In Games, Reviews

It’s not our first rodeo with the idea of a Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies opened its electronic doors in 2003, but it also failed to really capture a whole lot of attention. It was there, and it was decent, but not really great. With the announcement of The Old Republic being developed by BioWare, Star Wars fans wondered if their second chance had come around. Would this title be better? Would BioWare’s pedigree of amazing titles mean we would finally realize our dream of a truly amazing Star Wars MMO? And I absolutely hate this question, but it was asked so I shall repeat, would it be the famed “WoW-killer”? Yes, BioWare has released a truly fun game, but it definitely lacks some of the polish that its more established competitors have though I have zero doubt the game will improve with time (indeed, BioWare has been hard at work fixing bugs since release).

Let’s start with SWTOR’s class system, one of my favorite subjects for any MMO. Each faction has 4 base classes, each of which can specialize into 1 of 2 advanced classes at level 10. This advanced class choice is permanent and has a set of three skill trees associated with it. In a sense, your advanced class is your true class choice. The classes are modeled on many famous archetypal characters in Star Wars, and BioWare has done a very fantastic job making them feel like the characters they were inspired by. Bounty Hunter players, for example, can look to Boba and Jango Fett for many of their class abilities, featuring such fun tricks as wrist-mounted flamethrowers and missile launchers, jet packs, and dual-wielding pistols. The Sith Warrior owes much to Darth Vader’s intimidating presence, heavy swings of his lightsaber, and the dreaded Force choke that spelled the doom of many an incompetent Imperial.

Now you might think with a total of 8 classes per side, there would be some tricky balancing issues, but BioWare made the smart move of having one side mirror the other. Each base and advanced class has a mirror on the other side, and mechanically, the pairs are identical right down to each ability and talent. The only difference lies, of course, in the look and feel of each. The designers did an excellent job making the abilities feel distinct and appropriate to the class, same though they may be.

You’ll find an archetype that’s pretty darn close to any classic character in Star Wars that you’d like to emulate, and plenty of others that seem strange. It’s hardly a shocker to imagine that a Jedi Sage, the Consular’s advanced class which focuses on use of the Force, would have the capability to be built as a healer, but a Bounty Hunter? It’s true. The Mercenary advanced class, home to the Bounty Hunter which gains the ability to dual-wield, can also specialize in healing. Some of the other options are equally strange. It might seem fairly obvious as an attempt by BioWare to shoehorn in more options for players to fulfill the roles of the MMO class design Holy Trinity (Tank, Healer, or DPS), but in practice, they’ve done a pretty decent job with making them at least feel like they belong via naming and animations. Over all, I think BioWare’s done an amazing job with building iconic character archetypes into their class system and filling in the wholes with new ideas that look very appealing.

Sadly, they were not thinking about this when they chose player races. There are plenty of good classic options to be sure, and as a Grand Admiral Thrawn fanboy, I couldn’t help but be overjoyed at the inclusion of the Chiss, but far too many classic Star Wars races from both trilogies of films are missing from the list, traded out for races that have little emotional attachment for fans of Star Wars. What’s even more maddening is that many of them weren’t excluded from the game, they show up as NPCs left and right. I would love to play as a Wookiee, a Mon Calamari, or a Nautolan, but sadly, they aren’t an option. I don’t particularly understand the lack of so many iconic races, and consider it a misstep they aren’t available when races like Rattataki or Miraluka, whom we have little to no attachment to, are.

BioWare, like Trion before them, made the choice to make their base UI as much like Warcraft’s as possible, the better to accommodate players jumping in from those titles. Things aren’t quite in the same place, and the whole experience feels quite a bit reversed, but it’s an easy enough transition to make, one that you don’t have much choice but to make, because aside from a resizeable chat window, UI customization is criminally non-existent, a feature that has many MMO gamers aghast. Compared to Rift, which possessed a UI that allowed movement of every element on your screen, and WoW, whose mod community is extolled as one of their best creations, this is practically inexcusable. I really can understand not releasing a programming API at launch, I really can, but it’s really not a viable strategy to have such a locked-in interface. Luckily, we have heard this is in development, so before long, it should no longer be a legitimate complaint

Each base class has a specific storyline you follow as you level, one that takes you from humble beginnings to being one of the big players in the galaxy. These stories really involve you, get you immersed in the character you’re playing. BioWare’s trademark Dialogue Wheel is, of course, present, allowing you to pick your responses to the NPCs around you and setting the tone for your own character. Some options will give you Light or Dark Side points, allowing you to set your own “alignment”. Yes, you can be a Dark side Jedi or even a Light side Sith, thought there’s no option to switch to the other faction of course.

One of the truly amazing things is that every quest is accompanied by a fully voiced interaction between your character and the NPC. Coupled with the multiple choices for dialogue that players have, and the result is a truly amazing amount of voicework in the game. And it’s not horrible at all, at no point in my 39 levels so far have I come across any piece of voicework and thought “Oh geez, they slapped THAT junk together in five minutes”. It’s all very clean and professional.

You’re not out there leveling alone, either. Each base class has a set of 5 Companions that you acquire into your party as you progress through your class storyline. In true BioWare tradition, each of these Companions is a fully fleshed out character, with their own likes and dislikes about the things your character does. Actions you take in conversations can result in your companions gaining or losing affection for you, and this affection has tangible in-game benefits, including an additional quest that opens up once your companion likes you enough. They also handle all of your professions work for you. Need something crafted? No problem, just ask one of your friends to handle it. Your gathering professions also have “Missions” that your character can dispatch his companions on for a small credit fee. These missions will result in skillups for your profession, and have the chance to “crit” getting you extra materials. They can also fail, which will get you no materials but provide the skill increase. This is a great way to work on your crafting professions without interrupting gameplay, but a minor quibble I have is the length of time these start to take at higher levels. It’s not uncommon for higher level crafting items to take upwards of 5-10 minutes to make. Gathering missions can get over a half hour. This is obviously in place to prevent people from simply powerleveling their professions with only cash on hand, but i still find the time requirements a bit grating, especially coming from other MMOs where you handled the crafting yourself and the time involved was minimal. You don’t have the option to do it yourself here, and I would like to see that option available, trading the ability to do other things in order to save time on item crafting.

Unfortunately, and this is something I dinged Rift for as well, the progression of planets you level in is strictly locked to one path. Your class quest aside, you’ll be doing the exact same series of quests across the same faction. This can make it troubling to level alts. SWTOR has some alternative methods of leveling, including PVP or the Starfox-inspired Space Missions, but if you aren’t a fan of either concept, the idea of not having alternate options for your questing can be a little off putting after you’ve done them once.

All in all, BioWare has put out a very impressive start on an MMO here. It’s obviously very much in its infancy, and they have a LOT of improvements to make (and are focusing on) if they ever want to catch up to the numbers of the behemoth in the room, World of Warcraft. But on their own merit, they have a great title on which to build on, and a fanbase very loyal to the IP who are going to be very excited about what is to come.

At A Glance
It’s obvious this MMO is new, and there’s a lot that BioWare needs to do if they want to be smart and learn the lessons of other MMOs before it, but they have a very solid title built on an incredibly well known IP with some very strong innovations of their own. Star Wars: The Old Republic is really really good, and it has the potential if handled right to be really great.

Score: 85

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