Star Wars The Old Republic: first impressions

Rumoured to be the most expensive videogame ever developed, Bioware’s MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic finally saw a full launch at the tail end of December – presumably aimed at those not satisfied with the weight gain already associated with the season and still seeking a method to put on a few more pounds in a short space of time.

I picked the game up having already tried the beta and had been quite impressed – despite having been frustrated by staggered early access rules sprung at the last second, shockingly inflated retail prices, and the general stench of publisher influence surrounding the whole affair. What follows is a collection of first impressions having spent a couple of weeks with the game across numerous classes.

Each time a new MMO hits the market it is, inevitably, overly and tediously compared to World of Warcraft, the apparent all-powerful benchmark for the genre. Were the reason purely based on long term financial success this would make more sense to me, but rarely are these the things used for a comparison. I have a long history with MMO games as my waist line will attest to, yet only briefly does WoW appear in that history and beyond this paragraph it will not be levied towards The Old Republic again for any reasons other than financial ones.

Given the popularity of the Star Wars brand it may seem a given that (at least initially) Old Republic was going to have an easy ride, though it’s worth pointing out that DC Universe and Star Trek Online could also be considered to have strong brands backing them, and we all know where they ended up – the Free-To-Play dungeon where MMOs go to die. That said it does seem like this MMO is off to a strong start yet doesn’t feel overly populated, thanks to instanced planets and numerous servers for both the EU and US regions. I went in also expecting 90% of people to be playing as some kind of Jedi or Sith yet this doesn’t seem to be the case and – with the exception of people not willing to be a healer or a tank which plagues every game like this – classes seem reasonably balanced.

There is of course another draw here for fans of the Knights of the Old Republic games. This game, while set some time after those original games, still follows the events in them and in particular on the Imperial side Revan is often spoke of. There are cameos from characters that appeared in those games too and you can also visit planets from them to see the fallout of previous events, most noticeably Taris.

Another thing which sets Old Republic aside from other games in the MMO category is the inclusion of companions for every class, light/dark alignment and the thing which takes up most of the required 20 GB install – voice acting.

While this is not the first RPG based MMO to include voice acting within quests (I believe it may have been Age of Conan that did it first) it is the first which not only fully voices everything but also has recorded lines for male and female variants of the four starting classes on the Republic and Imperial sides for all possible choices (which can usually be categorised as good, neutral and evil). This is not voice acting on the cheap either, and is almost exclusively to an extremely high standard of delivery.

This is certainly an impressive undertaking and can at times create the impression that you are immersed in a single player game – Knights of the Old Republic 3 – yet then you will see another player running by and remember. The illusion is furthered by having an NPC companion with you to facilitate those who want to play alone that even incorporates a like/dislike system for your choices leading to romance options or companion quests. While there are open air quests across the numerous expansive planets you can visit, there are also instanced areas for your chosen class’s plot line, Flashpoints and group quests.

Play enough of a few different classes or do enough quests and you will start to pick up on things which were cut and pasted to help cover the staggering task of constructing so many fleshed out activities. Given any individual quest dialogue you can be sure that there will either be a standing animation, a hand motioning angrily either at you or to the side, or an animation where the person you are speaking to walks forward a couple of steps then steps back. Rarely will there be a cutscene in which things become any more animated, especially outside of class quests.

Dialogue is often recycled too. For example a Jedi Consular’s ‘evil’ option when undertaking a quest (paraphrased slightly) is “Sounds interesting, but what’s in it for me?” and this will be said a lot regardless of the wording of the option you chose. This is a frequent thing across all classes for generic responses to the process of learning about and accepting a quest. I mention these things not as faults, purely that the longer you play the more obvious they become and it does take some of the sparkle away from the initially impressive façade.

The quest-giving NPCs of the world are also insanely forgiving to rudeness, abruptness and the generally evil manner you can choose to react in if you are after Dark Side points. You can constantly pick the (often amusing) blunt option which insults the person you are speaking with and they will still carry on offering you the quest with a comparatively lax response to what was just said about them. There are also moments where you can actually flat out refuse to be told more only for the NPC to force the information on you anyway.

The reason for this though is clear – you can team up for any and all quests, and outside of class based ones (in which party members can only take up spectator roles in cutscenes) everyone can have input via number rolls with the highest being the course of action you see play out. This means that in order to be fair the rude “I don’t care about the details” option could win the roll on a dialogue choice but those who wanted to know more are still also satisfied.

Long term, Old Republic does have a distinct advantage over something like DC Universe in that even if the current maximum level of fifty can be reached fairly quickly, the unique storyline to each class and the engaging manner in which they are presented compels you to try them out just to see another interesting plot. This is not to mention having the Republic side and Imperial side, each giving access to different planets (some are shared eventually though).

In the long, long term we do wonder though how additional content could be produced that matches the same standard currently present. Adding new quests isn’t as simple as putting in a few screens of text – they would have to record all options for all classes on each side. It isn’t much of a surprise then that thus far it is only expanding how PVP currently operates that is being discussed and an additional Flashpoint or two. I do worry though that rather than add fully fleshed out quests as part of the MMO tradition, that it evolves and grows over time to keep justifying your subscription, they may release micro-transaction additional content citing the voice work and so on as the reasons why.

With solid gameplay that offers traditional MMORPG style interaction mixed with different concepts not usually seen in the genre (such as a cover system for Smugglers and Imperial Agents) and excellent parts borrowed from single player RPG mechanics, Old Republic is off to a very strong start. Of course, quite a few MMOs have had strong starts and what really matters will be how strong it remains a few months down the line as people run out of things to do and look to the developers for more content. It does also fall into some typical trappings of the genre such as repetition by design, a lack of quest variety and some areas being needlessly large.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a good chance of being financially successful for a moderately long time depending on the quality of continued patching and additional content and is a very interesting experience for experienced MMO players and new alike. Fans of the Star Wars brand will already probably be playing, so that leaves fence-sitters and those already subscribed to a different MMO and to them I would suggest waiting for the inevitable release of a free trial which, unlike some trials, will give a taste of what the whole experience is like as this is a game less about getting max level as fast as humanly possible and more about the enjoyable plot driven journey to get there.

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Written by Ian D

Misanthropic git. Dislikes: Most things. Likes: Obscure references.

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