You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our March issue, which is on sale February 14, will include a Post Script article that looks at The Old Republic's reliance on traditional MMOG mechanics.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG that prioritises its RPG side over that MMO prefix. As such, BioWare has produced thousands of pages of backstory, and poured an unknowable amount of cash into voicing each and every story mission, side quest and snippet of incidental dialogue. The result is that The Old Republic provides a sense of personal belonging unmatched by almost any other MMOG. The galaxy far, far away feels welcoming, and it should: it’s a place built entirely for you, the player. That’s ‘player’, singular; no matter what your class is, you’re the only hero who matters. Where other MMOGs show your existence as part of a wider ecosystem, BioWare shields you from it.
The game’s galaxy – frozen some three-and-a-bit-thousand years before the films – is broken up into instances, with lifts and doors whisking shut behind players as they step into their own bubbles. Making your way from planet to planet involves walking alone to your berthed ship, clambering aboard, setting your course, climbing out, making your way through the docking bay and then arriving at your destination. Were it not for the general chat ticking away in the corner, at no point during that journey would you be aware you were sharing a server with thousands of other people.
Yet by making each player the centre of its universe, The Old Republic has gained a narrative backbone. Each class has its own three-act arc that planet-hops around the galaxy. These central ‘class quests’ stand up to light scrutiny against other solo RPGs, and they’re 12 parsecs ahead of most MMOG questlines. The voices behind the main classes are equally memorable: the male bounty hunter is a man of few, gravelly words; the female trooper is efficient and action-oriented. While most MMOGs leave characterisation to the player, The Old Republic projects its characters outwards at you.
Conversations invariably lead to combat, which is the same stylised skill bar manipulation as seen in the majority of The Old Republic’s MMOG peers. To genre newcomers, the concepts of ability management and rotation are quickly off-putting, and the game does little to make battles more comprehensible for non-natives. Skill trees are riddled with arcane language: preexisting concepts such as pushbacks and cooldowns are combined with new ways to measure damage and delivered without cipher. Experienced MMOG players won’t find anything to trouble them here, but given the game’s massmarket appeal and solo-play friendliness, a little more transparency would be appreciated.
Even with a weight of MMOG experience under your belt, some of the foibles of combat can frustrate. For healers, targeting correctly can be nightmarish. Some attacks suffer from a muted animation, too, making their effects difficult to discern in the midst of battle. The inquisitor’s Affliction talent, for instance, starts as a tiny ball of shadowy grey smoke, and coats the target in a hard-to-spot miasma. But most talents are loud, brash, and easy to spot – an inquisitor specialising in lightning attacks, say, launches great arcing bolts of flickering energy at enemies.
The game’s classes are surprisingly distinct, too. The eight on offer have been split into analogous pairings across the two factions, but specialisation is encouraged from level ten. Thus the imperial agent can become either a sniper or an operative build, each with an obvious purpose: long-range damage for the sniper, healing for the operative. What’s more, the three skill trees mean you’re free to make a backstabbing operative with access to emergency medical supplies, or a sniper who can control an army of tiny robots while hiding behind a bin. It’s a setup that means almost all group makeups are viable for joint quests.
And playing as a group is the best way to see the game, enabling you to dip in and out of the bespoke cutscenes your class choice wouldn’t otherwise get to watch. Conversely, hit the grind treadmill too hard – you’re looking at upwards of five solid days of playtime to hit the level cap of 50 – and The Old Republic’s charm is lost, the stories spun out by voiceovers dissipating against the orders to kill another 25 somethings.
BioWare hasn’t cast itself as a guerrilla movement trying to subvert the MMOG with The Old Republic. Instead it’s been the Empire, working to produce a slick, gigantic experience that, in the time of free-to-play, feels polished enough to demand monthly fees. How long this empire – vast and imposing, but archaic in structure – will last in the face of newer MMOGs and their rebellious payment models isn’t easy to discern. This isn’t the first of a new order of MMORPG, but it may well be the last of the old.