Review: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Review: Star Wars: The Old Republic

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… More precisely about 3,650 years before Darth Vader spoke the famous “I am your father” line, the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic were locked in a cold war thinly veiled by a fragile peace.

The Jedi Knights had retreated from the capital planet of Coruscant, blamed by the Senate for the failure of the war effort, while the Sith consolidated their chocking hold on half of the galaxy.

That era of strife and tension was ripe for new heroes and villains to raise and struggle for the salvation of the galaxy, or its conquest.

Star Wars: The Old republic is without a doubt one of the most anticipated MMORPGs of the history of the genre. It bears the Star Wars brand and it’s developed by one of the most beloved studios in this industry. The fact that it’s the direct sequel of the Knights of the Old Republic series doesn’t hurth either, but all those elements combined can also turn into a massive burden. I can’t hide the fact that I approached the Beta and now the release with a degree of apprehension. Too many times in the MMORPG industry massive pre-release hype was met with less than stellar results. Luckily this doesn’t seem to be the case with The Old Republic.

After starting the game and after chosing his faction, the player is presented with a fairly complete character creation process. Many of the iconic Star Wars species are present, but some are missing. I’m quite sure some will frown at the lack of playable Wookiees. No Chewbacca for you, at least for now. Looks like BioWare decided to stick with the species more similar to humans, in order to maximize their expressive potential during storytelling.

The cosmetic options are definitely well varied, with many choices for each element, even if the inability to select the nose shape separately from that of the face is a bit annoying. I would have appreciated the option to chose my eyebrows separately from complexion. But the variety of options is still well above average, especially due to the high number of different settings for each element.

Something that made me scratch my chin a bit is the rather weird abundance of arguably unattractive options, especially for males. If you want to be Handsome in the Old Republic, your choices could be a little more limited than you might like. Luckily the ladies get a better treatment, with a much wider range of beauty.

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Players that want to walk the way of the Sith may notice that glowing yellow/red eyes and veined skin are scarce during the character creation process (at least for most races). This might look like an oversight, but the reason is simple: the more a character leans towards the Dark Side of the Force, the more the corruption will be visible on his face during the game, modifying his features accordingly. Luckily for those that prefer to keep their original appearence, this effect can be hidden via the options of the game.

The graphics can take a little bit to get used to if you’re a fan of the visual glitz of single player games, while veteran MMORPG gamers will probably feel right at home despite the low resolution of the textures and the excessively blocky shadows.

Art direction more than makes up for it, with a rich and coherent style that depicts the Star Wars universe in a very flattering light.

Environmental design is one of the most beautiful and inspired to ever grace a MMORPG, especially thanks to a masterful lighting design and to the density of decorative elements like buildings and vegetation. Grass, for instance, is definitely one of the most dense and lush ever seen in the genre.

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Character design is normally well done, especially during cutscenes that sport textures with boosted resolution and detail, enhancing the expressiveness of the cast together with a level of animation that remains quite high across the board.

A small but rather immersion-breaking problem is the excessive reliance on recycling the same character face for secondary roles. If you look at guards, passers-by and similar characters, you’ll notice that someone must have started using clones way before the Clone Wars.

That said, if you can get past some of the small details that have been overlooked probably due to the sheer size and scope of the project, the overall effect is very pleasing. If you’re used to my reviews you probably know that I tend to be rather screenshot-happy while I play. Considering that my personal Flickr gallery (that you can check out of you want to see more pictures of the game) counts more than 1,000 screensots of SWTOR, you can easily imagine that I definitely like how it looks. You can also watch the video review embedded above to see the game in motion.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic is first and foremost a Bioware game, and it plays like one. Story is a prominent element, and not a rushed afterthought designed only to lead to the next raid or quest like in most MMORPGs. The best part is that almost all storylines and quests are enriched by hundreds of cutscenes and full voice acting, and high quality voice acting at that.

On SWTOR the player is the hero of his own Star Wars trilogy, and not one of the mere bystanders sent to kill ten bears that the genre got us used to. This, paired with the ability to actually make meaningful dialogue choices that will decide the fate of NPCs or the outcome of quests, has the potential make players feel invested and involved with their characters like never before.

A little problem lies in how choices are presented, with light side or dark side options clearly marked: this may prompt many players to just follow the option that fits their chosen path instead of going with what their heart (or gut) would dictate. It seems definitely unnecessary especially considering that you can go back at the beginning of a cutscene in order to chose different options at the pressure of a button.

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The fact that each of the eight basic classes has a completely different storyline and radical variations in dialogue even during secondary quests increases the longevity of the game tenfold (well, eight-fold, to be more precise). I can easily say that no other MMORPG on the market at the moment can be defined a better alt-a-holic heaven than Star Wars: The Old Republic. 

I could even go as far as saying that even gamers that aren’t interested in MMORPGs but like Bioware’s single player RPGs might want to give The Old Republic a try. While it’s a full fledged MMORPG, if you completely ignore the social aspects, it can easily be considered the equivalent of eight sequels of Knights of The Old Republic. 

Many discounted the importance of full voice acting, but on top of improving immersion, it also opens a myriad of narrative options that text wouldn’t offer. A large percentage of the dialogue included in the game wouldn’t be nearly as fun, epic or interesting, and often it wouldn’t even make sense, if we were forced to just read it.

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The atmosphere that permeates the game is simply incredible. A lot of love for the Star Wars universe went into crerating The Old Republic. The Sith Empire is especially well flashed out, in a pleasing effort to make it look more realistic. There’s unmistakable evil in it, but also many shades of grey that will possibly entice even the most radical do-gooders. Ultimately, there are so many little and big references to the Knights of the Old Republic series, that those that remember and love it are in for the ride of their life.

The cutscenes and choices system gets even better when played with friends. Everyone in the party gets to be visible in all cinematic sequences (excluding class missions) and has a shot at speaking his lines thanks to a clever roll system. Many MMORPGs struggle in encouraging players to group, and BioWare seems to have found a great solution to the problem. in SWTOR players group not only because it’s often necessary, but also because they get to enjoy better cutscenes.

Flashpoints, a sort of instanced mini-raids created for parties of four players, are one of the most enjoyable activities of the game, and they are one of the best group-oriented options I ever saw in a MMORPG, if not the best. Some them focus mainly on combat, some are steer radically towards the storytelling aspect, but all of them provide one to two hours of real, unadultered fun spotted by multiple boss fights.

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Most bosses are varied and interesting in their mechanics, more often than not very different from the usual tank-and-spank encounters that most games of the genre provide before the endgame. In addition to that chosing different dialogue options during cutscenes often leads to a different outcomes and to fighting different enemies.

There’s one particular flashpoint (actually two, considering the two factions) that will make fans of Knights of the Old Republic 2 cry of joy, even if some way to import a savegame from the old dear RPG would have made it even better. Bioware missed a little big chance to make thousands of hearts melt there, but I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

Group content isn’t limited to flashpoints, as there are several “heroic” quests that require two to four players to be completed. While they aren’t as long and heavily story-driven as flashpoints (while most of them still provide cutscenes and dialogue), they’re still enjoyable and provide great rewards.

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If you like to primarily go solo, though, you don’t need to worry, as the balance between party content and solo content is nearly perfect. There are enough solo quests to level to the cap twice over, and the inclusion of believable and useful NPC companions makes the process even more pleasant. Single player quests are no less story-driven than those that require bringing friends along for the ride, so if you really hate looking for a party, you probably won’t feel like you’re missing too much (and you can still solo most group content after outleveling it, if you care about enjoying the story).

The endgame PvE content is quite beefy, at least for a game in its first month of service, counting two full fledged raids (one of which will be expanded further a few days from the publishing of this review) called Operations, and hard mode flashpoints, that should satisfy players for a while. The approach of Operations is still heavily story-driven, basically inflating the concept of flashpoints to raid-size, and providing a refreshing change from the usual “kill a million trash mobs and then a boss. rinse. repeat” raids.

Considering that almost all quests, flashpoints and operations include several cutscenes and that all of those are fully voice acted, I have to admit that I’m amazed at the amount of content BioWare managed to pack into the game. There’s more than in any other MMORPG I ever played at launch, and all of it includes storytelling elements that no other game in the genre has at all. Part of the industry may be going towards the free to play route, but Star Wars: The Old Republic is the example that demonstrates that the subscription business model can still put a game on a completely different level than its free competitors by granting the budget and resources to include this kind of amazing production values.

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Some are wondering if BioWare can keep the pace and continue to churn out a regular flow of content while holding this kind of standard, but considering that they recently revealed that they’re already working on content that will be released in 2013, it seems that planning way ahead will be the key to accomplish that, and it may actually happen.

Companions in The Old Republic are much more than the simple, soulless pets we meet in most MMORPGs. Not only they fight alongside you, heal you, and otherwise complement the abilities of your class, but you can fully equip them like they were a separate character. They will take part in your cutscenes and will react to your actions by commenting (or mocking) and gaining or losing affection towards you. Please some of them enough, and you might even get laid…

Their combat and… umh… social… functions aren’t their only use. Bioware went above and beyond the call of duty to turn them into an instrument to make the life of the player easier. They will craft and gather for you while you continue playing, and will even go sell your loot, getting rid of some of the typical dead times of the genre. They simply are the next best thing to having a friend actually playing with you, and they’re (usually) much more obedient.

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The only relatively small flaw I find in the companion system is that companions themselves are distributed in a rather unbalanced way between classes. Some classes will receive their second companion much later than others, some will have multiple romance options while others will be limited to one (a design choice that honestly really baffles me. Considering the budget of the game I really don’t see why it’s not possible to romance all compantions, or at least all the humanoid ones).

Gender distribution is rather uneven as well. A vast majority of companions is, in fact, male. If you prefer to have a lady following you around, your available options will often be a tad too limited.  It may be a nitpick, but I feel that a more even distribution of romance options and genders would have helped the system cater better to everyone’s tastes.

I already hinted at the quality of the voice acting, that is stellar across the board (with a few exceptions). While a project of this size and scope obviously involves a degree of voice recycling, it’s nowhere as widespread as I expected, and the number and variety of voice actors involved is simply mind-boggling. Add to this a strong cast of star players like Nolan “Nathan Drake” North as the male Jedi Consular, David “Solid Snake” Hayter as the male Jedi Knight and Jennifer “Female Shepard” Hale as the female Trooper and you get the sweet audio picture.  The posh but extremely edgy Mark Bazeley (that didn’t work in many games, but played several roles on TV and Cinema) as the male Sith Warrior is probably my personal favorite.

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The soundtrack isn’t any less impressive, with a wide variety of fantastic themes that build upon the classical and epic scores of the Star Wars movies and previous games, and complement every situation perfectly, without skipping a single beat.  Bioware should have probably used the tracks even more, as there are quite a few silent moment that could have used some great music playing in the background, but when the music is there, the quality easily rivals with my personal favorite MMORPG scores (Age of Conan and Final Fantasy XIV) .

The sound effects complete the audio of the game masterfully, and whoever worked on the sound engineering of the game must be one (or multiple) big Star War fanboy. I don’t think I remember another Star Wars video game  that nails the sound effects used in the movies this perfectly, and expands upon them with this kind of coherence. I can easily close my eyes and roughly recognize what’s happening around me, whether a speeder is passing by or someone is engaging in a lighsaber duel.

Bioware didn’t try to reinvent the wheel of combat and character progression, and didn’t stray much from the tried and tested staples of the MMORPG genre. This provides a solid skeleton over which the story-driven innovations described above can sit rather confortably and provides a familiar environment to those coming from older MMORPGs.

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Battles look simply spectacular, thanks to a very solid animation work. Attack and defense actually react to each other, with parries and ripostes in rapid sequences that reproduce the style of the movies perfectly. There are no characters standing in front of each other hacking away while ignoring each other’s blows in SWTOR. You can even parry blaster bolts, which is definitely a pleasant touch of class.

While combat isn’t necessarily innovative, besides a few interesting elements like the ability to find protective cover in the environment for blaster-using classes, they’re far from too simple: there’s an abundance of conditional and positional actions, with a strong emphasis on interrupts, ensuring that skill has a large role in determining victory and defeat.

An impressive element of combat in Star Wars: The old Republic is the synergy between skills. It’s easy to find several combination of actions that string perfectly into something that closely resembles a combo and that is not only spectacular to see, but also very effective. For instance a Jedi Guardian can hurl an enemy away with Force Push, then jump on him dealing damage and stunning him with Force Leap and finish up neatly with an instant Opportune Strike.

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Unfortunately the beautiful animations come with a price in the form in a slight delay in action execution, that some of the most skilled players will find rather disturbing, especially if they’re used to instant response. A large percentage of the player base won’t even notice, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a flaw that needs addressing. BioWare promised to do just that, but there’s no word on when it’ll actually happen.

Character progression follows a route that combines advanced classes and skill trees. Each side has four classes (that are perfectly mirrored in the other faction), and each class can branch in two completely different advanced classes. For instance Jedi Knights and Sith Warriors can specialized in tanking by becoming Guardians and Juggernauts, or go the way of the damage dealer by chosing Sentinel and Marauder.

Further customization is provided by the skill trees. Each advanced class has three available (two exclusive and one in common with the other advanced class available to the same base class), giving players a nice and varied set of options to chose from.

Crucial roles as tanking and healing are available to several classes, allowing a lovely degree of flexibility, and are still coupled with a more than decent ability to deal damage, avoiding the pitfall of having roles that are very important for party construction that also happen to be simply boring, because all they do is standing there and playing the meat shield or healing non-stop.

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The game is set in a galaxy, and a galaxy has to be big. There’s a total of 17 planets and while the initial four are a bit on the small side, the others range from large to immense and each of them plays home to a massive amount of content.

With such a large world exploration is properly rewarded, and several tens of datacrons that permanently improve a character’s stats (or provide useful relics) are scattered in the most remote locations. Some of them are even too well hidden behind intense platforming sequences. If you’re not a Super Mario fan, you’ll have to approach the issue with a lot of patience. Add to that quite a few secrets and hidden quests that you won’t find without straying from the most traveled routes, and you get a world that will please most explorers and achievement hunters.

PvP can be considered, at least partly, the weak link of SWTOR. Warzones are very enjoyable if the opposing groups selected by the automated matchmaking are balanced, but if they aren’t, and it happens often, the battle normally ends up with a frsutrating slaughter of the underleveled party. The implementation of multiple level-based tiers in the future is something the game sorely needs.

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That said, the three available Warzones are well varied in their gameplay objectives and mechanics, and especially Huttball is really mad fun, provided that the groups, again, are relatively balanced. Just imagine a bloody version of American football, with the playing field full of walkways, obstacles and traps, with killing opponents not only allowed, but encouraged. It’s basically the Star Wars version of Blood Bowl (actually more of the old DungeonBowl) and it’s simply awesome.

High level open world faction combat on Ilum provides a semblance of Realm vs Realm that will potentially please fans of Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, but the current design is prone to be influenced by possible population imbalance and paradoxically encourages peaceful objective exchanging. Further polish is necessary before a large part of the player base reaches the endgame.

The mirrored classes between the two factions definitely help in keeping things balanced, and fighting one against one is extremely fun and exhilarating, laying a solid foundation for future development. Unfortunately said future development is definitely needed before Star Wars: The Old Republic players will really be able to enjoy PvP fully, but that’s par for the course with the launch of any new MMORPG.

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Considrering the setting, spaceships necessarily need to play a role. Each player gets his own ship early in the game, functioning as a sort of mobile private housing. The ability to invite friends over is great, even if the inability to customize one’s space turf is a bit of a disappointment. Even here we’ll have to hope on future improvements.

Players can also enjoy an on-rails space combat minigame at the helm of their ship. It’s not X-wing vs Tie Fighter, but the gameplay is actually fun and addictive and the graphics are quite spectacular. It definitely provides a great little timewaster to break long questing sessions, no to mention an awesome source of experience and credits. It could use some further fleshing out, but it’s definitely a very welcome option.

As much as many deny it, an important part of the success of any MMORPG is itemization. It keeps players motivated and provides the most popular stick and carrot to entice them to keep subscribing month after month.

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Functionally equipment in Star Wars: the Old Republic is very well executed, especially thanks to multiple rewards systems, a quite deep crafting system and to the lovely modding feature: a large percentage of the pieces of equipment present in the game are fully customizable, allowing the players to slot mods in them and to determine their stats. This goes a lot beyond the usual gemming or enchanting you find in other MMORPG, as mods allow you to determine even the most basic stats like armor, damage rating and level.

If you have a piece of armor you really like, you can keep it basically forever, simply by slotting new mods on it. When you find a better one the visual of which you don’t like you can remove the mods from it  and put them into the one you like, bringing it up to par with the one you salvaged the mods from.  That’s simply a stroke of genius (Check the picture below. I got that lightsaber around level 10, but I simply love how it looks, so I continued to keep it updated to my level thanks to the modding system) . Unfortunately endgame raid and PvP rewards aren’t as flexible, but Bioware already promised that their flexibility will be brought to par with the rest.

One of the best aspects of this system is that, as long as you can wear the category of armor to which a piece of equipment belongs, you can modify its stats to fit your class perfectly. For example a Jedi Guardian can easily wear the full armor of a Trooper if he so wishes, without losing any of the statistical advantages that would come with wearing armor dedicated to his own class.

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The visual aspect of equipment isn’t always as pleasing. While a sizable percentage of the armor and weapons you can find in the game looks remarkably good, there are quite a few that seem to… lack inspiration (to be gentle). When I first saw the endgame PvP armor sets for Jedi Guardians, just to bring one blatant example, I couldn’t help wondering who the hell decided to greenlight that travesty of a design. If I wanted to look like a weird hybrid between a  protocol droid, a space samurai and a power ranger I would have played… no. Scratch that. I don’t think I ever saw something that bad in any game. Ever.

Another slightly jarring detail is that Empire players seem to have gotten most of the love from those tasked with equipment design. My favorite companion Kira Carsen often says that she feels that every fashion designer in the galaxy went to the dark side. I wonder if the writer that conceived that line ever realized how close to the truth it is. It sounds funny, but it isn’t.

The problem is further worsened by the fact that many classes (like, again, the Jedi Guardian) suffer from a radical shortage of armor that doesn’t involve a hood. Considering that there’s no way to remove it short of wearing a trooper helmet or a ridiculous “Geordi La Forge” piece of eyewear (that you can see in some of the pictures… still better than a hood, I guess) and that hoods completely remove hair, that tends to be quite unpleasant. It’s even more unpleasant if you consider that some of the trailers (like this one) show sets of armor that aren’t available to the players, look extremely cool, and don’t have a hood at all.

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Now that most of the systems and features are in place and working, BioWare will have to seriously consider giving some love to the visuals of equipment and implementing a hood toggle. MMORPGs are hedonistic environments, and many players want their alter-ego to look cool, not only to fight well.

A final honorable mention goes to social points and social gear. Whenever you roll for a conversation during a flashpoint or a quest done with other players you earn social points that go towards raising your social level. The higher your social level is, the more you have access to special social equipment, that includes fully customizable flavor clothes like elegant suits or pilot gear. While it’s a bit unfair, as all social equipment belongs to the light armor group (providing a quite large itemization advantage for the “clothie” classes), it’s also a great way for roleplayers to wear something that isn’t your usual suit of armor, and a further way to encourage grouping and socializing.

Ultimately Star Wars: The Old Republic is not perfect, as it has its fair share of launch bugs and glitches, but it’s an extremely solid entry in the MMORPG market. Not only BioWare managed to pull the most polished, smoothest and content-rich launch of the history of the genre, but the game has atmosphere and story value in spades, doing justice not only to the prestigious and beloved Knights of the Old Republic series, but also to the Star Wars brand as a whole. Whether you love MMORPGs, or single player RPGs sporting great stories and characters, you simply can’t go wrong with SWTOR.

The stagnating MMORPG genre needed a shake-up and it needed it badly. Star Wars: The Old Republic has the full potential to be that earthquake that will shake the foundations of the industry. It’s not only a great game, but also an awesome Star Wars experience.