Labels: Bioware , EA , MMO , Review , RPG , Star Wars , SWTOR , The Old Republic
Price: $59.95 ($379 if you want the Collector's Bundle)
Monthly Subscription: $15
I'm a complete and utter MMO noob (that'd be an inexperienced Massively Multi-Player On-Line game player, for those even less in the know than I). I decided nonetheless to take Bioware up on their invitation to beta test Star Wars: The Old Republic, or SWTOR as it's commonly known.
I love Bioware and I love Star Wars so what could possibly go wrong, except for the part where I had no idea what I was doing? So there I was, waiting for the SWTOR to start, waiting to review this brand new game, but still undecided: Jedi Knight? Imperial trooper? Smuggler? Bounty Hunter?
Half an hour before the game started I was reading through the SWTOR forum for some hints. I thoroughly intimidated myself by reading posts from people who had been playing MMOs for years, confused myself by wondering if I was supposed to be in a guild, and generally got so nervous I decided to stop reading.
This will be a long review so let’s be clear from the beginning: I leapt into the Star Wars universe as interpreted by the talented Bioware writers and the great voice actors with both feet. I played the game for three days, until five minutes before the test ended, trying to see and do as much as I could. Star Wars: The Old Republic offers expansive worlds and vast story lines that intertwine and split in interesting ways.
But you have to pay for the joy of exploring all of that. The game itself costs the now-standard $60, which seems remarkably reasonable for the size of the universe (and all of that great, classic Star Wars feel) you get. Then you must feed EA Games $15 a month to keep playing. You should know that up-front.
Is the game worth that investment for someone that loves single-player RPGs? Read on and decide for yourself.
Who Can You Be or Can I Have My Own Light Saber?
You can pick classes on the Light Side and the Dark Side, from classic, light-saber-wielding Jedi and Sith to ranged classes that shoot first and ask questions later. Each has a story all its own in addition to the many group quests and specific abilities to fit anyone’s preferred playing style.
You can create a number of characters and switch between them at will. If your serene, purple, tentacle-headed, Jedi Consular gets on your nerves you can turn to your green, tattooed smuggler for some attitude and quality thermal detonator action or your sleek blue bounty hunter to start a few fires.
Once the opening cinematics finish, you pick a side of the Force with which to ally. Then, in true Bioware tradition, as in their single-player role playing games (RPGs) like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, you get to choose the race and gender of your character and change the appearance to suit yourself.
The options were numerous and striking. After I’d selected everything from body type, skin, and hair color to the shape of my tattoos and any scars I wanted on my rough-and-tumble, Light-side-of-the-Force smuggler I locked her in and was off into the game itself.
You can pick from races with horns and hide, tentacles and snouts, or none of the above. Every class allows you to choose to be human or pick from a set of alien options. You will recognize every one of the archetypes even if you didn’t know the name of the species. And if you’re a rabid Star Wars fan you’ll be excited to play as a Twi’lek or a Horn-head Guy.
And of course you can be a Jedi Knight, doing flips and slashing evil Sith lords with your light saber. Why make a game set in that universe if you aren’t going to include the option so many people want?
How Are the Graphics or Does It Look Like Star Wars or The Clone Wars?
SWOTR is pretty. The graphic designers definitely got the look right, as one assumes they would working with LucasArts and I lost count of the number of times I said “wow” or even just “ooh” in the game. Most of it simply looks good but the buildings are clearly Star Wars buildings, nearly all of them rounded with random lights strung around decorative nooks or recesses.
Detailed creatures browse in a landscape filled with trees, rocks, and flowers between wrecked equipment in war-torn areas. The Senate tower sports enormous, shiny statues and holograms of various senators. Ships and speeders zip about overhead or, on Coruscant, around the building tops on which you’re roaming.
The opening cinematic, however, was more than pretty: it was amazing. The graphics looked fantastic, it ran smoothly with no lag or pixilation, and, most importantly, the story immediately captured my interest. For die-hard Star Wars fans just watching the first cut scene will make you wish for another movie. Following character design I got another fantastic, stirring little mini-movie giving me reason to hate my new opponents.
I made three characters, just to see a few of the openings. All of these movies give you a pile of light-saber action, slow-motion close calls, and cool Force moves. They also offer a clear picture of the conflict between the Republic and the Empire, the return of the Sith, and a look at the allies who will (eventually) fight on your side.
The worlds themselves necessarily repeat certain elements ad nauseum, as they do in any game. You can only design so many different sorts of light fixtures and crates, after all, and create so many kinds of wall covering. Each world that I visited did, however, have a distinct look to the buildings and their accessories.
I read some complaints on the forum that the characters looked “cartoon-y” but there has to be a certain amount of animated feel to something this broad. Realism uses up an awful lot of processing power that is better dedicated to smoothing movement and eliminating lag in combat. Coloring and animating customized faces for ten different species and both genders just eats up a lot of server juice.
That said, I thought the graphics on NPCs was well done. You wouldn’t mistake it for feature-length CGI but ambient filler characters and quest givers added to the immersion and fit well with the overall look of the game. They did not have that angular, stylized look of the recent animated Clone Wars series, thank goodness.
The details did tend to pop in with varying lag during conversation cut scenes. As the point of this weekend’s beta test was to stress the servers and see if the game could keep up with literally hundreds of thousands of people playing at once I suspect these issues will ease with less-intensive demands.
In some instances I stood with as many as a dozen people all pulling the same scene from the same server. The problems do argue for waiting to start playing the game for a week or so after it’s released rather than fighting that rush the first day when everyone has to start over. Watching the wrinkles and belt buckles pop up proved mighty distracting.
How Does SWTOR Play or Will I Have Fun Playing an MMO?
After you watch the opening movies, filled with action and excitement, it all stops and there your new self stands. A chat window sits in the upper left corner of the screen and, as you begin, the game offers helpful hints on how to do various things like move and shoot people.
Speaking of distracting, that chat window can really pull your attention from the game. Information on what happened in your game pops into the box between tidbits of conversation between other players and pleas for someone to join a group for a particular quest.
That was the biggest adjustment for a solo RPG player: it was like trying to watch a movie during a cocktail party. At times I simply shut the chat window and turned on screen information that would tell me what I just looted from that dead guy or which step of the quest I had just completed. I was getting shot, darn it!
The tips that pop up on the right edge of the screen as you progress through the first levels help a great deal but the in-game help files lacks robust search options. Keep your search terms down to a single word and you can usually find what you need but the information seemed pretty thin on the ground if you’re looking for a particular fix.
You start surrounded by other players and their new characters, naturally. This is an MMO, after all. Yet when SWTOR begins no tutorial on meeting these total strangers from around the world pops up to guide noobs like me. I assume there’s a protocol for doing this on-line other than randomly clicking on people’s characters and asking them to join you but I have no idea what it is. Thus I wandered off on my own.
My first character was a smuggler on the side of the Republic, defending the planet from the Separatists one village at a time. It turns out that you can play the beginning levels of the game just fine all by yourself. Most of the quests consist of typical video game fare: go here, get or fix or break this, and come back to tell someone about it. But, unlike a single-player game, here were dozens of people pursuing the same objectives and killing the same enemies.
I’ll be honest: the world of SWTOR bewildered me at first. Every time I turned around my objective had just been clicked on by someone else and I had to wait for it to respawn before I could complete my mission. But others also killed enemies that threatened me or who stood between me and the object of my quest.
That last was the biggest adjustment in going from single-player RPG to an MMO. Even without being in a group, in the wide-open world you are surrounded by people doing the same thing you are. Every quest giver stood surrounded by players chatting with them. Every destination or monster-killing area teemed with other characters.
But you can still get things done and move through the story. One presumes that, over time, the numbers will spread out as experienced players zoom through space on their own ships or planet-hop on shuttles while new players explore without the frantic sense of activity this limited test offered.
Having so many people in the wide-open landscape did lend a sense of realism to the non-player characters’ (NPCs) exclamations about being at war. Blaster fire and explosions sounded all around as hundreds of people fought the same battles over and over again.
The worlds Bioware and EA have created (with LucasArts, thank you very much) offer plenty of room to range while giving people who prefer a linear path enough direction to keep you on the quest trail. I love to explore and found many a shortcut over mountains or through little nooks that took me into detailed back alleys or rocky hillsides every bit as fleshed out as the intended paths.
Going over the mountain instead of following the intended path leads you to miss a lot, however, particularly the people dotted around the area who give you more quests. Without those, you have to grind through respawning enemies to level up, something I dislike doing. Imagine my relief when I wandered too far afield, died, and came back to the beginning where I finally figured out the system.
I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the quests or my frustration with learning to use the menus and my skills. If you’ve played either the Mass Effect or Dragon Age games on your computer you’ll quickly feel familiar with the inventory and abilities menus and talents bar at the bottom of the screen. Suffice it to say that it took me quite some time to get comfortable with the environment but that the story stayed compelling enough for me to make the effort.
By then I’d gotten accustomed to getting killed, as well. When you die—or are “defeated” as SWTOR terms it—you get a choice of respawn locations. You can be transported to the nearest medical droid, usually not too far from the area you’re trying to pass, or you can have one come to you right where you are.
In either case, any surviving opponents return to full health. That means that you have to start that tough guy all over, but it also means that the slew of bad guys you fought to get to him have returned to life as well. You have to decide whether the fight back to the same spot makes sense.
When you get defeated your equipment and armor take damage. They also lose some points in durability during normal battle, though much less than with outright death. You have to get them repaired at a shop or by a medical droid or they eventually break and you lose any buffs or protection from them. Sometimes that’s enough to make the decision about which option to pick pretty easy.
What about Other People or Isn’t This an MMO?
The MMO part of SWTOR is where the system breaks down for the MMO noob. Unless you have patient friends willing to teach you the ropes you’re on your own and experienced players of these games are not known for their patience with newcomers.
You get quests marked as “Heroic” intended for group combat and find flashpoint options that you can only access as part of a group. The chat window abounded with requests like “LFG Enemies of the Republic”, meaning “looking for group to do that quest”.
That’s fine if you happen to be there and can type and play at the same time but I’m not that coordinated. The one time I managed to be in the right place at the right time I did join a group but, in trying to figure out how the others managed to type in the chat window only to other group members, lost the others and they booted me out of the group.
I can’t blame them, as I’m sure they were as anxious as I to get on with the story. But that part of the story required a group and so I skipped it. I never did find a tutorial for group chat, following or fighting together, or any other social interaction.
One would have thought an MMO that wanted to introduce Bioware’s RPG fans to the wonderful, on-going fee world of on-line multi-player goodness would have a thorough explanation available. One would be mistaken.
I could see people wandering about from time to time with a little purple group icon floating next to his or her name but nowhere to tell if those people were actively looking for a group or were already part of one. Nor could I keep up with the chat window and still make progress in the game. For me the MMO parts of the game were a waste. I would adore a single-player version of the Star Wars universe (a sequel or companion to Bioware’s long-beloved first game) but to me the social aspects detracted from a story I wanted to experience.
Bioware Loves Companions and Love Interests, Right?
Let’s skip ahead to Level 10 and the completion of the first main story arc. At that point you get a little help: a companion joins you, with weapons and armor you can customize and skills all his or her own (unless you’re certain types of Jedi, in which case you get a droid rather than a gendered pal). By then your encounters require a little help and you’re glad to get it.
My lady smuggler was the only one to get that far. She got this eager guy with a great Southern accent and a shield generator to help defeat ever tougher enemies. I did the entire first planet solo and by the time I got to the last of the quests I needed him. He was endearing in the cutscenes before he joined me but companions in general, following other players as well as my own, grew incredibly annoying very quickly.
Most often the problem with a companion that responds to what you’re doing lies in adjusting to constant motion. As you jog along your companion leaps all over the screen, gets stuck on scenery, and climbs over tables, rocks, and anything else in its way. When you stop it bounces around for several seconds before coming to rest nearby.
During battle you have to target enemies by clicking on them. That’s fine when you’re along but companions like to be nearby. Your helper thus obstructs your enemies. While it takes damage for you the little area around it where you would click in a quiet hallway to chat blocks your ability to aim at the guy shooting you or the beast slashing you to bits around the companion’s inconvenient body.
However, you get goofy little phrases in battle and topical observations to keep you entertained as you trot down an interminable hallway filled with strangers. And then there’s the affection meter. If you know Bioware, you know it’s there.
For Corso, it runs from zero to 10,000, a daunting number when you only get fifteen points for making a choice he likes in a conversation and a hundred or so for completing a quest of which he approves. His likes and dislikes were transparent from his pre-companion conversations but if you missed the hints you can read about him in the codex.
You can also buy useful and other items to give as gifts for another little bit of affection. Some of those presents are designated as “courting” items. Sadly, the system was a bit broken. None of the in-conversation affection registered on the total and thus we ended our courtship at about 900. When he’d first joined me and then when he reached 500 he asked to have a private conversation but both were of the “getting to know you” variety. Who knows what sort of hi-jinks he and my smuggler could have gotten up to once she got her own ship back!
So Should I Buy Star Wars: The Old Republic or What?
For the story-based RPG fan, an MMO poses a problem. You develop a character and Bioware loves to tell you stories but the entire plot stays, of necessity, unresolved. You pick a side and fight a war but that war never ends. You can’t “win”.
The Old Republic tells an open-ended story, one the folks at Bioware and LucasArts may well keep writing and expanding for years if the game really takes off. The combination almost guarantees that the trip will be fascinating and it might keep you interested for years but it eliminates the possibility of “The End”.
In the end I decided that the monthly access fee priced me out of playing SWTOR long-term. I still want to know what happens to my smuggler but not enough to pay as much per year as I would for three brand new games (or a dozen older ones) that will satisfy my deep-seated desire to finish the story.
If you’re a Star Wars fan or have already dipped your toe into MMOs so that the group and chat systems don’t intimidate you, I would heartily recommend the game. The graphics are lovely, the characters interesting and true to original George Lucas design, and the story involved and compelling. You will find unending enemies and quests, vast amount of territory to explore, space battles and speeders, and you can use the Force while wielding a light saber. What you can’t do is finish the game.
Check my follow-up review of SWTOR and MMOs, too.