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Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion to launch April 14

The Rise of the Hutt Cartel is coming, bringing limited but enjoyable updates for players of BioWare's "Star Wars"-based MMO. CNET's Kelsey Adams tries it out.

SW:TOR Rise of the Hutt Carel
What could possibly go wrong? Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

It's finally here. More than a year after it debuted and months after it went free to play, Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting its first downloadable expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, due to arrive on April 14 (or April 9 for early preorders). The obvious question is, what has it got that could tempt former players to come back?

First of all, a new planet and more story. Much of the appeal of BioWare and LucasArts' MMO is the way every quest takes place against the backdrop of the galaxy-wide struggle between the Empire and the Republic, and every player class ends up playing a different but pivotal role.

Rise of the Hutt Cartel picks up at the end of the original story: The Republic's beating back the Empire, and the war machine on both sides needs fuel (hey, it's more dramatic than trade sanctions). The resource-stripping Hutts decide it's a good moment to take over the galaxy and be generally slimy, as they are wont to do, but now you can shoot them. Yay! Actually you're fighting their mercs. What starts as a quick smackdown of the Hutts turns into something more urgent and planetwide, and as usual, it's all up to you.

A new world to conquer. Sorry, liberate. BioWare

The new planet where this takes place, Makeb, is pretty enough, with its Seuss-like rock spires, luminescent flower pods, and aggressively animated waterfalls. There's a more 3D quality to the setting than before, and in my day on the test server I found some quirks of terrain that kept it interesting.

As a female Smuggler, I also flirted with the only female NPC I could find, just to prove I could, with no reaction from Corso. (He didn't mind when I flirted with a male NPC either, which seems a pity -- torturing Corso was half the fun!) My overall impression was better graphics and less compelling voice acting than the rest of the game (why does the lady scientist sound like a petulant child?), with some oddities that will hopefully be straightened out in the live version.

SW:TOR Rise of the Hutt Cartel
If you wanted water effects... Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

Speaking of companions, you can still raise your affection level and they still make little remarks when you arrive in new areas, but sadly there won't be more conversations and developments of their personal stories in this update. Bruce Maclean, lead designer on Rise of the Hutt Cartel, told CNET in an e-mail interview that future interactions with companions are definitely planned, and it seems clear that it's understood what a big part of the game this is for many players. So your virtual sidekicks aren't dead, they're just resting.

At any rate, you're not stuck on Makeb. Reportedly, there are quest chains that take you back out into the galaxy, relating to two new features -- Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droid -- that Maclean said allowed the devs to "make really interesting use of the spaces in ways that weren't possible before."

SW:TOR Rise of the Hutt Cartel
...or light through foliage, you've got it. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

There is also a new Operation, called Scum and Villainy, which involves "a towering war droid that rockets into the sky, an infiltration event that requires splitting up the group," and some double-dealing. Asked if there were any funny glitches in beta, Maclean said that in the new Operation, a group of players managed to turn one hazard against another by feeding a boss monster to a Sarlacc pit. "It actually worked! We fixed it, though." So don't try that at home.

In addition to the continued class story, there's the chance to get more powerful. The new content is for levels 50 to 55 (though some changes will affect everybody), which means more points for the skill trees, and it seems that every player class gets one new high-level skill: a pretty sweet defensive roll for the Smuggler, and some sort of teleport for Assassins, for example.

Crafting levels rise to 450, and there have been many changes to endgame gearing that I'm not qualified to discuss the implications of. But if your thing is raiding to get more gear so you can raid to get more gear, you'll want to read the patch notes carefully. I found my level 50 gear perfectly adequate for puttering around Makeb.

Peaceful Makeb is about to get hit hard. BioWare

One thing that stands out for non-endgame players, at least on the test server (not all changes are guaranteed to make it into the final game), is the switch to a single type of planetary commendation, so you can spend all the loose change from those low-level social runs. It also seems that PVP warzones will be split into three brackets by level, which may make PVP more accessible to casual players.

The update isn't all sunshine and flowers... (Click to enlarge.) BioWare

There's a new achievement system to go with the new reputation system -- throwing things at the wall much? -- like the Codex but with earnable rewards, which may appeal to completists. Some of this new system seems to give you interesting in-game statistics, but other aspects seem like too-blatant encouragement to spend money in the Cartel Market. But after all, it's optional.

To help lower-level players get up to where they can see the new content, the game has been running double-experience weekends. Nowadays you can Sprint from the beginning (if you're a subscriber or Preferred Status free player) and leveling new characters goes much faster now that you can buy early speeder unlocks via your Legacy and get adaptive speeders for cheap on the General Trade Network. You can also buy experience boosts, from the Cartel Market or the GTN.

Makeb is a good place to watch where you're going -- in more ways than one. BioWare

Returning players may be a little surprised at what they see around them on the fleet. With the various races unlocked by level-50 players and the novelty items available from the Cartel Market, you can expect at any moment to get run down by a Chiss Jedi in a barmaid loincloth riding a Barbie-purple speeder. On the other hand, since companions' armor can now be colored to match their chest pieces, troopers no longer look like a jumble of every crayon in the box, so that's restful. There's still a pretty lively community on the consolidated servers, though you can no longer count on someone shouting, "It's a trap!" at least once a night.

For future social-focused play, Maclean recommended the returning events such as Relics of the Gree, which encourage both cooperative efforts and PVP, and said there will be a lot of focus on guilds. And, of course, as Executive Producer Jeff Hickman alluded to in a recent post on the state of the game and promised more explicitly in a recent presentation, future players will get what feels like one of the most requested features in the game -- a way to raise and lower the hoods of Sith and Jedi robes. That's coming -- you know, eventually.

SW:TOR Rise of the Hutt Cartel
It might be a trap. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET