With “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” BioWare has created a deep, compelling, massively multiplayer online (MMO) game that’s friendly and forgiving to new players. It’s an appealing first MMO for “Star Wars” nuts, fans of the single-player “Knights of the Old Republic” games or those just looking to take the plunge into the genre.
All three descriptions apply to me. I grew up with “Star Wars,” consider the first “KOTOR” one of the best games ever made and, until recently, never owned a computer well-suited to long online gaming sessions. In other words, this column is written from the perspective of a newbie.
“The Old Republic” picks up roughly 300 years after the “KOTOR” games, which themselves are set several thousand years before the “Star Wars” movies. This setting gives BioWare the freedom to do pretty much whatever it wants, while still allowing for a single-player “Knights of the Old Republic 3” some day.
That’s a good thing. Though “The Old Republic” is fully voice-acted and narratively rich for a MMO, it is not, as BioWare once suggested, “KOTOR III, IV, V and VI.” The game includes plenty of allusions and nods to the older games, but based on my first 70 hours, it’s not going to slake the thirst of anyone looking for a satisfying conclusion to the stories of Revan and the Exile.
In “TOR,” the Republic (allied with the jedi) and the Empire (allied with the sith) are participants in a shaky truce, with each side jockeying behind the scenes for positioning for when war inevitably breaks out again. You can play as one of eight basic classes, four on each side of the conflict. Each has its own specializations, skill trees, story and companions you meet as you progress.
As MMOs go, “TOR” is an outlier. Because you can have one computer-controlled companion at your side, it’s possible to play most or all of the story solo. Group play at lower levels is geared toward foursomes. There are larger-scale group missions known as “operations” that are more akin to “World of Warcraft’s” massive raids, but they’re reserved for higher-level characters.
For anyone who likes to juggle several games, this makes “The Old Republic” more appealing. Gathering a group to run through a flashpoint can be accomplished in minutes, not hours, and there’s not much feeling like you have to plan your gaming life around the schedules of a couple dozen online friends. Additionally, to run through a four-player heroic mission, you really only need two human players and their companions. (At press time, there’s still an annoying glitch that sometimes causes players to have to resummon their companions every time they enter a new area. Despite claiming the bug would be fixed by patches, BioWare has yet to find a permanent fix.)
Though smaller groups make the game friendly to novices, “TOR” can get bogged down in MMO conventions and obtuseness. Generally speaking, the answers to new players’ questions can be found in the codex, a sort of continuously updating encyclopedia. But the easiest way for me to learn was to group with a couple of friends who are MMO veterans. This helped me make sure I was spending my hard-earned credits on the right upgrades, crafting the right equipment and optimizing my character’s abilities.
The work BioWare has put into making “The Old Republic” feel like a fleshed-out, story-driven experience is appreciated, but at times the story butts heads with common MMO trappings.
It’s easy to understand, for example, why players need to wander the desert of Tatooine, placing sensors to triangulate a hidden enemy’s position. Other missions, though, such as those that require you to kill specific numbers of particular enemies, all of which respawn shortly after you kill them, break the illusion and seem to be included because that’s what MMOs do.
Though each player customizes his or her character’s look, each class comes with its own companions who all look the same, save for their clothing. It’s jarring to see dozens of iterations of my jedi knight’s padawan or pupil, Kira Carsen, running around the surface of every planet I visit. Sometimes she’s clad in jedi robes and at other times she’s wearing a Princess Leia-style “slave” bikini, but she’s still unmistakably Kira. If it’s weird for my jedi, imagine how poor Kira feels. MMO veterans will be used to this kind of incongruity, but it can take some getting used to. (There are kits that change the appearance of your companions, but those changes are largely superficial.)
Like any game featuring large, open environments that allow players to wander at will, “The Old Republic” has a fair number of glitches and bugs that are still being patched. A hideous green haze hangs in the sky at various points on Tatooine, and I’ve run across my fair share of crafting resources that I should be able to interact with but can’t.
Despite its warts and rough spots, “The Old Republic” has been worth it for the camaraderie I’ve felt with friends and the anonymous strangers I’ve grouped with. Once I finish the jedi knight story line, I can easily see pouring additional hours into exploring the well-written story lines for my alternate characters. It’s made me a believer in MMOs and has me looking ahead to other games in the genre, as well as whatever expansions BioWare produces for higher-level characters.
In my 70 or so hours, I’ve sampled only a fraction of “The Old Republic’s” content. Despite sinking in more play time than I get with nearly every single-player game, I’ve taken one character to level 28 (out of 50), playing entirely player-versus-environment content. There are still more than seven full PvE storylines to journey through, and then there’s the competitive world of player-vs.-player content and crafting items for my guildmates.
“Star Wars: The Old Republic” (rated T, PC) costs $60, which pays for the game and one month of play time. Additional months cost between $13 and $15. For this review, I played a downloadable copy provided by publisher Electronic Arts, who also provided 90 days of play time.