BioWare released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and I was crushed as it was only for Xbox and I didn't own one at the time, but then a PC version arrived and all was well - for a while - until we heard no news of a BioWare follow-up. The studio did such an amazing job crafting a story in their own period of Star Wars lore from that humble beginning aboard the Endar Spire above Taris that today we've got a huge MMO brimming with Jedi, Sith and everything in between.
Fans have been clamouring for a sequel to the Knights of the Old Republic series, but nothing ever came. Suddenly EA and BioWare revealed The Old Republic was going to continue the adventures but in a grand massively multiplayer style. Naturally like with most MMO announcements the community was devastated there'd be no 'true' continuation. The developers have been adamant from the start that this is their MMO and it'll follow BioWare's general rules of thumb for RPGs, meaning that the jump online will have everything fans expect and more.
We maybe the three stooges but we've got lightning!
Now the time has come to see if things are as BioWare promised to those of us aching for more Old Republic drama. We begin by choosing which faction we wish to be a part of, Republic or Empire, and then select from four different classes , making eight in total. Before you fire up your new virtual persona each is detailed in what type of role they'll be playing in combat. The Jedi Consular or Sith Inquisitor may at first be dismissed as the mage type but both can become tough as nails melee fighters favouring stealth to land surprise attacks. More classes than you think can actually heal themselves and others in combat helping alleviate the hunt for medic roles in groups.
Once you concluded the philosophical debate with yourself over which is better for the Galaxy; a squabbling senate or scheming Dark Council, and picked your class it is then time to customise your adventurer. There are body types to sort through, skin tone, hair types, scars and other rather distinguishing features. Depending on the class you can also be of another species other than human, which affects what you can alter about their appearance. Thankfully there's a name generator at the bottom in case you struggle thinking up a Star Wars sounding one.
There are four worlds in the galaxy dedicated to starting off new characters as two classes are paired off with the Republic getting Tython for Jedi and Ord Mantell for troopers and scoundrels, and the Empire using Korriban for Sith and Hutta for bounty hunters and imperial agents. The first real distinction between The Old Republic and other MMOs is that all quest givers actually have something to say to you and not just offer scrawled text. It's a weird experience at first as this is a huge online game but your character is treated as the center of attention right from the word go. These conversations use a 'wheel' that many BioWare fans will be familiar with from Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2. We're given the choice of three responses mostly and can sometimes wry out a little something extra for our trouble, or impress a companion NPC.
Getting to actually chat with quest givers cannot be dismissed as a gimmick - I found it genuinely making me care more about why I'm beating in the face of a rival hutt's henchmen. Each class has their own full blown narrative to follow - a personal destiny - that begins from the start and touches whole planets you visit. These take place in special story mission areas that by default are off limits to other players unless you group with them and invite them in. You'll soon see red barriers blocking sections of the game world off as these areas advance those stories. When inside the story bubbles you'll be making decisions that can affect the future of your character and it also makes you feel actually important in the grand scheme of things, a real galaxy-wide Star Wars adventure.
The core mechanics of the game are reminiscent of Blizzard's World of Warcraft - there can be no denying it - but frankly it's to BioWare's credit because those methods work. Seven years have honed Warcraft into the powerful entity it is today and BioWare have been smart to get all the free lessons they can from it and have even improved the formula with their own ideas.
A quick example is the player death system where anyone can revive another fallen player, but if no one is around you can call in a medical probe droid to resurrect you where you fell, or you can always opt to be brought back at the nearest medical facility which are never too far away. It's a great way to make mistakes less punishing and help get you back in the action, although repair bills for gear will soon pile up.
There's sizeable customisation for us vainglorious heroes
Before reaching level 10 and leaving your first world you'll have no talent points to spend. Three trees per advanced class help power up your character, but before you even get to allocate them you'll need to choose that advanced class. As of right now this decision is permanent so if you make the wrong choice you're left with no alternative but to restart - I'm hoping an update down the line will change this. These advanced classes dramatically alter what abilities and overall function you serve in combat, and actually unlock the full potential of your more standard abilities.
Inventory and equipping your characters are straight forward with plenty of equipment slots to fill as you visit worlds and the galactic trade market for goods, aka the auction house. We also get to slap armour, weapons and the like on our companions helping them gain boosts to their attributes of which each character has two acting as their primary, while others play less significant roles. When leaving the second world we travel to, which happens to be our faction?s capital, we are given a starship that can also be upgraded with better weapons, shields and armour. It just wouldn't be Star Wars if you couldn't have your own Millennium Falcon or Ebon Hawk to call home.
Speaking of the galactic trade market auction house) - right now it suffers a terrible design oversight. Unbelievably there is no simple search function for items. Instead we're expected to break everything down into categories before hitting search and then filtering the results with a name. World of Warcraft's auction house works a treat and helps players rake in small fortunes to fund their Azeroth lifestyles, so it's incredible then that BioWare has failed to pick up the winning formula. Of course the MMO is still young and so the galactic economy is all over the place and it will take time for prices to settle. Factions don't share markets except for neutral locations like on Nar Shaddaa, which helps sell offending light or dark side items.
Space battles are a welcome diversion to The Old Republic and are very reminiscent of Star Fox where our starship is 'on rails' as we only get the freedom to barrel roll and move about the screen to avoid incoming fire or obstacles. We get to shoot lasers and fire missiles to take down targets which range from fighters to hard points on larger ships and even space stations. We're given missions from the cockpit of our ship which lets us net bigger rewards for completing these mini-games and are repeatable each day. These can be a nice little source of income if you're going to be doing them every day. Hopefully BioWare will sprinkle in more variety as time goes on.
Our companions don't just help us in battle but also perform functions called crew skills. We can pick a maximum of three giving us the opportunity - depending what we pick - to produce armour, med packs or stims and gather craftable resources. A nice touch from the studio is having these crew skills also open up new areas in Flashpoints, which are the game's dungeons. Being able to traverse a tunnel in one was only possible if someone in the group had a high enough bioanalysis skill to vent poisonous gas leaking out.
Again as the game economy is yet to stabilise it's unclear what profit there's to be made as credits are easy to lose to class trainers for new abilities and coughing up the large sum for pilot training to zip about at 90 percent extra speed on a mount. You can also use special crew skill missions if you're high enough level to get bigger rewards but at greater cost.
BioWare have included full personalities in our companions and each offer conversations to be had with them at certain levels. We also get an affection meter which shows how much they adore us. We can boost this by selecting dialogue with quest givers that appeals to their personality or buy their love with gifts. Each prefers something different and getting them to like us not only lets us speak to them more but also improves the chances of success when we send them off to perform a crew skill and the likelihood of them producing something superior if we craft something. It cuts down the time they spend away from us when on an assignment too - and yes there's romancing.
Certainly there are issues plaguing The Old Republic right now and to BioWare's credit they're moving fast to address the problems. Graphical hiccups are rare but when they strike it can be extremely hindering as the game world could flicker on and off - again these are rare, but seem to be linked to certain areas. Sound tends to quieten too when zipping about on a mount or using taxi points to travel. Resource nodes still show up on the mini map at times despite having been plundered by someone else, or even more teasing are when they're still in the game world but can't be interacted with. Updates have tackled more glaring troubles but it's early days.
Visually The Old Republic isn't too far off from Knights of the Old Republic which is a plus frankly because it didn't fall into the trap of trying to be as realistic as possible, only to look stupid. Instead we get a vibrant atmosphere with characters and locations crackling with sci-fi effects and designs. The engine also allows BioWare some great cinematic moments like seeing our Jedi Consular craft his own lightsaber using the Force - we see the components fit together.
Crew skills will come to dominate your adventuring
Another had a Sith baddie throwing Republic soldiers about like rag dolls. The music borrows scores from both Knights of the Old Republic games for certain moments, like on Taris or Nar Shaddaa where the games visited. It also acts as a cue to remind a player we're fighting something large or difficult. I can never tire seeing my Sith Warrior plunge a lightsaber into a thug's chest or my Inquisitor fling lightning at a bunch of lowlifes. It's Star Wars and the character abilities and their effects reflect that brilliantly.
Certain pieces of gear can also be upgraded with different types of modifications, which are either bought with credits or planetary commendations, or made with crew skills. Unfortunately the current system in place is a nightmare for working out if a modification is better for you or not as each gear item must be checked, which closes the vendor window. Basically it leaves you jotting down names and stats if you really want to max out your wardrobe. Weapons get upgrades too. The current method is off putting and a redesign is a must long-term. Being able to compare items in our inventory or a vendor window against our companions? gear is another hopeful addition down the line - they had it in Dragon Age so why not Star Wars?
Grouping with other players is really encouraged in The Old Republic but not actually essential to tackle the main thread of missions throughout each world. However there are numerous Heroic zones on planets that need a higher body count than just you and your companion. Some can be overcome more easily depending on the class you are. Two Jedi Consulars or Sith Inquisitors can clear a Heroic intended for four players thanks to their crowd control abilities. These Heroics are actually like mini dungeons and can be repeated daily for rewards. Flashpoints are much larger and disconnected from the main worlds of the galaxy and definitely require tactics - they also provide the best interactions and carry their own full blown story, much like Operations.
Conversations in groups are great as you feel like a band of adventurers taking on the galaxy. When selecting a response the party member who rolls the highest number gets to have their dialogue play and their response accepted. Choices affecting light or dark side gains however are entirely down to the player. It's gleefully satisfying when these moments occur and almost outrageous if one of your comrades dares to choose the opposing side of the Force. As a nice touch you'll have your mail box stuffed full of correspondence from NPCs as you go on your travels, both commenting on decisions you've made and usually giving you a little something.
PvP hasn't been neglected at all but it's in those fledging stages as most players are too busy being knee-deep in levelling and story missions to give it much glance. Also there's an issue of coming up against higher levels and getting squished. BioWare have rightly kept rewards in these PvP events almost exclusively to those actually bothering to take part and not just hiding in a bush somewhere. The more you do the more you get - simple. If you don't feel like a direct battle against Republic or Imperial players then you can always play the Hutt's version of football (soccer) with deadly twists like acid pits and the anything-goes attitude to scoring points. I generally felt the community just hasn't settle down enough to bother with PvP as we're all too busy exploring the galaxy.
The exact number of hours I've happily poured into The Old Republic is lost to me, but to give you an idea I have an Imperial Agent at level 31 which I played exclusively with a friend who was a Bounty Hunter. I have a Sith Sorcerer near level 30 which has also been kept in the cantina until two friends came online - we decided to see what the galaxy would be like with all of us as Inquisitors. Frankly it couldn't be more fun as lightning flies everywhere and Heroics are no bother with a trio. Then there's my solo adventuring Sith Warrior who only teams up for the Heroics to plunder some gear.
I've yet to complete Act 1 which then unlocks the Legacy system that grants us a 'family name'. This will then add that name to every character we own, and the Legacy mechanic itself can be levelled up but as of right now BioWare are yet to implement any bonuses or features.
Questing with (actual) friends has never been more fun
There's plenty more for me to see and experience yet in The Old Republic and the vast majority of everything so far has been fun and engrossing. The dialogue with NPCs and companion characters is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of making us feel actually connected and not just passing through as we grind on by. The central narrative for each class is genuinely enthralling and has left me always wanting the next piece of the puzzle. As long as BioWare keeps up this formula moving forward into expansions with additional worlds and story threads then The Old Republic is going to keep a sharp edge in its arsenal. Sure there are problems but this is an MMO and it comes with the territory for any new launch, but I have confidence thanks to the studio's stellar reputation for amazing fans and always delivering some of the most exciting stories.
STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC VERDICT
It may carry a lot of the same foundations as other MMOs but BioWare has given the genre something it has desperately needed - actual RPG - and that can only spell good things for us all.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Nigh impossible to nail down but really I’d have to say grouping with my two friends as we conquer the galaxy one world at a time as Sith Sorcerers. There’s little more satisfying in life then annihilating your enemies with a field of lightning, times three.