Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Old Republic Under Review

Star Wars: The Old Republic has had the most successful launch of any Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMO) that I have ever seen in 10 years of playing around in the genre. There is a lot to like for the hardcore veterans, the casual players, and the single-player role-playing game (RPG) fans. I have personally been playing various MMO since 2003 when I had my first true experience with online game addiction in Final Fantasy XI. Since then I have not been so drawn into a world by its story or compelling characters until now. While The Old Republic (TOR) has launched with its fair share of  bugs, glitches and imbalances I’m not going to spend any time picking those apart, but rather point out what sets this game apart from its contemporaries.

The Old Republic was developed by BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) and released on December 20, 2011. It has an Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) of Teen meaning the content is suitable for 13 years old and older, but as with any online game the experience is truly dependant on the types of rude or vulgar people you meet (or do not meet) online.

My Jedi Consular, Shikari, with Nadia (Companion)
TOR is the first MMO in quite a long time to captivate my attention so effectively and it has done so in two easy steps. First, it has 8 compelling stories that all lightly intertwine and put you into some archetype roles you would expect to encounter in the Star Wars universe. BioWare will be the first to tell you that they made this game with storytelling in mind and I agree that as a story-lover they have done quite a good job. Second, the Companion system allows you to automatically recruit 5 crew members to your team and the interesting personalities and subsequent development by getting to know these characters will have you feeling reluctant to leave them behind when forced to choose one to adventure with you. These two story-telling mechanics help solve a large issue in keeping subscriptions in MMOs which is an attachment to your character. Someone playing World of Warcraft, for example, might have 7 years of dedicated work put into their character or characters and after a brief tour of Star Wars may be more invested in his previous work. That risk still exists, but TOR does a good job of getting you very wrapped around your character and the companions by involving them in a complex story and with their unique personalities. It is a good attempt to pull a player in emotionally and sever ties to old characters that are not quite as engaging.

My Jedi Knight, Kyru, with T7 (Companion)
TOR also manages to feel like a complete package with promise of more to come. One of the biggest problems with new launch title MMO games is they have to compete with some very well established titles that have had over 7 years of live updates and game changes based on customer feedback. There is so much to do in those games that new games may burn up all their content within a few months and those old games with plenty to do look mighty inviting. That risk also still exists for TOR, but they have managed to launch a game that feels like a full game - it does have, after all, 8 storylines to play through to get a full scope of what’s happening in the galaxy. It has essentially packaged 8 full-length single-player RPG games into one, plus the ability to play with your friends which is quite optional. Every story is able to be done solo or in a group, with group content being provided incrementally along the way for additional rewards and challenges. That is why from any avid RPG lover’s point of view, TOR may be quite welcoming, and for any MMO veteran’s point of view give you plenty of things to do while you wait for new content to arrive on your primary or favorite characters.

Once you finish your Prologue around Level 10, you are free to progress via questing, Player versus Player (PvP) arena content called Warzones, or group raiding called Flashpoints. They each provide unique rewards for your playstyle: quests often provide gear upgrades for your Companions who help you solo through the story of the game, PvP will reward you with gear that will better suit you to a future of PvP playing, and Flashpoints give some of the best Player versus Environment (PvE) gear in the game for tackling increasingly harder group challenges as you progress through the game. All of these areas could use and will receive work over time, but as they came at launch they are very well designed and implemented. I have enjoyed exploring all of the above content on a single character’s journey to the level cap of 50. 

Flying into Battle
The final thing of note is the space battles and that is a point of contention. At a certain point in your characters’ personal stories they will receive access to a ship that they will use to navigate the galaxy (a truly romantic experience on your first playthrough). They can also engage in space battles sanctioned by their allegiance’s command head quarters. Some players feel the battles should have been more like they were in Star Wars: Galaxies, the MMO predecessor to TOR (that I did not have the pleasure of playing) which as I understand it was a bit more along the lines of playing Star Wars: X-Wing or Star Wars: TIE Fighter. However, as it stands now, it is a moderately challenging rail shooter - meaning your ship is guided along a set course and you move about the screen dodging and weaving and shooting enemies “down” (a relative term that often does not apply in space combat). I truly enjoy it this way because it reminds me of my younger days playing Star Fox and Star Fox 64 and honestly is one of the most well developed “mini-games” I’ve ever seen in a role-playing game, much less an MMO. Unfortunately, in its current state it does lack multiplayer options so you won’t be flying side by side with your friends, nor will they be mounting your gun turrets like Luke Skywalker on the Millenium Falcon. You also won’t be targeting enemy players of the opposing faction. While I would welcome the upgrade to a more 3-dimentional space flight/dog fighting simulator, all I would really need is to add more “massive multiplayer” to this mini-game and I think it would truly shine even on rails, as it were. 

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great experience for anyone who loves the Star Wars universe or role-playing games in general. It is fully voice-acted which breathes life into all your character interactions and is widely unprecedented in the MMO market on this scale. The story-telling is what will keep me coming back for more and keep me hopeful for more of its kind in future expansions and patches. This attention to character and story is what has earned it the TOP Gaming Seal of Approval and will be my MMO of choice for quite some time to come, I believe. Though it has a tried and true foundation based mostly on EverQuest and World of Warcraft, it comes with enough fresh new twists on a somewhat stagnant genre to really set it apart and keep it alive.

Related Links
Official Site - http://www.swtor.com/

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