It’s hard not to get excited about playing Star Wars: The Old Republic after watching the opening cinematic. Its stunning graphics, beautifully choreographed fight scenes, and powerful John Williams score promise all the excitement, drama, and charm of George Lucas’ iconic film series. Yet the game that follows is more of a mixed experience, delivering on most fronts, but leaving some significant weaknesses.
Old Republic is BioWare’s attempt to go toe to toe with World Of Warcraft creator Blizzard, and the game plays remarkably like a combination of the two companies’ products. It features all of WOW’s basic MMO mechanics, but with dialogue trees and companions similar to those found in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Quests are often glossed over in MMOs, since it’s easy to skip reading why you have to kill 10 bandits, and just clicking “accept” and getting on with the carnage. The full voice acting and chance for your character to really participate in conversations elevates quests to a new level, even if the result is still that you have to go out and kill 10 bandits.
You collect companions as you go, with each class picking up different allies. They’ll be more effective if you build stronger relationships with them, through bribing them with gifts and taking actions they like. One particularly clever innovation puts crafting and gathering in your companions’ hands, so you never have to take a break from your heroic or villainous activities to stand around making gear. Companions also serve different combat roles, making it easier for any class to level up solo. That’s convenient, but also makes the game feel more like a RPG than a MMO.
BioWare seems to be aware of the problem, since it created a social-point system that offers players rewards for grouping with others. There are plenty of opportunities to party up for group quests or Flashpoints, Old Republic’s version of dungeons. Dialogue and decision-making serve an important role in these as well, and while your honorable Jedi won’t be penalized for grouping with a smuggler who shoots first, some players may prefer to group with people who share their philosophy rather than just equivalent level and gear.
BioWare has always loved exploring questions of morality and choice, which is why it’s disappointing that Old Republic’s light-side and dark-side system favors seeing the world in black and white. There are tangible rewards for being strongly aligned with either side, making it disadvantageous to walk a balanced path, or even make the occasional dip to pursue a preferred outcome.
Another disappointment is the character design. The Star Wars universe is packed with a huge variety of weird-looking aliens, and players will encounter many of them in the game. But you’re relegated to playing races that would be more at home in Star Trek: humans with weird skin tones or other minor distinguishing features.
Old Republic had a clean launch for an MMO, but it still has significant bugs. The graphics look great most of the time, but occasionally you’ll wind up talking to empty chairs, or watching NPCs addressing an invisible character, who then abruptly pops back into view. Companions can turn in the results of a gathering mission, but they still don’t actually appear beside you until you get back into the fray.
Each class has its own deep storyline to follow all the way to a level cap. That element means leveling up alternate characters has far more value than just providing the chance to try a new class’ mechanics. But it also seems likely to create problems for BioWare moving forward. Blizzard has dominated the market by constantly adding new content to World Of Warcraft, but Old Republic is so story-driven that those regular updates could easily feel tacked-on. Old Republic already has an enthusiastic player base. The real test will be keeping players excited enough to keep their subscriptions going.