Two months on, how good is Star Wars: The Old Republic?26 Feb 2012
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At the time of writing, it’s been just over two months since Star Wars: The Old Republic hit shelves both digital and physical. We’ve already published a of the early game, but how does the late game hold up? How does SWTOR fare with extended play? How has the game changed since launch, and where is it likely to go over the course of the year? Let’s investigate.
Even after two months, I like SWTOR. I like it a lot. It scratches a peculiar itch that I don’t think I ever really noticed I had, in that it gives me an MMO world in which I actually feel like I’m controlling a character (rather than an avatar) and in which I feel genuinely important to the goings-on of the universe at large. The individual storyline for each class makes me feel like I’m effecting changes to the state of the galaxy, and while a lot of it is very clearly smoke and mirrors – I’m not really in a race against time to do X, nor is Y chasing me down, and Z isn’t going to get away – it’s really pleasing smoke, with highly reflective mirrors. You can argue that many characters are derivative or stereotyped, or that the only things that really change are in cutscenes – and you’d be right – but for the most part it’s still entirely compelling as long as you don’t go out of your way to break the immersion for yourself. Or until you see 17 other people with the same companion as you.
The downside to this, of course, was something that became clear in the review itself: despite having individual stories for every class on both factions, it’s not the most replayable game in the world. You’re still going to the same planets in the same order to do the same quests, barring the chain of class quests that pulls you along; if you go through the game once as Republic and once as Imperial, you’ll have seen basically everything barring the class quests (although that’s still a lot of content). For the first half of the game this hardly matters; learning how each new class works is interesting enough to keep you occupied, and the speed with which you can tear through class quests gives a tingling sense of progression that’s entirely distinct from whatever level your character might be.
But things do crumble a little, later on. As levelling gets slower, so too do the class quests, and barring one or two major chains on each planet there’s a fair bit of chaff in terms of what you’re doing, which no amount of voice acting and writing can disguise. Quite frankly, this is to be expected – this is an MMO, with quests probably numbering in the thousands – but the point where you start skipping through the dialogue of an incidental quest is still a sad little moment.
The other obvious side to this is that some class storylines appear to work better than others. While I haven’t even come close to levelling every class to maximum, there are some excellent twists and climactic moments in those that I’ve played, in addition to a few segments that left me with a tangible sense of disappointment – not least because the general storytelling rule of “show, rather than tell” appeared to occasionally get shot in the face and dumped in a river.
But none of this should really come as any surprise: any game with this much content and this many storylines is going to have boring bits and disappointments to go along with some of the stunning highs it most definitely achieves.
I don’t want to harp on about this too much, but the one other thing SWTOR does phenomenally well is make your character feel powerful, and barring a few speed-bumps on the road this does keep going right up until the end. New abilities get rarer, but generally speaking – as it differs for some classes – those you acquire at higher level tend to be some of the more impressive, both visually and in terms of powers. The greatest joy, though, is when the class quests force you to fight smart; most of the trickiest class bosses my Agent encountered relied on pretty much abandoning my companion and using interrupts, CC, line-of-sight, and everything else I could to stay alive and fight back, and these are easily the most satisfying battles I’ve had.
Then there’s the endgame itself.
I’m going to come right out and state that I’m not particularly in love with the endgame as it stands right now, but a lot of this isn’t the fault of the game. It is, in short, a fairly typical MMO endgame in that, after hitting 50, you’ve pretty much got four options. You can go into PvP via Warzones or the world PvP zone of Ilum, you can go into group PvE via Flashpoints and the larger Operations, you can explore every corner of every planet to find stat-boosting datacrons, or you can roll a new character and start all over. Basically: grow your character via gear and stats, or start a new character.
What you don’t really have an option to do is continue your character in any other way, and that’s a bit of a shame after having spent 50 levels and countless hours building up a character, as opposed to a simple avatar. Surprising? Not in the least; this is an MMO, and that’s pretty much the point where single-player games would simply end. That doesn’t make it any less of a shame, though, particularly if you got deeply invested in the successes and setbacks of your avatar as an actual denizen of the galaxy and are still allowed to continue on with them, despite not really advancing them as a personality. Perhaps it’s best to think of it, if you’re not really into the typical endgame stuff, as the sort of “carry on playing after you’ve finished” mode we see in wide-scope RPGs like Fable, or Skyrim. Only with less interesting things to do.
Still, the rest of the endgame feels appropriate. PvP class balance isn’t perfect (and, as with all MMOs, probably never will be) but for the most part I’m remarkably happy with it, which is a rarity. There are certainly still issues – grinding your way to Battlemaster gear certainly feels like a grind – but for the most part, Warzones are enjoyable enough that I’m happy simply logging in on a max-level character to do a few every now and then. A degree of faction imbalance ties into the rest of the PvP experience, unfortunately: Ilum is a ghost planet with few Republic to be found on my server, and I rarely encountered Republic players when levelling. For a PvP server, that’s a bit of a problem.
I don’t, however, think I’m entirely qualified to talk about the endgame PvE content. After too much drama in too many other MMOs I’ve mostly sworn off raiding, so I’m not even going to comment on Operations. Flashpoints, though, are well-designed and entertaining; few are cakewalks, but most of them err on the right side of “challenging,” and some of the better experiences I’ve had were when grouping with an assortment of random players to take on “Heroic” multi-man quests, without necessarily having the holy trinity of tank/healer/DPS present.
It’s worth noting, too, that I don’t think rerolling as a new alt is as much of a downer as it is in other MMOs. I talked above about how SWTOR isn’t as replayable as you might hope, but the flip-side of that is that is that each story slots into the universe in a different way, and to get the full picture of what’s going on in the galaxy you kinda need to play multiple classes – and some of the events that you’ll get involved in are fairly far-reaching, in terms of lore. Indeed, as soon as I “finished” my first class, I was already busily trying to plan out which class to take next and what sort of moral compass to use. I wasn’t done with the game’s storytelling.
So that’s SWTOR present, but what about the future? And what does the past indicate?
Good things. A great many of the early-game bugs were quashed rather quickly, and BioWare has proven that it’s willing to listen to players and implement changes based on feedback – there’s this attempt to gauge dislike of a recent change, for instance. While it’s hard to say for sure considering the launch was fairly recent, the release of the first major patch – complete with new content – after less than a month of uptime indicates that we should expect more goodies fairly rapidly.
New Warzones, Flashpoints, and Operations are coming, and it looks like we’ll also be seeing new planets, new daily quests, and almost certainly a bit more story. We’ll doubtless see further chapters to continue our class quests and, while I suspect they’ll be done primarily through major expansions, I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if we got free prologue chapters that lead into these whenever they arrived. That, however, is pure speculation.
But speculation’s fun, so let’s go one step further. I think SWTOR has an opportunity to break further out of the standard MMO mould in a huge number of ways. We’ve got on-rails space combat already, but I don’t think it’s implausible that this might be expanded on in the distant future – and I don’t just mean in terms of more missions and more equipment, but more in terms of removing some of those rails and perhaps taking things in an X-Wing or Rogue Squadron direction. Keeping Knights of the Old Republic in mind, I also wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a few more minigames added in future expansions. Swoop racing? Yes, okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so popular. Perhaps Blackjack-alike Pazaak? Poker-alike Sabacc? Server-wide tournaments for each? Hmm.
I’ve complained a fair bit in this article, but I’ll point you to what I said at the start: I like this game a lot… but. And that’s really it; I do like it a lot, as evidenced by the fact that I’m still playing it, but it’s easy to see little niggling issues, or areas that could be improved. The fact that I like it so much is probably what makes these little things annoying, in fact. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the stuff I’ve outlined here, like issues with PvP, look like they’re due for fixes in upcoming patches, so this piece may in fact be entirely irrelevant in a month.
Still: right now, while it’s not exactly the dream of an MMO that’s also great for those who usually prefer to play solo, it’s managed to get pretty close. If the past two months have been anything to go by, I don’t think BioWare’s going to stop tweaking it and making it better for players of all persuasions – whether PvP, or group PvE, or solo – for a good few years yet. The present’s pretty sunny, but the future’s looking brighter still.