Star Wars: The Old Republic is a MMORPG that I approached with extreme caution. On one side, many of the things I heard and read about it made me hopeful, on the other, It’s Bioware’s first MMORPG, and moving from single player games to massively multiplayer ones isn’t as easy and seamless as some may think. In addition to this, the alleged large similarities with a certain other MMORPG that counts ten million subscribers, and shall not be named here, made me very, very wary.
In addition to that, SWTOR is probably the most hyped MMORPG ever, and if there’s something that this industry teaches, it’s that excessive hype often leads to disaster.
This preview is based on my Sith Warrior, then evolved into Sith Juggernaut. I preferred to delve as deep as possible into the game with a single character to hopping from one to the other without really seeing much. If you want to read about the Republic side of things, you may want to check Chad’s preview as well. We decided to write one each in order to showcase both factions and because we’re extremely different gamers. Let’s just say that he actually enjoys the aforementioned MMORPG that shall not be named. Preposterous, isn’t it? I guarantee that reading and comparing both previews will be interesting.
Call me weird or crazy, but creating my character is actually one of my favorite parts of playing a MMORPG. The fact that a character with the features that I choose will be seen by thousands of other players still makes me warm and fuzzy inside despite having been a MMORPG gamer constantly since the earliest times of Ultima Online. I guess it’s my hedonistic ego rearing its head. That’s why one of the first things to really please me or really disappoint me in a MMORPG is the character creation.
When I created my very own Sith Warrior I was actually impressed by the depth of the character creation options. I heard some complain about the fact that the process is not slider-based, but lets the player chose between a (very high) number of predetermined elements. Personally, I always found slider-based systems rather overrated, as it’s very hard to get a decent looking result with them, and they pave the way to griefing, with a lot of people that think they’re so funny walking around me with characters that look unnaturally ugly.
That’s why i find myself perfectly at home with an option-based system, as long as it’s sufficiently big. SWTOR’s one has a metric tons of elements to chose from, especially in the realm of hairstyles, that ultimately are one of the most characterizing elements in a MMORPG.
You can chose between four body styles (thin, normal, big and fat) and several options for face, hairstyle, scars, complexion (including eyebrows), facial hair, eye color, hair color, tattoos and skin color. The only disappointing element is the inability to chose separately one of the most visible elements of the face: the nose.
Of course you’ll also be prompted to choose your basic class, species (the species available depend on what class you choose) and gender. By the way, if you wanted to play an old reliable Chewbacca wannabe, think again, because there are no playable Wookiees. Luckily the nine species available at launch make up for the gap, catering pretty much to every human or alien taste, unless you want to be a furry of course.
While creating a Sith you’ll immediately notice that some of the most iconic Sith features, like the glowing and bloodied eyes aren’t available at all. Initially I was surprised, then I discovered something extremely cool. As you delve deeper into the Dark Side of the Force your eyes will turn yellow and then progressively glow more reddish, while your skin will become more and more pale and veined. Remember the renegade scarring in Mass Effect 2? That’s how it works.
If you’re too fond of your handsome/lovely looks, or want to be deceptive, you can still decide to hide the effect. As usual options are paramount.
Entering the game put me in front of the first surprise of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I think, by now, everyone knows that the game is on the cartoonish side of visuals, and the engine isn’t exactly a super-shiny fest of polygon goodness, but I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
While the graphics are slightly stylized, they’re nowhere near simple, quite the opposite: thanks to the lower polygon count of single items and characters, especially the environments are some of the most dense and detailed I’ve seen. Vegetation is extremely lush and props are scattered everywhere, filling the screen perfectly and avoiding the slightly barren effect that proves detrimental to the looks of many MMORPGs that features higher polygon counts.
Add to that a truly inspired art direction that’s probably the fruit of the pairing between the years of Bioware’s experience in designing RPGs, Lucasarts’ almost fanatical love for the Star Wars universe and an awesome lighting engine that builds atmosphere, and you get some of the most lovely and inspired environments on the MMORPG market.
Another quite exceptional element of the game’s visuals are combat animations: lightsaber fights show probably the most beautiful coreographies I’ve seen in a game of this genre. In Most MMORPGs that feature melee weapons, characters just look like they’re hacking at each other with little or no real interaction. Some have great animations, but when you look at how those animations interact with each other your immersion tends to break, because they simply don’t interact.
Star Wars: The Old Republic changes that in a rather radical way, weapons clash with each other realistically, blows are parried in every direction, and transitions with attacks are seamless. When you hurl yourself in a fight wielding your lightsaber (or lightsabers, if you can dual wield), the game really immerses you in the atmosphere of the movies, with spectacular attacks, parries and acrobatics. Of course, in true Star Wars fashion, even blaster bolts can be parried, and the animations involved are especially sweet.
Pictures, though, are better than thousands of words, so I uploaded a large gallery of screenshots on flickr. You might want to sit comfortably and grab a drink, because when I say “large”, I mean it: there are 707 for you to enjoy.
What’s probably the very best element of Star Wars: The Old Republic is that it gives a real shake to one of the most classic, and stagnant, elements of MMORPGs: Questing. While the quest structure isn’t too different from what you’ll find in other MMORPGs, the pacing and storytelling are absolutely revolutionary.
In most games of the genre is simply too easy to get bored of the usually rather trite dialogue and start pressing whatever skip button is available. In SWTOR every single quest that involves interaction with NPCs has expertly animated cutscenes and full voice acting. This shifts the balance of the game a lot away from the usual “kill ten bears” and towards the enjoyment of the story and the characters, even when you’re just sent to actually kill ten bears.
Those that hate losing control of their characters shouldn’t worry too much, though, as during almost all cutscenes you will be prompted with a wheel of three dialogue options (very similar to the one featured in Mass Effect 2) that more often than not influences radically the way a conversation will go, and in quite a lot of cases even the outcome of a quest. Options vary from executing a character or letting him live to telling an honorable enemy that he’s being betrayed and so forth.
Many of those choices will also shift the character towards the Light Side or the Dark Side of the force. If you’re wondering, yes, you can be a rather ruthless Jedi or a respectable Sith, adding a lot of possible depth to your character. Unfortunately you can’t completely switch sides, but who knows, in the future it might become a possibility. The game’s alignment system is very conducive to something like that.
That said, I can easily predict that a lot of gamers will enjoy massively playing a Jedi corrupted by the Dark Side or a troubled Sith leaning towards the Light Side. The only slightly disappointing element is that the game actually tells you what choices lead to what side, thing that will prompt many to chose depending on their side of choice and not on what they would really like to do.