Star Wars: The Old Republic – First Impressions

When I first learned that Bioware were making a Star Wars MMOG I must admit that I was only vaguely interested. While it’s true that some of my most fondly remembered games are based on the Star Wars universe, some of which were even developed by Bioware, I was (and still am to an extent) jaded with MMOGs in general. More importantly, I failed to see how Bioware’s new project could capture the magic that brought games such as X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Knights of the Old Republic, the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight series to life. For me, that touch of magic is bringing the world of the Sith and the Jedi to life, primarily through a compelling story narrative. It’s true that Bioware have a brilliant track record at story telling in the single player environment, but I failed to see how they could bring that across to the multiplayer world. Other MMOGs have certainly tried: Final Fantasy XI offered great in-game cutscenes following a primary story, which showed your character as an actual participant in events, but the remainder of the gameplay wasn’t really linked it at all. “Excellent, so we saved the Taru? Right, back to grinding those mobs…”. Lord of the Rings Online similarly suffered in their primary or epic quest lines, for much the same reason. However where the latter ultimately failed is perhaps my greatest gripe with story in MMOGs in general: the player was tacked onto the story – it was Aragorn’s or Gandalf’s story , not yours.

I started paying more attention to the noise about SWTOR when I learned that the story was touted as one of the major selling points. So I was extremely excited to jump into the beta this past weekend and see what all the fuss was about. I umm’ed and arr’ed before deciding on a female human Imperial Agent, for the first time deciding on a class and sex purely because I preferred the quality of the voice over on offer. After character creation you’re met with the yellow on black scrolling text and punchy brass fanfare that is synonymous with anything Star Wars, then you’re thrust right into the thick of it. When Bioware said SWTOR is a story driven MMOG, they meant it. Right from your arrival on Hutta (as is the case for Imperial Agents and Bounty Hunters) the story is pushed into your face like a delicious cake, which you promptly gobble up. Every quest, from lowly collection quests to an epic class specific story, utilises in-game cinematics and voice-overs which bring the world to life in a way that no other MMOG has. For the first time since my days in Ultima Online, I actually cared about my characters motivations. I understood why she was hunting down Imperial dissidents and could shape her responses, or even the quests she chose to accept, based on those motivations. I was so engaged that I spent the final hour of the beta weekend racing across Dromund Kaas, the Empire homeworld, completing parts of the Imperial Agent story line just so I would not be left hanging!

So, they had me at story, but could they keep me with gameplay? What I truly applauded was Bioware’s ability to emulate, not innovate, the current iteration of MMOGs in terms of gameplay. From the moment I logged in I needed no ‘Introduction to gameplay 101’. While there are particular nuances to SWTORs gameplay over, say World of Warcraft or Rift, these are explained to you when necessary through either tool tips or quests, without pandering or handholding. In short, the gameplay and mechanics are familiar, but they fit like those old tracksuit pants your partner wants you to throw out…but you know they get the job done and have a few good years left in them. Phrases like ‘WoW in space’ have certainly been thrown around and are certainly accurate, but I would hasten to point out that this is not a bad thing. Blizzard have certainly proven that their core gameplay elements – smooth combat mechanics and accessibility – are what the vast majority of MMOG players out there want.

I had little time to explore other gameplay elements, such as crafting and PVP, but the short time I did spend with them left me extremely impressed. The crafting system in particular appears quite involved, with items able to be broken down into components for re-crafting, while also having the opportunity to provide an improved item schematic. A ‘green’ (or uncommon) item has a chance to provide a ‘blue’ (or rare) recipe on deconstruction, and so on (up to orange or epic recipes). This allows lower level items to be significantly upgraded quite early on. This is a stark contrast to many MMOGs where crafting really only becomes viable or utilised at the maximum level. It is also worth mentioning that you do not do this crafting or (some of the) resource gathering yourself (though you can harvest from nodes and corpses as you can in other games): instead your companion characters can be sent off on various missions, depending on the mission/crafting skills you have chosen. These each cost a set amount of credits and take a period of time (ranging from 3 to 10 minutes at least). Your character’s success chance is based upon your skill level as well as your affection level with said character, meaning there is a chance that your companion will fail to bring back any useful goods on some of the more challenging mission choices. I’m really looking forward to giving the system a full work out come release.

It’s quite clear that Bioware have successfully captured the story elements that make their offline RPGs so compelling. The inclusion of heavy voice acting and story driven gameplay may seem insignificant to some, but to me they are game changers. If like me, you’re a fan of the MMOG genre but have been desperately hoping for someone to put the RPG back into MMORPG, then I think we’re onto a winner here.

About the Author

I'm an archaeologist who games far too much! I was introduced to a Commodore 64 when I was a lad and have never looked back. Lover of retro gaming, supporting indie developers, RPGs and RTSs.