Star Wars: The Old Republic
18th Jan 2012 | 11:32
Last month we gave you our initial impressions of The Old Republic after 30 hours of play. Now, 82 hours later, we think we're ready to give it a review score.
We won't say it's the 'definitive' verdict - in a year the game could be so transformed by patches and updates that it's unrecognisable - but for now, this is what we think about BioWare's ambitious online RPG.
One of the most compelling things about The Old Republic is, unarguably, the setting. Nauseating prequels aside, people still love Star Wars and want to be a part of that universe. That's one thing it offers straight out of the box - the chance to feel like a classic Star Wars character.
Each class (with the exception of the Imperial Agent, which is basically 'James Bond in space') represents an archetype from the films: you can be a wise-cracking smuggler with a Wookiee companion, a noble Jedi learning the ways of the Force, a merciless bounty hunter stalking criminals across the galaxy, or an evil Sith Lord.
The other draw is the fusion of typical MMO gameplay and single-player elements. At its core Old Republic is like any other online role-player, but the addition of story elements - interactive dialogue, branching paths - gives it some extra weight.
We found ourselves skipping most of the text-only 'dialogue' in World of Warcraft by about level 40, but here we're totally glued to the story even as we approach the level cap (currently 50). Admittedly, not all of the dialogue and story is top quality - Alderaan is especially tedious, recalling the dull 'space politics' of the dreaded prequels - but it eclipses anything else in the genre.
Sure, you might only be killing [insert arbitrary value] number of [insert enemy] for [insert NPC], but book-ending every mission with a plot, some of which offer multiple outcomes, gives you a rare feeling of motivation lacking in other MMOs. The way that even the most incidental characters have full voice acting really brings the narrative to life, albeit in a superficial way.
Each planet has its own problems and internal conflicts, and you find yourself in the middle of it all, either representing the Republic or the Empire. As a Sith, for example, you could help the local Imperial army quell a slave revolt, or squash an uprising.
Cleverly, though, there's no clear-cut 'good' and 'evil' in this vision of the Star Wars universe. It's possible to be a Sith who veers on the light side of the Force, or a Jedi with questionable morals.
Light and dark points are awarded for actions you perform and dialogue choices you select in cut-scenes, and you can be as kind-hearted or as wilfully evil as you desire. Another example of the game's effective marriage of single-player and MMO gameplay.
The story elements are rich enough that you could theoretically play the entire game on your own and still enjoy it, but you'd be missing out on a lot. We can't speak for other servers, but on Nightmare Lands (where we reside), the community is overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.
If you're ever struggling with a boss, a quick plea for help in general chat will have someone rushing to your aid - often going out of their way. It helps to be part of a guild too, as you can easily form teams and share discoveries with other members.
Regular missions can always be completed by yourself, but there are two types geared specifically towards groups: Flashpoints and Heroics. Heroics are like normal quests, but with much tougher mobs and mini-bosses.
To do these you'll need to form a party of up to four players (depending on the difficulty), and there are always people in general chat asking for people to hook up with to complete them, as they yield quality loot and a lot of XP.
Flashpoints are a bit more entertaining. These are standalone missions with a story focus, designed for parties of four. Here you'll find top-tier loot scaled to your level, cut-scenes, set-pieces and NPCs; think of them as a traditional 'level' in a game, with their own self-contained stories in bespoke locations.
While a lot of these are fun, this is where one of TOR's biggest problems lies. Early Flashpoints feel hand-crafted and unique, but as you rise in level the cracks begin to appear. Suddenly cut-scenes are dialogue-free and environments are recycled from other parts of the game. They're little more than glorified Heroics, seeing you fighting through waves of enemies and bosses.
They feel like a grind, and don't take advantage of TOR's strengths. Future updates will include new Flashpoints, and we hope BioWare make each one a new experience.
Honestly, strip away the dialogue and story elements and The Old Republic isn't really any different from other MMOs. In fact, it borrows so heavily from World of Warcraft that the same terminology and even specific combat tactics have been carried over from Azeroth.
If you've come to TOR looking for a new experience, it's disheartening to see people in chat talking in exactly the same way as they did in WOW, using the same lingo and nicknames. It breaks the immersion and dampens the Star Wars vibe.
The interface, controls, combat, mission structure, level design, bosses and dungeons are all pure WOW. This means that straight from launch the game is incredibly competent as an MMO, 'borrowing' elements that Blizzard have refined over the years, but also means that it has something of an identity crisis.
On one hand it carves its own personality by bringing the solo aspects of games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect to the table, but on the other hand you can't help but shake the feeling that it's WOW reskinned.
Of course, if you've never played World of Warcraft before, you won't care. Luckily, the smoke and mirrors created by the dialogue system and voice acting obscure the very obvious influences enough that you can get past it.
But every now and then you get flashbacks to your many hours spent in Blizzard's game doing exactly the same thing; holding both mouse buttons to walk, fingers dancing over the number keys to attack and use abilities, hitting a hotkey to magically conjure up your mount (or in this case, your Speeder) - it's just a bit too familiar.
Normally, MMO launches are a disaster, plagued by server downtime or crippling bugs. Compared to most, TOR's has been remarkably smooth. The biggest issue, besides some bugs that were quickly squashed with commendably rapid updates, were server queues, but they've all but gone now.
It's exciting to think what the game will be like in a few years (if, of course, it survives that long - you never know with MMOs). Compare World of Warcraft's early days to the post-Cataclysm era and you can see just how much a game like this can evolve over time.
The only thing that holds TOR back is how much it relies on MMO foundations laid down by Blizzard, and how the quality of content towards the end seems to thin out. We won't accuse it of being front-loaded (as many have), but it certainly has a problem with consistency.
If you've never played an MMO before, now is the time to try. The Old Republic has enough ties to single-player RPGs to ease new players in, and can happily be enjoyed solo if you don't fancy socialising with other players. It's huge, too.
Even if you don't want to commit to a monthly subscription, the free month you get when buying the game will give you many, many hours of role-playing; as many as Skyrim, even.
If BioWare can get over their identity crisis and make TOR increasingly more unique with future updates, this could be one of the best MMOs ever. For now, it's 'merely' excellent, and a bold experiment in bringing a worthwhile story to an online experience.