With the announcement of SW:TOR going Free to Play this month, I felt that now was a great time to revisit the game with a fresh look at how it has developed since release.
In the runup to the games release, myself and a few other members of this community were vociferous about the games apparent failings and in retrospect these assessments weren't entirely fair.
Like many people of a certain age, I am a massive Star Wars fan. We all grew up watching the original movies at least once a week and letting our imaginations run wild with our friends.
Fortunately the gaming community has been blessed with a vast range of excellent Star Wars games accross multiple genres, chief among those for many was Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic series.
When SW:TOR was announced in 2008 I don't think I was alone in hoping that we would be getting a spiritual successor; a KOTOR 3, albiet on online game.
However, when actual gameplay video started to surface, even those released officially by Bioware, my excitement turned to dismay.
The graphical style initially looked terrible, the animations worse-so, but above all the gameplay had been taken from KOTORs fantastic hidden D20 system to a much more formulaic MMO affair.
The phrase "WoW-clone" quickly attatched itself to the game along with "WoW with lightsabers" and other derogatory terms.
Thankfully after playing the game at Dreamhack 2011 and talking to some of the team there I quckly realized that the gameplay, whilst not being ground-breaking, was solid enough and the class storylines were great in places.
Chillin' with Malgus at Dreamhack
The style of the game was consistent throughout and the game was obviously written with a passion by Star Wars fans, for Star Wars fans.
Sadly, as is often the problem with big-budget MMO releases the game wasn't without its share of problems even after release.
Having now played characters on both factions to level cap I'd like to take some time to discuss how Bioware has addressed the game's initial problems as we head towards SW:TORs first anniversary.
Class and Faction Stories
Whilst I won't pretend to have played though all of the class stories (if there was a way to do so without having to play through the rest of the quests I would absolutely pay extra for that opportunity), I believe that in the Impeial Agent I have seen the best Bioware has to offer and in the case of the Jedi Consular, I have seen by far the worst.
Without giving away any spoilers, the Imperial Agent storyline is easily one of my favourite RPG storylines in any game and goes far deeper than I honestly expected it to.
The story leads you to question your allegiances, the value of life as a "mundane" Empire citizen, the Implacable nature of Sith Lords and, as a Light Side player, the true meaning of patriotism.
The player is faced with important distinctions in Imperial dogma early in their career.
On Hutta, and indeed throughout the game, the player can chose to play the good patriot by promoting Imperial values of safety through community, the value of hard work and above all stability.
Soon after you are faced with betrayal by your superiors, mind-control and being forced to operate alone behind enemy lines as a double agent, all of which force even the staunches loyalist to question their allegiances and make some extremely tough decisions.
The IA story delivered on every possible front, the companion characters could potentially have been more engaging perhaps but that is a very minor concession.
Oh, and those Imperial uniforms are just fabulous.
The Empire: Unlimited Power, Great tailoring
After the Agent storyline teased me with this, I was hoping for a similar experience from the Jedi consular storyline.
I was expecting the view of the Jedi Order as unquestioningly benevolent to be challenged, to have questions raised about the real aspirations of Jedi Masters and how they would deal when faced with tough decisions.
What would have worked better would be to have been faced with genuine corruption within the order instead of a disease and to have needed to use real diplomatic skill to prevail.
Sadly, the storyline delivered none of this, instead giving you a mystical power to lead you on a galactic-scale quest to cure the mysterious disease affecting Jedi Masters.
The other major issue I had was that I was raised to a Master myself at a very premature point in the story, its a nice touch, but would have been better executed at the climax of the story rather than at around level 30.
I was hoping to play my Consular as a "Grey Jedi", playing to the nature of the shadow specialization I had chosen, but there really didn't feel like much room for it in the storyline and was left with ironically static absolutes (when everyone knows only Sith deal in absolutes) which had very little real effect on the story.
On a good note, I thought the companion characters in the Consular storyline were excellent, Tharan Cedrax and holiday made for some excellent comic moments and even I found it difficult to resist his charms.
There was also a sense of togetherness with the Consular companions as a team that I found lacking in the Imperial Agent story, with many mission briefings throughout the plot and a great camaraderie between the characters (although an Astromech Droid would have been a perfect addition Bioware!)
The Consular story could have been an entirely rich experience, but I found it largely predictable and was ultimately found wanting for some real drama.
Admittedly, I am an Empire sympathizer (as you might have guessed), but having played through both factions quests there is little contest between the two.
The Revan quests lines, the duplicity of Darth Malgus and the progressive nature of the Empire in the Old Republic timeline all contribute to giving Empire players a vastly superior experience playing the game.
I desperately want to be unbiased in my appraisal of the faction storylines but I fear my judgement my be clouded here.
Graphics and User Interface
This is something that myself and other members of the community found the most galling about the game when we first saw viedos released by Bioware but the style has really grown on me over the past year.
Early in the games release there was an issue with texture quality. There was a huge disparity between how textures appeared in cutscenes versus how they appeared in regular play.
CSI: Balmorra. Enhance!
This was somewhat understandable, the Cinematic cutscenes were much less demanding on the engine given that they were pre-scripted and given a short loading time but it was slightly baffling that the option to have the high-res textures in-game was present in beta but not on release.
Thankfully this was resolved in patch 1.2.
Also introduced in patch 1.2 was the option to modify the user interface.
The standard UI was also something that came under close scrutiny at lauch.
Why was the chatbox way up in the top corner? Why was everything so big and clumsy? Why was everything filled with ablative (not to mention invasive) blue clutter?
I'm not sure if everyone else was as bothered by this as I was, but the difference that removing the clutter and reducing the scale and alpha levels on the UI elements makes the game so much more of a pleasure, I think the difference between the two is staggering.
Its worth giving due praise to the masterful job that Bioware's art team has done with the environments in SWTOR, there is very little evidence of elements being copy-pasted anyhwere (and in the instances where it is done, it makes sense for them to do so).
Many of the environments are absolutely beautiful, I couldn't possibly include all of my favourites but I will include one, Imperial Intelligence.
Observe, Mr. Bond, the instruments of Armageddon.
The RNG of getting PvP gear at release is a case of how I will never understand how some things get past QA, let alone beta testing.
Unfortunately, this is something that Bioware found difficult to correct before ultimately making it better for everyone.
In patch 1.1
, roughly a month after release, the system of aquiring PvP gear was changed from requiring specific tokens randomly received from bags to earning commendations to buy the gear.
This made aquiring PvP gear much more predictable, ultimately getting players precisely the pieces they needed when they needed them.
The problem with this system is that it potentially took a little longer to get the gear than the people who simply got lucky in the previous system, and required a lot of grinding from new lvlel 50s against better-geared players to make progress.
Whilst I think that "they have better gear" is often a weak excuse in PvP, the difference between players who had already aquired Battlemaster gear were at a vast advantage over fresh 50s and grinding out those commendations took real determination as you were going to lose a lit of games.
I still find the progression-system much more satisfying though, I just wish they had the forsight (or the QA team) to implement this system from the beggining.
The system was improved further still in patch 1.2 in April 2012 with the introduction of Recruit gear.
Recruit gear is available to fresh level 50s for nothing more than credits, it is the same quality as the Champion gear (1 tier below Battlemaster) and reduced the gear disparity for new players dramatically.
Furthermore, Battlemaster gear can now be purchased with regular warzone commendations and the new tier of War Hero gear is available only through Ranked Warzone commendations.
In a way, I can understand that Bioware wanted to differentiate themselves from WoW's honor system and that is admirable, but its difficult to see why these systems were ever implemented to begin with.
World PvP was also a mess at release, although I'm not sure this was entirely Bioware's fault.
Ever since Dark Age of Camelot, there has been a very dedicated sector of MMO communities that crave large-scale combat.
The problem is, the fickle nature of the MMO community means that a lot of titles don't have the longevity the playerbase would like. New MMO releases come along and these communities will attempt to shoehorn large-scale RvR gameplay into games that simply aren't designed for it, leading to developers making approximations of the play-style with mixed success and a high failure-rate.
Warhammer Online tried it with a degree of success (WAR will always be the MMO that really broke my heart, the game it should have been would have been amazing).
Aion did an exemplary job of it prior to 2.0.
Another evening on Hellfire
We have seen it to an extent in World of Warcraft with Wintergrasp (and its inferior descendant; Tol Barad) with a some aplomb as one would expect from Blizzard but it is a design they have eschewed for Mist of Pandaria.
In RIFT, we saw Trion attempt to implement world PvP objectives, although I suspect this was more of an effort to prevent players griefing people that were trying to quest and felt largely tacked on, although I would commend Trions efforts in responding to player feedback in the timely manner that they did.
Currently ArenaNet are making their own foray into the genre (for better or worse, which I shan't discuss here).
SWTOR shared the same problem that many "RvR" implentations in MMOs suffer, the engine couldn't handle a large number of players in one area and the community found a way to break the system almost immediately.
The daily and weekly quests on Ilum which rewarded players with bags simply required the zone to be flipped in favour of one faction, which quickly led to win trading and actually killing opposing players there was almost unheard of.
In patch 1.1 the quests were changed to require player kills to complete before being removed entirely in patch 1.2.
Sadly Ilum, and perhaps moreso The Outlaws' Den on Tatooine, never really recovered from their poor implementation, I hope that one day Bioware will return to the concept of PvP worlds but I fear it may be an opportunity lost.
Free to Play
I can't pretend that I like the concept of games moving from a subscription based model to a free-to-play model.
I have no problem with paying a subscription to an MMO if I think it is worthwhile (which SW:TOR certainly is), it is generally accpted that they money you pay makes for a better experience for everybody in terms of quality and hosting and a subsription fee should be viewed as a hallmark of quality.
Games that are designed with it in mind tend to work, League of Legends and Guild Wars are excellent examples, but those making the transition have a tendancy to make drastic changes to the game in order to generate money through micro-transactions.
Sadly, SWTOR is no exception.
Among the list bizzare restrictions to the free version are:
• Restricted to 2 hotbars - Anyone who played the game with 2 hotbars will tell you that this is not enough for most classes
• Less exp per quest and from mobs, and no rested exp
• 5 Warzones and 3 space missions per week - Combined with the reduced exp from questing, I find it hard to imagine how people will level at all without long periods of grinding mobs
• No Raids, Ranked Warzones and only 3 flashpoint rewars per week - Essentially no endgame content
• No customer service - I cannot fathom their reasoning for this
• 2 character slots only
Most of these restrictions can be bypassed by paying for micro transactions but what, then, is the purpose of the free-to-play model at all?
Every player would be better off simply paying a subscription or be faced with a game that is effectively unplayable.
I wish there was something positive I could say about it, perhaps the ability to buy cosmetic gear is a nice bonus even for subscribers.
It is worth noting though, that the servers are currenlty all under Heavy Load with players logging back into the game now that it is free. Some servers even having queues at peak times.
It will potentially be a few weeks before this stabalizes, and if the trend continues it could lead to Bioware being forced to open new servers accommadate the player-base which is almost unprecedented so long after an MMO's release and subsequent server closures.
Major Patch Highlights
1.1 January 2012
Kaon Under Siege - New flashpoint
Karagga's Palace - New Operation
1.2 March 2012
Legacy System implemented
Explosive Conflict - New Operation
Novare Coast - New warzone
1.3 June 2012
Augment slots - Enabling players to add the best mods to custom gear
1.4 September 2012
Terror from Beyond - New operation
New Raid Tier of gear
Nerfs to CC in PvP
1.5 November 2012
Free to Play
HK-51 Droid companion
New World Boss
Going back at this point in time was refreshing, I knew what to expect from the gameplay and all of the elements added post-release make for a much more well-rounded experience.
I can't help but wonder if the fate of the game might have been different if Bioware had been given the neccessary development time to launch the game with the features of 1.1 ~ 1.3, the feature of having a Group Finder for flashpoints alone could have made a huge difference to the casual playerbase.
Sadly it wasn't to be as once again EA rushed an MMO to release before it was ready, let this be a cautionary tale.
That being said, SWTOR isn't a bad game. Its an excellent RPG that was let down early in its life by unfinished or poorly implemented features.
Would I reccomend it? That depends.
I would certainly reccoment that every Star Wars or RPG fan plays through some of it at least once (do yourself a favour and play an Imperial Agent, you won't regret it) but as an MMO it suffers the same fate as every other release; It isn't World of Warcraft.
Bioware have once again done an excellent job of brining the Old Republic era of the Star Wars universe to life and that, at least, is worth celebrating.