January 5, 2012 by Paul Curtin
BioWare’s latest is one of the most ambitious development projects of all time, with a fully voiced world, 12 full-time writers, more content than all of BioWare’s other games combined, and a development cost rumored to be over $135 million. So has BioWare’s latest lived up to the hype and in doing so been able to be the first game ever to be deemed the “World of Warcraft killer” or is this another Star Wars MMO that shot for the stars and crash-landed at launch?
Bioware is no stranger to the Star Wars franchise: in 2003 while Sony Online Entertainment was struggling with Galaxies, BioWare was launching one of their most successful games, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For years Star Wars fans have been demanding more Knights of the Old Republic, and BioWare has made good on their promises by coming back to the Star Wars series and making The Old Republic play out as eight new versions of KotOR all in one game, one game/story for each character class.
Set 3,500 years before the films, The Old Republic allows a player to select from eight unique classes: Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler, and Trooper on the Republic side, and Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Imperial Agent, and Bounty Hunter on the Empire side. Each class plays its own unique role when grouped with others like most MMOs: Jedi Knights and Sith Warriors work as melee tanks, Jedi Consulars and Sith Inquistiors take the casting DPS role, Smugglers and Imperial Agents work as ranged DPS, and Troopers and Bounty Hunters work as ranged tanks.
Each class has two advanced classes they can choose between once reaching level 10, and there are also multiple classes like the Imperial Agent who can choose between a pure DPS spec or healing build, which makes class selection a little more versatile than other MMOs. Each class sans the Imperial Agent has a story that follows personality types from the movies, like Bounty Hunters playing the role of Boba Fett and Smugglers playing the role of Han Solo.
While BioWare hasn’t reinvented the wheel with their character and class selection options, they’ve brought over their Mass Effect dialog choice wheel, which has allowed them to do the unthinkable and introduce their award-winning storytelling into a massive multiplayer universe. For those unfamiliar with the choice wheel: Players are usually given three different options to pick from every time an interaction between another character in the game’s story is initiated with one choice being the clear good (Light Side) response, one being the clear evil (Dark Side) response, and the middle option being a somewhat moderate response which can sometimes lean more towards good or evil.
As a previous Warcrackhead who played World of Warcraft for years, I’ve been craving a new MMO to satisfy my loot hording and PVP needs. I’m a huge fan of Blizzard games, but personally I just don’t care about the Warcraft lore and WoW‘s dated graphics and carrot-on-a-stick formula wasn’t enough to keep me interested. It’s not that Blizzard hasn’t created an amazing universe that one can dive deep into, it’s the way in which World of Warcraft tells its story that made me mostly lose interest.
Quests and endgame content in MMOs like WoW explain objectives to you in multi-paragraph text messages that somebody who just wants to play a game could care less about. I had no idea why we were killing Onyxia, Ragnaros, Nefarian, C’Thun, Kel’Thuzad, or The Lich King — I just went with my guild to kill them so that we could be one of the top guilds that downed them first on our server and got the best loot that nobody else could obtain.
The Old Republic changes all of that by actually making you care about your character and the story that’s being told through the use of fully voiced cutscenes for every quest you take and every dungeon you raid. Not only do you get to use BioWare’s choice wheel to select your own responses, but you get to actually see and hear characters interact to the choices you make. The dialog can become a bit repetitive when raiding the same Flashpoints (Dungeons) over and over again, but thankfully there’s the space bar that allows scenes to be skipped.
BioWare’s brilliant storytelling methods allow for players to truly live vicariously through their in-game characters instead of like in other MMOs where players just use a lifeless generic avatar whose claim to fame is obtaining the same generic armor that everyone else has. Unlike their previous singleplayer games, The Old Republic allows millions of players (split up onto about 100 different servers) to all play at once with the game remembering every individual decision each player makes. There’s no option to reload a save point once a decision is made; once you do something in the universe, it’s set in stone just like the real world. It truly is the best use of BioWare’s epic storytelling system and has revolutionized how MMOs will be played forever.
To add to the realism comes solid character animations and visuals. While the graphics and art direction aren’t anything stunning, they’re still pretty impressive for an MMO, especially if you’re coming from the outdated WoW visuals. The only problems I’ve found with the visuals is the lack of diversity among character creation and lack of Anti-Aliasing, which was teased in the beta.
The character creation is impressive and offers thousands of combinations, but each race is fairly similar and all use the same generic four body types. Also, one of the main benefits of playing a game on a PC is the ability to up the AA and make objects look less jagged. Without any AA the game looks nowhere near as good as it could. There is a trick to re-enable AA, but it can cause texture issues, which is likely why BioWare has disabled it for the time being. Hopefully BioWare will fix their problems with AA and patch the settings back in the near future.
Quest design is also very well constructed and although there is still the use of typical MMO gather missions or kill-set-number-of-bad-guy missions, the dialog you’ll have between the quest giver beforehand actually gives the objective purpose and helps make things interesting, especially if you choose to play the evil villain who screws over your quest giver by keeping what they’re after or just killing them off. Since you won’t have the option to reload a checkpoint and every choice you make goes towards your character’s reputation and story, it can at times turn a simple generic MMO mission into a moral dilemma that you might need to sleep on.
In addition to well-designed individual quests that will make you forget you’re playing an MMO come Flashpoint instances that allow players to team up and take on harder areas. The Flashpoints again play out similarly to typical MMO dungeons or instances but with a little more action and the twist of allowing players to again interact with characters during cutscenes but now giving each player in the group at least a chance to pick via rolling the highest number. To keep everyone happy, BioWare has made it so that players who lose rolls still get points based on the option they picked despite having to play out the good or evil version of the Flashpoint that was selected by the highest roll.
The combat is also very unique for an MMO in that it successfully offers two completely different gameplay styles. The majority of the game takes place on the ground in traditional MMO fashion with slight upgrades to line of sight hit detection, the removal of auto-attack, and a cover system for some ranged classes that helps keep combat feeling fresh. However, there’s also space combat that plays like Star Fox and can really change things up if you feel the standard MMO-style missions start getting repetitive. Each player is given his or her own ship with onboard crew, just like the Mass Effect series that allows for travel between different planets that BioWare has stated they will constantly be adding in order to make their Star Wars universe even grander.
Again, like Mass Effect, each player is given companions who can aid them in combat. Each companion levels up with the player automatically and can be outfitted in their entire own set of armor and weapons to make them perform better. Companions are able to be used everywhere but in PVP Warzones and are another great addition to the MMO genre that has been taken from BioWare’s other successful franchise Mass Effect.
Like the combat system, companions are slightly less advanced than those in the Mass Effect series and you can only use one at a time, but they’re still great help in times when you can’t seem to find anybody else to team with and would otherwise be stuck in other MMOs. SWTOR also features a very unique profession system in which your character doesn’t actually do the crafting themselves and can assign crafting skills to companions in order to send them out on their own “missions” to gather resources. It’s a perfect system for those like me who don’t want to waste time with professions and just want to have fun playing the game.
While companions can’t be used in Player vs. Player Warzones, that doesn’t make PVP any less fun, and each of the three game modes offered are surprisingly well made for the game’s launch and even more enjoyable than what other MMOs currently offer. There’s Voidstar that plays like a traditional attack/defend-style mode pitting two teams against one another in multiple rounds, Alderaan where two teams fight for control of three points on a map racing to hold their positions longer than the enemy, and Huttball which allows players of each two teams to carry and throw a ball across a multi-level arena filled with fire traps with the objective of carrying the ball past the other team’s goal line like a futuristic football or rugby. There’s even world combat between factions, which can break out almost any time if a player chooses a PVP server. Those who favor the game’s story can also choose to play on less competitive PVE servers that don’t allow PVP in select areas.
In addition to a lot of big changes to the classic MMO, BioWare has also taken note of some smaller issues and revamped the way in which a lot of traditional things worked in past MMOs. Players no longer need to acquire food or water in order to recover their health and energy after each battle; instead players can just use a skill given to them at level 1 that always lets them recover when not in battle without the use of any regiments.
The death system has also been improved by giving players the option to respawn back at their local camp or right where they died and using a small cooldown timer that increases the more a player chooses to respawn where they died. Looting enemies can also be switched to loot groups of enemies within a good distance and enemies who have died with quest items on them even glow a unique yellow color rather than blue to help you keep track of everything you’ve killed and still need to loot. There’s a grocery list of areas that BioWare has improved and even a lot that still need to be added like mods, damage/threat meters, player chat bubbles, and summoning, but for the most part BioWare has done their homework on how they can make an MMO better than the rest and earned their A.
BioWare hasn’t reinvented the MMO with The Old Republic, but they’ve definitely revolutionized and brought new life to it. I’ve stayed away from the MMORPG scene for a couple years and have been begging for a game worthy of feeding my online RPG addiction without having to go back to WoW. Not being a huge fan of Star Wars, I was skeptical if I would enjoy The Old Republic, but by spending the most time playing the Imperial Agent class I was able to just enjoy a BioWare MMO with elements of both Mass Effect and Star Wars. That’s not to say any of the other seven classes are any less fun and whether you’re a fan of Star Wars or not, no matter which class you pick you’ll enjoy each story being told due to how much effort has been put into each.
While The Old Republic won’t kill World of Warcraft (nothing besides Blizzard pulling the plug or the Internet exploding will), it’s the first game worthy of taking WoW‘s crown and stealing a good amount of its playerbase. Only time will tell if BioWare’s latest RPG will be able to become more popular than WoW, but with the game already being more enjoyable and fresh at such an early stage, there’s a very good chance that TOR could grow into the next massive MMO series.
BioWare clearly knows what makes WoW good and with the addition of new end game content and some minor patches to fix current issues in the future could do it even better. There were a lot of masterpieces that came out this year, but none that I can see people still playing hardcore and investing thousands of hours in years from now and even getting far better down as it grows down the line, which is why The Old Republic is 2011’s Game of the Year and the current best reason to own a PC. Star Wars: The Old Republic gets 5 out of 5 stars (Masterpiece).
- Fully voiced storytelling unlike any MMORPG has ever done before
- New combat mechanics like the cover system and no auto-attack make battles more exciting
- Space battles add a new combat dynamic to the traditional MMO
- Multiple PVP Warzones are surprisingly well made for how new the game is
- Tweaks to traditional MMO features make the game easier and more fun
- Minor bugs and features missing from other MMOs that need to be fixed and added via patches
- No Anti-Aliasing option takes away from what the graphics could be
- Conversations can become repetitive when doing Flashpoints multiple times