In 2003, veteran RPG studio Bioware took a massive gamble with a twist on one of the most iconic Sci-Fi IP’s in existence – Star Wars. What resulted was the innovative Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (nicknamed KOTOR for short by fans). But this was no foray into the existing universe, and Luke, Yoda and Vader were nowhere to be found. Instead Bioware opted to start with a clean slate, taking players over 3,000 years into the past, to a world filled with similarities to the one we know from the silver screen, but in a different time, during a large-scale war between the Jedi and the Sith. The game was a massive hit on both PC and Xbox, gaining many awards on both platforms. A sequel followed soon afterwards, and now after over three years of development, Bioware is taking us back in time again, with Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I should point out that Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR or TOR for short), was globally released to North America and selected parts of Europe on December 20, 2011. An Oceania launch is currently estimated for this month; however many gamers down under have turned to Amazon and other outlets to import the game themselves in the meantime. Most Oceanic players/Guilds are set up on The Harbinger Server – however, if Bioware does announce Oceanic Servers in March then many members of the community may move at that time.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is set about 300 years after the events of KOTOR, which is still about 3,000 years before the events of the Star Wars movies. This is a great choice in setting as it maintains the unique style of the franchise, while many of the people and events that players experienced in KOTOR have now faded into lore and history. It’s a masterful touch that gives a fresh playing environment while maintaining a sense of history and continuity from the earlier games.
Players get to choose from two sides – the Republic and the Empire – each with four corresponding classes: Troopers and Bounty Hunters, Smugglers and Imperial Agents, Jedi Knights and Sith Warriors, and Jedi Consulars and Sith Inquisitors.
Each of these classes then splits again at level 10, into a choice of two advanced classes. These can quite radically change the gameplay and are non-reversible decisions. For example, at level 10 the Jedi Consular class has to choose between becoming a Jedi Sage, who gains healing powers, or a Jedi Shadow, who can become stealthed (invisible) and inflict damaging strikes with a double-bladed lightsaber. Both classes retain and continue to gain the basic Jedi Consular abilities, focused around throwing or immobilising force powers, but they develop and play completely differently. So in essence there are 16 possible character choices, and with three skill trees for each advanced class, the customisation possibilities are vast indeed.
Speaking of customisation, as with any MMO, the character creation options are an important element given the length of time that you will potentially be playing as the character you have created. As with many MMO’s, in TOR there are no options to change your character’s base appearance once you start the game. The good news is that the character creator offers a wide range of options which, while not able to be fine-tuned via sliders, should offer enough choices to ensure most players are able to get a look they are satisfied with.
The graphics in general are good, but not outstanding. Characters seem to have a slightly cartoonish design to them – not enough to look obvious, but enough to have a slight CGI/animated feel. The environments and art design are fantastic, with outdoor areas like the Dune Sea on Tatooine looking spectacular - particularly if you are running on more than one monitor – while city planets like Coruscant and Nar Shaddaa feel like they are humming with life and activity. There are still a fair few graphic bugs at this stage, mainly around lighting and effects it seems, and high resolution textures and anti-aliasing have yet to be implemented (Bioware has said that hopefully these will be fixed in the near future).
Gameplay-wise, TOR works like many popular MMO’s on the market, with a couple of exceptions. For starters, there is no auto-attack option; each individual attack action must be activated by the player. This can at first seem a bit odd, but it actually makes combat far more immersive as you have to choose from the wide range of attacks or powers available to your character.
Secondly, each class plays quite differently, with vastly different gameplay tactics required for each advanced class. If you find that you don’t particularly like one style of playing, it is possible that another will be more to your liking.
After about level 5 most characters will encounter a Bioware tradition - companions. Yes, in TOR you not only come across other players in the game, but you also have your own personal story and characters who will join your ship and crew throughout this story, just like Mass Effect, for example. Companions are very useful, from accompanying you in the game world and fighting alongside you, to providing side quests and even being sent off to gather crafting items and rewards.
Speaking of quests and story, Bioware has always been fantastic at creating involving stories, as any fan of KOTOR, Mass Effect or Dragon Age will tell you, and SWTOR is no exception. Your journey is guided by an overarching story that is unique to each class, so with four classes and two factions, that is eight possible storylines to experience in total
The story leads you across the galaxy from planet to planet, where you will find other players of a similar level pursuing their own storyline with whom you can partner up to carry out common local quests in the area. Not only is each main story voice acted with cut scenes, but each side quest in the game also features interactive cut scenes and voice acting.
Questing in a party has its own rewards, from better loot drops to gaining ‘social points’, which are required to purchase some high level gear from special vendors. Players in groups also get to share quest conversations, with responses for the group picked randomly from one of the members; choices.
This can lead to some interesting situations, particularly where good or evil moral choices are presented. Like KOTOR and Mass Effect, opportunities arise to make good or evil choices, gaining light or dark side alignment points throughout the game; however, the points are based on your own conversation choices, regardless of the overall outcome for the group, so teaming with an ‘evil’ teammate can let you experience the nasty choices without getting your own hands dirty.
PvP fans are catered for via both the option to roll on PvP servers (that allow open world combat), and the inclusion of PvP battlegrounds that players can queue to take part in.
The PvP has a mix of match types, ranging from assault/defence maps, to a unique gladiatorial ball sport called "Huttball”. At the moment PvP is already becoming dominated by organised teams, and the random game selection can cause some annoyance if you don’t particularly like a map/mode.
For those who want PvE above and beyond the main story, there are also Flashpoints and Operations on offer via a main staging area for each side. These special missions - pitched at different player levels throughout the game - are designed for four players to team up and take on a unique challenge, with harder than regular enemies and greater gear rewards.
It is unfortunate that while Bioware has put so much effort into the story and voice acting of the content, that most of the game mechanics are the same as we have seen in pretty much every MMO to date. This isn’t to say that if something ain’t broken, don’t fix it, but in a time when free to play and single instanced servers are changing the landscape of MMO’s, traditional approaches – from the subscription and server model, to having to physically find mail boxes to get messages in-game (what, no email in space?) – might not hold the relevance that they once did.
Having said that, SWTOR does what it does well, and players who aren’t looking for revolution, won’t find much to complain about here.
All in all, Star Wars: The Old Republic is an excellent game given the expected bugs for an MMO in launch state, and fans of Star Wars, MMOs and Bioware’s previous games will all find it hard to resist.