Star Wars: The Old Republic represents the latest collaboration between RPG house BioWare and the guardians of George Lucas’ epic space opus, LucasArts. BioWare’s first foray into the MMORPG genre, the game picks up where the KOTOR games left off, expanding the universe into a multiplayer experience that will have Star Wars fans jumping for joy while MMO fans will be left hungering something more substantial.
The visual style in Star Wars: The Old Republic is very appealing, with an exaggerated design style that is both accessible and interesting. The Star Wars universe is a colorful one, full of interesting alien creatures and vast landscapes. Bioware’s take on this universe is very reminiscent of the Clone Wars miniseries, and I don’t think that was accidental by any means. The more cartoon take on the art direction allows for a very strong render on humanoid models, and completely leaps over the Uncanny Valley problem without missing a beat.
While the character design and general art direction are strong in SWTOR, the level design seems rather bland by comparison. Planets – the levels in this game having been segregated by world -- seem to fall into one of three categories: Swamps, Deserts, or Cities. With an entire universe out there, you would think that the known universe would be filled with infinite variety. Instead what you get is a mild variation on these three themes, and as such the level art has you burning to get off each world as fast as possible. This is a shame, because with such a vast landscape as the universe as your playground, you should want to explore every inch of the terrain and discover new and untold wonders.
Wonders in general are very rare in Star Wars: The Old Republic. There are a ton of shortcuts taken with art assets, to the point that the designers have often stood identical models next to each other in a setting where I doubt cloning technology has flourished quite yet. And the shortcuts just don’t stop with NPCs. There is no depth to the water in any of the worlds in the game, so swimming mechanics where just skipped. It doesn’t really matter anyway, because these aren’t planets you can explore. There are set questing maps, and you are kept from veering off them to adventure. On the one hand it’s understandable that a game as big as SWTOR would have to find shortcuts to limit their design time, but on the other when you advertise a vast universe for exploring, then the game should deliver that sense of grandeur.
The music in the game feels much like you would expect a Star Wars epic, although the swell of grand orchestrated pieces sometimes feels out of place when you’re simply knocking out a street thug. The largest advancement in the game is by far the voice work, since the game is filled with voiced dialog nearly everywhere you look. A lot of these conversations are with alien races whose phoneme set is so limited that you are often left standing there while the text floats by but the character is completely silent. It’s another example of the shortcuts BioWare took to ship the game on time, but it ends up feeling clunky and awkward in places as a result.
Much like any BioWare title, Star Wars: The Old Republic is built around the premise of the player’s personal journey through the world. The over emphasis on the personal story results is a rather limited social experience. Every player is dealing with their own epic journey, and these never cross or collide for fear or messing up the personal experience. The trouble is this is a multiplayer game built as if it were a single player game. The MMO elements that are recognizable seem mostly borrowed from other games. Quests seem to be limited to three types: FedEx, Kill, and Escort, with no effort an innovation. Most of the abilities in the game are also reskins of others you’ve already seen; one has only to compare the Shock of the Sith Inquistor to the Jedi Consular’s Telekinectic Throw, which throws little rocks at your enemy. The result is that many of the classes in the game feel identical to others, except for their voices and their gear. Playing a Smuggler is pretty much the same as playing a Bounty Hunter.
Character replay value is completely negated by the fact that every class quest is identical to the others, and even their voices are the same no matter the race. Sure you can roll another Trooper to see what he looks like when he takes the Dark Side choices, but ultimately that only changes his skin tone, and since there’s no way to skip through conversations, you’ll be stuck reliving the same exact moments over and over again.
By far the worst travesty in SWTOR is the complete failure of the social dialog system. Having experienced the complexities of keeping your friends close and getting your enemies to stick around long enough to fight for you that is Dragon Age: Origins, Star Wars: The Old Republic completely fails and what should have been the highlight of the game: group interaction. You can often group with up to five players, as is standard, and all of you must approve of a conversation with an NPC to have it start, but your characters will never interact with one another. Instead you roll a die to see who gets a turn to speak, and those who lose the turn stand silently looking on while someone else speaks for them – sometimes making opposite choices to what they might have done.
Another weakness in the game is the crafting system. Crafting professions were traditionally added to MMOs as a way to provide activities for players to preform while they were in between battles or quests. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, however, crafting is done by your companions, who disappear for an allotted period of time and magically return with the item you asked them to make. This takes away a huge element of realism to the MMO experience, and forces players to have to stand around with nothing to do while they wait for a group to form, or a PvP Battlezone to start. Since the point of crafting is to deepen the MMO experience, it seems a great shame to trivialize the process to where it is merely an afterthought.
When we hear the name BioWare we immediately think about story, since they are master craftsman in the art of weaving a tale. Knowing that BioWare specializes in story driven games and hearing how they boasted about the true impact that the players can make on the world, you would expect Star Wars: The Old Republic to have revolutionized MMO storytelling.
The truth is that once again the game falls flat. The storylines for each of the classes is deeply singular, and despite the fact that you are playing a multiplayer game, there is never a point in a quest where you are affected by the other classes that are playing on the same planet as you. Most of the story elements are held behind instances, saving the need for large scale phasing such as you might have seen in other games. And true to the nature of instances, their isolation from the rest of the game means that you are not, in fact, making any actual impact on the game world. You leave the instance, and yet another Sith Inquisitor steps in to repeat the pantomime all over again.
The strong tool in BioWare’s arsenal is the concept of choice: The idea that the decisions you make as a player will affect the story. So far in playing half of the classes available in the game, I have yet come across any major dialog choice that truly changes the outcome of the conversation: You either accept the quest -- gaining reputation points for Light or Dark side along the way for what you say -- or you don’t. Because of the pressure of the reputation mechanic, it is actually very hard to make your own dialog choices, since many times the choice you make will net you the opposite reputation points from what you are trying to garner. The result is a straightforward dialog system with little choice, driven not by branching story, but by reputation gain pressure.
And yet the story (or rather stories) in Star Wars: The Old Republic are compelling enough to bring the player back again and again. The player feels the need to know the end of a story arc once it begins, and it’s good to know that BioWare hasn’t completely lost their touch when it comes to weaving a good tale. If you don’t mind the weaknesses that come with the lack of innovation in the story mechanics, then SWTOR is a satisfying game that provides hours of content spread across a vast universe.
By and large the quality of Star Wars: The Old Republic feels very solid. There were little to no launch day crashes, and the server stability has been strong. There have been some instances of quests bugging out, some to the point of inhibiting gameplay. I do have to list the over reliance on alien voice work in the game under a quality issue here, because in my mind when you have to stand around in silence for more than seven seconds reading a conversation instead of hearing it, that’s a quality issue. Most of the problems I’ve had with the game did not prevent gameplay though, and instead of reflecting poor quality rather, these represent poor design decisions on part of the development team.
In the end, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a solid MMO experience that suffers not so much from its weaknesses, but more from the build up of what BioWare promised their fans. BioWare promised us epic storylines where our choices would have a real impact on the world. They promised us a fully voiced MMO. They promised us the Second Coming of MMOs.
The easiest way to describe Star Wars: The Old Republic is to say that it is essentially Mass Effect with a Star Wars skin. In some ways I wish that instead of trying to build an MMO they had instead given us a solid singleplayer KOTOR game, since most of the MMO elements were either borrowed from other games or skimped upon to save time and resources. And yet, with its faults, SWTOR still pulls players in with interesting stories. Whether or not it lives on once those storylines are complete remains to be seen.