The Droid I Was Looking For
Yep, it’s another Star Wars: The Old Republic column; you’ve been warned. I’ll also state the obvious before I get lambasted for not producing a good review: this is not a review. It is, at best, a short compendium of my initial impressions about the game, and it’s certainly not intended to tell you much about it. There are plenty of other column inches out there with reviews, including an official one coming right here next week. Besides – you shouldn’t be lambasting, you should be playing SW:TOR.
I’ve been trying to think back to the last time a game launch actually took up any kind of space on my radar, let alone on my computer, and was a little shocked to realize it’s been 3 years since I really cared, back when Warhammer Online launched. Three years?! Three long years. Age of Conan passed me by, though some of my friends had fun with it. Same with STO, same with DCUO, same with whatever else may have come out in the intervening time. I almost played RIFT… but then I didn’t. I’m not sure any of my friends still play it either, although again, they had fun with it for a while.
It really seems as though recent MMO launches have been rather more whimpersome than full of bang and bluster, and it was about time a game launch changed that trend. I won’t make any predictions concerning SW:TOR’s longevity, partly because it’s not my style and partly because I hope every MMO will be huge, if only because the industry needs a huge success or two. But either way, SW:TOR’s launch made some noise, with a nice, round, million accounts created in what, a week or two? That’s not bad. The three- and six-month figures will be more revealing, I suspect, but in the meantime it’s been a fun, noisy, boisterous launch and that’s a really good thing for MMOs in general.
And I’ve been in it. I did end up holding off until a day or two after the official launch, mostly due to weather (anyone need snow? I have extra!) and work (ditto), but I’m there now. And you know what? I’m having fun!
It’s been three years since I’ve allowed myself to get hooked by a new MMO – I’d almost forgotten what it feels like. This time around, I sort of watched myself go through the process; I’d said some rather “meh” things about SW:TOR in the past and I wanted to see how I really ended up feeling about it once I was actually in the game.
To be honest, I didn’t much expect to like the game… But I do. Let’s get that out of the way to begin with. I’m having a blast! It may not be the same breathless, “OMG where am I, what is this?!” experience I had with my first couple of MMOs but hey, most of us have been around the block a few times now and we’re more experienced, harder to amaze, and a lot more demanding than we used to be. And yet SW:TOR has been fun enough to make me resent every second of the waking day I’ve had to spend doing other stuff – you know, like actually earning a living so I can pay my subscription fees. I may have stayed up way past my bedtime a night or two also, and I’m in that phase where I really want to be playing even though I’m old enough to know I’ve got responsibilities that should be handled first.
The main thing I had to do was get my head around the game’s design paradigm. It is not a sandbox; it will never be a sandbox, no matter how hard you try to see it that way. And it’s incredibly linear – but there are some fairly good reasons for that. As has been touted for some time, SW:TOR tries to tell a story – actually a story for each character class, aside from some of the major arcs – and that requires, you know, things like plot lines and a certain amount of linear progression so that the stories get told the right way. But if you accept that and play within that paradigm, it’s really rather good.
I was dubious about the whole story thing. Not the concept in and of itself, since that works brilliantly for single player games, but about the plan to merge it into an MMO setting. Well, for my money, it’s been done pretty damn well in SW:TOR. There’s a more organic feel to what’s going on in the various places you visit than there is in other games, even though the design principle is fundamentally the same: location + quest hub = things for players to do. Initially I did feel as though I was in my own little single player game with other people randomly running by in their own games, but that’s because the introductory player stories are so focused, and once you’re off the starter planet that changed rather dramatically.
Yes, you could probably go through all of SW:TOR on a character and never interact with anyone else. The thing is: it’s so easy to interact with other players, not to mention rather rewarding, that even confirmed grouchy soloers like me are doing it and not thinking twice about it. It reminds me of the public quests in Warhammer, only for a whole game: you hook up with whoever’s around you at the time, you kick some bad guy ass, and you either carry on with them or go your own merry way until the next time you feel like hooking up. Other players with benefits – it’s a great system, everybody ends up happy, and you don’t even have a hangover in the morning. (Actually that’s not true. I’ve stayed up late enough a couple of nights playing SW:TOR to feel like a pickled egg the next day, but we won’t go there.)
The stories, as I said, are engaging. The voice acting is brilliant, mostly because it’s combined with at least the illusion of choice in your character’s responses. My smuggler is hard-bitten and cynical (but usually does the right thing), my trooper is duty-bound and carefully polite, while my Jedi works hard at steering a middle course through the morass of politics, corruption and double-dealing that is the Republic. And I haven’t even made an Empire character yet! I’m holding off on that, but the dark side is starting to call…
The music, of course, is stellar. My very first act in an MMO is usually to turn the music off, because pseudo-Medieval plinkety-plink really isn’t my thing, but Star Wars has real music, thanks to the Hollywood score, and I love it. I just wish I could turn it off for fights, but I’m probably in the minority on that one. The UI is… less than stellar, and I’m being kind, but it mostly works and it’s not bad enough to put me off the game – and considering what a UI nerd I am, that’s saying something.
What I’m not going to predict is how long the game will keep people interested. That’s the sort of prediction that has more experienced pundits than me falling flat on their faces these last few years, for one thing; and for another, I’m not expecting SW:TOR to be my MMO home for the next decade. There may not be a game out there that can do that – and with the choices we have these days, that’s not a tragedy. I’m starting to realize I’d prefer to have a fabulous time for a few months or a year than to stick around in a game that makes me yawn because it’s the only viable choice I have. In any case, there are over a dozen class storylines to try out, and I’m an altoholic: you do the math.
And while I’m not advising anyone whether to buy the game or not – that’s not what this column is for –I will give one piece of advice. If you regularly play with a friend, family member or significant other and you like Star Wars in general, I definitely recommend giving it a try. This is the first game I’ve encountered that seems to be deliberately designed for duoing – in fact, I’ve already pulled in the spousal unit and we’re busy taking over the galaxy, one shady deal at a time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an hour before I’m supposed to be working. I’ve got planets to see.