Game Review: 'Star Wars: The Old Republic'
I could describe myself as something of an MMORPG virgin but, to be honest, I'd really rather not. Seriously, take a moment to think it through and you'll realise that that metaphor always goes somewhere pretty horrible fairly quickly. But, the fact remains that I'm still a gamer that has very little experience with any sort of MMORPG. Mostly, this has simply been because the style of game-play that I have usually associated with MMORPGs just hasn't appealed to me. When I think of MMORPGs, I tend to think of grinding through the same area for hours until you get that one piece of gear you need to complete a set, or being randomly ganked by some high level 'hero' who has no business being in the starting area. I imagine 'teamwork' that always seems to boil down to obnoxious lectures from players with too much time on their hands, or demands that you should 'L2P', given with a few too many exclamation marks. The point I'm trying to make is that, whether fair or not, I just don't have a very high opinion of MMORPGs.
I play games for the story, first and foremost – with the actual game-play sometimes taking a second spot. I can, and occasionally have, played all the way through games which featured frustrating and poorly implemented game-play mechanics simply because the story was interesting enough to hold my attention. And, at the same time, I've quit games which featured entertaining game-play simply because the story didn't give me much incentive to continue. Fancy new loot, or gaining a level and a new ability, are fine – but, the best reward for overcoming a challenge in a game, for me, is the continuation of the story. The impression I have always held is that an MMORPG just doesn't offer the sort of experience I always want from the games that I play – so, I have been content to ignore them. Though, thanks to my love of story-telling in games (and, a long held appreciation of Bioware's approach, in particular), as well as a life-long love of Star Wars, there is at least one MMORPG currently available that I wanted to try (well, two, since I'll admit I am very curious about The Secret World) in the form of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Following the return of the mysterious Sith Empire, and a period of war between the Empire and the Galactic Republic, a state of tense peace now exists between the two forces, following the signing of the Treaty of Coruscant. The Jedi, traditionally the guardians of the Republic, have been driven into exile following the destruction of their temple on Coruscant. And, the Republic military is struggling to rebuild its forces after a close call against an evenly match foe. On the other side, Imperial forces are similarly depleted – but, the power-hungry Sith have been able to reclaim their ancient home-world, Korriban. Both sides anticipate the outbreak of another war at some point in the future – but, for now, each is content to at least make a show of honouring the treaty while they lick their wounds. It's a period of tense cold war between two evenly matched, galaxy spanning, forces – and, regardless of which of the eight classes the player choose, they will find themselves stuck right in the middle.
SW:TOR is an awesome single-player game, and I feel perfectly confident in saying that – it may even be one of Bioware's best. Each of the eight classes you have to choose from is given its own distinct story – each of which is interesting enough in its own way to deserve at least a single play-through. For the traditional RPG fan, there is the option of the Jedi Knight (which is probably close to what we would have been given if Bioware had released Knights of the Old Republic 3, instead). Here, you are given the usual tale of a brave warrior's fight against an overpowering evil. The Jedi Consular is given a tale that isn't nearly as epic in scope as the Knight's, but which still sees you exploring the mysteries of the Force. The Republic Trooper is the place to go for the standard 'military' experience. And, if you're looking for something a little more light-hearted, there is the option of the Smuggler, and a story of the comic misadventures of a star-ship captain just trying to get by (think Han Solo: The RPG, or Firefly shifted into the Star Wars universe).
On the other side, you have the Sith Warrior's service to the Empire, or the Sith Inquisitor's quest to uncover ancient secrets. Or, there's the distinctly 'James Bond in Space' feel of the Imperial Agent's story. And, finally, the Bounty Hunter's quest for wealth and glory.
There's even enough content in each of these individual stories to justify multiple playthroughs, if you have a particular desire to see absolutely everything. You could take any of the offered classes, and get a fair amount of potential mileage out of playing to the opposite alignment (since each story is catered to by a selection of 'Light Side/Dark Side' moral decisions), or you could choose the opposite gender to hear some different voice-work (since each option is fully voiced, Mass Effect style), or choose the other advanced class for a different experience (each class has two to choose from) Each story would make a perfectly respectable single-player game on its own – but, with SW:TOR we have been given eight of them. Each of which contains everything you would expect from a Bioware game – from the need to make some genuinely tough moral decisions, to the cast of interesting and well-written supporting characters who may come along for the ride (though, some are better than others).
Of course, the problem with praising the quality of the single-player experience offered by SW:TOR is that, at some point, you have to remind yourself that Bioware are supposed to be making an MMORPG. And, that's where many of the current problems for the game seem to lay. Everything that currently rests at the heart of the game (the class story quests, and the story-line for each individual planet you will visit) seems designed to be played solo. The option to pair up with other players is always there – but, it's never actually required to do so. Each class is provided with a handful of Companion characters (quite similar to the party-members you receive in a single-player Bioware game) who really provide all the help you will really need to get through this content. With an adequately geared Companion, it's quite likely that you will just never need another player. And, with the amount of work that clearly went in to each Companion (who are all fully voiced, and who each have their own story-lines, also), it's possible that many players will simply come to prefer it that way.
The content that actually seems to require players to work together often seems to be pushed to the side. Each planet you visit will have a selection of 'Heroic Quests', which feature tougher enemies, and are designed to be tackled in groups – but, they are always optional, and you can complete the story content on each planet without touching them. There are also 'Flashpoints' throughout the game – which are typically side-plots designed as a challenge for a full team of four players of an appropriate level. 'Flashpoints' are often genuinely exciting, and contain as much 'story-content' as any other aspect of the game – but, once again, they often feel pushed to the side.
All of this is likely to change as the game is given time to grow and develop – but, for now, SW:TOR feels much more like a single-player game that gives the occasional token acknowledgement to the fact that it's supposed to be an MMORPG. Which doesn't really bother me, at all, to be honest – but, I can understand why other players might be a bit put-off by it.
The four classes on each side of the conflict are balanced against each other pretty evenly, though – in a clear attempt to provide an even playing field for any potential PvP that does occur. Take the Jedi Consular and the Sith Inquisitor, for example. The Sith Inquisitor is predominantly built around the use of Force Lightning, while the Jedi Consular is built around the use of Telekinesis – basically, blasts of lightning from your fingertips versus throwing heavy objects at your opponents. The two abilities are stylistically different, but similar in execution – they each make their respective classes into something of a traditional 'mage' character type. The two advanced classes for each are also balanced against each other. The Jedi Shadow and the Sith Assassin are both stealth-based damage dealing builds, while the Jedi Sage and the Sith Sorcerer are both essentially 'magic-using' builds, with the option to be developed as healers. The same parallel can be found between the other classes on each side, also. It's clear that, in terms of the mechanics at least, a fair amount of thought has been put into creating a balanced multi-player experience.
The game-play would, I imagine, be instantly familiar to any MMORPG veteran. You'll be building up a wide variety of individual attacks and abilities, each of which has its own cool-down. It doesn't strike me as all that exciting, really. But, what you will see on screen (a combination of blaster fire, explosions, and the distinctive sight and sound of light-sabres) is easily exciting enough to disguise the fact that you are, essentially, just clicking on the same sequence of buttons over and over again. It's also a visually impressive game, in general, though – featuring a visual style that may seem a bit 'cartoon-like', and which may be a bit jarring at first, but which you should quickly grow accustomed to. And, which ultimately comes to suit the style of the game well.
The focus on 'story-content' and the single-player experience may go against the grain of what you would expect from an MMORPG, but it is also what makes SW:TOR stand out. What Bioware has managed to achieve here is remarkable. Each of the eight class stories has its own style, and each is well-worth experiencing (I can't make any promises that I'll be sticking with this game long-term – but, I'll definitely be playing until I've seen each story all the way through). There is also plenty of content specifically designed to give you a reason to work with other players. Not enough for the MMO veterans, maybe – but, it wouldn't surprise me if much of the future development for the game is focused on that area. Even if you're not all that interested in MMORPGs, SW:TOR still has a lot to offer – particularly when the game goes 'free-to-play' later this year
© 2012 Dallas Matier
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