|Pub: Electronic Arts|
|Release: December 21, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Sexual Themes, Violence|
by Robert VerBruggen
A cardinal rule of business is that you shouldn't try to be all things to all people. If you do too much at once, you spread yourself thin—instead, you should find a couple of things you can do better than the competition, and stick to them.
Apparently, BioWare didn't get the memo. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a World of Warcraft-scale MMO, an attempt to finally provide a follow-up of sorts to the single-player game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a space-combat simulator, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and a package of epic new Star Wars stories. If you like Star Wars, MMOs, sci-fi action games, the Mass Effect-style ability to make decisions that matter, or the original KOTOR, BioWare made SWTOR with you in mind.
Believe it or not, the developer more or less succeeded—at least, judging by my early hours with the game. Sixty dollars is a steal for the chance to spend a month in this universe, and, unless you play the game full-time, you won't even be able to work through the basic story content in that amount of time. Because the game is so plot-focused, it's an open question whether you'll want to keep up a $15-a-month subscription for years to come, but there's no question that the initial investment is more than worth it.
SWTOR contains eight different storylines, and you choose one at the beginning of the game. First, you take the side of the Galactic Republic or the Sith, and then you choose from among four different character classes. (At level 10, you'll also choose from two advanced classes.) After picking a species and making some (mostly minor) tweaks to your character's appearance, you're introduced to the game in a series of eye-catching cinematics.
And then it's on to the basic gameplay, which is, shall we say, "highly influenced" by the World of Warcraft/Everquest model. You walk around accumulating quests, most of which are simple errands like "Kill X number of Y enemy type," and every tiny action, right down to finding a new area on the map, feeds your addiction by earning you EXP. As you level up, you unlock new story content and are introduced to new areas. Some quests are too much for you to do alone, so you'll need to band together with other players. The combat feels more like an algebra problem than a visceral and violent encounter; you have to trigger as few enemies at once as you can, and then choose the right combination of attacks and abilities to take them down before they kill you.
The similarities don't end there. If you put together a team, you'll need the Holy Trinity of tanks, healers, and damage-dealers. You acquire a steady stream of new loot from your downed foes, some of which you use and the rest of which you sell to vendors. Between quests, you have to make sure to equip your new gear, repair your old gear, and do some training, or you'll find yourself overwhelmed. When you die, you usually don't lose much progress, but annoyingly, you might have to wait a while to respawn, especially if you die repeatedly in a short period. (Someone really needs to come up with an MMO death system that amounts to more than "Screw you! Why don't you sit in the corner for a few minutes and think about what you've done?")
All of this may sound underwhelming, and, to be honest, it can be at first if you're not a WoW fan. But even if you see The Old Republic as nothing more than WoW with a layer of Star Wars paint on it, what's amazing is that the game is so polished so early in its evolution. The graphics are a definite step up from everything else on the market, the controls are intuitive and fluid, all the dialogue is competently voice-acted, and every pixel on every screen seems tweaked to perfection. (My one control complaint: Since the same mouse button is used for attacking and looting, clicking on a dead enemy in the middle of a fight will pause your attacks, leaving you vulnerable.) Aside from a few hiccups that locked people out of their accounts, as well as the usual server overload, SWTOR has had a remarkably solid launch, and the product already feels complete. And of course, if you are a WoW fan, SWTOR's similarity will help ease the transition if you're thinking about switching.
But more importantly, SWTOR offers so much above and beyond the minute-by-minute actions you take to increase your level. If World of Warcraft provides a basic gameplay template for this title, the incredible talent at BioWare provides the soul. As I've already mentioned, the sheer amount of content at launch is ridiculous, and the developers drew on their experience with the Mass Effect franchise to make each and every conversation a series of choices for the player, rather than a passive experience. You decide just how good or evil your characters will be, and in many cases you decide which NPCs live or die.
There are some other solid additions to the MMO formula as well. Once you get past the early-game content, you are able to travel between planets via space-combat missions, which continue a trend of reviving this quintessentially '90s genre in modern games. Whereas Halo: Reach gave you some Freespace-style missions and Red Faction: Armageddon had a sequence based on Descent, SWTOR apes rail shooters like Star Fox. This is a great distraction from the more traditional MMO content.