"If you enjoy the Star Wars universe, enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic, and have enjoyed other BioWare games in the past, I find it extremely unlikely that you won't enjoy this game."
"Never tell me the odds."
More than three years and possibly 200 million dollars after it was initially announced, BioWare's return to the Star Wars universe finally arrived. BioWare's first MMO isn't just big news for Star Wars fans or fans of the developer; it is probably the industry's biggest story to watch this year. EA made a massive investment hoping the time was finally ripe for knocking the undisputed king of MMOs, World of Warcraft, off its long held perch, or at least grabbing enough of their subscribers to make the investment worthwhile.
To accomplish this, BioWare decided to take a unique approach to their first MMO: they focused on story. Voice actors and actresses recorded hundreds, possibly thousands of hours of audio for this game and its myriad plotlines, hoping this would help immerse players in the experience like never before.
Did BioWare pull it off? Have they brought something new to the table? Or is this destined to be the most expensive experiment in video game history?
I've spent many, many hours over the last four months playing as much of the game as possible to try to answer that question. Since MMO players are such a diverse group interested in many different gaming experiences, I've tried my best to dedicate a bit of this review to every aspect the game offers. If even after reading through this you still have questions, feel free to drop me a line.
"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
Let's start with the classes. Your choice of class, especially for your first impression of the game, is going to be a very important one. Not only does each class carry with it a preferred play style, but each has its own story that you're going to be navigating for many, many hours to come.
There are eight classes in total, four per faction. The two factions, somewhat obviously, are the Republic and the Empire. Even though the plot of Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place about 3500 years prior to Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, the universe still works in many of the same ways depicted in the films. If you played BioWare's brilliant Knights of the Old Republic or Obsidian's not quite finished Knights of the Old Republic II, you'll find many familiar elements here as The Old Republic picks up about 350 years or so after those games. The Republic is all about democracy while the Empire is about a more dictatorial approach. The "good guy" versus "bad guy" lines can blur a bit at times, but in broad strokes if you want to play the "good guy," the natural choice is the Republic.
If you choose the Republic side, you'll have a choice between two Force-using, Jedi classes and two "mundane" classes. If you want to spend a lot of time swinging a lightsaber or two, you'll want to go with the Jedi Knight. If you want to throw things around with the Force, Jedi Consular. If you want to play some variation of Han Solo, go with the Smuggler. If you want to have tons of awesome gear and armor and the biggest guns possible, it's Trooper for you.
On the Empire side, you also have two Force-using classes and two mundane classes. The Jedi Knight parallel is the Sith Warrior – light saber swinging mayhem. The Jedi Consular parallel is the Sith Inquisitor – instead of chucking rocks at things, you'll fire lightning from your fingertips (if this sounds more awesome, that's because it is). The closest parallel to the Smuggler class on the Empire side is the Imperial Agent. And last, if you want all of the biggest guns and armor in the Empire, you'll want the Bounty Hunter.
I've mentioned before that each class gets its own story, and you'll definitely want to consider this when you choose your first class. The story caters in large part to the archetype of class you choose, and as soon as you decide, establishes your starting scenario with a classic Star Wars style opening crawl. If you don't like what you see there or it seems dull, pick another class because you are going to be spending quite a few of your first hours dealing with the situation you find yourself thrust into, and it is best to start by playing something that grabs your attention from a narrative standpoint.
The game has been designed so that ANY class can complete the class quest line while playing solo. Despite the fact that this is an MMO, BioWare has gone out of their way to make traditional fans of their games feel right at home here. If you don't want to play with others, you are not necessarily required to do so to see your character's main story from beginning to end. I'll go in to more detail about the advantages and disadvantages of this design decision later, but for now it is enough to know that you don't need to choose a class wondering if you'll need help getting to the "end" if you like to play solo.
Another important thing to note is that it won't take very long for things to get a lot more customizable for your character. Once you hit level 10, you unlock the chance to specialize. Each class has two specializations, and each has three distinct talent trees. If you do the math you realize that this gets pretty staggering in a hurry. The overarching point here is that it is almost never too late to make some new decisions about the way you are actually playing your class. Some of the talent trees are clearly designed more for multiplayer and group play, while others are obviously designed for solo play.
Rather than go into excessive detail on each and every specialization and talent tree, I'll use the following example of the class I played all the way to the finish of the main quest and maximum level (50): the Sith Warrior. Upon reaching level 10, I was given the option to become either a Sith Marauder or a Sith Juggernaut. The Marauder is focused on attack powers and dealing lots of damage, whereas the Juggernaut is focused more on defense. Both are perfectly viable choices from a solo standpoint, but I wanted to swing lightsabers with wild abandon so I went with the Marauder. From there I had my first point to distribute to one of three talent trees: Annihilation, Carnage, and Rage. Each one stays within the theme of the aggressive Marauder style but executes it slightly differently. For example, Rage talents are focused on Force effects, like enhancing your Force Choke and Force Crush abilities, while Annihilation provides even more bonuses to aggressive use of melee attacks.
The main takeaway here is that there is a ton of customization available in the game when it comes to your class. If you really don't like the direction you've taken your character, you can visit a vendor that allows you to redistribute those points, but it costs money. And the more you do it, the more expensive it gets. So while the choices you make here don't necessarily need to be forever, you still would be best served to think carefully before making them.
"There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny."
As I mentioned earlier, BioWare's stated goal with the class quest lines was to make them playable for a person playing solo. I can't confirm they've achieved this with every class since time simply did not allow me to test it, but I can confirm I was able to do it with the Sith Warrior. Discussions on the forums and with others playing the game seem to suggest that, for the most part, this goal has been achieved.
So if you are the type of person who likes single player BioWare games, in this section I intend to discuss the systems in place you can enjoy without any assistance from other players.
World of Warcraft players will immediately recognize the UI in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Veterans of other BioWare games on the PC, like Dragon Age for example, will see some familiar elements as well. Your abilities and powers are in a pretty little row on the bottom of the screen, labeled with keyboard keys 1 through 0 plus the dash and equals key, giving you 12 abilities that can be mapped to those hotkeys with the option to add an additional row below it. The basic interface consists of moving around with your keyboard, targeting things with your mouse (or keyboard by cycling through targets with the Tab key), and then either clicking on your row of powers/abilities with the mouse or pressing the corresponding number key. You can also interact with things like doors by right clicking them.
The controls mirror World of Warcraft so closely that if you're a veteran of that game you'll actually find yourself annoyed if something doesn't work quite the same way in Star Wars because 95% of the time, it does. If you aren't, rest assured that a great deal of World of Warcraft's success can probably be attributed to its very easy to use interface. You won't have any problem figuring out how to play this game.
You get experience points through the classic methods of killing things and completing quests, with a lot more experience being provided for questing. What this means is you can spend time grinding experience points by wandering around killing things if you want, but you can save yourself a lot of time by simply pursuing your quests. The quest log is very nicely set up on the upper right of your screen, allowing you to see your "to do" list at all times if you want or collapse it if you find it distracting.
Quests are really where BioWare has gone out of their way to distinguish themselves in the genre. Almost every quest contains a great deal of voice acting that sets up exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it. Although mechanically this sometimes boils down to "get that thing" or "kill that guy," the voiceover goes a long way in giving it narrative context. You can skip the voiceover if you want, but I actually think it adds a great deal to the experience. You almost always have a class quest you are working on that represents your class story arc, the most important narrative piece for your character. But each planet you visit also has a conflict of its own that ties into a planet-related story arc. So while you pursue your own story across several planets, you also find that there are shorter stories you can resolve in a satisfactory way on each specific planet. There are also plenty of side quests in between that have even smaller stories. In addition to all that, sometimes a bonus quest appears underneath another quest – these tend to fall into your classic "kill 40 womp rats" style of quest, but they are optional for completing the parent quest. Doing them just provides a little bonus experience, and they disappear when the parent quest is completed.
What this all means is that there are lots and lots of little stories to discover in the galaxy. You'll find that planets tend to be designed for specific level ranges, but your class quest takes you to places you've been before, making the galaxy feel like a more coherent place as opposed to a collection of stages disguised as planets. The drawback to this design is that once all quests on one of the lower level planets have been completed, there is very little reason to actually revisit them later unless your class quest specifically takes you back.
"What a piece of junk!"
There is yet another type of single player oriented quest, and that is space combat. You eventually acquire a ship no matter what class you play, and aside from using it to travel between locations and as a home base for you and your crew, you can also use it for a bit of experience and credits on the side by helping out your faction in space battles. Mechanically, these operate like rail shooters as opposed to a free flying simulator – you basically progress through a mission by moving your ship up/down and left/right, but you don't control speed in any way. Your left mouse button fires your lasers, and holding the right mouse while dragging it across targets fires missiles, of which you have limited supply. The space combat missions tend to be either escort missions or "kill something" missions, and while they feel a bit cramped since you only have limited control over your ship's movement, they can be a fun diversion once in awhile. But fans of the old Star Wars Galaxies space combat or more sophisticated flight simulators won't find anywhere near that level of depth here.
"Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease."
In addition to a ship, you also acquire a number of companions on your journey through the galaxy. You can only have one companion accompany you at a time, and if you play solo, who you spend most of your time with is dictated in large part by how you decide to play your class. For example, with the Sith Marauder, I had a much more difficult time surviving combat with anybody but the companion that provided constant healing due to the fact I had no healing abilities of my own.
Fortunately, there is more to do with your companions than simply fighting beside them. Like many other BioWare games, you have a relationship score for each companion. When participating in conversations, certain responses either add or subtract points from your relationship score based on your companion's personality. Even though it may only be practical to travel with one companion for purposes of combat, switching out companions is quite easy, and I often found myself switching to other companions before initiating dialogue to earn points with other characters, especially if I anticipated behaving in a way my current companion wouldn't necessarily appreciate.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little benefit to doing anything but getting everybody in your crew to like you, regardless of whether your ideals are completely in conflict with theirs. You earn so many more points for actions they find favorable versus actions they dislike that it is also nearly impossible for the scores to go anywhere but up during the course of the game. For example, for a companion acquired early, a dialogue option that they like may yield 15-30 points of favor, whereas a dialogue option they don't like only subtracts a point or two. There are exceptions, but over the long haul it is nearly impossible not to see the score go up. And since there are actual mechanical benefits to higher scores, such as additional dialogue about your companions' backstories, there is no incentive to explore an adverse relationship. If you let it, this leads you to approach dialogue as an opportunity to score points with your companions by saying things you think they'd like as opposed to just roleplaying, but if you do the latter and you lose some points with your companion, you can always give them gifts to prop their score back up. This can lead to some weird scenarios in which you are really treating a companion poorly, and yet they still like you.
"I love you."
Some characters are romanceable, again copying what we have come to expect in single player BioWare offerings. This works how you would expect – by getting a relationship score high enough and choosing the obvious dialogue choices, you can get a character to fall in love with you. This is a neat feature for an MMO since you see the possibility of an ongoing romance that could be even farther developed over time with content updates. The way the relationship score system works, however, can lead to some strange scenarios. For example, if you buy a companion a lot of gifts but don't visit a location where you can talk to them privately for awhile, like your ship (a perfectly normal scenario if you are trying to pursue quests on a specific planet), by the time you get to your ship you may have unlocked several dialogues that are tied to your relationship score. In my case this lead to a relationship that went from absolutely nothing to a marriage proposal in a shockingly short amount of time, with the various stages of dialogue indicating that the conversations were probably planned to ideally occur over a greater length of time to make it appear more organic. Since pretty much everything is tied to the relationship score, however, all of the conversations became available at once.
As well written as the relationship conversations are, the relationship score itself that unlocks them seems like a bad idea for this particular type of game. Since the stages of the game are divided up in a simple way by your class quest, it would have made a lot more sense to ditch the arbitrary point scoring system and simply have dialogues unlock based on your interactions with your companions and where you are in the class narrative. This would have been an easy way to have things progress in a more natural fashion, but tying a score to it can sometimes make trying to talk to your crew feel like a classic MMO point grind. There also aren't enough conversations to max all of your companions out even if you picked the right dialogue option every time (which you won't), so if you want to unlock all dialogues with your companions you eventually need to grind for relationship points via acquiring gifts to see everything your crew has to say.
"What's more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?"
Crew skills are another game mechanic tied to relationship score. If you're familiar with the EVE Online skill training system, you'll understand the concept of the crew skills right away. But if not, here's how it works. Early in the game, you're able to choose three crew skills: a crafting skill, a gathering skill, and a mission skill. The crafting and gathering skills run the predictable range of things allowing you to make different categories of gear or harvest different types of resources, while the mission skills are a little more of a wild card that allow you gather credits, companion gifts, light side/dark side points, etc. Crew skills are utilized by sending one of your actual crew members or companions on a quest of their own – you don't do any of this yourself. So if you need to gather some herbs or crystals, you send one of your idle companions to do it. There is a difficulty and an amount of time associated with each possible task, and a companion's chance of success and the time it takes to complete are based on your overall crew skill score, the aptitude for that particular skill the companion you're sending has, and their affection for you. Even though you sometimes find resources to farm while exploring or questing yourself, this is a nice alternative, allowing your companions to do it while you do something more fun, like advance the plot. Since it is time based, you can even send your companions on difficult missions that take a long time before you log off. When you log in the next day, you'll have reports of their success or failure.
"A Jedi gains power through understanding and a Sith gains understanding through power."
Whatever class you choose, whatever companions you have, whatever romance you pursue, all of it is wrapped up in a larger story that, as I've mentioned before, is tied to your class. But this is an MMO right, and with so many other players running around playing your class, how can you really feel like this is YOUR story?
This is where I think Star Wars: The Old Republic really shines. For one thing, there is an artificial limit to how many other players share a given space with you since the game implements a shard system to keep performance at a reasonable level. For those unfamiliar, this means that there is a limit to how many players actually appear in a certain area with you. When you first create a character you pick a server to play on, which has a maximum population (not disclosed to you). From then on, if you want to play that character you have to do so on that server. Within that specific server, if too many people start to congregate in a certain location (a popular place is the Republic/Imperial fleet, depending on your faction), the game quietly splits that area of the server in two so that it doesn't become overpopulated. As many people as are reportedly playing the game overall, the most I have ever seen actually sharing playing space with me is around 150 or so. Usually it is far less.
For the single player experience, this is extremely helpful for immersion because you are less likely to be bombarded with unwanted annoyances. For the multiplayer experience, this has drawbacks, but we'll get to those later.
In addition to keeping the shared spaces intimate, the game implements an instance system for class quests. This means that if you're about to enter an area with plot events related to your class quest, you typically see a green curtain/force field over that area. Once you walk through, you have been placed in your own instance of that area so that other players that are playing your class don't share it with you and ruin the illusion of your own importance.
Even though these are tricks, they go a long way to making you feel like the most important person in the galaxy.
Adding to this more personal feel, your choices in the game often yield light side or dark side points. You can obtain points on either side regardless of whether you are playing for the Republic faction or the Empire, which can make for some interesting characters like dark Jedi or Sith with a soft side. Some of these choices are implemented in somewhat awkward fashion, such as a Sith light side choice being something along the lines of letting a person live in terror as opposed to killing them outright, but at least you have the capability of putting together some combinations this way. Making dark side choices also warps your character's appearance, although if you wish to disguise this you have the option to turn this off in your preferences.
The drawback to the light side/dark side system once again has to do with the points themselves, just like the relationship system. There are five levels of light side and dark side that can only be achieved by gathering as many points as possible on one side or the other. There is special gear that becomes available, along with other rewards, for achieving these levels, some of it quite powerful. This actually penalizes trying to play a character with more nuance than full dark or light side – a Jedi that doesn't think relationships should be forbidden, for example, is penalized insofar as there is no neutral equivalent for the type of gear available to level five light/dark side players. Just like the relationship system, this prevents the type of organic role playing that I think would have been preferable to having to grind light and dark side points just like any other resource. To be fair, you can ignore the gear or the other perks and play your character any way you like, but you won't be rewarded for doing so like you would playing strictly one side or the other.
Still, it's nice to see that the flexibility exists to play a dark or light side character regardless of your faction and class. You can play a ruthless Bounty Hunter that enjoys killing, or you can play a Bounty Hunter that isn't in it just for the credits. Either way, you'll still be able to get through your story by yourself if you desire.
"Take care of yourself, Han. I guess that's what you're best at isn't it?"
To summarize so far: for folks who have played and enjoyed BioWare single player games in the past, but are leery of playing an MMO, you have very little to fear here. For the most part, you'll find the same level of quality storytelling you've come to expect but on a much, much larger scale than in the past. If you don't want to interact with other players, you don't have to, and if you want to focus on playing through the plot for each class, you would have many, many months of gaming here. The combat isn't ground breaking, and if you haven't played an MMO before, you might be put off by the way enemies sometimes stand around until you get too close to them, but Star Wars: The Old Republic borrows large parts of its gameplay from a system proven to be easy enough for casual gamers to pick up, but with enough variety for more hardcore, number crunching players to enjoy. We're not talking Dark Souls levels of interaction and reflexes required here by any stretch of the imagination, but the quests come fast enough to sometimes make you forget that you're pressing the same buttons an awful lot.
So if you like BioWare games, but have been staying away from this one only because it is an MMO and you don't want to play with others, you needn't worry.
"Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me?"
But what if you do like to play with others? "It's an MMO, isn't that the point?" you ask.
Well, once you add other players to your game, things become more of a mixed bag. Interestingly I'd say the single player experience is by far the most well thought out portion of the game, with some of the multiplayer options being the weakest part of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Let's start with the type of player who wants to go questing with others, known as your PvE (Player vs. Environment) type of player. In addition to all the different types of quests I mentioned above, there are also what are called "Heroic" level quests. When you pick up a quest designed for more than one player, you see something like "HEROIC 2+" at the start of the quest. This means that if you plan to play solo, you should probably stop tracking the quest because you won't have a chance to get through it until it is no longer relevant to your level.
However, if you're a player that likes to group, you're in luck because now is your chance to take down more powerful monsters and earn lots of experience and loot. The "2+" indicates that you need at least two players to make it through the quest. The trick is finding other players that are looking to do this as well, because while these quests may be fun, the grouping mechanisms are currently a little archaic by modern MMO standards. You can set your player status as "Looking For Group," which puts a symbol next to your character's name, but I can only think of one or two occasions when this actually yielded a group. More proactively, you can join the general chat channel for the planet you are on and look for players there. This is usually a more effective way of doing things and, for the most part, the player base I interacted with was pretty friendly. Even if I couldn't always find a group looking to do what I wanted, I at least usually got a response of some kind from folks. The problem is that because of the amount of sharding that goes on to keep the visible population low, I've been on planets like Hoth where I'm only there with 30 other players. That makes the odds pretty low that somebody is interested in pursuing the same quests I am.
In addition to heroic quests found on planets, there are "Flashpoints." These are missions that are self contained short stories started from your faction's fleet, essentially Republic or Imperial home base. They usually have at least one interesting choice to be made that yields some dark side/light side points while doing them.
I've noted that there are a lot of dialogue choices to be made since the game is so story oriented. This is not broken by joining up with others – in fact, there is a specific system in place called "Social Points" to encourage playing through any kind of quest, not just Heroic, with others. Normally when you engage in a dialogue you choose your response from the available options and your character responds that way. If you are in a group, however, each player selects a dialogue option. Once all have done so, a random number is rolled for every character participating in the conversation, and whoever ends up with the highest number gets to respond using their choice and earns social points. The characters who did not win get a bonus to their next conversation roll, but also get a smaller number of social points just for participating.
Social points are earned toward "Social Levels," which in turn can be used to buy certain types of gear. Gear oriented toward social level is typically cosmetic in nature and not necessarily more powerful than other gear, but this is one area in which the point system actually seems to work since you are not specifically penalized for being antisocial, but get a nice bonus that isn't mechanical in nature if you do want to play with others.
One thing you risk by participating in group conversations like this is getting an actual plot outcome different than the one you want, but regardless of outcome you are awarded light/dark side points based on what you would have chosen to do.
When it comes to your class quests, if you're traveling in a group that contains people that aren't your class, they can observe your conversation and see the plot events but cannot actually make dialogue choices. This is a cool way to see other plots and a great way to share narratives with friends. For example, I have a Sith Inquisitor character I only play when a certain buddy is on, so we are able to see two plots unfold at the same time by traveling together.
It is possible to share a class event with somebody in your group who is playing the same class you are, but this needs to be specifically allowed by the player who owns the class story instance. If you do this it, things get a little awkward as the fourth wall comes crashing down when you are watching something you have either already seen or haven't seen yet. It is probably best to wait a couple of minutes for the group to return unless you don't care about maintaining the illusion, and again you have to choose to allow this sort of thing for it to happen.
"The odds of successfully surviving an attack on an Imperial Star Destroyer are approximately..."
The biggest, baddest challenges for the type of player who likes to take down bosses with others are called "Operations," which are available after you reach max level with a character. These require at least eight players and a great deal of coordination to accomplish successfully, and I was never able to form an impromptu group to try these out myself. I was able to gather some info from other players about how these work, however, and they are very much like "World Bosses" or "Raid Bosses" in other MMOs. These are the types of foes that, if you wanted to bring them down, you would be best served joining a guild to fight, but they are worth mentioning because after reaching level 50 and finishing all of the available solo quests, there is not much to do aside from these repeatable operations, flashpoints (which at least have a hard difficulty setting), and PvP (Player vs. Player) activities.
So while these big bosses do exist, they take a large group and quite a bit of coordination to bring down. I apologize that I can't provide personal experience trying to do so.
"Look, good against remotes is one thing. Good against the living, that's something else."
We now come to what is by far the weakest part of the game: Player vs. Player. On the surface, there appears to be a lot on offer for folks who like to do battle with other human beings. You can engage in friendly duels with other players at any time. There are three different "warzones" you can queue up for with unique victory conditions. And there is an entire disputed planet with a dedicated PvP area.
In order for PvP to really work on a level playing field, game responsiveness needs to be as crisp as possible. Up to this point I haven't mentioned what is a very real delay problem between actually pressing a key or activating an ability and seeing it happen on the screen. For the most part, while engaging in solo or PvE activity this is usually not enough of a bother to kill you, but in PvP this matters. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between what is happening on the screen and what is registering with the server, and the animation delay is misleading enough to lead to real confusion, or in the case of intense PvP, a really unplayable situation. BioWare has actually recognized the issue on their message boards and is working on it, but it's a disappointing problem, made all the more stark by how well everything else seems to work by MMO release standards.
In addition, there are serious faction imbalance problems on most servers, with Empire players vastly outnumbering Republic players. I believe that over time this problem will correct itself even if BioWare does nothing at all to address it, since the class plots make it genuinely desirable for Empire players to eventually make Republic characters, but the current state of things is not good. The PvP planet, Ilum, suffers mightily as a result on many servers, since there are often not enough Republic players to give them any kind of chance against the gathered Imperial masses.
Finally, the warzones. There are three different warzones that all play very differently. The first is Huttball, a capture the flag game in which you toss the flag... I mean ball... to teammates while trying to reach the opponent's goal. The second is the Voidstar, which gives each team a chance to attack, then defend, a series of terminals within an allotted amount of time. The third is Alderaan Civil War, which is a capture point type of battlefield that has you trying to control more guns than the opposition for a longer period.
Conceptually, the warzones aren't bad at all, and in fact we've seen these types of mechanics before. You can't choose which warzone you'd like to join when you queue, however, so you're stuck with whatever you get. Again, this is an issue BioWare has recognized. In fact, it's completely intentional at the moment because faction imbalance combined with level imbalance would make the queue wait times much longer if players were allowed to choose which warzone they wanted to play. Perhaps this is something else that will be cleared up in time as more players switch factions to try other classes and reach level caps, but for now it's annoying to face the prospect of a fifth straight game of Huttball when joining a queue.
Due to the lag between ability selection and actual activation, combined with the feedback you get from the animations, combined with the inability to choose your warzone, combined with the current unplayability of Ilum, it is difficult to recommend Star Wars: The Old Republic for hardcore PvPers right now. There are simply too many other games that cater to this audience better right now. Perhaps with patches, this will improve.
"Oh, my! What have you done? I'm BACKWARDS. You flea-bitten furball! Only an overgrown mophead like you would be stupid enough to..."
[C3PO is switched off]
Speaking of patches, Star Wars: The Old Republic is taken offline on a weekly basis for maintenance, usually during twilight hours. It happens frequently enough by design that it is worth mentioning for folks that might want to play during very late nights/early mornings due to unusual working hours. The scheduled maintenance times seem to serve the purpose of keeping things pretty stable, however, and Star Wars: The Old Republic has had by far one of the smoothest launches when it comes to MMOs. Yes, there were release day issues, but not on the scale we've seen before for this type of game.
The development and community management staff also do an excellent job keeping people informed via the forums and development blogs about upcoming features. One feature in particular I believe is worth mentioning is the upcoming Legacy System, since preliminary aspects of it are already implemented in the live game. The first time you complete Act I of any class quest, you unlock your Legacy Level. This allows you to choose a surname for your character and adds a separate experience point bar underneath the normal one. The surname appears in your character's name, but also appears for any other character you create on the server. Any experience points you earn with any character on the server are added to your global Legacy experience. Currently there is nothing to do with the points or the Legacy levels gained except watch the bar go up, but BioWare has already confirmed that the Legacy system will allow you to do things like create family trees connecting all of your characters and unlock special abilities. It's just another example that demonstrates BioWare is committed to continuing to improve and add content to the game – and for a 200 million dollar and counting investment, why wouldn't they?
"That sounds like an R2 unit in there! I wonder if... Hello? How interesting."
"Who are you?"
"Oh, my! I... I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to intrude. No, please don't get up."
[Stormtrooper shoots C-3PO]
If I say "Star Wars" to you, what do you think of first? Usually for me the first thing that comes to mind is the universally recognizable opening theme to the films by John Williams. I can only imagine the looks of terror that BioWare composers had when they were told to start working on music that would fit seamlessly into one of the most famous soundtracks in history.
I'm happy to report that the composers did a wonderful job. The recognizable themes are there at the right moments, and the original music fits in so well that, unless you are intimately familiar with every note of the six Star Wars films, you may at times have trouble figuring out what was written specifically for the game and what has been around for awhile. It's just excellent stuff. Typically, you hear music play during loading screens or at key moments in tough battles or important plot points – if anything I wish it played more often.
The sound effects team also did a great job with the sounds themselves. The classic sounds you expect are all there and easily recognizable – the sound of a lightsaber igniting, an astromech droid bleeping, a blaster firing – these all sound straight out of the films. But while it is difficult to complain about the actual sounds themselves, there are problems with the implementation – quite often sounds pop out, interrupted by something else. When riding a speeder, for example, its sound vanishes in the middle of your ride about half of the time. Sounds play after the animation suggests they should have. Things just seem a little bit off a little too often to really give this category top marks. What is there is great – when you can hear it and when it makes sense to hear it.
"I think my eyes are getting better. Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big light blur."
You travel to a lot of different planets with wildly different ecosystems during your stay in the Star Wars universe, and by and large things look quite lovely. There is no doubt that the graphics look a bit dated compared to many other modern titles, but considering the development time and the networking in play, I suppose sacrifices had to be made. There are a couple of different graphics settings, but not everything on the preferences menu works quite as you'd expect – BioWare has even mentioned that some of the toggles are currently meaningless, such as a "Medium" detail graphics option – but really even on low volume nothing looks terribly ugly.
Unfortunately, nothing looks particularly spectacular by modern standards either. The scale of things provides some jaw dropping moments – my first visit to Nar Shaddaa was one of those, with the size of the buildings and the flying cars zipping about – but for the most part everything looks nice, but dated.
When traveling by speeder between fast travel points, things can get pretty hairy. The game seems to struggle mightily to render everything at the speed you are moving, and there are some stutters. There is also a weird effect when riding your speeder through forest type areas that makes it seem like the grass grows as you pass by, which is kind of bizarre. I'm sure this improves on more powerful machines (I played on a mid-2011 iMac), but since you encounter it fairly regularly on a midrange PC, I thought it worth mentioning.
"Ready are you? What know you of ready?"
Without question, this is the most challenging review I've written in my short time at RPGFan. Trying to give games a score is difficult enough, but in an MMO it is particularly tricky because of how many different sets of expectations players bring to the table. In attempting to really appeal to a classic single player RPG type of gamer, Star Wars: The Old Republic becomes even more challenging to review because I think in many ways this is where BioWare's greatest triumph lies. If you enjoy the Star Wars universe, enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic, and have enjoyed other BioWare games in the past, I find it extremely unlikely that you won't enjoy this game. The storytelling is certainly the quality you've come to expect, the gameplay is accessible, and the worlds are huge. It will take the average player many, many months to get through all eight of the existing class plotlines – in my time so far I have only finished one and I'm not even halfway done with two others – making this a game that truly could be considered the next EIGHT sequels to the Knights of the Old Republic games right out of the box.
But... it's certainly not perfect. By trying to graft on point scoring systems that require an MMO style of grinding to almost everything, there are certain mechanics and imbalance issues that get in the way of really playing the story the way you want or in a way that makes sense. Sometimes the size of the world makes getting from one point to another for a quest less a trip of wonder and amazement at the scale and more of an "are we there yet?" chore. Sometimes when you engage in the same combination of button presses for the tenth straight time you start to wonder how many more foes you'll need to kill before you get to the point already.
When it all works, it sings. It IS Star Wars and you are living in it. But when it doesn't, it frustrates, perhaps because the best moments are so good that you wonder why it all can't be that good.
So if you are the type of player I described – someone who enjoys single player BioWare games, likes Star Wars, or enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic – I recommend this to you. But if you are someone who enjoys games like Demon Souls that are terrifically responsive in their controls and constantly challenging in new and exciting ways, this is not your game. If you are someone who enjoys PvP combat, this is not your game... yet. But for everything that is wrong or comes up short, so much more is done well that I feel confident giving this game a thumbs up. I know I'll be playing for a long time to come.