Release Date: December 20, 2011
Developer: BioWare Austin/BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Rating: T for Teen (Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Sexual Themes, Violence)
Reviewer played from the December launch to mid-February. Leveled a Jedi Knight to level cap and multiple alts into the twenties.
I’d like to take you back for a moment, to the long ago year of 2008. BioWare was riding high off of the success of the first Mass Effect game; its first ever next gen effort. Things were looking good for the venerable RPG developer, who had thus far enjoyed a decade of critical praise and financial success from games such as the Baldur’s Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and of course Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Their name had become nearly synonymous with western RPGs, popularizing an interactive storytelling system based around choice and consequence, a system that built upon the ideas of numerous niche games that came before them such as Wasteland and classic Adventure games. As years went by, BioWare’s fanbase continued to grow with each new release. It seemed to many that they could do no wrong.
Taking these things into account, you can understand the excitement that came in October of 2008 when Bioware announced that they would be making an MMORPG in the setting of the Knights of the Old Republic series. Set in an unexplored period in the Star Wars universe thousands of years before the rise of Palpatine’s Empire, where Jedi and Sith were numerous and waged war across the galaxy, it seemed like the ideal setting for a Massively Multiplayer game, the first real potential threat to the unstoppable juggernaut that was World of Warcraft. By combining classic BioWare-style roleplaying with a tried and true MMO formula, it was clear that the developers had high hopes of toppling the years old giant of the genre. Details were vague at first, and fans waited in eager anticipation to hear more about what was looking to be BioWare’s biggest game yet.
Time went by, cinematic trailers were released, and more information began to come out about BioWare’s vision for an MMO. Reactions were mixed to some of the things that fans were seeing. Some questioned decisions such as including only four classes, sticking to primarily human-looking races for character creation and adopting a Mass Effect-esque dialogue wheel featuring only paraphrased conversation options, which many saw as quite a departure, a “dumbing down” of sorts for a system that once offered full knowledge of what their character would say, as well far more choices when it came to what they wanted to say, though some instead saw this as a necessary concession in order to have your main character voice their dialogue. Anticipation continued, but a sense of unease began to creep into the community.
December 20, 2011, the big day had come. After months of forum lurking, beta tests and replaying KOTOR 1 and 2, I was ready to dive into a new MMO for the first time since I broke my WoW habit six months back. I was immediately greeted by the sight of far more servers than I expected, over a hundred of them, with many more on the EU side. Every single one of them was full to capacity. As someone who has participated in many MMO launches in the past, I could hear the alarms going off in the back of my head. Big ambitious launches tended to end in empty servers and crushed dreams after the initial hype died down. Wary but hopeful, I picked a server and took my place in the hours-long line to get in.
Players in Star Wars: The Old Republic are split into two factions, the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire, just as World of Warcraft’s player base is divided into the Alliance and the Horde. There are four classes to choose from during character creation, mirrored and reskinned for each faction. For example, the Jedi “spellcaster” class is known as the Jedi Consular for the Republic and the Sith Sorceror for the Empire. One throws debris and uses telekinesis while the other hurls lightning, but both have the same skillsets and are essentially the same class. The same is true for all other classes.
These four starting classes branch off into two Advanced Classes starting at level ten, augmenting your initial class with an additional set of abilities tailored to the role you prefer to play. For example, the Consular splits off into the Sage, a ranged class capable of healing or dealing damage, and the Shadow, a melee class that can either tank or deal damage. These two different “flavors” seem meant to stretch four classes into something that, in theory, would create the same feeling of variety that games with a larger number of classes would have. It more or less works, though I question the wisdom of forcing a player to roll two different versions of the same class and play through the same exact storyline a second time if they want to experience both Advanced Classes.
When SWTOR was first announced, it was with the bold claim that the game would serve not just as KOTOR 3, but with each class viewed as its own separate full-length sequel. This claim was greatly exaggerated. Each of the four primary classes has their own storyline built around them, one long quest chain that guides them from level 1 to 50, giving some semblance of a purpose to the typical MMO grind. While it is true that each class has a few hours of unique content to it, every storyline will inevitably guide you through the same series of planets beginning to end, and the quests that aren’t class specific (which make up the vast majority) play out almost exactly the same no matter what class you complete them as. While dialogue options aplenty are presented to you in conversation, these decisions are almost always utterly meaningless as they produce the exact same result, the only real difference being how much of an asshole you were in getting there. With only one possible progression to take through the planets, I found attempting to roll alts in SWTOR to be one of the most boring experiences I have ever had in an MMO, despite the fully voice acted dressings.
SWTOR’s interface is similar to WoW’s. In fact it is almost exactly the same, the big differences being that some things have been moved around slightly and the whole thing is colored blue. There are some glaring flaws in its layout, such as tooltips and PVP objectives that have a tendency of covering up some of the hotkeys. Lack of UI customization and add-on support mean that the player is forced to deal with these flaws. Customization is being touted as a one of the big additions in the upcoming 1.2 patch, but add-ons, a feature that I feel should be standard in MMOs at this point, remain sadly absent.
The world of SWTOR is broken up into planets. Players will travel the galaxy in the starship given to them during their storyline, visiting worlds both new and old to Star Wars lore. These planets are further divided into multiple areas on the map with each area containing slightly stronger enemies than the last. Typically the player’s class quest will guide them through each of these areas one a time, leading them conveniently from one quest hub to another.
The sheer scale of the planets is impressive. I get the feeling that two or more of World of Warcraft’s larger zones could be contained within a single SWTOR zone. Everything from big open fields to the interiors of buildings has a realistic size to it. As I walk through hangars and Republic bases I get the sense that these are places built to accommodate hundreds of people and dozens of starships. Enough houses and shops line city streets that I can believe that these are places where an actual community could exist, even if I’m not seeing all of its inhabitants. However, this massiveness also results in travel times that are often long and tedious, and things just seem empty and lifeless on planets with low population. Things are so spread out that I rarely even saw another player unless I was on either a very low or high level planet. I get the sense that BioWare thought a lot more people would be visiting and spending long amounts of time in these places than actually are. Honestly, once a planet has been quested-through and explored there is little reason to ever return beyond to searching for a few collectibles. By level fifty I found myself mostly hanging around the fleet all day.
There is an odd obsession with the number three when it comes to enemy placement. Almost all enemies seem to stick to groups of three. Sometimes you’ll run into wild animals that roam solo, or large clusters of five or more, but more often than not it’s a group of three. Despite a large and planet-specific variety in what these enemies look like, dispatching them is never more involving than mashing a few buttons. Gangsters, Sand People, Battle droids all come at you making different noises but otherwise behaving more or less the same. Some carry melee weapons and other use blasters, but there is little difference beyond the distance you must clear to kill them. As you get into the higher levels some enemies will attempt such advanced tactics as trying to heal each other, in which case you should mash buttons at the healer before the rest. Taking down entire groups of enemies with just yourself and your companion has a rather epic feel to it I’ll admit, but that feeling weakens significantly after you’ve done it hundreds of times.
Combat is hotkey based and, like the interface, very reminiscent of WoW with one key difference: there is no auto attack. Because of this, combat requires an extra level of attention, with the player having to mix mashing the standard attack button into their usual cooldowns and combat rotations. Some will say this improves combat by making them feel more involved, but I don’t see the point of it. I found that having to constantly keep track of that one extra key made things a little frantic at times. Call me a casual, but I would have preferred to have auto attack.
Each ability has its own unique and flashy-looking animation, which is nice, or would be if all sorts of problems and imbalances hadn’t risen from it. While the big issues at launch such as a built in half second delay were (eventually) patched up, the hardcore PVP crowd in particular continues to find fault with all of the complicated animations hindering the speed of gameplay, as well as some abilities that are supposedly mirrored dealing their damage faster for one faction or another’s version.
Those who prefer to do their hotkey mashing as a team have the option of getting together into groups of four to run flashpoints, SWTOR’s version of instanced dungeons. There’s very little to discuss here for anyone familiar with running dungeons to be honest. You and your allies run through hallways, caves and various military complexes killing groups of monsters and acquiring loot. Where SWTOR differs is that occasionally your group will find themselves interacting with NPCs that they come across during the mission, engaging in group cutscenes where dice are rolled to see which of the four of you get to say the next line. Light Side or Dark Side points are occasionally handed out depending on what you WANTED to say, regardless of what action your group actually takes, so there’s no worry of doing something that will hurt your status (though inevitably your group will end up doing things every now and then that, from a roleplaying point of view, you might feel your character would never allow). Another somewhat amusing feature is the ability to occasionally put your crew skills to use, hacking elevators or blasting holes in walls to open up shortcuts or repairing damaged droids to serve as temporary pets. It’s nothing other MMOs haven’t done before, but it’s a nice touch.
In addition to questing, grouping and PVP, there is a minigame of sorts available in space missions. Anyone who has ever played Star Fox on the N64 should have a good idea of what those play like. Guiding your ship around obstacles while blasting enemy fighters and completing objectives in on-rails based missions make for a nice, nostalgic little distraction, but don’t expect them to hold your interest for very long. Sadly there are very few of them, and the ones that are there are mostly reskins of each other with enemies scaled to the bracket you are in. I would have liked to see some sort of free-flight mode, as well as multiplayer. I’d like to note that Star Wars Galaxies, SWTOR’s predecessor, had both these things (admittedly not at launch), and executed them fairly well. Upgrading, modifying, and customizing your ship could have provided all sorts of fun, but sadly ship parts are few and limited to straight up upgrades of each other.
Despite its massive voice cast and feeble efforts at innovation, SWTOR feels like a game trapped several years in the past, a game that wants to impress but is afraid to stray too far from what you’ve come to expect from MMOs. Many of its elements are heavily borrowed from World of Warcraft, but most of these things are features that WoW itself has since removed or heavily revamped, such as talent trees and the mechanics of many of the class abilities. At the same time it has failed to deliver on basic things that many would expect a modern MMO to have day-one, such as dual specialization, guild banks and a looking for group system. Some of these features have been promised for future patches, but to me it seems like too little too late. I just don’t care to stick around waiting for BioWare to fulfill these promises when superior experiences are available in the here and now.
WoW has survived many competitors since its launch, and you would think developers would have learned a very obvious lesson from them by now: you are not going to kill WoW by making WoW. There have been many comparisons made between SWTOR and Vanilla WoW, which frankly is hard to see as a good thing. BioWare is competing with World of Warcraft as it is now in 2012, with years of tweaking and three full expansions under its belt, not World of Warcraft as it was at launch in 2004. In order to entice gamers away from their eight years of investment in Azeroth, you must offer them something new and shiny, something with a 2012 level of content and polish, something that they haven’t already bought and been subscribed to already for years.
BioWare relied heavily on World of Warcraft as a template when designing The Old Republic, a game that is really beginning to show its age for many of us. It might have seemed like a smart thing to do back when development began way back when, but was it wise to stick so closely to the formula as it aged? Did they really think people would be happy with another decade or more of MMOs that play like WoW currently does? With the quality of internet connections these days, do we really NEED to rely so much on hotkey and cooldown based gameplay? Do we really want the entirety of our MMO experience to boil down to running the same handful of instances over and over in the hopes of finding a new pair of pants with slightly bigger numbers attached to them?
Whatever happened to that sense of mystery and exploration that was so prevalent in Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot and other early MMOs? That sense of a living, dangerous world and the freedom to do whatever one pleased? What happened to risk taking and inspiration in game design? I can’t help but feel that advancement in the genre is being intentionally halted by everyone’s mad desire to get a piece of the WoW pie. What many seem to forget is that WoW achieved its success for a number of very specific reasons. Blizzard entered into the game in a time when MMOs were young, bringing with them a large and dedicated preexisting fanbase and a rich lore unlike any seen before. WoW was not content to simply copy what had already been done; it took what worked and streamlined it while also taking new approaches to the failings of predecessors, minimizing headaches and maximizing fun. SWTOR has stopped short at taking what worked, and doesn’t bring nearly enough change to be considered a “next generation” MMO.
But don’t get me wrong, SWTOR isn’t COMPLETELY devoid of original thought. Here and there shine a few ideas that even the folks at Blizzard have yet to snatch up. The most obvious original feature at work here is the companion system, which essentially turns all four classes into pet classes, at least while soloing/questing. Over the course of your class storyline you’ll be joined in your travels by a party of allies, each bringing their own unique skillset to the table. Some can heal, some can tank, and all can deal some damage. Bring a companion that complements your abilities and you’ll find downtime between encounters to be minimal. Each has their own separate set of equipment, a decent place to find a use for those dungeon drops that nobody has a use for. Interaction and relationships with these NPC companions was touted as a major feature pre-launch, but this is yet another area I feel has failed to meet fan expectations. While there is a bit of banter between yourself and your companions, it’s basically limited to half a dozen brief conversations you can have on board your ship. The plotlines of these dialogues all seem to be leading into some sort of party member specific mission that strangely never actually materializes, a feature that I suspect was cut at some point in development and will perhaps be reintroduced in a future patch.
The crafting system as well is a breath of fresh air for those accustomed to the typical materials grind. Most of the work is left up to your companions, who when they are not out traveling with you may be sent out on various missions that will typically reward you with crafting materials. The time required to complete these missions increases substantially as you get into the higher tiers. It is an interesting attempt to create a sense that you are accomplishing something even during time and attention consuming tasks like raiding and pvp, though the option of actually crafting things manually would have been nice. Often I got impatient waiting for my epic craftables to finish their hour-long crafting time. Maybe if I had something interesting to fill that time with…
Reactions to SWTOR have been more across the board than those of any other MMO in recent history. Some feel that the little improvements it brings are enough to set it above all other games like it, while others regard it as one of the biggest disasters in gaming history. My feelings lie somewhere in between. The game is a letdown, no doubt about it. PVP is a disaster down to the fundamental design of some of the warzones (Ilum and Voidstar, I’m looking at you), and endgame raiding content is both limited and far too easy. However, the old BioWare fan in me can’t help but hope that they somehow manage to get their act together and make things work. There is potential in SWTOR to rival WoW, though it never really had any hope of actually “killing” it. What can be done to fix it? I won’t pretend to be an expert of MMO design, but as a player I can offer a few suggestions. For starters, BioWare needs to swallow their pride and consolidate the crazy number of nearly-empty servers, ASAP. The truth is that on most servers many of those massive planets tend to have a grand total of ten people on them at a time. Alternative paths to take on the questing grind would do wonders to alleviate the boredom of rolling alts. But these are just small steps on what would be a long road to redemption. In the end it falls on the team up in Austin to realize what steps need to be taken to salvage the game, before its rapidly-dwindling player base gives up on them entirely.