As BioWare’s ad campaign boldly proclaims… the wait is over.
I don’t know how many Star Wars fans are still willing to embrace new products that come out without some measure of hesitation. I’m certain that many people still love Star Wars, and refuse to let their love be tainted by any of the more questionable decisions that the brand has made over the years. As a boy, I would certainly have counted myself amongst that group; as an adult, I simply feel free to make the choice not to give money to things that I don’t enjoy. It was definitely with a significant measure of hesitation that I placed a pre-order for BioWare’s brand-spankin’-new MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
As the name implies, this game takes place during that lengthy and largely unexplored time of the Old Republic. Since the Republic persisted for thousands and thousands of years, it makes for a seemingly endless breeding ground for unique and individual stories without the need to be concerned with the absolute canon of the six Star Wars films. In other words, the further removed we are from characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the easier it is to make a game that still feels like Star Wars… but doesn’t even attempt to infringe upon the films or their core events. The setting for The Old Republic is set some time after the events of the two “Knights of the Old Republic” games. Darth Revan, at least, is considered to be an almost-mythical figure in this time period. It still follows the progress of ongoing hostilities (if not outright war) between the Sith Empire and the Republic. Beyond that, the game’s story depends heavily (at least insofar as I’ve progressed myself) on which character class you’ve selected. Unlike other MMORPGs that you might have played in the past, the Old Republic is designed to provide a story and interaction-rich single player leveling experience. It uses a dialogue wheel with a variety of options and relies heavily on interactive conversations with NPCs to determine which quests your character obtains, what rewards you get from them, your alignment toward the Light or Dark sides of the Force, and how much your companions (more on this in a moment) like you. There are definitely still periods in your leveling experience which feel like a traditional grind; you will find yourself completing circuits of non-individual quests to shore up your XP total and bring in much-needed credits.
Based on your character class, you have a main personal story that you’re progressing through. My character, a bounty hunter, is attempting to be the overall winner in a massive competition of bounty hunters staged by the Mandalorians that requires me to go around the galaxy hunting the most difficult of targets – and the other hunters who have been assigned to the same targets. The missions specific to this bounty hunter storyline are accessed through single-character “phases” – areas only accessible to you – and serve to give the player the impression that they are advancing their character’s story along with their skills. Because these events are personal to the player and follow a linear progression, the NPCs involved become increasingly impressed with you, your reputation, and your abilities. Compared to other MMO-style games where your personal contribution to the world is rarely felt in any meaningful way, this game goes out of its way to try and make the player feel involved and important. This is particularly important, I think, in the context of the Star Wars setting. While of course the game involves fighting through seemingly endless hordes of creatures, rebels, insurgents, bandits, etc. in the wilds and in quest areas, the pacing of the game and the structure of the quests all seem bent toward keeping the feel of a Star Wars adventure. The game is not encouraging a long grind against increasingly formidable types of bats; your character has important business to be about, and just has to scythe through bad guys of various competency levels in order to complete that business.
Further adding to the immersion of the game is the aforementioned companion system. As you progress through your story, your character will acquire access to different companions. As you’d expect, these companions (one of them, anyway) joins you in battle and helps by fighting your enemies. In addition, your companions deal with the responsibility of gathering and crafting for the game’s profession system, which boasts an impressive variety of skills, from which your character may select three. Since your companions take care of most of this nonsense, it might sound like the professions are fairly hands-off. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is not really the case; you still must micromanage your crew of companions, dispatch them on missions, and set them to crafting. You cannot simply queue up a list of things for them to make or do, and it can quickly become tiresome to constantly refer to your crew management window and dispatch your minions. Unlike most of the game’s other features, this one does feel like it breaks the rhythm of your individual Star Wars story.
Incidentally, your friends still can have plenty to do with your experience in the game; situations called Flash Points call for parties to group up and take on significant challenges together (much like a dungeon in Everquest’s Lost Dungeons of Norrath, or in World of WarCraft). End game content is also available, but even with my early access, I certainly haven’t achieved such a high level as to be involved in any of that yet. Still, given the composition of the game so far, there is reason for me to remain optimistic about continuing game content.
The last thing rolling off my tongue is a little discussion of the space combat system. Yes! There is space combat! You can take your starship into space combat missions which are worth XP and credits for your character. They use a Starfox-style system of controls; your ship moves toward your mouse cursor, you have both lasers and missiles, and you can perform a barrel roll (the default key is the space bar!) You’ll have to deal with both enemy starfighters and capital class starships, and complete different objectives like escorting a friendly starship to safety, or destroying certain elite enemy targets, etc. It’s very much in the background (most of the action takes place ‘on the ground’ for your character) of the game, but it’s certainly a lot of fun, and the XP rewards are more than worth delving into it if you find the space combat minigame at all playable. My recommendation is to try it and have fun.