Review: Star Wars: The Old Republic

It's difficult to review an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game. They are so complex, deep, and involve so many hours of play it's hard to get a feel for them without extensive "testing."

But after hours playing the beta, and a week's worth of pre-launch play, I'm comfortable making an opinion about BioWare's ambitious and much-awaited Star Wars MMO.

The short version: unbelievably, staggeringly, awesome.

I, like many Star Wars fans, have been here before. SWTOR isn't the first Star Wars MMO, that distinction goes to the much maligned Galaxies (RIP, 2003-2011). We were so badly burned by the incompetence of the game's designers, that we were skeptical of any new foray into this ultimate of space fantasy universes.

But BioWare has an exceptional track record for making amazing games. The Mass Effect series for one, and of course the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. Despite this, and the incredible pre-launch hype and promises, I and many others remained, shall we say, "reserved" in our enthusiasm. The problem was, everything BioWare showed to the public, made SWTOR look like Knights of the Old Republic III with little actual "MMO" play. Where, in this complex game they were promising, was the multiplayer?

That's no moon, it's a space station.

Lets back up a step. The idea behind an MMO, and in this case an MMORPG, for an MMO that's also a Role Playing Game, is to create a character. Then you play that character, building up experience (XP) to increase your character's level, becoming more powerful, adding new talents and abilities, and becoming an overall badass.

There are a few basic archetypes, or "classes," that most MMOs follow to some degree. If you want to blow up everything in sight, there's class that specializes in damage. Want to heal other characters when they need it? There's a class for that, and so on. Pick the class that seems coolest to you, and have at it. You can modify the look and gender too, but that's just cosmetic.

All MMOs are quest based: go here to get this or do that. Complete the quest, and get some XP. In the case of World of Warcraft, easily the most successful MMORPG with 12 million monthly subscribers (at $15 a month, you do that math), these quests are usually "Kill 15 of this" or "destroy 5 of that." The quests, generally speaking, are rather boring. The environment is nice, and occasionally there's an over-arcing plot, but there is no cohesive story that brings you from low level to high level.

BioWare set out to do something rather different with TOR. Your character follows a story - that you can manipulate - from the moment you start playing all the way to the level cap of 50. This is dozens of hours of playtime. And that's for each class, of which there are eight. It is possible, as BioWare has boasted, to play each class from level 1 to level 50 and have minimal overlapping quests or content. That's a staggering amount of content, and that's not even the amazing part.

Every character in SWTOR is a full voiced. Let that sink in for a second. Every quest you get, every character you talk to, through those hundreds of hours of gamplay, is fully scripted and voiced by an actual voice actor or actress. The army of voice artists they must have gotten for this game must have been incredible. Easily in the hundreds, maybe more.

As impressive an achievement as that is, it's not what makes the game great. No, where the brilliance of the game lays is in giving you choices in every conversation. You chose to be polite, or not, encouraging, or not, modest, or not. Beyond the normal class choice you make (like in any MMO), you can actually give your character character. Want a Jedi Knight who's a dick to everyone? You can do it. Want a Sith Inquisitor (think the Emperor), who's secretly a good guy, nice and helpful to everyone? You can do that too. More than just cosmetic decisions, the choices you make effect the actual gameplay and story.

Boring conversation anyway. Luke, we're gonna have company!

Yet another way TOR is so radically different from every other MMO is in the quality of the writing. Almost always there's no "right" or "wrong" answer. Do you turn in the jewel thief because they stole, or let them go because they're using the money to feed starving kids.

The stories are so interesting, you want to keep going just to see how they unfold, to further the plot not just to get XP and level (like every other MMO). In addition to your character story, each planet has their own arc, and then each zone on that planet has a smaller arc, and then there's shorter still one-off local quests. All have interesting situations. I found myself doing quests that I didn't need just to complete a story arc.

Bounty Hunters, we don't need their scum.

Each class has a different story, to fit with the feel of their character. The Smuggler story, of which I've advanced the most in, involves a galactic treasure hunt. The Jedi Consular has you healing the Jedi Order and tracking down the cause of their illness, as you'd expect for those do-gooders. I've only played a few levels of Bounty Hunter, but at the start you're part of a "great hunt" that seems to fit perfectly with their Boba Fett-aesthetic. The Imperial Agent has a cool undercover spy thing going on, but I'm only a few levels in.

In all, each story seems to fit the class perfectly. A story that, to me at least, would be interesting to the type of person that would choose each class. BioWare, more than any other game company, is a master at creating believable and interesting characters. Better still, you're able to mold these characters to fit your playstyle, your personality, and your whims.

Now I'm sure many of you are looking at this and going: a game where you can be a Jedi, why would anyone be anything else? Well, it turns out that ancient weapons and hokey religions aren't a match for a good blaster at your side. Playing as a celibate, telekinetic monk is fun, but it's not the only kind of fun. Bounty Hunter blows stuff up good, for example. A Smuggler with a cloaking stealth belt is pretty awesome too.

You don't play as any of the famous characters, of course, you're your own person. For that matter, TOR takes place way before the movies. So it's the Star Wars universe literally and canonically, just no Anakin (thankfully).

Don't worry, she'll hold together. Hear me baby, hold together. . .

I was skeptical at first, worried that TOR would be a single-player game with occasional bouts with others. In a way, that's true. It is very similar in feel and look to the Knights of the Old Republic games. You have an extremely personalized storyline, and much of the quests furthering that storyline you do alone.

But then you can group up with some friends (or strangers) and do a "Flashpoint," what TOR calls separate stories specifically for groups (other MMOs call these "instances"). Then there's the many planetary Heroics, which are instanced areas not as time consuming as a Flashpoint, but still requiring more than just you. Or there's PVP, with some interesting maps that are either fun or frustrating depending on your team (as is always the case).

There are many great things about these organized PVP zones. You can queue up for them from anywhere (and be transported to them instantly when ready), you never have to wait more than a few minutes to get into one,

You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? . . . It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.

Then there's the space combat. At around level 15 you get your very own spaceship, giving you access to other worlds, and the ability to take part in space missions. As a HUGE fan of Xwing: Alliance and even more hugely disappointed by Galaxies' atrocious handling of their space expansion, I wanted so much out of the space aspect of this game. In that, SWTOR is sort of disappointing. You do get a cool ship you can walk around in (score!), but space combat itself is an arcade-style on-rails shooter. Think Star Warsy S.T.U.N. Runner. You get limited vertical and horizontal movement, but overall direction is pre-determined. As much as I, and many others, were hoping for actual space exploration, that would be a different game entirely. Honestly I'm not sure it would fit with the overall feel of the game. Maybe in a future expansion (that I will of course buy immediately). That said, space combat is rather fun and gets you a good chunk of XP quickly.

But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!

One sort-of negative is in the openness of the worlds, or to be specific, the lack there of. Early zones are extremely confined, and while this gets better as you progress, there is still a closed-in feeling to each world. But I'm not sure I can really count this as a negative, as I love exploring MMO worlds (I'd go so far as to say as it's one of my main reasons to play) and after the initial disappointment at the compactness of each world, it stopped bothering. Every new area has "wow!" moments of incredibly beautiful art design, and while you can't just spend three hours running from Stormwind to Booty Bay, I found my wanderlust quite sated with the variety in the worlds themselves. There's just less open, unused space compared to other MMOs.

And, as you advance in level, the worlds get bigger and seem more open.

You're all clear, kid! Now let's blow this thing and go home!

SWTOR feels impossibly well polished for an MMO at launch (hell, before launch, I've been playing for a week!). Overall, it feels like they took the best aspects of other MMOs, sanded off all the annoying parts, and wrapped in some of the best writing I've ever seen in a video game (or most movies, for that matter). It's a truly staggering achievement.

To do all of this on such an epic scale, with thousands of other players (and your friends), to me makes Star Wars: The Old Republic unquestionably the game of the year. This is all the more impressive, given that 2011 has seen some truly excellent games.

Beyond that accolade, The Old Republic is easily the best Star Wars experience in nearly 30 years. Any gamer, any MMO fan, even any Star Wars fan, should try this game. It doesn't matter if you've never played an MMO before. You will be hooked. It's that good.