If you prefer the cooperative experience to the competitive, Star Wars: The Old Republic also puts a new twist on the MMO dungeon experience. The game’s dungeons, called Flashpoints, are billed as story-centric group experiences with high production value. The first Flashpoints you encounter as an Imperial or Republic character certainly confirms that claim, but unfortunately most of the Flashpoints that follow don’t really have the same oomph as the Black Talon or Esseles. With that said, the Black Talon and Esseles are absolutely amazing. Both Flashpoints are filled with dialogue obviously meant for groups of characters, and BioWare’s signature production values are immediately apparent in the elaborate cutscenes scattered throughout. What is even more interesting about these Flashpoints is how much they can be a “Choose your Adventure” style experience. On the Black Talon, the choice of killing or sparing the Captain steers the rest of the Flashpoint in a significantly different direction, and this includes an entirely different set of boss encounters. I was really impressed with how different the experience was when I found the rare group that wanted to actually spare the poor guy. Other Flashpoints, such as Hammer Station and the Mandalorian Raiders, don’t really feature any significant group dialogue or elaborate cutscenes, but they remain fun dungeon romps that make unique use of the game’s Crew Skills system. For example, in Hammer Station you can use your Scavenging skill to reactivate a drill, creating a passage through a wall straight to the first boss, allowing you and your group to skip a decent amount of trash mobs.
Crew Skills are SWTOR’s version of crafting, though it’s a bit more than that. Think of it as an odd pairing of your typical MMO crafting experience with Final Fantasy Tactics’ Errands system. Each character has three Crew Skill slots that can be filled with either a crafting skill, mission skill, or gathering skill. While you can only fill your slots with a single crafting skill, you can choose to fill all three of your slots with three different mission or gathering skills if you’d rather just play the market. Your gathering skill accrues basic materials for your crafting skill, while your mission skill acquires rare materials for some of your higher quality recipes or even gifts for your companions. Additionally, some skills often have secondary functions. Mission skills such as Diplomacy can bring back Dark Side or Light Side points, for example. Reverse Engineering (disenchanting) your creations is also possible, and may result in learning a recipe for a higher rarity version of the same recipe.
What sets “Crew Skills” apart from your typical crafting experience is the fact that the system is entirely time based and isn’t actually done by the player character (though the player can gather from nodes in the world). The genius of the system is in being able to send out the various companions you acquire during the course of the game on a number of tasks or missions while you continue to play the game. Want to craft some bracers? Have your companion do it. Don’t feel like poking around for crystal nodes in the world? Send your companion off to do it. Same goes for mission skills such as Diplomacy or Investigation. Each task takes a certain amount of time and credits (except for the actual crafting of an item, which only consumes materials), and the length of time is largely determined by the level of the task and the quality of the task. Crafting a purple item takes much longer than a green, just as sending a companion on a “Rich Yield” mission takes significantly longer (and is also more costly) than sending them out on a “Moderate Yield” mission. It’s also important to note that while your companion is out on a mission task, he or she will be unavailable for use in combat, though it is possible to recall them and abort their task at any time (forfeiting the cost of course).
I typically don’t participate in MMO crafting, but the accessibility and lottery like functionality of the Crew Skills system makes it an addictive and fun experience. Just be sure not to get carried away with sending your companions out on tasks, as it can definitely affect your ability to save up for your speeder or even afford skill training.
In addition to the aforementioned story and Crew Skill roles they play, companions also serve an important role in combat. Each companion has their own combat function from tanking to healing, to dealing damage, and they all come with and learn a variety of skills as you level up. It’s possible to manually control their skill usage as well, but they work pretty well by simply leaving them on autopilot. If you’re playing solo, you’ll find that having a companion out is almost completely necessary. In fact, during the game’s development, BioWare stated that your companion would make up 40% of your entire damage envelope, so it behooves you to keep one around if you’re not playing with friends. I do appreciate their usefulness, but I also find it to be a bit of a bummer that the game content is basically balanced around the fact that you are either with other players or with your companion. It’s especially disappointing when it comes to class story situations that pit you in some epic duel with another character. I feel like a jackass as it’s often a 2v1 affair and I’d rather just fight the guy myself.
What’s Star Wars without Space? BioWare probably had the same thoughts as they were developing the game, and so we were given starships as our personal player bases (think KOTOR’s Ebon Hawk, complete with galaxy map), and space combat. The former is a fine initial effort. You can access your bank on your ship, interact with companion characters, participate in important story scenes, and the like, but you can’t decorate it at all yet. What I feel really fell short, however, is the game’s space combat component. Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually a pretty fun little diversion and also grants decent experience and credits if you take the time to do it. The problem is it’s shallow in every sense of the word. You basically get one ship per class (your personal starship) and you can take it into Star Fox-esque “tunnel shooter” missions that don’t involve much more than left clicking to fire your lasers and right clicking to fire missiles. Oh, don’t forget the requisite barrel rolls, either.
I thought the missions were fairly fun at first, but as I began to progress through the list of available missions I realized that most of the newer scenarios are pretty similar, if not identical, to lower-tier missions, only on steroids. For example, in a new mission I received, I ended up assaulting the same space station, with the same objectives. It was only harder due to the fact there are more ships and other stuff going on.
It’s also possible to upgrade the ship as well, but only statistically. Your ship has its own character sheet and you can purchase upgrades to trick it out at a vendor either using credits or Fleet Commendations for some special upgrades or ship abilities later on. Alternatively, Cybertechs can craft upgrades which you can purchase on the auction house or simply craft for yourself.
There simply isn’t anything “MMO” about space combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic. You can’t do it in groups, you can’t fight against other players, and you can’t even compare personal scores on a leaderboard. It’s a system that is simply far too isolated from the rest of the game and one I hope BioWare plans to expand on significantly over time.
I’ve always viewed the MMO genre as an evolutionary rather than revolutionary genre. Massive changes simply happen more slowly here (due to the high risk and long development times) and so most great MMOs only tend to carve out a few stand-out differences from their peers, while remaining mostly familiar to the successful games before them. Star Wars: The Old Republic is no different in this way.
BioWare’s claim to fame with The Old Republic is and always will be that fourth pillar of story. God knows they talked it up enough on the run up to launch, and they weren’t kidding! For me, at least, they were right. The throwaway approach to stories in most MMOs really held the genre back, and I feel that BioWare’s approach here, which was no doubt a massive undertaking, certainly makes the impact they were going for and brings the genre into the 21st century. Sure, some people will hate it and spacebar through all the conversations, but if you’re like me and really enjoy and appreciate what the team was going for, you will have a very hard time going back to a typical quest box MMO.
On the flip side, BioWare doesn’t do much else that’s innovative with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Crew Skills are certainly neat, as I described above, but other than that, the game is purely derivative of games like World of Warcraft, and is even missing quite a few features some may consider “standard” at this point.
In the past EA was often criticized for their “Ship it!” mentality, where games would often go out buggy messes with the intention of being patched post-launch. Thankfully, EA doesn’t have this problem as much anymore, as the issue would have been exacerbated tenfold when it came to an MMO. If you’re a smart MMO developer or publisher, you understand you have only one chance to make an impression in this genre.
There are exceptions to this rule, as in comeback stories like Anarchy Online, but MMO gamers are like elephants – we never forget. We also move on a lot, so once you’ve lost us it’s pretty hard to get us back.
Fortunately, BioWare seems to have drilled all this into their heads when developing this game, possibly to a fault, given how long it took the game to come out. They’ve been polishing this game for what seems like an eternity – and it shows. Sure, there are bugs and some issues, but overall the game is incredibly polished. Just about everything works as you would expect it to, production values are super high, and there really aren’t too many major issues to speak of (other than those stupid chests in Boarding Party). And yes, I know you’re going to respond here with issue #1067 to refute my claims – but frankly, my experience has been really smooth.
Now if you do have an issue you need help with, customer service is a bit hit-or-miss. BioWare has emphasized the importance of running a good service in addition to delivering a great game, but I can’t say I’m too impressed with their phone line service. It’s one thing when agents are busy, however, not even being put in a queue, but getting hung up on and basically told to call back later by an automated message isn’t exactly comforting if you have an important issue. E-mail support has been hit-or-miss as well. BioWare really plays up the preconception players have about getting robotic autogenerated responses when e-mailing customer support – your tickets are literally handled by ‘Protocol Droids’!
Judging a game’s longevity so soon after launch is always a challenge. I’m no Nostradamus, but I have a good sense that this game’s got legs. Sure, those of you who burn through content will also burn through it here just as you would with any MMO, and possibly be left wondering with what you’re going to do now that you’ve essentially “done everything.” But for most of us, there is simply a lot on offer with The Old Republic right out of the box. There are eight class storylines, 15 Flashpoints, and two raids already available. Not to mention the game’s worlds are large and packed full of content. You’ll even have a completely unique experience going through the game as an Imperial if you’ve already gone through as a Republic class. This game has more than enough going for it to carry you through the first month of your subscription, and while we aren’t going to judge it on what BioWare intends to add over time, there’s certainly more stuff coming.
Most of what’s been said about the game’s longevity applies equally to The Old Republic’s value. Out of the box, you simply get a whole lot of content, and in an industry where it’s commonplace to purchase a $60 game for 10 hours of gameplay, The Old Republic really blows the value equation out of the water. It’s simply hard to argue with what you’re getting for the box price, unless you’re one of those people who feels every MMO should be a completely Free-to-Play affair from the get go. As far as the subscription pricing goes, you’ll be looking at the standard $15/month pricing with a few bucks off if you subscribe for three or six months at a time. Whether you feel this game is worth your $15 after the first month is going to be a largely personal decision, likely dependent on how fast you’ve consumed the available content in the game. I think it’s fair to say that most people will still be plugging through their first playthrough by the time their 30 days are up. At this point, I am level 40 on one character and have plans to play quite a few others immediately after this one. I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth so far.
From what I’ve read on many boards, this is likely to be the most controversial category of them all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that Star Wars: The Old Republic is a “singleplayer” game both before and after launch, and honestly, it’s a ridiculous assertion. Is SW:TOR the most social MMO ever made? Not even close. But a singleplayer game? Definitely not!
If you’ve played any themepark MMO in the last five years, Star Wars: The Old Republic is as social, if not more social, than any of them. The process of playing the game is the same. You run around the world and do quests (that happen to have dialogue and cinematics) and you group up for a couple of heroic quests per world. Additionally, there are a bevy of Flashpoints for group minded players to participate in, and there are even Open World objectives and Operations (raids) for guilds and groups of players to control and tackle.
What BioWare adds to the experience from a social perspective is the addition of social points and item progression, which are earned through participating in multiplayer dialogue with other players. If you’re unfamiliar with the multiplayer dialogue system, when grouped everyone basically chooses their dialogue response as they normally would, but the choices are all rolled upon by the game and the winning choice determines who speaks and what actual decision is made. Don’t fret though, you still receive your Light and Dark Side points depending on the choice you made, even if it doesn’t end up winning out.
The multiplayer dialogue system makes for a significantly more social experience than grouping up with your friends and grabbing all the quest text boxes you can in twenty seconds from the latest town you’ve trudged into. Groups make actual decisions via multiplayer dialogue that can at times significantly impact the way you experience the game’s content. NPCs will commonly address groups of players differently than they would a single player, and there are even unique dialogue options (and actions) available to the various classes that really spice up the already fun quest experience. I’ve played the game a bunch solo, but I’ve spent my entire playtime for this review grouped up with at least one other friend and it has been incredibly rewarding, especially since he tends to play things neutral as a Bounty Hunter, and I’ve been playing a bloodthirsty brute of a Marauder. This combination has led to tons of laughs, some frustration (especially when he decided to allow some Republic miners free, when I wanted to gas them!), but overall it’s added greatly to the experience.
Unfortunately, BioWare does fail in a few areas when it comes to The Old Republic’s social features. The LFG system leaves much to be desired, for one, leaving most players to spam general chat for a group. It would be nice if BioWare aped WAR’s public grouping system and let you seamlessly group up near group content such as heroic quests. There is also a lack of a “dungeon finder,” which is fine to me, but may disappoint some. However, worst of all, is the game’s implementation of guilds. It’s really as barebones as it gets and I can’t stress that enough. Guilds, as currently implemented, are nothing more than rosters with member notes and a couple of custom ranks and permissions. There isn’t even a guild bank available yet. In a genre where features such as guild leveling, tabards, guild perks, and such are becoming the norm, TOR’s guild feature set is simply woefully deficient.
Every couple of years we get an MMO whose level of hype and expectations are greater than the game could ever aspire to be and the same remains true for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Even so, the game is simply exceptional. If you’re a Star Wars fan, a fan of BioWare RPGs, and you don’t mind a themepark styled MMO, you will undoubtedly have a great time in the world BioWare has created with Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare has successfully fused the foundation of a solid MMO with their industry-leading story telling capabilities to create a final product that convincingly makes the case that as great as many MMOs have been, we’ve definitely been missing a significant piece of the puzzle for all these years.