When it comes to science fiction, there are – very broadly speaking – two types of people. There are those for whom the words “Star Wars” cause squeals of glee, as a result of a sudden flood of nostalgia and excitement that washes through their entire beings, and then there is everyone else.
Unfortunately for the former of these groups, there’s been a bit of a rigmarole surrounding the local release of SWTOR. It was announced late last year that the game would not be seeing an Australian debut in line with the rest of the world. As it stands, the game still has not officially been launched here, though it can be purchased from overseas, and EB has just started grey-importing it.
Since that time, BioWare has announced plans for local servers, targeted for the 1st of March, and an official launch will likely coincide with this, though at time of writing this was not set in stone.
Public service announcements aside, mere geographical supply issues couldn’t keep us from obtaining and playing the game, and from the moment “Star Wars” appears on-screen to the cue of John Williams’ iconic opening title theme, it’s clear this is a Star Wars game.
Having navigated a couple of intro movies, and created a character, a few things are painfully and immediately obvious. The character creation system is nondescript, the interface needs work (especially with the standard set by Rift last year), and combat is a cut-and-paste affair from most MMOs; not for SWTOR the innovative combos of DC Universe Online!
These niggles are quickly swept under the rug in light of the mission delivery system: it is simply the best one seen in an MMO this side of Age of Conan. Like in AOC’s Tortage, or more accurately, like the original Knights of the Old Republic games, talking to SWTOR’s quest-givers will trigger an interactive cut-scene with branching conversation.
Aside from the universe in which it’s set, of course, this system is the one defining feature of the game, and supports its storyline-driven structure and light/dark side alignment mechanic. It functions as an immersion tool, transitioning the player neatly from adventuring into story and back again without breaking flow.
The quality of the writing is generally quite impressive given the scale of the game, though occasionally dialogue can be a little cringe-worthy or poorly phrased. Having genuine conversations with NPCs however does a wonderful job of giving the player the sensation of being involved in the story, as opposed to ancillary to it, as tends to be the case in the genre, and provides ample motivation to continue questing.
The result of this is that we’re left with a game that, on the surface, shares more with traditional RPGs than their massively multiplayer variants. In fact, with the click of a button one can close the chat window, for all intents and purposes shutting themselves off from the rest of the player base, and can then effectively play SWTOR as a singleplayer game; the continuance of the KOTOR franchise.
While it serves as an effective smokescreen, it’s not a fool-proof implementation. The underlying mechanics are for the most part the tried and true tropes of the genre. Fed-Ex and Kill-X quests exist in abundance, though we can appreciate that the latter generally appear as “bonus” quests to complement the main goal. For example, you may be tasked with shutting down a generator in a rebel outpost, and once in the area a bonus quest will appear to defeat 25 outpost defenders. Happily these bonus missions can be ignored entirely, though chances are they will be completed through virtue of tackling the main mission, and doing so yields additional reward and experience points.
Running Flashpoints (SWTOR’s dungeon equivalent) multiple times also has the unfortunate side-effect of revealing the conversation system to be less deep, with less player impact than it first appears. While having multiple characters of different classes all weighing in lends a certain authenticity and welcome variety to the proceedings, it becomes apparent that NPC responses are frequently designed as an appropriate reply to a range of dialogue from myriad characters.
Compounding that issue is the lack of persistence any of the player’s decisions truly seem to have. Sure, there may be the opportunity to kill rather than capture an NPC during a Flashpoint, but the consequences so far from this type of decision have appeared to remain within the confines of the instance, lending no appreciable impact to the world, or even to the player’s character story.
The same problem is seen out in the game world proper. A mission may have the player deactivating enemy turrets, but wait a few minutes and the turret will respawn in the world for the next would-be Sith Lord to come along and deactivate.
Similarly, the companions players pick up on their journeys are a result of some decent storytelling personalised for each class, but also suffer persistence issues. The Sith Inquisitor for instance, frees a Dashade – a Force-resistant race that literally eats Force users – by the name of Khem Val who was also the companion of a powerful but long-dead Sith Lord. The story arc culminates in the binding of this unique individual as a servant to the player, and the story holds up until the player leaves Naga Sadow’s tomb and sees ten other Sith Inquisitors running around, also with Khem Val in tow.
This is certainly not an issue confined to SWTOR, it’s just more jarring given the game’s desire to effectively maintain the fiction of the stories it creates.
Companions themselves are a fantastic inclusion. Over the course of the game, players will recruit multiple followers, though only one can accompany the player at a time. They serve to offset a player’s skillset – melee-based classes will likely be benefitted by supportive companions who provide healing, while ranged classes can utilise tanking companions to keep enemies controlled.
The AI is impressive – for example, melee companions will avoid interrupting crowd-controlled enemies. It makes them almost as useful as partying with another player. In addition to this, the currently selected companion can be sent to vendor trash items much like the pets in Torchlight, reducing the amount of return trips players have to make to clear inventory space.
They can also be used to gather crafting materials in the world, and can be sent on missions for a range of rewards: from rare crafting supplies to light/dark alignment points, depending on the Crew Skills selected by the player. It works well to enhance the overall gaming experience for solo players.
As seen in other BioWare RPGs, your party members all have feelings and opinions. Sometimes they will have something to say in story conversation, and their affection towards the player is impacted by the player’s attitudes. Kill innocents where your companion disapproves, and it will damage your relationship with them, though they can be swayed with gifts. Those that like you may want to talk in the local cantina or on your ship, revealing more about themselves and rewarding you with XP and by enhancing the detail of the universe.
The player’s ship is perhaps one of the greatest missed opportunities of this game. While companions will all hang out and chat here if they have something to say, evoking very strong memories of KOTOR, the majority of missions are planet-bound, so the main reason to return to one’s ship is to travel to another planet.
It’s possible to undertake space missions, engaging enemy fighters, destroying space stations, enemy flagships and the like, but these sections are largely disappointing for anyone who’s experienced the brilliant X-Wing and TIE-Fighter games. Instead of piloting a ship through 360 degrees of space, the player is flown on rails through an area, reduced to pointing and clicking at objects to be destroyed while dodging an occasional obstacle. Throw in a time-limit and what feels like a disproportionately meagre amount of hit points (though ships can be upgraded with gear just like the player’s character) and the whole experience seems better ignored after a few short flights.
For every grievance that can be raised against this game however, there are two reasons to love it. That SWTOR is a labour of love is apparent in almost every crevice of the world. Bioware’s attention to detail is astonishing and everything about the game oozes Star Wars. The landscapes and terrain, creatures and people, architecture and history all feel connected and ineffably true to the universe. The worlds beg to be explored, with “datacrons” hidden in devious locations; the reward for finding them often a boost in base character statistics. The sound-scape is likewise amazing, from the electric clash of lightsabers to the score which could have been entirely composed by Williams himself. A working knowledge of Aurebesh, while by no means necessary, will round out the experience, allowing the translation of everything from console system messages, to propaganda posters. The Old Republic feels alive.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that the restrictions of current MMO design ideas keep undermining the effort Bioware put into crafting this game. In some ways it’s as though the studio wanted to make a new KOTOR first, and the massively multiplayer part was an afterthought. This could be read as an indictment of the entire genre, but SWTOR becomes a better game when, as mentioned previously, one closes the chat window and plays it as a singleplayer game in the KOTOR universe. In this way there are multiple class narratives to experience through 50 levels and hours upon hours of role-playing, and though some of the experience is shared between classes (in starting zones for example) the quality of the story should be impetus enough to not let this be discouraging.
If one is to play it as a singleplayer game, however, one must also question whether a monthly subscription is then worth paying for. Consider another Bioware title – say, Mass Effect 2. As a full-priced game it offers one story; SWTOR offers eight. To keep playing new content in ME2, one has to purchase DLC. Is $12 for a pack that adds a few extra hours of play less acceptable than $15 for 30 days of play time that also includes automatic access to patches and new content as it is released?
While mechanically it doesn’t stray from traditional MMO design, The Old Republic is not a traditional MMO. If the words “endgame” or “power-levelling” are part of your vocabulary, this is not a game for you. For the first time, this is a massively multiplayer game that can genuinely claim to be about the journey, not the destination, and if you love Star Wars, we believe it’s a journey you should definitely take.
Originally published in PCPP#201.