Three years since Star Wars: The Old Republic was officially announced and countless articles later, it’s finally come time to put this behemoth of a game through its paces and give it our official review. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the game, Star Wars: The Old Republic is RPG powerhouse BioWare’s first foray into the MMO genre. The game is based on the wildly successful Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic RPG series and is set around 300 years after the events of the original games.
Outside of being the latest Star Wars MMO to hit the scene since Star Wars Galaxies in 2003, BioWare made waves throughout the industry by announcing that this particular MMO would endeavor to embrace the often ignored “fourth pillar” of MMO design: story. To that end, BioWare set out to develop the first fully voiced MMO, replacing standard quest text boxes with fully voiced NPCs (including companion characters!) and player characters, complete with cinematic cutscenes and BioWare’s marquee dialogue system.
The focus on storyline with Star Wars: The Old Republic has been nothing if not controversial, but has it paid off?
Star Wars: The Old Republic, like World of Warcraft before it, is not a technically stunning game. If you’re looking for Crysis-level graphics and visuals, you’ll be disappointed. However, the game more than makes up for this deficiency with a strong ‘stylized realism’ visual style that sets it apart from most games and allows the visuals to remain fairly consistent across a wide range of systems.
This stylized realism really comes to life in the game’s environments and characters. Every world in the game looks decidedly Star Wars, ranging from the familiar and iconic worlds of Hoth and Tatooine, to the dark, lush jungles of the Imperial capital, Dromund Kaas. While a day/night cycle isn’t part of the package, each world is distinct with its own personality and theme.
Unfortunately, character quality doesn’t hold up as well and this becomes apparent right at character creation. Creation is adequate, but fairly limited, with only a couple of races that in most cases are just palette swaps of the base Human race, complete with shared heads, hairstyles, and the like. You can tweak your character by selecting from four different body types and poking around with sliders to change your complexion, scarring, eye color, etc. But this is no Aion, City of Heroes, or Champions Online, so be sure to curb your expectations on that front.
Additionally, I’m a bit conflicted on the game’s armor styles. At first, your character will look the Star Wars part, but later on, though largely depending on your class, the visual style apes a bit more than I’d like to the extravagant styles found in games like World of Warcraft, giant shoulders and all (Sith Inquisitor, I’m looking at you!).
I can’t say I’m in favor of the whole “visual progression” concept in general, either. As you progress through the game, your character will likely have around one to three different visual styles available to him in his particular level range. It’s a little boring. Fortunately, the game features an item modification system that allows you to keep some of your favorite looks for the entire length of your leveling experience (and perhaps beyond) if you put in the effort.
On the upside, characters do look great in cutscenes, but visual quality is noticeably reduced while out and about. I understand the desire to scale detail downward to maintain acceptable framerates, but Star Wars: The Old Republic isn’t incredibly taxing as it is, and I imagine users with rigs like mine would be able to handle (and appreciate) squeezing out some additional visual quality.
Speaking of cutscenes, they are generally top notch, and this is especially true when taking part in a class story or world arc cutscene. The production values, as well as skilled use of camera angles and pacing, really lend credence to the fact that BioWare brought their strong RPG background to the forefront with this game. However, sidequest cutscenes can be hit or miss at times. Player characters will occasionally perform awkward emotes in conversations, there are sometimes a few random pauses, and you’ll even run into situations where the camera is focused tight on some random part of your character’s body, obscuring the scene. These occurrences aren’t frequent enough to detract from the experience, though they are worth mentioning.
BioWare also aspired to create heroic looking combat with Star Wars: The Old Republic and they’ve done a pretty good job at that. Animations are a little longer than you might expect, but there’s a pretty solid balance between snazzy animations and speediness. This is obviously most apparent with the Force-user classes such as the Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior, who feature a wide array of elaborate lightsaber attack animations, complete with all the flashing and sparking you’d expect from the films when they land a hit. Combat (and non-combat) animations are fluid and in my opinion, fairly natural. Now, I have seen the complaints regarding how the player character runs and such, but I honestly don’t have an issue there. Sorry.
Aurally, Star Wars: The Old Republic is impeccable. The requisite John Williams tracks are there, of course, but the original tracks also stand out on their own. The game isn’t too consistent on the ambient sound effects, though, some planets definitely have a bit going on, while others are eerily silent outside of combat. Combat sound effects are basically everything you’d expect. Blaster fire sounds like blaster fire, lightsabers crackle and hiss, and the familiar crunching sound of a good ol’ Force Choke simply never gets old.
The real star of the show is the absolutely amazing voice work. BioWare’s contracted some serious talent to play both player and non-player characters in the game, ranging anywhere from David Hayter (Solid Snake) as the male Jedi Knight, to Jennifer Hale (FemShep) for the female Trooper, and even Doug Bradley (Hellraiser’s Pinhead) as The Voice of the Emperor. The writing is excellent and lines are well delivered by even the most minor characters. My only issue on the voice acting front is that some of the canned lines are repeated as dialogue responses. I’ve heard my Sith Marauder say “It’s time for a bloodbath!” more often than necessary, I think. Though I can’t say I disagree – it is always time for a bloodbath.
Easily the worst aspect of The Old Republic’s aesthetic experience is the user interface. True, it’s sleek and visually appealing, but unfortunately completely inflexible. Forget UI scaling or the ability to resize and move windows (chat being the only exception), and if you’re looking to skin or modify the UI, you can forget that, too. BioWare has come out and stated that improving the UI is one of their higher priorities, but we’re reviewing the game as it is now, not as it may be in a couple of months. For me, I’m pretty laid back about this sort of thing, so it doesn’t affect me beyond the occasional annoyance, but for many of you I imagine this will be a huge headache.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is all about that fourth pillar of story, and it permeates every aspect of the game. Quest boxes are entirely replaced with fully voice acted, cinematic cutscenes, complete with moral choices typical of your favorite BioWare RPG. Each class features their very own class story spanning over three acts and even comes with a supporting cast of around five companion characters. You’ll make important choices during the course of your story that may have significant ramifications on where it goes and what happens to certain characters, and yes, you can even romance your companions.
While your class story is a largely single-player experience (friends can help you with the combat portions or spectate the cutscenes), the vast majority of the game content is multiplayer in nature, and just as story-centric. Unfortunately, the choices you make in sidequests are largely isolated from your class story, so don’t expect to hear about how you threatened violence on a child in order to secure the location of some stolen medical supplies anywhere else in the game. This is a bit disappointing, but I still weighed every decision like it really mattered, as these one off events in sidequests do feel like they are still part of your overall story most of the time.
Outside of my class story, I really enjoyed the world arcs on every planet but Taris (Imperial). World arcs are story arcs that generally the span the entire length of a particular planet, often beginning right at the spaceport. There’s always some overarching story to each planet and you tend to get embroiled in it whether you like it or not. Fortunately, most of these stories are compelling and cohesive experiences that really help keep you motivated to progress. Just as I might want to finish a planet to see where my class story would go on the next one, world arcs had me eager to go from quest hub to quest hub to see where that particular story would take me. This trifecta of storylines (class, world, and side quests) does a good job of ameliorating that sense of grind that most MMOs can’t adequately mask. The story focus of the game really does add to the MMO experience, so much so that I’m not sure I could stomach quest boxes again!
While all the story-centric aspects of the game definitely feel fresh and new, the moment-to-moment of Star Wars: The Old Republic is a largely familiar affair. All the typical MMO tropes are here. You’ve got your hotbar combat, crafting, PvP (instanced and world), dungeons, and raids. You start by picking from one of eight classes, though each of these classes branch out into one of two Advanced Classes at level 10, and they are distinct enough that you may as well consider them full-fledged classes on their own. The trinity of healer-tank-DPS is also alive and well in Star Wars: The Old Republic, though the Advanced Class system makes for a much more flexible spin on this paradigm. Most Advanced Classes have two different roles available to them. For example, a Sith Assassin can go the stealth DPS route or opt to take the tank path. This ensures that every Advanced Class can fulfill a damage role, while also having the option to take on either a healer or tank role when needed (or if preferred).
Combat is also pretty familiar. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun – it’s actually amazingly fun, but this is your typical MMO hotkey combat system, sans autoattack. That’s right, you won’t find yourself autoattacking in Star Wars: The Old Republic and frankly, I don’t miss it one bit. There are significant complaints about the game’s ‘combat responsiveness,’ and at times it can feel a little delayed (try setting your ability queue time down to 0), but overall combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic is a flashy and visceral experience, especially if you choose to deal death with a lightsaber (or a pair of lightsabers, if you’re like me). There simply isn’t anything like leaping up three stories onto your enemy and then proceeding to cut a swath through a whole room filled with Republic scum, pausing only momentarily to spin kick some poor bastard in the face and then force choke his buddy. Yeah, it’s as cool as it sounds.
Combat is even more exciting in Player vs. Player combat, and SW:TOR features a healthy amount of it! The Old Republic launched with three Warzones (instanced PvP scenarios) and two forms of Open World PvP. The three warzones are comprised of Alderaan Civil War (capture-and-hold), Huttball (football with deathtraps), and Voidstar (assault and defend). They’re all pretty fun game modes, and Huttball has finally grown on me after hating it for some time in beta. It simply requires significantly more teamwork than say Alderaan does, and so the experience can be a bit hit-or-miss if you solo queue.
Speaking of queuing, Star Wars: The Old Republic does a couple of interesting things here. For one, there is no PvP bracket at all; instead, all players are basically “bolstered” to level 50. This means your gear, HP, ability values and the like are boosted up. Earlier, when the game just launched, this wasn’t such a bad thing. Queues popped faster as a result and bolstering worked pretty well when working with a disparity of say, 10 levels. However, now that level 10s can end up in the same Warzones as legitimate level 50 characters, I don’t know that the bolster system really holds up to providing a fair experience when it doesn’t take into account the fact these players simply have more abilities and important talents in their tree to give them an advantage.
Sure, it makes sense they would have an advantage – which is why the Warzone system needs brackets. Similarly, it’s also disappointing that one can’t queue for a specific Warzone. Naturally, players would gravitate towards the ones they like, but so what? One aspect of Warzone queuing I do actually approve of is the fact you cannot queue with full premade teams. Warzones can be queued by a full group of four, but team sizes are eight vs. eight so it helps curb the issue of PUGs going against full guild premades a bit.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the Open World side of things, other than to say that it’s pretty fun when it happens naturally, if you’re into that sort of thing (and you are if you’re on a PvP server like I am!). I don’t like companions participating in world PvP, however. I really think it cheapens the experience. If I have a tank out and you have a healer out, you generally have a significant advantage against me, and it’s not like this is Pokémon, where you can just switch one out once you’re attacked. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken part in Outlaw’s Den and I’m not of level to participate in Ilum yet, so I can’t really speak to BioWare’s officially supported open world PvP components.
Despite my inexperience with Outlaw’s Den or Ilum, the PvP I did get to participate in has been a great experience. TOR’s PvP is basically a better balanced evolution of Warhammer Online’s PvP. I realize that sounds like a kiss of death for those of you who have bad memories of Bright Wizards melting down entire teams of players or the ridiculous amounts of crowd control that plagued the game at launch, but that’s why I say it’s an evolution. The time-to-kill is similar to WAR’s (much less bursty than World of Warcraft), there are additional protections against crowd control such as the Resolve meter; which could stand to fill up a bit faster, tanks are fully functional in a PvP role, healing isn’t too out of control, and of course you have a PvP level and item progression. I feel The Old Republic’s PvP captures most of what Mythic tried to do with WAR, at least when it comes to instanced PvP. It also helps that it moves at a pace that allows tactical decisions and truly rewards smart play.