Review Date: February 9 2012
Release Date: December 20 2011
Publisher: EA Games
ESRB Rating: Teen
A project like Star Wars: The Old Republic is an undertaking of such tremendous magnitude that there is little in the entertainment industry to compare it to. Anticipation over this MMORPG from Bioware has been building for years, and untold millions of dollars later, it has finally arrived. So far the game seems destined to do better than the first "Star Wars" MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies.
It was evident a long time ago that SWTOR would largely follow the tried and true World of Warcraft formula, as have most major MMORPGs since WoW's release. That formula has in many ways come to define the genre, and developers making big-budget MMORPGs are understandably wary of deviating from it. I'll try to focus more on their differences than their similarities, and avoid repeating ground I covered in my beta impressions of game. I should also mention that the limitations of SWTOR's UI has convinced me that the game should start supporting UI addons.
One difference you can't help noticing is that all of the game's mission dialogue is voiced-over. This enhances Bioware's trademark storytelling nicely and has been very well-received by players. And as promised, SWTOR has plenty of story, with a different storyline for each of the game's 8 classes. This also makes leveling a relatively linear experience, but the game takes you in and out of story-based instances, solo or in a group, with remarkable ease. While there is content designed for groups with enticing rewards even in the early levels, SWTOR can be played solo right up to the level cap.
Although the game has been accused of being "massively single-player," there is a good variety of group content available, including some tough elite mobs in the persistent part of the world as well as instanced Flashpoints. Noticeably lacking, however, is a WoW-like dungeon finder for putting a group together quickly, so it's back to relying on chat, which can require some patience.
Another distinctly Bioware mission element is that you are typically given several different ways to respond to a quest giver, rather than the simple accept or reject most games present you with, and this affects your characters alignment with the Dark or the Light side. The problem with this approach is that it often seems that none of the available responses are really appropriate. Furthermore, when you tie it to a statistic that impacts what equipment you can use, you encourge people to respond consistently to maximize the stat, instead of going with their gut response. In my view these awkward systems intended to give questing more moral weight always disappoint, and rarely offer meaningful choices.
One of SWTOR's most innovative features is it's companion system. Other games have pets that are useful in some situations, but SWTOR provides you with a small crew of companions that help out with a wide variety of tasks. You can take one along when you go into combat, and you can also assign them to a variety of real-time based crafting and gathering chores.
I was okay with my droid companion when I tried Jedi Knight, but as a Smuggler your first companion is the highly-irritating Corso Riggs, whose favorite move is to use a harpoon to pull mobs closer, even though we both use ranged weapons. Not that guns don't work just as well at point-blank range - it just looks silly. Fortunately, you get more appropriate companions as you level up, and Corso can be assigned his rightful place as bridge ornament. Unfortunately, you can't eject Corso from your ship at lightspeed and be done with him forever.
Once assigned to a task, your companions simply disappear for a while and reappear when the job is done. These assignments get longer as you progess, but they continue while you are offline. Only one of your companions can accompany you in combat at a time, so the others can be constantly running errands. It definitely takes a lot of the tedium out of gathering and crafting, and I wouldn't be surprized to see other games adopt similar systems.
In a "Star Wars" game, people naturally expect to be able to fly around in a spaceship. SWTOR's space component doesn't really allow for any flying around, however. It's essentially a solo mini-game available through a certain kind of mission, and you travel along a predetermined course shooting at enemy ships. While it's not a bad diversion from the avatar-based side of SWTOR, it feels pretty disjointed from the rest of the world.
SWTOR has a standard set of options for PvP combat that include PvP servers, instanced Warzones, and a PvP zone called Ilum that is available on all server types. Regrettably, these features seem a lot less polished than other parts of the game, and significant changes have already been implemented, such as a level 50 bracket for Warzones. I haven't spent any time on Ilum yet, so I'll reserve judgement, but it's evident that it has also had some problems.
The Bottom Line
I think we can add SWTOR to a growing list of post-WoW MMORPGs that are competent, but not ground-breaking. If you've been waiting for something really different that will change your view on the genre, this isn't it. The game has a very strong narrative and a lot of people will undoubtedly enjoy leveling a few classes to the level cap. At the same time, it's unswervingly linear, the world feels somewhat generic, and it doesn't do much to foster any sense of community. Of course, these are early days for SWTOR, and there are bound to be many changes and fixes in the upcoming months. While I don't hesitate to call SWTOR a good MMORPG, it remains to be seen whether that's enough to retain players in the current market, even with an IP as popular as Star Wars.