****Editor’s Note: Because of their nature, MMO games are very difficult to review entirely. As such, I have tried to encompass as many details as possible, but I freely admit there are many aspects I have overlooked. Also, this review is MUCH longer than my usual boundaries, so don’t feel compelled to finish, nor feel bad if you choose to skim. With that, enjoy.
In my younger years, my first grapple with the MMO genre was with a devious game called Everquest. As a denizen of the world of Norrath, my Half-Elf Paladin was one of hundreds of thousands of people taking their first steps in what many of us didn’t recognize to be a bold new genre of video game. I was thirteen at the inception of my first character, but it wouldn’t occur to me until my third year of playing that I dawned upon some of the MMO genre’s greater machinations for the entire industry. For years my father, brother and I toiled away at the keyboard; kiting, pulling and dying countless times over simply to have the satisfaction of filling just one tiny portion of our experience bar. While championed for its higher difficulty and lack of forgiveness to even the most innocent player, Everquest was a trial-by-fire for most gamers, and its flaws became difficult to ignore.
Not too much time later, Everquest was succeeded by the still-undisputed king of MMO gaming, World of Warcraft. Where Everquest sought to achieve a world of roleplaying intensity and personal dedication, the minds at Blizzard took a more scientific approach to success. By creating content that appeals directly to one of four distinct types of gamers–explorers, achievers, socializers and killers–it was all but impossible for a gamer to not find something to enjoy while strolling through Azeroth. Coupled with an easier learning curve and a specific focus on reward rather than punishment, World of Warcraft quickly escalated the MMO genre to new levels of untapped potential. Since its launch in 2004, WoW has been the icon of MMO superiority and few others of its kind have even scratched at the success Blizzard has reaped.
But if there is one lesson I have learned from my ongoing romances with being a nerd, it is that perfection and evolution will be lifelong enemies. As I once transferred my online passions from Everquest to WoW, I have repeated from World of Warcraft to Bioware’s long anticipated MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. The passage of time will always open the door to greater degrees of criticism, especially for games like MMO’s that are never truly complete. Unlike most games that incubate in development for years before a final product is released, MMOs seem to perpetually exist in a purgatory between polished content and bold concepts that beg to be included, yet are without proper direction and professional testing. With that in mind, a reviewer is tasked with playing (and evaluating) and game that, in essence, will never be finished. In this regard, games like The Old Republic stand unique. Other accredited sites such as Game Informer, IGN, or Kotaku always do their best to encompass as much they can with what little time they are given, and in that sense I attempted to do the same.
The philosophy of Old Republic is quite similar to its predecessors in that a player must choose a side, a race, and a class to properly define their role in society. Fortunately for Bioware, the Star Wars franchise tends to have more iconic roles that even casual fans are familiar with. To parallel the roles played in the Star Wars movies, players can choose between being Jedi, Sith, Han Solo-esque smugglers, Bounty Hunters, Republic troopers or Imperial Agents. Character creation is fairly straight forward in terms of physical customization and class decision, but given the great detail to weapons and armor most physical traits will largely go unnoticed as they are buried underneath more intricate layers of cloth and metal. To be completely honest, I paid little attention to my race and whatever facial scars I gave him as past experience dictated most attention would be paid to how “badass” I looked when standing in any given public place.
From there, players are quickly introduced into the universe Bioware has painstakingly produced to create what I believe is the closest experience to the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. For years Bioware has been expertly crafting entire encyclopedias’ worth of lore and historical impact for every game they develop, and Old Republic is no different. As the authors of the acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic games, it stands to reason they alone could create a world that not only adhered to the mechanical rules of an MMO, but could also tell several distinct stories that compelled the player across an entire galaxy to complete. From the first introductory cinematic to the climactic final battle, every single class carries a story arc that travels with them from level one to fifty. For most game developers it would be enough to stop there; eight separate story lines that must keep each player traveling from planet to planet is difficult enough, but those at Bioware have long known the best details lie in the smallest places.
For years, the term “grinding” has become an unfortunate process for MMO games: acquire quests, kill monsters, gain experience, reach the next level, and repeat. No matter the person, place or setting, this was long considered the ‘norm’. I admit to knowing this concept while playing WoW as it was a somewhat satisfying quality I had grown accustomed to since Everquest. While I freely admit the Old Republic is victim to the same process, the attention paid to context makes almost all the difference in the world. Like World of Warcraft, the majority of your time is spent completing ‘missions’ to gain money and equipment, but Bioware pushed the boundaries further by giving every single story, mission and group instance its own unique story and context. Whenever I am slaughtering Jedi or infiltrating a Republic base, the conversations with the AI characters and background intelligence I gather all but dissipate that feeling of grinding. In a sense, the experience I was rewarded was more of a byproduct to furthering the story thread itself, as I was more committed to helping the Empire solidify their presence on a certain planet and help weaken the Republic. It may seem as a finite quality to have, but around level thirty you will appreciate how much you are still invested in the story rather than getting closer and closer to the level cap.
Furthermore, the voice acting given to every single AI character you interact with is no easy or unnoticed accomplishment. If the plot is a vehicle you’re interested in buying, the voice acting is the salesman that hands it you. No matter the mission, the voice acting remains varied and professional across the entire game and will remain one of Bioware’s shining accolades. The sheer amount of different accents, dialects and languages you encounter across the entire game will be more than enough to make you appreciate how much effort went into pushing the boundaries of storytelling in an MMO atmosphere.
Although the combat formula is relatively unchanged from World of Warcraft, it is certainly no less familiar. Players will have several unique abilities meant to attack the enemy or heal themselves, combined with specialty skills that contribute to group efforts. As players progress, they are given the opportunity to choose a sub-class that gives them a unique set of abilities specific to their role in the game. If you are a more defensive player, Bounty Hunters can become Mercenaries that have special healing abilities for themselves or others. For those that are more inclined for damage dealing, Jedi knights and Sith warriors can customize their abilities to affect several enemies at once and help put out as much as damage as possible. Moreover, personal morals come into play in almost every mission as dialogue trees give specific points to the light or dark side of their character. If a player is a man of mercy, letting P.O.W’s survive will promise light-side points, but deciding to kill the lot and cover up the evidence will lead to dark-side points. Advancements in either side lead to unique rewards that can only be worn by people of pure benevolence or evil, thereby furthering a player’s desire to polarize their character to one side or another.
player-versus-player combat has become a significant portion of modern day MMO games, and it is with some regret that I found the Old Republic’s offering a bit lacking. Standard group arenas provide the most natural form of combat between sides, but the newer aspects are where Bioware’s game lacks the most polish. In the higher levels, players are granted access to an entire planet dedicated to PvP combat, yet in most cases players of both sides will find themselves cooperating with the enemy simply to achieve mission objectives for experience and better equipment. While the idea of an entire PvP planet is potentially impressive, the execution leaves something to be desired. If future patches implement specific bonuses to abilities, increased experience gain or access to unique story missions, the ideal conditions will prevail and players will slay each other as originally intended. Fortunately, other aspects prove to be innovative perspectives on cooperation in regards to an arena called “Huttball”. In this arena, players attempt to fight each other while they move a large ball into the enemy’s territory. It may seem simple enough, but even the smallest degree of organized teamwork and the operation becomes an intense tug-of-war between offense and defense that keeps the PvP scene fresh. Additional modes and concepts like these are sure to reinvigorate the currently flawed PvP system and give Star Wars the lightsaber/force choking tour de force it deserves.
It is an obvious truth that all genres of gaming are subject to natural evolution. As Everquest provided a rudimentary structure to a 3D online gaming environment, World of Warcraft built upon it by providing a more inviting and casual process that reduced the punishment and punctuated the rewards for advancement that all types of players could enjoy. From there, the Old Republic continues the evolution by infusing that same process with an engaging plot that maintains intrigue and suspense from beginning to end. Though not without flaws, The Old Republic deserves its worthy praise for its polish, balance and execution of combat and narrative development that are without rival in the MMO genre. In the months and years to come, there is no question that the minds at Bioware have created a product that may finally rival its competition in a way not seen before. My only hope in the coming future is that no matter how successful the Old Republic may be, it will not make the same mistakes its predecessors have since learned to avoid.