deliver this box to someone on the other side of the map are mostly gone from the primary quest objectives. Whenever you are given a quest, you are given a rather task oriented goal. For example: locate and kill Sith traitors on Korriban, retrieve the stolen medical supplies on Taris, or repair sliced traffic panels on Coruscant. What Bioware has done though is make the “Kill X bad guys” an optional bonus quest. So if you’re recovering stolen parts for the Sith, they might say “If you kill enough of the rebels to teach them a lesson, we’ll reward you.” This results in bonus quests that will give you an extra reward if you take the time to complete a typical grind, making it completely optional. If you’re more interested in the story, you can just complete the quest’s primary goal and move on to the next part. It’s a brilliant design that will allow story fans and grinders both play the game in a manner they enjoy.

The fact that story takes center stage in The Old Republic maybe be its greatest defining feature. When fans cried foul that the newest installment of the beloved Knights of the Old Republic franchise would be an MMORPG, Bioware reassured them that this would work out better as it would have enough story content to fill out multiple sequels. Keeping true to their word, each of the eight classes has a completely unique class quest and both factions have their own worlds filled with quests. Each story is complete in their typical Bioware-ness as they offer Light Side and Dark Side dialog choices, plenty of drama, and companions that offer the player digital romance.

Perhaps the thing that illustrates this dedication to story the most is that every character you interact with in SW:TOR is fully voiced by a professional voice actor. I know a lot of people have read this statement, but the scope of this undertaking really doesn’t become clear till you have a conversation with an non-player character about refunding your talent points so you can respec your character. They weren’t lying when they said everyone talks, and it makes a world of difference when it comes to immersion. Of course people are already complaining about this level of execution, saying they don’t want to talk and would rather just kill things on a checklist without a story. Though I am firmly in the camp of story over raw math, so it is a welcome addition in my eyes.

Even though I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to nearly anyone, there are some issues that need to be resolved. While there are technically eight classes, the game plays more like there’s only four. Each faction has two Force sensitive classes and then two non-force wielding classes. The Force classes more or less play in identical fashion, only instead of a Jedi throwing gravel being substituted for lightning for the Sith, along with some other minor alterations. The same goes for the non-Force classes as well. The Smuggler and Imperial Agent share a cover-based combat style and even similar gameplay roles in their Advance Classes. Luckily there is enough variety between the mentioned Advance Classes and their skill trees that this problem with class variety won’t actually be a problem for many players. It also helps keep player versus player combat very balanced in a simplistic and a slightly lazy sort of way.

While there are other small issues with the game both in design and execution, overall my time in beta testing was incredibly smooth and polished. I would go on record as saying that even in its beta form Star Wars: The Old Republic is better than DC Universe Online, which is nearly a year old, and Star Trek Online, which is coming up on two years of activity. What is also telling is when fans compare The Old Republic to World of Warcraft, a title that has been live for over seven years and has seen multiple expansions, it seems that Star Wars can hold its own. Of course World of Warcraft has Star Wars beat when it comes to the sheer amount of content, but that’s bound to happen with that sort of head start.

Overall, Bioware seemed to use EA’s deep pockets wisely and has produced what will clearly be a popular game. Only time will tell if it will have staying power, but regardless of its longevity it will surely make an impact on how MMOs are made. And while I don’t believe it will be the mythical (read: non-existent) “WoW Killer” that every gaming journalist seems to be on the lookout for, I believe it will bring a lot of first time players into the MMORPG market.

Be on the look out when Star Wars: The Old Republic hits shelves on December 20th of this year. Those who pre-order it will be given up to seven days early access to the game.

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