For the hardened dork two things will immediately swell the chest about Bioware’s shiny new Star Wars MMO.
Firstly, the profound debt the setting owes to Dark Horse’s 1994 Tales Of The Jedi comic-book series, the first to explore an era thousands of years before Luke petulantly whined his way to the Tosche Station and back; and secondly, that like 2003’s Knights Of The Old Republic before it, the Wizards Of The Coast D20 Star Wars pen and paper role-playing game can be found ticking away behind every discharge of Force Lightning like the grumpy little gremlin on the treadmill that powers your HD TV.
That’s Bioware for you. Beginning with Baldur’s Gate in 1998, they’ve honed the art of dragging geekery out of mum’s basement and dimly lit D&D sessions, and transplanting it to a world where its strengths – the richness of its setting and the depth of its storytelling – can flourish, and its weaknesses – tedious statline building and shrieking canon fascism – can be buried like dirty little secrets.
They’ve made role-playing look damn good, and enjoyable for everyone, whether you want to simply grind your way through minions in search of New Higher Numbers and the satisfaction that you’ve beaten another cultural consumable, or construct an elaborate backstory for your scarred young Twi’lek Jedi Guardian whose parents died in the sneak attack on Coruscant.
The Star Wars license is a guaranteed pull, as anyone who owned lamentable trash like Droid Works or Masters Of Teras Kasi will attest, but what’ll keep players hooked on Star Wars: The Old Republic is bigger than the myriad of little one-ups – some cosmetic, some more inspired – piled on top of the recognisable MMO foundation; it’s the story and your relationship with it.
While City Of Heroes promised an elaborate over-arching plot, it was something you witnessed – just another pretty backdrop while you ran your 18th kill X number of Y mission – but in The Old Republic, it’s so central to the game that even though you know roughly a million other people are being fed spoonfuls of the exact same dialogue Calpol, you willingly believe that you’re special. Buoyed by your own opening crawl and that first burst of the title theme that sets your arm hairs on end, you happily live out your own galaxy-shattering Star Wars saga with the same character arc of training, maturation, triumph and betrayal that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo enjoyed in the original trilogy.
Like every other MMO, you get to explore themed zones with their own look and flavour of antagonists, albeit lushly designed and individual scored with rousing John Williams-style orchestral manoeuvres in the Dark Side. Like every other MMO, you breathlessly run across huge maps laden with infinitely respawning cannon fodder to complete various errands, and like Mass Effect, you’re subject to a strangely arbitrary ethics system supposedly representing Platonic ideals of Light and Dark, but more often representing how hungry or well-fed the writer was at time of penning the mission.
You can buddy up with other gamers to complete harder missions – or the scripted mini-stories called Flashpoints, with multiple storyline options forking the path, and voice acting throughout – and you can enter PvP warzones to lay an almighty smackdown on behalf of the Sith Empire, the Galactic Republic, experience points or wonga, but what gives all of these things traction is their symbiotic relationship to your character’s personal narrative, which differs from character class to character class.
The Sith Inquisitor begins jostling with rival acolytes for favour in the Sith Academy on dusty Korriban; the Bounty Hunter must convince a local Hutt crime-lord to back their entry to the Great Hunt while a clique of Mandalorians snap at their heels, and the Jedi Knight is pitted against a fallen apprentice’s conspiracy to bring down the Jedi Temple on Typhon with the aid of savage locals. It’s not entirely up to the epic standard of Knights Of The Old Republic, but it’s certainly written by the same deft hand. This time you’re part of the bigger picture, instead of the entire melodramatic foreground, and as a consequence there’s a staggering amount of single-player gameplay to be had if you feel compelled to cycle through all of the character classes.
Criticisms are sporadic and extremely negligible, certainly nothing worthy of letting the word ‘flawed’ anywhere near The Old Republic. There’s a lot of running around, which is all par for the course with MMOs, alas, and missions which require other players to complete place you entirely at the mercy of humanity, which is never a good position to be in, especially on the internet where humanity is not exactly at its best. Incidentally, one feels the Star Wars experience wasn’t exactly crying out for a lone Smuggler jumping up and down in the streets of Ord Mantell, caps-locking racial abuse over the horizon in frustration.
The PvP can come across a touch unbalanced as far as some classes are concerned neither Imperial Agents (stealth based attacks) or Jedi Sentinels (rapid melee attacks) can sustain enough damage for a fight with other players, and the initial upper hand as they button bash a dozen attacks for the opponent’s one quickly vanishes when that one winds you to the tune of half your health, leaving World Of Warcraft still the champ in this particular arena. Overpopulated servers can also result in the bizarre spectacle of dozens of characters milling around like sharks waiting for a particular boss to respawn, or repaired piece of technology to break itself again so they can tie up some lingering mission threads.
Like most MMOs, there’s a month of gaming sitting in the box. Unlike most MMOs, in which your attention span peaks after six increasingly listless weeks – unless you’re particularly emotionally invested in that franchise, or you’re one of those unlikely individuals to have made a lucrative cottage industry out of badly rendered Manga-style portraits of people’s characters – that monthly nine-note renewal fee looks like tremendously good value for money.
For a second opinion and news on The Old Republic, keep an eye on our sister site NowGamer.com.