“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” Something from deep within my heart splurts out with glee as the opening fanfare blasts out of my speakers. I had waited almost two years for this moment, when I begin my journey into Bioware’s multi-million dollar MMORPG: Star Wars The Old Republic. Then a month later I couldn’t put up with my poor internet connection anymore and stopped playing. Unfortunately it seems I wasn’t the only one who stopped, as poor subscriber numbers have caused them to resort to a free-to-play model. Aside from a few features trimmed to make subscribing the “better” way to play, the game is just as enjoyable as it was when I first read that opening screen last year.
I’ll get this out of the way straight off: SWTOR is not better than WoW. But in my opinion, it is also not worse than WoW either. The similarities between the two franchises are clearly visible, from the moment you begin designing your character and to the first time you hand in 10 X items to person Y. There is little innovation towards normal game mechanics that separates the combat or overall feel of questing in the game, meaning that if you weren't a fan of WoW this isn't going to be your cup of tea.
That’s not to say the game doesn't have its own original ideas. In many ways, by keeping the basic game play the same tried and tested method which has allowed Blizzard to dominate the PC gaming industry allows SWTOR to try other things, new ideas that make the experience a lot more engaging and enjoyable.
One of biggest features added to the game was making it entirely voiced. Every NPC, every quest giver and every hero has fully voiced dialogue. The sheer scale of how much dialogue and emphasis on making the player feel like a hero in this game is staggering, as you move from planet to planet and begin to realise just how much work has been put in to make the game’s narrative feel just as polished as any other Bioware game. The NPC companion feature from games like KotOR and Mass Effect is also included in the game, a master-stroke idea that works twofold.
In game terms it allows players to have an NPC that balances their classes, giving my ranged Smuggler class a companion that could be set up as a tank, soaking up the damage whilst I picked off enemies with a mixture of grenades, blaster rounds and severe disrespect towards an enemy’s... *ahem* “lower features.” As you progress through the game you find more companions who use different strategies that let you customise your play style as you wish, again adding to that sense of having a personal adventure within a massive gaming world.
In story terms the companions will interact within the dialogue sections, as well as being either approving or disapproving your conversation options (more on that in a bit) that can unlock further back story and companion specific tasks and quests. It’s a nice touch and a much better way of doing NPC relationships than most, but despite playing the game for several days I've yet to have any of my choices pay off, so perhaps it won’t be as useful or rewarding as I'm hoping it will be.
The game play, though basic, feels highly entertaining, replacing the standard “hit boar with sword” action with having you take on groups of monsters or ruffians, chaining one attack after another that gives new life to the traditional grind of RPG combat. Crafting is also similarly dynamic, with companions being able to gather resources and build them into new gear whilst you go off exploring, limiting the amount of times when the great hero stops to pick flowers or search through metal junk or stand still making twenty identical trousers in order to unlock the mysteries of making gloves.
The main narrative for each player is dependant on their class, with the majority of quests being preceded with an interactive cut scene, complete with morality options for certain key points a la Mass Effect. I've never been a fan of moral choice options as they always seem a little too “Jesus or Satan” in terms of choice and aside from the rare moments when they’re used in a more interesting way, SWTOR tends to keep to this trend. What makes this option worse however is that certain powerful items are locked unless you reach a certain level of good or evil, making the whole role-play experience pointless if you want to use some of the better items.
Despite some of these advances and drawbacks the game is still roughly on par with WoW, counterbalancing certain elements of streamlined game play to balance out the great presentation and narrative heart of SWTOR.
As a Free to Play title SWTOR does the unheard of by allowing people to access all of the game’s content for free. From start to finish, it is possible to play every quest, every PvP map and every dungeon and raid (or as SWTOR calls them “Flashpoints” and “Operations”) that the vanilla game offers. However, this is balanced by a rather severe handicapping system, that restricts certain aspects and customization to reduce the power of a non-subscriber.
These range from small details such as changing your character’s title and the appearance of your companions to rather more frustrating options like making vehicles and reward items much harder to obtain, as well as restricting how many times you can access the more challenging (and more rewarding) party missions. When a game with areas designed with the player owning a speeder to move about them takes away that privilege until you either repeatedly complete tasks or pay the developers money, something has gone wrong within that monetization.
Though I applaud Bioware’s work in giving us one of the most detailed and most entertaining MMORPG’s ever, for every great design feature or superb dedication to presentation, there’s another part that restricts and slows down game play. WoW is the most successful MMORPG because of how easy it is to play. You don’t realise how long you’ve been playing it because of how much time Blizzard spent making the game play as smooth as possible, constantly tweaking and improving the game since launch.
SWTOR doesn't have the advantages of over seven years of improvement, but until the day that WoW goes free to play there isn't a better alternative than SWTOR for the casual MMO gamer. More than worth your time if only for those moments when you manage to clear your way through a final boss or a Flashpoint with a group of friends and feel the supreme sense of achievement that comes with that victory.