To say that ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ (henceforth referred to as SWTOR) has consumed the increased amount of free time I’ve found at my disposal lately would be somewhat of an understatement. This has not come as a shock given my adoration of Star Wars itself and of Bioware who have once again created something sublime. In case you are unaware SWTOR is a new MMO set in the Star Wars universe and I have been looking forward to it for some time now. At one stage I tried to convince myself I could go without it, that I wouldn’t bother. This lasted well-ish until about 11am on the day I could pick up my pre-ordered (I was going to cancel it, honest…) copy of the incredible Collectors Edition. When it comes to collectors items like Sith lord statues or other such ornaments of awesome proportions I am worse than any magpie, in am inexorably drawn to them as they are to shiny things. The box alone for this edition was one of the shiniest things I’ve ever seen. Luckily people I know knew me better than I did and I have ended up not only with the game but several other incredibly cool extras and am sitting pretty in a nest full of glittering SWTOR related stuff. Having tortured the magpie analogy enough at this point I’ll get on to a review… of sorts.
Until I sat down to write this I’d never tried to review an MMO before and as it turns out they are somewhat tricky to encapsulate, the reasons for this will become clear as I proceed. The one thing I wanted to test more than any other was Bioware’s claim that a major focus was in the writing and that the single player experience would be as exceptional as the multiplayer. Under normal circumstances I would never even dream to question Bioware’s ability to write, they have proved time and again that they have some of the very best writers in the industry but this was a strange prospect to me. A single player focus in an MMO, something almost tautologically muliplayer? In an effort to see the validity of their claims I decided to solo the game all the way to the level cap (50 at present). At time of writing I have just hit 46 after a month of solo play and I am ashamed of any doubts I had before beginning. The class specific quests serve as your main story line and are incredibly tight, well paced and thought out. I can only comment on the Jedi Consular story to any degree as my other characters are not far enough into the game (3 or 4 alts in the 15-20 level range) but all early indications point towards the same, the Trooper in particular looks very promising indeed. They have even managed to incorporate the standard Bioware choice conversation wheels with Light Side and Dark Side conversation options scattered in amongst the normal ones, very much the same as ‘Mass Effect’s Renegade and Paragon options.
Perhaps the power of the writing is best illustrated in my responses to these conversations options. Normally in games I lean towards the Dark Side/Renegade options. Not because I want to be a badass but because they are either more fun or more usually that if I were to put myself in the same situation I don’t think the goody goody option would be how I would react. The galaxy is out to get you and being incredibly nice to everyone seems like it wouldn’t achieve all that much. As my Consular I have been compelled to take the Light Side option almost every single time. I realised after some time that the game was very subtly forcing me into a role play scenario. I was doing the actions I thought would be right for my character and not myself which threw out two conclusions. Firstly that unlike ‘Mass Effect’ (to keep the same comparison) I was not projecting myself onto my character, and secondly that I think that was exactly the desired effect. As an MMO people will very rarely limit themselves to one character so if the story worked in a way to put you as that character you could theoretically end up playing 8 characters (assuming you limit yourself to one server) all the way to 50 in exactly the same way, making the same decisions because that’s what you would do. What they have done instead is write the stories or characters in such a way that those same 8 characters can be taken all the way to level cap in 8 different ways without you having to resort to unnatural decisions making. This is a triumph beyond what I was expecting and I doff my cap to the writers who worked on this, they deserve serious credit.
The gameplay is fairly standard MMO affair and if you’re used to the genre you will pick it up instantly. If not however it is still easy to grasp. Using a combination of WASD and the mouse you navigate the environments pursuing your main quest and picking up side quests along the way should you wish. You do this until the game requires you to travel to a new planet where you discover new characters, quests and repeat the process. Each planet also has a ‘main’ subquest which is in many cases as good as the main quest proper to help you keep going and distract you from the repetitive nature of the tasks. Written down this sounds tedious in the extreme but the story pulls you through along with the inexplicable desire to make your level and stats go up to get to the next piece of equipment. For example I recently acquired an orange lightsaber crystal that I can’t use until I level up a bit. I can’t really explain why but I want a bitchin’ orange double bladed lightsaber. On second thought that doesn’t really need explanation since ‘because it’s awesome’ seems to suffice but you get my point. Right back to mechanics, you get a standard MMO skills tray which allows you to put 12 skills along the 1 - = button on your keyboard and you simply use them to defeat the enemies you find as you complete quests. Both of these grant experience points towards the next level along with exploring new areas but quest rewards are by far the most noticeable gains.
What sets this somewhat apart from other MMOs in terms of gameplay is the companion system. As you progress through the game you meet certain characters who end up staying with you aboard your ship and one of whom you can bring with you to aid in combat. This is a huge help to the solo player and most of the companions offer different boons to their use, you simply find the one which compliments your play style the best and stick with them. Where the companions really come in though is in the crew skills you can take. As with most MMOs there is a crafting system which allows you to make items of a certain type. You can have up to three skills but only one of them can be a crafting skill and the others must be gathering skills. As well as the standard way of gathering materials (finding them in the world) you can send your companions on missions to find them for you. These missions vary in length of time from 3 minutes at low level to over an hour for higher levels and whilst away the deployed companion is otherwise unavailable. The benefits of this are that you find rarer, better and exclusive items which cannot be found exploring or looting as well as making use out of your other companions which would otherwise be doing nothing. Once you have the materials you can make items that you have learned the schematics for, these are either bought from the crating trainer, found in lockboxes or from certain missions themselves. Being able to make your own gear is useful as well as fun, and if you join a guild as I have you have a group of people with lots of different crafting skills so you can make and trade items with each other rather than paying large amounts for gear in shops or from the auction house.
SWTOR also has ship based combat as a sort of mini game. Once you get your ship you can accept missions which take you into an on rails shooter portion of the game. These missions last about 5 minutes and more and more unlock as progress through the levels, they also reset daily so you can do each of them once every 24 hours. They are highly profitable, particularly the first time you complete them, and contrary to popular opinion are incredibly entertaining. I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I loaded up one of these missions but when I realised what was going on I couldn’t help but smile. Everyday you get the chance to take a break from standard mob bashing and play something that makes me think of ‘Star Fox’ which is high praise indeed.
I could go on and on about this game but wary of the length I’m going to reign it in here. There are admittedly lots of points I haven’t covered but this is what made the game so hard to review. I have played most days for a month and have not quite hit the level cap on 1 character, there are 7 others to explore. 7 more stories and 3 or 4 more play styles I’ve barely scratched. Although the Jedi and Sith are pretty parallel the others are somewhat mixed up giving slight nuances to get used to. I haven’t done any Flashpoints as these are group missions and I wanted to focus on the single player play. I have experimented very little with PvP because by the time I started there were quite a few level 50s out there with PvP specific gear meaning I died. A lot. All that said though I have experienced enough of the universe they have created to offer informed opinions. SWTOR is a solid game, fantastically well written, beautiful environments, well disguised quest objectives that distract from ‘go here and kill x of creature y’ and I look to my future explorations of this galaxy with anticipation. Of course there is work to do on it, MMOs are never perfect at launch and there have been a few issues but Bioware seem very much on top of it with regular patches to aid the situation. A big one is going on right now actually, how else do you think I found the time to write out some 1800 words on it!