In high school, I had my first brush with MMORPG gaming when some friends of mine started talking about a game called World of Warcraft. From my friends’ stories alone the genre called to me like some digital siren. As a proponent of depth and interaction in gaming, I was fascinated by the idea that all of the main characters were people like me. The concept that I could forge real allies across continents and group with them to slay dragons and demons took hold in me in a very real way. The monkey had lodged itself on my back, and it was clad in the coolest armor!
But even then, even from day one of my MMO experience, even as I stood in Azeroth before the gates of Ironforge and marveled at the sheer scope of the game laid out before me, a small part of me couldn’t help but nitpick. “This is cool,” the rogue enemy of my satisfaction whispered from deep in my subconscious, “but it’d be cooler if it were Star Wars.”
So as you must understand, the desire to play The Old Republic was beyond desire. It was necessity. It was breath. At a time when my minimum wage job was looking precariously insufficient to handle my college loan repayment, I dropped a grand on a new laptop just to ensure I’d have the processing power to play this game the way it was meant to be played. In a very real way, I jeopardized my future for the chance to be Sith.
I told you that to tell you this: I’m not the least bit disappointed or regretful about my decision. Honestly, I think that’s the boldest endorsement I can give. Also, it’s going to be really hard to give any completely unbiased assessment here, so instead of a classic “review” I’m just going to give you my impressions from the game so far.
So let’s move on to the question I know you diehard MMO’ers are probably asking yourselves: How does a story-driven MMO work? I know it was my biggest question, and the linchpin of the game’s potential success or failure, in my estimation.
As it turns out, it works exceptionally well. Using a complex system of “phases” to keep game areas separate and specific to one group/character/class’s experience in those areas, Bioware has managed to allow hundreds of thousands of intricate stories to play out in impressively large environs, and the seams rarely show through. The only real weakness in this system is that sometimes your decisions don’t carry the weight they should. They effect your character’s philosophical leanings (light side or dark side) which in turn affects what sort of gear you have access to, but this doesn’t seem to have much of a profound effect on the game.
Story shines through the most in Flashpoints, The Old Republic equivalent to “Instances” or “Dungeons.” They utilize a previously unheard of mechanic called a “multiplayer conversation,” which is exactly what it sounds like. You pick a conversation option, and then the game randomly chooses a number for you. The player with the highest number gets to “say” what they’ve chosen, and everyone in the party earns social points for the interaction. Social points add up to ranks, which in turn unlock gear and items from specialized vendors. But the fun part is feeling for once like you’re actually working through a crisis with your adventuring party, rather than just mindlessly killing things and getting loot.
So, if you’re willing to get absorbed in the lore, the story is engrossing enough that the dreaded “grind” to max level is actually incredibly fun. Never once while leveling have I remarked, to myself or anyone else, that I wish things were moving faster so I could get to “x” part of the game. I’m perfectly happy watching my story unfold. In addition to your class story quests, every planet has at least one overarching storyline you can plummet into as fully or as sparingly as you wish. To keep pace with the level requirements of the progressive planets, I’d recommend at least toying around with non-class quests everywhere you go. There’s also Heroics, or group quests that offer better experience and item rewards and can be repeated each day. Comments have been made that the AI companions you accumulate throughout the game are prohibitive to the MMO game-style, replacing the need for player interaction. In fact, these companions just make it feasible for players to get their standard quests done without any help, and for tank and healer classes to quest without having to revert back to a more damage-oriented specialization. Heroics are nearly impossible to complete without a full group, so you’ll still have to fish around for some extra players if you want to get the full benefit out of each planet you visit.
So the bottom line is that questing in ToR is dope. Let’s talk about something that’s been catching a lot of flack since release…PvP. Honestly, I don’t know what everyone’s problem is with this. It seems pretty ingenious to me, and it corrects a lot of the things I’ve always hated about World of Warcraft PvP that I assumed it just wasn’t possible to fix. For one thing, Warzones are open from about level 10 onward, and the game employs a system whereby the stats of lower-level players are boosted in Warzones to keep competition even. This, rather elegantly in my opinion, eliminates the need for level brackets in battlegrounds, allowing the PvP system to be limited to server-local without outrageous queue times.
The Warzones themselves are intriguing in their simplicity. My major complaint with WoW Battlegrounds has always been that focus has always shifted toward objective completion and away from actually besting the opponents in combat. Warzones solve this problem by utilizing smaller maps and more carnage-oriented objectives. For example, Huttball, ToR’s equivalent of the standard Capture The Flag scenario, uses only one “flag” with a neutral spawn point and a small arena full of environmental hazards like acid pits and flame jets to evoke an air of mayhem and battle. Compare this to WoW’s equivalent: Warsong Gulch, where the separate flag spawns and comparatively HUGE map make any excess fighting prohibitive to goal completion.
I’ve really got to stress the importance of map size, here. The other Warzone varieties include a 3-point domination map and a 3-stage assault map, so there’s nothing too new or unique here in terms of strategy, but all the maps are shrunk down considerably from their counterparts in other games. Shove enemies together and they’ll have to slug it out, regardless of the objective, and the games become all that more interesting.
On top of all that, Warzones award experience, valor (provides titles and unlocks PvP gear), commendations (used to purchase PvP gear) and even credits (the standard in-game currency), so they’re useful at any level of the game.
From a nuts and bolts perspective, the game is engaging and beautiful. The Star Wars aesthetic is captured magnificently in the art, the characters are expressive, the voices are wonderful, and the gameplay is just a few degrees above standard. For the most part it’s classic MMO button mashing, but the way the characters interact, particularly in melee combat, makes fighting interesting to watch. Rather than blindly hacking and slashing, your character will actually duel opponents when fighting with a lightsaber. Dodged attacks will be dodged, parries will be parried, so on and so forth.
There are some quirks that still need to be worked out. Mob packs tend to wander obscene distances while maintaining cohesive aggro, meaning that pulling a seemingly isolated mob may result in grabbing his buddies even across great distances. Also, the movement in mob clusters is occasionally a little unnatural. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how, but sometimes it’s like you’re fighting synchronized marionettes rather than actual enemies.
The bottom line is that as an actual fan of roleplaying, from the pen and paper school, this is what I’ve always hoped, what I’ve always known, an MMO could be. You can really let yourself get lost in it, and while there may be some growing pains, I’m excited to see where the first few content patches take things.
I’ll be keeping up with ToR as things progress, offering you more in-depth reports on the World PvP, endgame content and content patches as they’re released. Stay tuned for all that, and make sure if there’s anything specific you want to see/know about, leave me a comment or drop me a line by email and I’ll be sure to look into it.
Until next time, peace, gamers!