Few if any scenarios have preoccupied more geeky daydreams than living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
We’ve all fantasised about bullseyeing womp rats in a T-16, doing the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, mastering the mystical Force – living within Lucas’ world and telling our own tale of heroism or tyranny. Small wonder a massively multiplayer online game set in the Star Wars universe and developed by the praiseworthy BioWare has been met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. The idea of Star Wars: The Old Republic is what we all want, and what we all want done right.
It has been tried before, of course. Sony Online Entertainment’s Star Wars: Galaxies was a capable MMO bogged down by imbalance, bugginess and, perhaps most importantly, the rigmarole required to finally play as a Jedi – achieved by in-game unlocks rather than at character selection.
By setting itself thousands of years before the events of the movies – in an era where Jedi and their evil counterparts, the Sith, are as common as cat videos on YouTube – BioWare’s Old Republic simultaneously circumvents the last issue, and pares back the mystique and allure of the Samurai space-wizards.
Set 300 years after the events of BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Sith Empire unexpectedly returns and has conquered much of the Galactic Republic. Players can choose to play as either a member of the Empire or the Republic. They can select classes such as Jedi Consular and Sith Warrior, Bounty Hunter and Smuggler as they battle for supremacy across, above and between 17 huge planets.
At its core Star Wars: The Old Republic is made in the image of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft – and why not? BioWare has taken the proven MMO template set down by Blizzard and shoved eight singleplayer BioWare RPGs – one for each class – into it. That’s the sort of combination that should get most gamers salivating.
After joining either the Empire or the Republic, players must create a character and choose from a slightly disappointing, samey selection of humanoid models. Each faction offers four main classes, with each of these having two advanced classes at level 10. The two factions have uniquely named classes but the abilities are mirrored; the only difference being some of the animations and ability names.
The advanced class choices offer up three talent trees for further specialisation in the chosen role. For example a Republic Trooper has the choice between advanced training as a Commando, which opens up talent trees to let the player specialise in either ranged damage or hi-tech battle healing, or training as a Vanguard, which opens up talent trees designed to help in tanking or mid-to-close-range damage dealing. The Old Republic has a conventional MMO combat system that won’t dazzle anyone. Skills are carefully designed with an agreeable mix of utility and hard-hitting effects that feel contextually appropriate in the Star Wars universe.
Where The Old Republic brilliantly differentiates itself from other MMOs is with the eight different class stories that carry the player through the levelling process from 1 to the level cap of 50. Those who played Dragon Age or Mass Effect will be familiar with the quest and conversation formats presented here. Pay attention and the narratives will quickly draw the player into the universe.
Where the RPG tapestry frays a little is with a somewhat poorly implemented Light and Dark Side points system. As the player levels, the choices they make attune them to either the Light or Dark Side of The Force. Represented on a bar in the character sheet, different choices and actions prescribe amounts of Dark or Light points that, added up, move players through levels of their chosen Side. Each new level offers rewards such as gear, mounts and toys. With practical and powerful gear on offer, players at times can feel forced into selecting a particular response key in every conversation in order to access these rewards as soon as possible.
Non-player crew companions, picked up throughout the game, compliment The Old Republic. A touch of genius, each companion offers a different roll to strengthen a chosen build. Play as a healer and choose a tank-like or damage-inclined companion to make up for the class’ lower damage output; employ the services of a tank or healer companion when a damage-dealing character is being brought low. The system means that players can advance down their class talent tree without spending unnecessary points in abilities they’ll not need later, and teaches them the how to play their class for when they finally team up with other players.
Companions, visible in their own panel, can also be tasked with completing missions to gather materials for crafting. An armoursmith requiring metals both common and rare can send one companion on a mission to the black market, another can scavenge, and a third can craft while the player and a fourth companion tear up some sand people.
With the help of these companions, players will traverse the galaxy jumping from planet to planet, each a unique new area to explore. From the arid deserts of Tatooine to the verdant plains of Alderaan; the Hutt-run city-moon of Nar Shadaa to the once-great now-ruined world of Taris – players quest both alone and with help of other gamers.
Each zone has a series of quest hubs. Each hub sends the player off to new areas, and each of these areas generally increases the player's workload with either one-off quests or a series of quests culminating in the killing of a tougher non-player character or creature in the area. These can frequently be completed with the help of a doughty companion.
Where a companion will not be enough is in the Heroic areas found in each zone. Ranging from difficult two-player operations to challenging four-player quests, these forced group situations are a great way get better items, and to start understanding class roles in preparation for Flashpoints.
Flashpoints are four-player cooperative instances akin to dungeons. Here players will face tough enemies and several bosses as they would in any other MMO. Where BioWare has bucked the trend is in interactivity. With all players able to partake in the conversations on offer, dice rolls determine who gets to influence events. It’s an interesting new social dynamic that adds some freshness to each encounter. With players’ gathering and crafting skills also affecting the route through each Flashpoint, its possible participants may never go through the same path or encounter as they level through them.
Participating in multiplayer conversations is the principal way to earn Social Points, a slightly off-putting reward scheme for playing with others. Levels and experience in ‘social activity’ are rewarded with new outfits and party tricks. It is an odd reward system where one is generally not required. Playing with good people and completing objectives should be their own rewards.
For those inclined to PvP, open-world chance encounters are increasing as the playerbase levels. It is in the Warzones that most will get their PvP thrill. With three Warzones offering the basic PvP meat and drink there isn’t much here yet to sustain competitive players’ interest at the maximum level.
It’s good fun due to simple, proven game types and well-designed maps with plenty of Star Wars essence in each, but it can be a grating experience if played at a low level. With rudimentary matchmaking there are no level brackets – anyone of any level is thrown together and all players are temporarily boosted to the level cap. However, players who actually are level 50 will have a much wider skill set than those in the early stages of their own Star Wars adventure.
Huttball is a spectator sport wherein two teams attempt to run a ball to the opponents’ goal line. Alderaan is a domination map with each team vying for control of cannons to take down the enemy starships. Voidstar is an assault map with teams taking turns playing offense or defence on the bridge of an Imperial Battle Cruiser.
Space Battle, accessed by the galaxy map located on the player’s starship, is a fun if largely trivial rail shooter that rewards the player with experience and currency used to upgrade their starships for future battles. With a distinctly Star Wars feel, they can prove a welcome respite from the usual grind. Mix up some questing with Flashpoints and Space Battles, and levelling has a much less regimented feel to it.
BioWare has largely delivered and will have answered many of its critics, but there is not much in the way of innovation here. The Force alignment structure may be systemically unsalvageable, and with little end-game content currently available for those characters who have reached level 50, one wonders whether BioWare will be able to hold on to the more serious gamers and guilds who yearn for a variety of large-scale challenges.
That will change as BioWare continues to support the game after release. Star Wars: The Old Republic proves itself to be a competent MMO, one that, unlike so many of its ill-fated contemporaries, is sure to find significant popularity.
But as with all newly-birthed MMO titles, there is work to be done.
The Old Republic is expected to launch in New Zealand at some stage in March 2012. Those wishing to get a head start and purchase online should stop by Gameplanet's Star Wars: The Old Republic forums for community advice on how to do so.