Star Wars: The Old Republic…Why You Should Be Playing
Posted by Michael on February 9, 2012
If you’re not playing Star Wars: The Old Republic (affectionately known ’round the internetz as “SWTOR“) and you have even a passing interest in video games at all, you’re missing out. If you are a fan of Star Wars, you really need to be playing this game. If you’re not a fan of Star Wars, you still need to be playing this game. If you ever enjoyed World of Warcraft, you really, really need to be playing this game.
For those of you who care about the Star Wars lore of this game, it takes place approximately 3,600 years before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Also, approximately 300 years after the Knights of the Old Republic role-playing video games. So in neither case will you see characters you recognize from any movie you’ve seen, nor will you probably run into any characters from any game you’ve played. (I do not know that last statement to be 100% fact, as some characters live long enough to show up in both, but I have not seen nor read any account of that happening thus far.) There are references to Revan, the main character in Knights of the Old Republic 2, but he’s spoken of only in past tense. There are several advantages to setting the game in this point in the Star Wars history. Primarily, there is no worry of doing anything to affect the “canon” of Star Wars. In terms of the big picture, however, it’s at a point in time where the Sith were thought extinct, but have just made a resurgence, joined the Empire, and are at war with the Republic. Thus, an abundance of Jedi, an abundance of Sith, and plenty of people aiding one side or the other, for honor, fame, or just cold, hard cash.
As with all massively-multiplayer online role-playing games, SWTOR starts off by letting you create your character. Choose which side you’ll fight for, class, race, and gender, give your character a name, and set out in your pursuit of adventure. On the side of the Republic, you can play a Jedi Knight, a Jedi Consular, a trooper, or a smuggler. On the side of the Empire, you can play a Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, bounty hunter, or Imperial agent. Each class per side has its own play style, although each one also corresponds almost perfectly to a class on the opposing side. (The Inquisitor and the Consular are nearly identical in play style and abilities, for example.) As you progress in levels you’ll gain new abilities and your existing abilities will become more powerful. You will find companions that will travel (and perhaps form romantic relationships) with you, get your own spaceship (!), and eventually buy your own landspeeder.
Anyone familiar with World of Warcraft will find SWTOR immediately accessible. The user interface looks and functions much like that of any MMORPG…the usual quickbar slots across the bottom that fill up with various attacks and buffs as you level. Level mechanics are basically the same as you’re used to — perform quests for various characters you meet, as a reward you’ll receive experience points, credits, and various “loot.” Explore the map, complete more quests, level up, and eventually you’ll move on to the next zone. However, they manage to avoid making the level-up process feel like a grind, the way it does in WoW. For all the elements that they took from WoW, they added two things that make the game play very, very differently…and in this case, different is good.
First, companions. Early in the game, you’ll get a companion who will travel with you. This is a common trope in single-player RPGs (and Bioware, the makers of SWTOR, definitely know how to make good single-player RPGs, as they were also the creators of Knights of the Old Republic), but typically MMOs don’t take this approach. Having someone traveling with you constantly, typically of a class that complements yours, certainly makes adventuring without a party not only feasible, but actually a perfectly approachable strategy. In, fact, Bioware stated that you should not find any quest in your class quest line (ie, the line of quests that MUST be beaten to move the story forward and continue progressing from planet to planet) that you cannot beat “solo” with your companion. As the game advances, you will have more companions join you on your ship. Only one can travel with you on-planet for quests at a time, but the others can handle “crew skills,” (basically, crafting) while left on the ship. You can assign each of them a mission to complete, and they’ll just go take care of things for you. Many factors, including choices you make in-mission and gifts that you may purchase for them, will affect your companions’ affection rating toward you; however, at this point, aside from the option to develop a “romance” with some of them, this affection rating seems to have very little bearing on gameplay.
The second big improvement over most MMOs: Story. Each class has its own quest storyline. Every conversation with every NPC in the game takes place in a pseudo-cutscene, where you choose your responses — and they make a difference in how the quest unfolds. These choices can range from the mundane (answer with a snarky tone or a straightforward one) to the critical (kill the traitor, or show them mercy). Often times you will acquire “light side” or “dark side” points based on the choices you make, and many of them may also influence how your companion feels about you. Some conversations may also let you use Force powers mid-conversation, like the Jedi Mind Trick or the dark side’s Force Lightning. The way Bioware has approached the conversation angle in this game (which is nearly identical to that of Mass Effect or Dragon Age, if you’ve played those) is definitely a new approach to MMOs. The result is that it plays very much like a single-player RPG that happens to have other people running around — who you can join up with if you like, but by no means is it required. With each class having its own storyline and the ability to complete the vast majority of all quests in the game solo, Star Wars: The Old Republic plays a lot more like 8 single-player games woven into one retail box, with the option to play multiplayer if you’re so inclined.
Although I can heap loads of praise upon this game (and I do!), it’s certainly not perfect. While MMO veterans may find the game immediately accessible, newcomers to the genre won’t find it holding their hands to break them in easy. The game has tooltips and some “general info” hints, but don’t expect a fleshed-out tutorial. And don’t expect to be able to heavily customize your UI, either. Those coming from WoW may be used to all kinds of helpers and add-ins to tailor the experience to your playstyle, but SWTOR will have none of that. You can add a couple of addition quickbars from the initial setup, but that’s about it. (No definite word on whether this will change in the future, but it’s generally expect that some degree of add-ins will initially make the feature list.) Some of the first few planets for each class feel more “restricted” than a lot of MMOs (although they open up as you move throughout the story), making it feel as though you are following very set paths on the planets. Those accustomed to the level of freedom that most other MMOs afford you may be put off a bit by this at first. And, as is common for any company’s first MMO launch, there are the few random, occasional bugs and glitches that demonstrate that it’s not quite flawless. Still, few can argue that the game has had a remarkably smooth launch, and overall has a surprising amount of polish.
While no game will please every gamer, Star Wars: The Old Republic certainly brings a lot to the table, for those craving the MMO experience or the single-player storyline, whether you’re a die-hard Star Wars fanatic, or completely uninitiated in the universe. The overall package is incredibly polished, the stories are generally well-written, the music is spot-on what you’d expect for the setting, and the voice acting is excellent, and adds a lot to the final gameplay experience. What most games convey as “go here, do this, kill X of these, and collect the foozle” experiences, SWTOR has managed to create a sense of purpose, giving you a reason to destroy the droids and collect memory cores. While it might not be everyone’s “Best Game Evar,” I’ll very, very surprised if anyone claims to not at least get their money’s worth out of the $60 MSRP and the first free month. The final package is a very satisfying, very addictive, and very, very Star Wars experience.