After at least three years and an estimated $155 million, Electronic Arts and BioWare open their new massive multiplayer game, Star Wars: The Old Republic to general audiences on December 20.
The developers' hope is that the game will bring meaningful competition to the World of Warcraft-dominated online gaming market. Gamers and the "Star Wars" faithful, on the other hand, just hope the game is fun. We've been playing the game in an early release phase, open to customers who preordered the game and others.
Games in the MMO (massive multiplayer online) genre are notoriously hard to review in the days after launch. Between the large volume of content, the inevitable early-day technical kinks, and the maturation period for the player economy and social structures, most MMOs need a bit of a burn-in period. While I can report on the first 30 or so hours of gameplay, that only touches on a fraction of the entire experience.
What I can say is that so far, Star Wars: The Old Republic feels as if it truly can become the World of Warcraft-killer of Electronic Arts' dreams.
The game's setting, 4,000 years before the time period of the original films, has popped up before in "Star Wars"-licensed products. BioWare's popular single-player Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic PC and original Xbox role-playing games used the same setting. Before those games, the pre-Episode I era also served as the backdrop for a series of "Star Wars" comic books from publisher Dark Horse. Track down your nearest "Star Wars" lore-obsessive for the complete historical landscape, but the gist is that you get to play in a familiar-feeling Star Wars universe, and the developers are free from most narrative constraints tied to the feature films.
For my own experience with the game, I've taken my Jedi Guardian, a specialization of the Jedi Knight class, to level 20. The maximum level is 50. I've been to four different planets, acquired three companions, a space ship, four lightsabers, and multiple force powers. I've spent most of my time adventuring by myself, but I've grouped with others for a few quests, some designed for groups, others where grouping is simply a convenience.
If you played BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic titles, you should feel instantly at home with the Old Republic. The character information screen, the narrative flow, and the supporting cast that tags along on your adventures all echo the earlier BioWare titles. Indeed, BioWare has said that Star Wars: The Old Republic has enough content to serve as "Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12-plus."
World of Warcraft refugees (and those familiar with the MMO genre in general) will also recognize many of the mechanics BioWare has implemented in the new game. You judge the quality of in-game items in the Old Republic via the same color-coding system as the World of Warcraft. As your character gains experience levels, you improve his or her abilities by allocating points among three branches of a class-specific skill tree. The character classes generally fall into same three-pronged dynamic of healers, damage dealers, and damage absorbers.
You could accuse BioWare of borrowing its in-game systems perhaps too liberally from the World of Warcraft, but MMO veterans will recall that Warcraft itself shares mechanics with its own forebears, not least Everquest. What's more interesting is the things the Old Republic does differently.
In World of Warcraft, your character begins his or her life in a secluded training area set off from the rest of the world. Once you complete a few basic quests and gain a few levels, you emerge into the larger game environment and join every other player in the game's general adventuring activities. You follow a similar structure in the Old Republic, but as you emerge from your tutorial world to the larger galaxy, you continue progressing in your personalized adventure.
Essentially, BioWare has overlain a single-player role-playing game experience on top of a larger multiplayer world. You can chat with other players at any point in the game, and you will spend most of your time adventuring across the various planetsides among other player characters, sharing many of the same adventures. The difference in the Old Republic is that you also have your own personal quest path. If you play as a bounty hunter, for example, you will advance through a different storyline than a Jedi.
In addition to the personalized questing, you also get your own set of companion characters. If you're familiar with pets from other MMOs, the concept is not that different here, but where the companions in other games often feel like accessories, your companions in the Old Republic have their own dialogue, and play prominent roles in both the narrative and the gameplay.
The fully developed companions bring a welcome new dynamic to the MMO experience. If you're trying to form a group with other players and can't find a healer, a companion character can fill that role in a pinch. They also take on the bulk of the work of the game's crafting system, where you specialize in certain tasks to build and gather items for the in-game economy. With your supporting cast out looking for space ore, you can get on with the adventuring.
The production values are another stand-out feature. The 3D graphics and art look attractive enough, and they're more advanced than those of the World of Warcraft, but, like Blizzard's game, the visuals are designed to run on a broad assortment of PC configurations. But where most other games, Warcraft included, deliver much of expository information via static nonplayer models and screens of text, when you walk up to a Jedi Master to receive quest instructions in the Old Republic, your character will engage in conversation with a fully animated character that speaks reasonably well-written, well-acted dialogue.
The impact of the spoken, acted dialogue is hard to underestimate. While the personalized quest path gives you the framework to feel like a hero, engaging with the convincing nonplayer characters brings you into the world of the game.
BioWare also deserves kudos for its spaceship system. Space flight is an important aspect of Star Wars gaming to fans, but a game with fully realized individual character and space combat gameplay has been elusive. The Old Republic has not achieved this, either, but in that you get a spaceship in which to engage in some on-rails combat, it's not too hard to see how BioWare might expand on the idea.
More interestingly, your spaceship serves as a means of travel between the different planets in the game, and also as a bank to store extra gear, as well as social hub to engage with your companion characters and advance their plot lines. In effect, it's player-housing, a feature often demanded by players in MMOs (World of Warcraft in particular), but also one that requires a lot of development effort with questionable in-game impact (it seems even digital real estate isn't cheap). Kudos to BioWare for integrating it seamlessly into the game mechanics.
BioWare has not done everything right in the Old Republic. At least through the first 20 levels/30 hours, I've seen very little of the humor and charm you'll find in both World of Warcraft as well as the original "Star Wars" trilogy. The environments also feel more walled-in than World of Warcraft.
It's perhaps unreasonable to ask that every planet in a galaxy-spanning game have as much content as World of Warcraft's single planet. And the scenery has felt more expansive as I've progressed. Still, I have yet to find a world that invites free-form, nonquesting exploration. Maybe that comes later.
The Old Republic also seems caught in some of the trappings that turn many people away from MMOs. The quests can feel repetitive, and your role in the world can only have so much impact, lest you interfere with the experience of another player. The $15 monthly fee, the possible downtime because of server issues, and the ease with which the game consumes hours of your life are also points of contention.
As with any large-scale MMO, you'll also run into the issues of community. Even the early access period has been affected by wait times to log onto the game servers. BioWare has said it's watching the load demands carefully, but that doesn't instill optimism for the coming onrush of the general population.
You're also sure to run into players who annoy you in their social dealings, or who are just plain jerks. The Old Republic's official discussion forum can also be a great resource for gameplay suggestions, but you'll need to wade through a litany of complaints about the game in the process, a small percentage of which are actually constructive. The forums also need a search feature, badly.
It is often said by its players that World of Warcraft is really two games: the game you play while leveling your character to the maximum, and then the game available once you hit that limit. The latter typically engages players for as much time as the leveling process, involving challenging, large-scale multiplayer quests and highly competitive player-vs.-player combat. It's also the place where developers face the challenge of keeping the attention of the hard-core players without alienating more-casual customers. Blizzard still struggles with nailing the formula.
I expect BioWare would be happy to have that same problem with Star Wars: The Old Republic; it will mean it successfully engaged a diverse audience. We'll have a better idea about BioWare's likelihood of similar success as more-dedicated players uncover the end-game content, and as BioWare nurtures and expands its the game to meet player demands.
If the massively multiplayer online role-playing game market has made one major leap in the past several years, it's that people now regularly refer to these games as "MMOs," instead of either the genre's full name, or the even more awkward MMORPG (pronounced, presumably, "M-Mo-Are-Pig"). Aside from that, Blizzard's World of Warcraft holds sway over this mini-industry with its fine product, if one that's all too easy to mimic.
The Old Republic, like many things connected to the big-business Star Wars universe, is largely risk-averse. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if anyone had the clout to remake the MMO genre into something more than a multiplayer raiding and skirmish game, it's these guys (and to be fair, it's easily the most story-driven MMO I've ever played, with some serious thought going into the dramatic arcs).
That said, the controls, game mechanics, and other basics worked surprisingly well in the early access version of the game we played. But even with a smaller total number of prerelease players, I regularly found myself playing for 10 minutes, getting kicked off the server, and having to wait another 15 minutes to get back on. Still, the game itself looks, plays, and presents itself much better today than a version I played nearly two years ago at LucasArts' campus at the Presidio of San Francisco--that early version didn't leave me with the best impression, but the final game works well on many levels, and feels surprisingly complete, compared with the "we'll fix it later" vibe of many new MMO games.
Even when connected, parts of the game world would sometimes freeze up or glitch. That's actually nothing new to MMO games, especially just-launched ones, and there's a meta-game experience from occasionally watching other characters or players blinking quickly in and out of existence around you, as if phasing through different planes of the universe (shades of Lovecraft's "From Beyond," perhaps).
It's an experience every MMO player learns to live with: the essential instability of the world itself at launch (and sometimes for a good while thereafter). Still, if you think getting the Twitter "fail whale" when too many people are accessing the service at once is annoying, imagine how players feel when they're trying to play a game that, post-launch, will cost them $15 per month to subscribe to. One solution is to cut the universe into finer and finer slices, first separating players into distinct duplicate servers, as if the game existed in a multiverse, and forcing players to choose which server/shard/universe they wanted to play in, and later into "instances" of parts of the game world--areas that spawn fresh copies for each player or group.
It's a concept as old as MMO games itself, and one that has seen very little evolution over the years. While it may remain a technical necessity, it certainly puts barriers up to the concept of social play. There are no servers or shards, for example, in Facebook games, which, despite their thin gaming qualifications, certainly qualify as massive and multiplayer. We won't solve the problem of how to get a few million people to simultaneously co-exist in the same plane of virtual reality today (and neither will The Old Republic), but it's an issue worth thinking about for future game designers, especially as playing the game with your friends requires you to take a pregame survey and having everyone agree to create characters on the same server together.
Having extensively played the previous Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: Galaxies when it was released in 2003 (and recently shuttered), I know that a familiar setting and characters can do much to ease new players into an unfamiliar game type, and one must assume the goal of The Old Republic is to capture mainstream eyeballs. But while Galaxies, for all its many faults, was full of legendary characters and settings, The Old Republic takes place far in the past, and aside from the broad strokes of the Jedi, Sith, and Republic, there's much here that will be unfamiliar to even serious "Star Wars" movie fans (although the game retains the same minimalist, almost conservative, approach to set design as the prequel trilogy)
After a brief spin as a Smuggler (one of the game's eight major classes), I played as one of two classes of Jedi, the force-wielding Consular (I believe Rich played primarily as the more lightsaber-centric Jedi Knight), it's clear that The Old Republic smartly wants to take the best parts of the "Star Wars" canon and give them to you up front. I'd suspect the vast majority of gamers will play as one of the Jedi or Sith classes; to do otherwise feels pointless (like playing Skyrim as something other than a mage).
Will The Old Republic bring in both MMO players looking for the next new thing as well as "Star Wars" fans looking for a new branded product to fawn over? The answer is yes to both counts, and the game has been carefully plotted and built in order to satisfy both camps, although I'm not sure how many monthly subscriptions people have an appetite for these days. If you look at World of Warcraft, Spotify, Netflix, Sirius, maybe a New York Times digital subscription, it all adds up to a big monthly bill, when more and more services, including MMO games, are following the freemium model, with a basic level of free service and for-sale extras.
In the end (not that a game such as this even has an end, at least as long as it generates enough revenue to continue), the game's characters in particular look great, and the inclusion of so much recorded dialogue instead of text-only conversations adds a level of polish most MMO games, including the all-powerful World of Warcraft, lack. The inclusion of NPC sidekicks and plenty of (at least so far) solo-playable content make the game a lot easier to get into than many MMO games, which can only be good for SW:TOR's chances as the great WoW-killer.