I am a recovering Star Wars fanboy. I grew up on Star Wars. Before Star Trek grew into its Next Generation and into the myriad other permutations, there was A New Hope. From Alan Dean Foster to a variety of hacks, there’s been all sort of surrounding works with the series. Video games are no exception. They’re not all Dark Forces and TIE Fighter to be sure, but most folks in the know will point to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic as perhaps the best RPG set in the universe.
I’m a fan of the Old Republic in general. I’m of the opinion that ancient fallen Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma is one of the most interesting characters in the whole Star Wars universe, but that’s a post for another time. Setting the stage thousands of years before Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to Naboo cleans the slate and allows for expansion on history, culture and adventure within the galaxy Lucas created. It certainly offers more options than a galaxy where there are two, count them, two Jedi to speak of and the Empire’s in shambles until Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up.
This brings us to Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG created with LucasArts’ universe, BioWare’s storytelling chops and EA’s marketing monstrosity. I’ve had the opportunity to test it twice, and while I never got as far as double digits in terms of character levels and thus can’t speak to things like class balance or dungeon content, I can talk about the mechanics, the storytelling and the atmosphere of the universe and how well it’s captured.
I couldn’t find where the game stashed the screenshots I took, so… have some concept art.
I will admit that I more than once felt the pull of the old familiar nostalgia trying to pull me in as I played. The music, the set pieces and even sound effects appeal to that eight-year-old that lingers in the back of my brain and tries to convince me that Star Wars never came close to being ruined at all and those other Transformer movies never happened because Optimus Prime is not that much of a callous, bloodthirsty douche. Tempted as I am to give that little jerk a wedgie for being so naive, I will admit that the design team is doing their job in evoking the feel of the Star Wars universe. I got a little bit of a nerdy charge when I recognized names like Naga Sadow, Marka Ragnos and Exar Kun… while my wife had to ask who they were and why it matters. Star Wars fans will be pleased by this, non-fans may feel a bit on the outside looking in.
The stories are perhaps the strongest part of The Old Republic, chalked up as mentioned previously to BioWare’s experience with such things. Within the household we experienced several and the consensus is that the Imperial Agent has the best story of the bunch. Most MMOs have you chasing down rats or collecting bits of twig for someone nailed to the ground, Old Republic flings you into an espionage yarn worthy of Alpha Protocol. With fully voiced NPCs, cinematic cutaways devoid of overpowered happenings and dialog choices that actually matter (eventually), there are times when the game feels more like a single-player RPG than an MMO. I was never in a group long enough to experience the way the game weighs the attitudes of multiple players against one another in conversation, but the idea does intrigue me from the standpoints of storytelling and mechanics.
It’s on the mechanical side of things, however, where I found my enthusiasm waning. Each class gets a set of particular skills with cooldown periods and linked mechanics (Sith Warriors with rage, Imperial Agents with cover and so on) that they can purchase new ranks of with each level they gain. Sound familiar? And while there’s no auto-attack and you must push a button to initiate an action, there’s no denying this is essentially WoW in space. The potential of the game is also undercut by the shortage of character creation options. While male characters can come in sizes from “barely out of their teens” to “hitting the Krispy Kreme once too often”, females are limited to four different sets of voluptuous curves with no real appreciable difference in frame, and all in rather tight outfits. It’s possible that this is due to beta constraints and higher levels will see these ladies in practical armor, but somehow I doubt it.
While I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that a new MMO has to be radically different to survive, I find myself having difficulty getting excited for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes, it brings me back to the sense of adventure and sweeping story that drew me into Star Wars in the first place, and the story beats do crack along rather well from what I’ve seen. While the gameplay isn’t necessarily bad by any definition, it also isn’t blowing me out of my seat. What The Old Republic is, in a word, is “safe”. It builds mostly off of the success it’s main competition and tries to draw in players with story and atmosphere. While those things are good, it will be difficult to sustain a player base on those things alone. When the goal of the game is the delivery of top-level dungeons and PvP matches, both endlessly repeatable, the story eventually has to peter out and the atmosphere becomes mere window-dressing. Players with a hankering for story will turn to one of BioWare’s single-player titles or a game like Skyrim while those craving good atmosphere would do well to try out smaller indie titles like Bastion if they’re in the mood for atmospheric gameplay with strong story elements, or Amnesia: the Dark Descent if they feel like crapping themselves.
Personally, I’m holding out for a Mass Effect MMO. Oh, and Guild Wars 2.