It's been years in development. The hype surrounding this game has been swarming to a crescendo since the get-go. It's billed as the most expensive video game ever made at a production cost of just over 135 million dollars. And it's finally here.
Star Wars: The Old Republic launched on December 20th, a mere five days before Christmas. Having been priming their fan base with early game access and beta testing weekends for months leading up to the official launch, Bioware and Electronic Arts (and Lucasarts, sorta) have finally unleashed this colossal achievement to the general public and the fans have been going wild, with good reason.
The events of the game take place shortly after the events of the first two Knights of the Old Republic games and thousands of years before the events of the films. There's a lot of new Star Wars territory to be explored, and unfortunately this review will only cover a small fraction of the game as I've only rolled two characters so far. But my hope is that the immense achievement that this game already is, and will likely continue to become, will be evident in this critical evaluation of such a small portion.
This game is huge. I can't emphasize that enough. And in an MMO, bigger is definitely better. Part of the big hoopla made over this game during its pre-release buzz was due to its being the first fully-voiced MMO. Both player characters and non-player characters have full conversation cut-scenes and that, at the very least, is an innovation in and of itself within the genre. Beyond that, the voice-acting displayed here is top-notch - true to Bioware's form. But having already encountered several characters and side missions (in addition to the main quests) in my intergalactic travels, I'm continually confronted by how much sheer content this game possesses. Side quests abound on map after map, and I've yet to recognize overlap in voice-actors.
Where this game shines brightest is in its commitment to quality story-telling. That's manifested on a surface level of course in the superb cutscenes and monumental voice-work. But at the heart of this game is every ultimate Star Wars fantasy. Characters are divided first by political allegiance - Empire or Republic. Within each side are 4 classes: Empire has Sith Inquisitor, Sith Warrior, Bounty Hunter, and Imperial Agent. On the Republic side: Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler, and Trooper. Along with these, players can choose from a variety of species from humans to Chiss to Zabrak to Twi'lek...the list goes on. Each class generally adheres to one mode of play (Bounty Hunter/Smuggler are ranged...Sith Warrior and Trooper are ideal for tanking, etc.) and with it comes a tailor-made storyline that puts the player at a level of control and immersion in the Star Wars universe we've yet to see. What Bioware has done with each character class is carve out the classic Star Wars fantasies for that character, while still leaving the player free to adhere or eschew said fantasy as they see fit. I'll use my two existing characters as examples:
Finch - my Smuggler - has a story right out of Han Solo's "early days." The story opens on the daring captain making a gun-run for some resistance fighters, only to be betrayed and have his ship hijacked by the people he was allegedly working for. From there, the main quest pertains to how he'll get back at the no-good slime-ball that double crossed him, while fitting into an over-arching story of political upheaval in the galaxy. The "ideal" path Bioware has laid out for this character involves playing things fast and loose - being that cool, swaggering gunslinger who plays by his own rules and answers to no one...but perhaps still has a soft spot somewhere under that rough exterior. That's how I play that character. When some side-mission involves retrieving medicine for some refugee children, I prefer to do "the right thing" and risk my neck for the kids and up my light-side points. But if I see some thugs roughing up a girl, I shoot first and negotiate later - dark side points be damned. With the Smuggler, it's the opportunity to live the Han Solo fantasy complete with cocky one-liners like "I wasn't planning to live forever anyway."
Skawnra, my Sith Inquisitor, is exactly the opposite. The fantasy carved out for the Inquisitor is that of a conduit of pure dark side power. Brought to the Sith homeworld of Korriban at the game's outset, the Inquisitor rises up from slavery to claim a place at Lord Zash's side as her dark apprentice. While playing this class, I get the most out of the existing content by engaging that fantasy as Bioware has it laid out: to be the imposing figure that others immediately fear because they know lightning could erupt from his fingertips at any moment. When given the opportunity to interrogate a prisoner I was presented with attempting to reason with him and play "good cop" or wring the answers from him through force of painful torture. Needless to say this minor character suffered some great pain at the hands of Skawnra's force lightning, and my dark side points piled on. Had I been playing as Finch or maybe another Republic class, I would have preferred to be more diplomatic or empathetic. But fulfilling the role of the dark side in the flesh, challenging anyone who dares to obstruct my path and never taking prisoners, is the real fun of playing the Inquisitor.
I've yet to sample the other classes just yet because I've been so caught up thoroughly enjoying the characters I currently have. I fully intend to play through every class eventually, but there's SO much content with a given class and all of it (thus far) has just been so much darn fun I'm getting my money's worth out of this game already. But even while I'm playing within the "default" fantasies the game provides, I'm aware of how many divergent ways there are to play this game. One has the opportunity to play an Imperial Agent who, instead of pulling the strings for the Empire, subverts the Empires intentions and sabotages their operations from within. Or perhaps act as a Jedi Knight who's swayed by the dark side of the Force. The combinations and permutations aren't endless, but the opportunities to nuance those choices are; layered over and over again with conversation choices and actions that determine a character's ultimate path, and all of it under the complete control of the player.
A handful of moments during the story really stand out as well. As a Jedi or Sith, the moment you receive your lightsaber isn't necessarily filled with pomp and circumstance. But it just feels SO COOL to get your own lightsaber. The same is true of receiving your starship (yeah, you get your own STARSHIP) - it's a brief cutscene that doesn't necessarily come with a parade - metaphorical or otherwise. But its such an integral detail to fulfilling that dream of truly being in the Star Wars universe, and Bioware hasn't overlooked anything in making sure The Old Republic is the ultimate in Star Wars wish-fulfillment.
As I've said before, I'm only reviewing a very small portion of this game and unfortunately that portion does not cover Flashpoints (dungeons/raids) or PvP. I'm not a huge fan of the MMO as a genre, so this title was already a bit of a gamble for me. From what I've heard and seen, PvP and Flashpoints should be just as rewarding as the rest of the game has been, but I can't say anything about them from my own experience.
The main drawback of this game is intrinsically tied to its own genre: it's an MMO. I'm not a huge fan of MMO's personally, mainly because I'm kind of a solo gamer and so much of the MMO is based around coordinating play. I'm sure I'll eventually work my way up into more cooperative gaming in the near future, but for the time being I enjoy playing The Old Republic for the stories I'm forging on my own. Take that as you will.
As an MMO, of course there are occasional frame rate/lag issues. I've found lag is *almost* unbearable in certain indoor vignettes. If you peruse The Old Republic's user forums you'll find this is a topic of much heated discussion. MMO lag and/or frame rate issues can be tricky, because sometimes the computer itself and not the game (or the server) is to blame. In my case at least, most of my lag issues seem related to server trouble. But, I'm withholding real condemnation on these grounds given that Bioware might beef up their servers in the coming months to deal with the traffic that's causing said lag. But it is pretty annoying to be almost completely unable to play through certain side quests because of something as arbitrary as network latency.
Also, occasionally character textures don't load correctly. So your character or companion suddenly becomes a wire-frame for the duration of a quick cutscene. It doesn't affect gameplay so much as just the aesthetics of the game, but it's worth noting. So fair word of warning, The Old Republic is not without its share of bugs.
I've been pumped about this release for a couple of years now. The prospect of a fully-voiced MMO seemed really cool. The fact that it was set in the Star Wars universe sounded awesome. And given that it was produced by Bioware, arguably the most story-driven developer in the market today, seemed like it could only be a good thing. Add those three elements together and the combined result is a game that's been every bit worth the wait, despite its occasional technical flaws.
As a personal snicker, I think it's pretty safe to say that not only will The Old Republic be able to compete with the only other major MMO on the market - World of Warcraft - but will likely be its death knell. While playing earlier this week a good deal of the chatter between players had to do with how many of them plan to take a break from WoW to play The Old Republic, or cancel their subscriptions altogether. Much of this shift is likely due to Bioware's timing; WoW has already lost a good deal of its steam and has been trying desperately to hook new users with "Free to play" campaigns for a while now. The other factor in solidifying The Old Republic as a worthy contender is just the sheer volume of content. It will be years before another game will even have a chance at being as big as The Old Republic, let alone any good. And with The Old Republic not only a monumental achievement in terms of just sheer content but also a damn fine game in its own right, I think it's safe to say that this game is very much here to stay.
The game already boasts almost 2 million users and counting, and this particular user has only begun to scratch the surface of what this game has to offer. Star Wars fans, THIS is the game we've been waiting for. When those commercials close with that "Your Saga Begins" title, it's not a hook - it's a promise.
George Lucas isn't the real Force behind Star Wars any more - Bioware is. The Force is most definitely strong with them, and with this game. I'm not a fan of MMO's, but I love this game and I've only been playing about a week now. So regardless of your taste in video games, I defy you to give this title a shot and not be happily humming your way through a galaxy far, far away. And, as always:
May the Force Be With You.