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Star Wars: The Old Republic Review [PC]

For MMO players who are looking for something a little different, Bioware's The Old Republic offers some impressive new environments to discover and some pretty fascinating storylines to follow, but it isn't quite that stellar success some might have predicted.

rating:3.5

An MMO review is a strange beast. Not only does the sheer magnitude of such games make them tough to assess in a traditional way, but often the whole system of gameplay favours long term rewards over the immediacy of fast-paced thrills. In this and other ways, they often manage to dodge traditional criticism; they€™re expected to be buggy on release, the combat is never going to be as fun as a shooter, the narrative is unlikely to be as arresting as a traditional RPG and they€™re likely to change dramatically several years down the line. At the same time, you€™re also reviewing what is essentially a social tool for a lot of people. In the age of transparency on the Internet, where our identity is scattered over various console accounts and social networking websites but can all be linked to one person, games like World of Warcraft, Rift and The Old Republic are some of the few places where people can still interact with complete anonymity and in this way they share similarities with the chatrooms we all used to visit back when we first got hold of the Internet. On top of this, there€™s always a sense that a newly released MMO is basically unfinished and that its evolution over the coming years is what really makes or breaks it as a videogame. With all these possible concessions to make, reviewing an MMO is something I approach with a little trepidation. Fortunately, however, Bioware have been vocal about something they call the four pillars of a role playing game. These, they state, are exploration, progression, combat, and storytelling. So I€™m going to review The Old Republic on its own terms. Yes, there will be a running comparison with the juggernaut World of Warcraft, which I believe is necessary in reviewing any MMO released in the past five or six years, but the aim of this review is to tease out the differences between The Old Republic and its competitors, to discover just to what extent Bioware have put their unique stamp on this strangely compelling genre. I believe these differences are essentially what will make the game succeed or fail. So, let€™s get on with it.

Exploration

Firstly, it€™s important to note that The Old Republic, straight out of the box, is massive. There are a total of 17 currently accessible planets that you€™ll be able travel to throughout the game. These planets function pretty much the same as zones in other MMOs €“ you€™ll do some quests, follow the story, level up and move on €“ but they are considerably larger than zone sizes you€™ve come to expect from games like WoW or Rift. This isn€™t inherently a good thing (as we€™ll come to see) but it certainly gives a sense of scale on par with Bioware€™s Mass Effect; different planets have different histories, different cultures and troubles of their own and this goes a long way to making the universe feel both full and varied. There are some frustrating exceptions to this €“ many of the structures you€™ll encounter, for example, tend to feel pretty samey. The wildlife and planet design appears impressively varied but, at least within the Imperial space I was travelling in, there€™s little diversity when it comes to the buildings. This can be explained by the fact that Imperial presence on planets makes the widespread use of Imperial looking buildings completely justifiable, but there€™s something about it that does feel a little lazy, especially when I think back to how diverse the structures could be between some of the zones in World of Warcraft.
Between planets, space is traversed with the help of your very own ship, complete with its own crew (albeit this was a single, hilariously ready-to-please robot in my case) and you€™ll find yourself not only using it to move between locations but also for completing some pretty novel space battles. Exploration on the planets themselves is presented in the traditional ways €“ quests lead you to new areas and discovering those areas gives you EXP hits. Occasionally you€™ll stumble upon villages or towns that have pockets of quests, or some slightly secretive sidequests that are just off the beaten path, but for the most part you€™re playing it the same way you would play any contemporary MMO €“ collect a bunch of quests for an area, go do them, hand them in for loot which increases your performance slightly, move to the next area and repeat. One of the most depressing things about exploration in The Old Republic is that, despite the servers being crammed full, many zones and cities are utterly devoid of people. For whatever reason, Bioware have chosen to heavily instance the game, and it feels as though they€™ve gone a little too far. Each zone has a couple of different instances and you can chat to people via the general channel, but unless you€™re in their instance you can€™t see them. This is strangely fitting for early Imperial missions, where it feels as though you€™re roleplaying the life of a soldier in Pyongyang, but it doesn€™t make for a great social experience. However, there are a few additions that make this grind a little more interesting. Typically (and pleasingly) Bioware, there€™s an extensive codex available that is added to pretty much every time you do anything new. This might not be the most exciting thing for a lot of MMO players, but for fans of Bioware and the Star Wars franchise, it€™s interesting to be able to sit back and read up on the wealth of information available when you have a bit of extra time to kill. On top of this, one of the biggest things The Old Republic adds to the familiar methods of exploration is the datacron. Datacrons are small, brightly glowing cubes placed in difficult to reach areas around the universe. Even if you manage to find them, they€™re often quite difficult to reach and require a bit of exploration and thought get. The fantastic thing about datacrons is that not only do they include a variety of information on the game€™s lore €“ perfect for the role-players and completionists out there €“ but they also give permanent stat increases, giving practically everyone a reason for going out and finding them. It€™s a simple idea, but it works wonderfully and actively encourages players to explore the universe Bioware has created.

Combat

Fighting things in MMOs is a bit like queuing for rations; you don€™t particularly like it but you€™re aware it€™s necessary and you push through for a small reward which you€™ll inevitably need more of very soon. Since WoW standardised things like combat in MMOs, it very quickly became stale and we€™re yet to see a game which really feels like a fresh approach has been taken. Unfortunately, The Old Republic doesn€™t shake things up much at all. You€™re still fighting the same kind of mobs in the same kind of ways, you€™re running instances with other players (here, called Flashpoints) and you€™re queuing for PvP battlegrounds (referred to as Warzones). Within the slightly bland, samey combat style, however, there are a couple of interesting twists and turns. The companion system, for example, is a pretty welcome addition. Essentially, it means pets for everyone. You€™ll pick up a couple of different companions throughout your main story thread and they€™ll populate your ship, follow you around and fight, tank or heal depending on their class. They have other practical uses which I€™ll discuss in later sections, but as far as combat goes it makes soloing an MMO €“ if that€™s your thing - feel like a slightly less lonely venture. There€™s only so much keyboard mashing combat you can take in one go, though, and Bioware have recognised this. Their solution - the aforementioned space combat €“ is basically a simple switch of input devices where you€™re instead mashing the left and right mouse buttons for lasers and missiles whilst being led through an on-rails shooter. Each space combat mission is given an overall objective €“ escorting a ship or destroying a station, for example - broken up into a couple of bonus and side objectives which all revolve around shooting other ships down and dodging space debris. This may be something of a let-down for a lot of players expecting a fully fleshed out space battle system but I found it, in all its simplicity, a welcome break from the daily grind. Undoubtedly it€™ll wear thin, but it€™s the same kind of feel I get from playing arcade machines on holiday; I don€™t want to do it every day but it can be pretty fun in short bursts. Also, they look pretty incredible.
Of course, an MMO isn€™t complete without a decent amount of PvP combat on offer. Off the shelf, The Old Republic seems to have a decent amount of PvP content. Not massive, but enough for now. Warzones are broken up into three different modes. There€™s an attack and defence map, where one side protects a data core from the other, a king of the hill map where you€™re vying for control of some anti-aircraft guns and a humorously titled €˜huttball€™ map which sees you running across an arena to throw a ball through your opponent€™s defences. These all play pretty much as you€™d expect €“ frantic, fast-paced action with a lot of respawning €“ and they have great pick up and play value for the casual gamer, but I€™m not convinced there€™s much of a long-term reward system in place (such as WoW€™s arena system) to keep more hardcore PvP gamers stimulated. Strangely, Bioware have elected not to break up character levels in tiers in PvP. Instead, they provide you with a stat buff which partially weights things in your favour if you€™re lacking in levels. It€™s not entirely balanced and, realistically, you€™re never going to be able to one-on-one a significantly higher level player but it does mean that, as a level 10 character, you could be running around getting killing blows on players up to 40 levels higher than you. Fantastic if you€™re the level 10 guy, not so much if you€™re the one who has put a fair amount of time into hitting the cap. One of the largest differences between this and other MMOs (and this speaks volumes for how little innovation there has been) is that there€™s no auto-attack €“ a feature (or lack of) which seems to be praised by many people, but something I just find mildly annoying. It€™s true, as a player you€™re paying more attention to fighting enemies now, but that only serves to highlight the fact that the combat system is the same old pressing of numbered keys in a particular cycle until the baddies die. At least with auto-attack, I could read a book or send a text whilst engaged in some pretty mind-numbing EXP grinds; now I€™m forced to watch every swing of the lightsaber. It seems fair that Bioware need to make a combat system that is familiar and easy to use €“ something that you€™re going to be able to pick up and play with instantly €“ but there is a surprising lack of innovation in this sector which I find a little frustrating.

Progression

Perhaps one of the most important elements of an MMO, a strong sense of character progression (narrative progression I€™ll discuss in the next section) is key to a faithful and happy audience. You may not be able to complete an MMO in the traditional sense of the word, but it€™s important to feel like you€™re constantly achieving something or working toward a goal. One of the most depressing feelings in an MMO €“ something I bet all players have experienced at least once €“ is realising you€™ve been wandering around aimlessly for the last few hours, occasionally checking your guild chat or just hopping from zone to zone not knowing what to do. The most obvious point of reference for character progression, of course, is loot. This seems to be becoming a running theme, but The Old Republic doesn€™t do much innovating here, either. With each level, you€™ll gain incrementally better weapons, armour and items, all coloured in the typical white to purple order of rarity. If you€™re the kind of person to get hooked on finding this stuff, The Old Republic isn€™t going to be any better or worse €“ you€™ll be right at home. In addition, each class splits off into two subclasses, each with their own separate talent trees for you to invest points into as you level up €“ no surprises here. As with the combat, though, there are a couple of areas where the game adds some interesting ideas. One of the most welcome improvements, for me, was in the professions. Referred to as crew skills, they€™re divided into mission, gathering and crafting categories. These include abilities such as treasure hunting, crafting, hacking/lockpicking €“ the kind of thing you€™d expect. The great thing about these is, in addition to running around the world and gathering items to level the skills yourself, you€™re also able to send any or all crew away on your behalf. This means that when running or driving from one point to another I could send my companion away to go and find some items for me, craft a weapon mod, or so on, and as a result I never felt like there was complete downtime where I was just waiting around or moving from place to place.
Companion progression is an odd element of the game. I€™ve yet to understand entirely what benefits it provides, but you€™re able to gift various items to your companions, for which you€™ll receive a certain amount of affection points. As it was in games like Dragon Age, this is an incredibly lazy way to show a growing friendship between you and your crew, but it€™s a little more justifiable here because of the sheer scale of the game. Companions with a higher level of affection do seem to return from crew skills missions bearing a larger horde of treasure, but this may just be my imagination. I€™m assuming that a higher affection rate unlocks certain sidequests or story missions with your companions, but I€™ve only encountered one of these so far and it seemed to be triggered by a plot point in the main thread, rather than my companion€™s affection level. On top of this, certain dialogue options and decisions you make will grant you light or dark side points, which are used to level up your alignment progression and purchase certain items. Of course, this means that any player opting to stay neutral is going to feel pretty left out. There€™s also a system in place which enables you to accrue social points, which are spent on various €˜social items€™ like nice looking clothes, or bombs which make people dance. Social points are gained through winning rolls in dialogue when you€™re entering an NPC conversation with another player. The rewards are quite petty and you€™ll rarely find yourself in a situation where you€™ll be gaining the points, but they are there, nonetheless. Overall, there€™re definitely enough things to keep you busy as far as character progression is concerned. If you€™re bored with the main quest line, you can hop back to other planets and do dailies in exchange for zone specific currency, you can jump onto your ship and engage in some space combat for a similar reward, or you can check out the PvP for a whole separate armoury of loot. If you€™re not in the mood for fighting there€™s always the crew skill system, although, as explained above, this is a fairly passive affair. To reiterate though, there€™s not really anything here that€™s ground-breaking but at the same time that means it€™s incredibly easy to get comfortable and sink into a relatively fun experience.

Storytelling

Here€™s where it gets interesting. To this point, narrative and storytelling in MMOs has been a fairly unimpressive affair. Some of the stories themselves can be great; there are plenty of interesting threads in games like World of Warcraft, for example, but they€™re told in a way that makes them completely unengaging and makes the player likely to just skip through until they receive the quest marker on their map. The main issue, I think, is that text-based quest lines aren€™t a particularly great use of the medium. Playing a videogame, one of the last things I want to do is sit and read a wall of text; I want something that allows me to actively participate, to interact with the story. That€™s something that Bioware have been masterful with in many of their games and that€™s what they€™re trying to bring to the table in The Old Republic. There are two main differences with other contemporary MMOs here. The first is voice acting. Each and every character in The Old Republic is voiced, drawing on a gargantuan pool of acting talent. This really helps bring you into the world in a way that other MMOs just don€™t offer. Some of the voice acting for smaller characters is nothing short of laughable €“ one vendor, for example, explained to me in the most nasal, deadpan voice I€™ve ever heard that he€™s €˜got the best hardware€™. However, a lot of it €“ in places where it really counts €“ is nothing short of sublime. The Sith warrior€™s main thread character Darth Baras springs to mind as an example of excellence; he€™s a highly intelligent, short-tempered and bitter man who spits out every word with a sadistic contempt. He€™s just one amongst an absolute abundance of great characters, however, and the game really shines here. Humorously, there are some surprisingly anachronistic hairstyles and tech peppered throughout the game. A lot of characters have sideburns like old farmers from the turn of last century and many of the vehicles look like they were designed by a futurist from 1945, but that€™s what you get when a game€™s art direction is influenced by a late 70€™s film set in a futuristic universe. It has a certain charm about it.
The other main difference is the inclusion of the dialogue wheel. The great thing about this mechanic €“ just as in Mass Effect €“ is that it allows the player to become actively involved in telling the story, really bringing the term €˜role playing€™ to life. All conversations with NPCs are handled using the dialogue wheel and, if you€™ve played other Bioware games in the past, you€™ll have no trouble getting into it; you can choose light, dark or neutral responses for most things and you€™ll lose or gain affection with your current companion based on your decisions and their own outlook. There are also a bunch of situations where going in certain directions will pay off later on; by allowing a republic group of soldiers to live, for example, they later came to help me battle a Sith lord I otherwise would have had a tough time against. Aside from the main story thread for each character, there are €“ in typical MMO fashion €“ a bunch of quests you can pick up from NPCs around the zones you€™re levelling in. There€™s little innovation here and, after a lengthy setup from an NPC giving me a story about how I need to infiltrate a powerful shadow cult gaining underground political sway, the story then translates €“ once filtered through the MMO mechanics machine - into killing 10 soldiers and collecting their teeth or something equally as boring and typical. This, unfortunately, is where the game starts to break down for me. The main story thread is often very engaging and well told, but it€™s only one quest line amongst countless that you€™ll run into. It€™s great that there are so many quests to choose from, but for the most part they all boil down to killing enemies and collecting items. Mirroring this repetition is the recorded dialogue; after the first few hours of gameplay you€™ll start to pick out numerous lines which were clearly recorded for the purpose of being used as standard responses, presumably for budget or time constraints. It€™s understandable that not all dialogue can be pitch perfect, but it makes for a strong disconnect between the dialogue wheel and the actual character response. Mass Effect did a consistently great job of using the dialogue wheel to approximate your own responses, which were then filtered by the character and spoken as dialogue. In The Old Republic, they only really hit this bar on the main story threads. Side missions can really take you out of the moment when something like €˜but why are the rebelling slaves fighting amongst themselves?€™ is translated as €˜please elaborate on that point you just made€™. Don€™t get me wrong, Bioware have done a great thing by injecting a little more storytelling into MMOs. It€™s just not hitting the mark all of the time. Ultimately, for me, the downfall of The Old Republic is that it feels incredibly safe. The voice acting and storytelling is bold and often compelling and areas where Bioware have attempted to innovate often pay off really well. It€™s a success in the sense that it plays like pretty much any other MMO you€™ve seen over the past few years. It€™s competent, but rarely exciting. There are some key story beats which really impress (getting your first lightsabre or seeing your ship for the first time), but for the most part the rest of the gameplay feels like I€™ve already done it all seven years ago. If I€™d played this game six years ago, I€™d have been calling it near-perfect. So is it worth playing? If you€™ve never played an MMO before, World of Warcraft is probably still going to be your best bet as it€™s a fully fleshed out, user friendly and incredibly varied game. For MMO players who are looking for something a little different, The Old Republic offers some impressive new environments to discover and some pretty fascinating storylines to follow. €˜WoW in space€™ has been thrown around quite a bit recently, but it€™s a fair term to apply to this game. If you enjoy the gameplay that titles like World of Warcraft and Rift have to offer, you€™ll undoubtedly enjoy The Old Republic. Whether the game has lasting appeal is something we€™ll only know in the coming months, but given the Star Wars license, I€™d say it€™ll be around for some time yet and, despite its failings, it€™s different and exciting enough to be worth a try. Star Wars: The Old Republic is available now for PC.
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Obsessive gamer trying to win at Achievements between working in film and new media.