With the release of The Old Republic, I think its safe to say that critisim is fair game; that is to say not subject to sparce and randomly enforced beta TOS nondisclosure guidelines in the fear of being crushed by Lucasarts monolithic legal golem. With that in mind, it's time to ressurect an unedited beta review that got thrown under the TOS bus for kicks and giggles, if not stunning prophetic accuracy.
Starwars - The Old Republic; A [redacted] Beta Review
If there's one thing I have come to realize through my study of Star Wars: The Old republic, it's the simple fact that there's no way this game could possibly live up to the hype built up around it. Hype built up by us gamers. Hype built up by independednt reviewers, and of course, the hype built up by the respective companies themselves.
Up until this point, all most of us have really seen are some pre-rendered movies and whatever in-game action you could pull off of Youtube. So far, nothing from the latter has impressed me in any way, shape or form; though that could have easily be explained away under the header of "early beta". That recently changed for myself and an invitation to Beta signalled a new hope for me that maybe, just maybe, the game had been improved from what I had been seeing.
The bad news first. The graphics engine feels a couple of generations behind in terms of implimentation. Its not horrible, but even cranked up, it just isn't not that good and certainly not what you would expect out of names like Lucas and Bioware. In fact, I'd wager to say that the Old Republic console games were more competently executed in this department. I can also roll out a laundry list of games that just look all around better if I had the time, but If one wants some sort of recent measuring stick; Rift pulls a superior performance graphically. More to the point, there's no creativity in its use.
Character generation was also huge disappointment. It's clunky; reminicent of a free to play game and the models hurt to the point where you'll probably struggle to find something likeable. Sadly, Old Republic is another game that is afraid to touch complex hair; which is my own personal predictor as to the devs attention to detail in other areas. The character generation screen is also your first glimpse of graphical creativity fail. SWTOR's worlds are nicely rendered, but not stunning, and certainly not better than anything else you might find in other MMOs. Several games on the market today invest more creativity in their world than SWTOR, but at least it's competently executed here.
Let's be clear here: We're not talking about horrendous graphical performance; merely less than cutting edge and barely inspired. In fact, they're downright disappointing when compared to something like DC Universe Online, if one had to draw paralells from another major franchise for comparison's sake.
The bad isn't merely limited to graphical bitching. If you're tired of Warcraft's gameplay, get ready to suck it up some more from Old Republic. There is nothing here that you haven't seen before. To be fair, everybody uses the the key mashing/cool down formula, just that you would have hoped there would be something different here. Swords are replaced with light sabers and blaster combat is little more than standoff button spam. Its your standard fantasy fare redressed and expecting anything more from SW:TOR will only hurt your brain.
Moving right along, Old Republic's modular story system is particularly annoying for the moment. Don't get me wrong, the content is great. Bioware does fiction exceptionally well and this is one point I never doubted their ability to deliver on. They have, however, chosen a rather unique- read: suck -way of delivering it. Any time you speak to a story critical NPC, it would almost appear as if your content is streamed from the servers to you, because talking to anybody with something signifigant to say takes several seconds to launch; in some cases ten or more. My hardware is a quad core Q6600, so I'm pretty sure that's not the bottleneck.
I can see the advantages of such a system: Story can be changed from the server without extensive need for patching, especially useful in a game with constantly evolving lore dependant on what your players do. In practice, I have severe concerns if it can't keep a seemless experience over a modest cable connection. Once or twice, I'd be fine with. Every goddamn chat? Fail. Theoretically, fiber cable in your area would probably render this a non issue and it could just be test server lag. If I'm wrong and this isn't being streamed, then its even worse since my local hardware apparently can't generate something as basic as an NPC conversation without taking an obnoxious amount of time to load.
[Edit] It does appear to be somewhat dependant on server load. My run through on with a Jedi Consular less busy night seemed to keep conversation loads down in the five second range. I'll also dedicated 2 cores to the game, so we'll see if that makes any difference to the Sith side as well.
Back to the story, Bioware comes through with a nearly flawless performance. Every critical NPC is voice acted and your choices do affect your personal story. Decisions can push you closer to the light side or dark side, with some interesting gray areas in between. For example, you can gain light side points as a Sith Inquisitor. Have fun with those interactions. It does break up the grind of killing twenty sand slugs, and makes for a compelling treat than just a wall of text and some generic gear reward. If it weren't for the load times to get to that story, this and the soundtrack accompaniment would have been MMO perfection.
It's this particular facet will more than likely be Old Republics biggest draw. Honestly, its not a great game and we're getting pretty close to launch to keep crying "but its beta!"; but the story is compelling enough to keep people coming back just to see what happens next. When that does run out, I suspect it will become even more boring faster than Warcraft ever did.
Will Starwars: The Old Republic be a bombshell success? Sure it will. The fan base alone will ensure that. Is it a truely a great game in its own right? Does it break new ground? Is it unique? Mostly no. Sadly ironic is its similarity to DC Universe online; another game with an excellent story completely devestated by its own play mechanics. The only difference here is that the game components just don't stand out. At all.
I'll probably be skipping this one. With Guild Wars 2 coming out, you might want to consider doing so as well. Die hard starwars fans poised to rape my feedback, that line is over there to the left.