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Knights of the Fallen Empire Boldly Pushes Forward

Michael Bitton Posted:
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Star Wars: The Old Republic has always suffered a bit of an identity crisis. The original game leaned more on the game’s MMO trappings, but wrapped it all up in BioWare style storytelling. Shadow of Revan pushed things a bit towards the single player RPG BioWare is known for, but not quite all the way. Finally, Knights of the Fallen Empire completes this shift by fully leaning into that single player RPG design.

The result is that SWTOR is now a bit of a muddled experience, with all these different ideas sort of rolling around and bumping into each other like clothes in a dryer. Game Update 4.0, which launched with Knights of the Fallen Empire, is a massive overhaul of the game that attempts to blend all of BioWare’s contradictory design directions into a streamlined experience that fits in well with the game’s new direction.

It works, mostly. Leveling up a new character now only requires that you complete the planetary arc and your class story quests, with heroic quests now easily accessible through a terminal. All of the game’s zones have been level synced, which adjusts your stats for the level range the content is designed for, irrespective of your actual level. The same is true for the game’s Flashpoints (dungeons). It’s now incredibly easy to jump into designated group content with anyone and come out with experience and rewards commensurate with your actual level. The flip side of this is that there isn’t a truly compelling reason to co-op the story-related content any longer. With only the planetary arc and your class quests necessary for progression on each planet, there just isn’t much of a reason to bother. The game feels like it’s trying to slowly train you into understanding that story content is for solo play and everything else is where you’ll get your MMO fix.

The question now is one of whether the tradeoffs are worth it. Is it worth it for BioWare to try to build what seems like an actual single player RPG on top of an MMO foundation? If we treat the first nine chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire as BioWare’s sales pitch, I’m going to have to say yes. Fans have been clamoring for a KOTOR 3 for years and this is certainly an odd way for us to get it, but after having played through the whole thing, I’m convinced BioWare Austin can pull it off.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

While the single player series and the MMO are set roughly 300 years apart, SWTOR has always represented a continuation of those stories. After the events of KOTOR, Revan returns to the Unknown Regions in search of the Sith Emperor, only to end up captive by the Sith until his release by the Republic during the events of Star Wars: The Old Republic. The Sith Emperor (known as Vitiate), and his intentions to consume all life in the galaxy as part of an ascension to godhood, play a significant role in the class stories of SWTOR’s base game. The Emperor’s ambitions come to a head in the events of Shadow of Revan, and Revan returns with a plot to destroy the Emperor before he can succeed in his plans. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t work out, and the Emperor succeeds, at least in part, by consuming all life on Ziost, only to mysteriously disappear until the events of Knights of the Fallen Empire begin.

As it would turn out, the Sith Emperor was hard at work developing a new Eternal Empire on the world of Zakuul. Instead of the Emperor Vitiate we’ve seen in the past, Vitiate now appears as a man named Emperor Valkorion. Without spoiling too much more, let’s just say that the Eternal Empire has made its move and is dominating both the Sith Empire and Galactic Republic.

Your character is put into carbon freeze early on in the story and then freed five years later by Lana Beniko, a familiar ally from Shadow of Revan, who seeks your assistance in the herculean task of taking down the Eternal Empire. Even though Fallen Empire is a fairly classic Star Wars tale, the superb writing, characterization, and production values really elevate the experience to a point where it feels about as enjoyable and satisfying as playing a AAA single player BioWare RPG. It’s a gripping story that will hold your attention from start to finish.

However, one area that has been hit-or-miss so far is BioWare’s emphasis on the impact of player choice in Knights of the Fallen Empire. Early on, I saw hints of this as the game informed me that characters would remember certain choices I’ve made, but nothing really impactful seemed to come of my choices in the chapters released thus far. Sure, I was able to deliberately kill off a potential companion, but there wasn’t anything notable that happened as an unintended consequence of my actions.

In one particularly egregious instance, I was presented with a choice that would allow me to save one of my companions, but at the cost of compromising my own integrity. I chose my integrity over my companion’s life, but they survived nonetheless. I prepared myself to fully accept what my choice would likely lead to, but found myself completely disappointed with the result. With the story still unconcluded, I can’t say whether or not the choices I’ve made so far will come back and bite me (or reward me) down the line, but I’m not altogether impressed with the way things played out with the initial nine chapters.

Those first nine chapters are also incredibly short. Yes, they came free with my subscription, but I want to say the entire thing took less than 10 hours to complete. I’m definitely a fan of BioWare going this episodic route, but there’s going to have to be a bit more meat in each chapter for me to feel like subscribing month to month is worth it over coming back a couple months later and grabbing all the chapters in one shot.  

All that said, the real double-edged sword of Knights of the Fallen Empire is the companions. When I first learned that BioWare would be revamping the companion system to allow all companions to take on any role (tank, DPS, or healer), I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, the price to pay for this flexibility has been an incredibly harsh level of homogenization. Functionally, all companions now play the same way. BioWare took an axe to companion abilities, giving all companions of certain types the same abilities in each role.

The biggest slap in the face was the changes made to HK-51. HK-51, a for-pay companion, was completely gutted of his unique gameplay. Nevermind the homogenization of HK’s skills, his unique Assassinate mechanic has also been completely removed. For those unfamiliar, Assassinate allows HK to store charges on each kill, gaining the ability to instantly take out an enemy (up to silver rank) after stacking up five charges. It was always fun watching HK go through his elaborate moveset, slaughtering enemies with a combination of tech, knives, and weapons. Now? He’s got the same boring moves as everyone else. You can generally extrapolate this level of disappointment to all the other companions in the game. It becomes immediately obvious that there’s not much difference from one to the next, except for your influence level with them. These changes put all companions on even footing, sure, but BioWare simply went too far in gutting their kits. I wouldn’t mind the generic ability sets being added for roles that companions didn’t have previously, but hitting their core ability sets this way is just too much.

It’s not all doom and gloom on companions, though. Aside from the appreciated role flexibility, you no longer have to gear your companions as they now scale completely based on your influence (formerly affection) level with them. This was definitely a welcome change as gearing companions was always a tedious exercise for me. There are also simply so many more to choose from now with the Alliance system introduced in KOTFE. It’s also worth noting that the companions you pick up through the main storyline are far more nuanced in personality than the ones we’re used to seeing in the origin stories.

Once you complete the nine currently available chapters, you’ll be tasked with formally building up your alliance to take on the Eternal Empire. This involves supporting different wings of your base by developing relationships with contacts and supplying them with needed materials. You’ll also go on alert missions to recruit new companions. While some of these missions can be pretty fun, others are frustrating). Assembling a warband to prove your worth to Qyzen Fess was a genuinely enjoyable experience. However, gating the recruitment of Lt. Pierce behind PvP was not.

I’m not a particular fan of how conversations with your alliance members play out, either. BioWare’s gone with a nostalgic conversation interface that pays homage to the original KOTOR games, but this also means your character is mute. Sure, the people you’re talking to will be voiced, but it’s completely jarring coming from the highly cinematic conversations found throughout the rest of the expansion. I feel this will also be particularly disappointing when interacting with companions you’ve romanced in the main story. I dread reuniting with my favorite companions in this manner. It just doesn’t have the same level of impact. I was actually hoping BioWare was going to dial up the companion interactions in KOTFE, not reduce them. I understand that this was all likely done for budget reasons, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

Alliances also play into Star Fortresses, which represent the only new pieces of group content found in Knights of the Fallen Empire, for those of you keeping track. Star Fortresses are essentially special soloable flashpoints with optional heroic versions unlocked through a series of quests. Completing the heroic versions is worthwhile, though, as you’ll unlock unique pieces of armor and even new companions for your efforts.

It might sound like there is as much to dislike about Knights of the Fallen Empire as there is to like, but I do have to say that my overall experience has been positive and I really can’t wait for things to pick up in the new year. Unfortunately, there were indeed compromises made to make some of the more compelling features of the expansion possible, but the overall package is still excellent. Knights of the Fallen Empire (and game update 4.0) represent the best iteration of SWTOR yet, and the future looks bright for the game if BioWare can keep up with the demanding pace set for itself.

  • GAMEPLAY: 7.5  – The overhaul that came with the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire improves the game overall in almost all areas, but the gameplay of playing through each chapter is still classic SWTOR.
  • VISUALS: 9 – Knights of the Fallen Empire is simply the best the game's ever looked. Character art and cinematic production values are on a whole different level when compared to both the base game and previous expansions.
  • POLISH: 8 – The overall experience is slick and well done, but there are still a number of bugs that need to be addressed.
  • LONGEVITY: 7 – There's no way around this one right now. If you're re-subscring to SWTOR to play through Knights of the Fallen Empire, you'll be done with the nine available chapters in a couple of days. There's a decent amount of content available through the Alliance system and Star Fortresses, but not much beyond that.
  • VALUE: 9 – $15 gets you a month of playtime, all nine available chapters, and all previous expansions (if you don't own them already). Though short overall, the total playtime the expansion offers is fairly priced.
  • Alliance system is executed well and has a lot of potential.
  • Gripping BioWare's story full of interesting characters.
  • Star Fortresses are a fun romp.
  • Gameplay not improved enough to match the improvements in storytelling.
  • Companion homogenization is disappointing.
  • Light on group content.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB