As the opening crawl of each film reminds us, the spacefaring Star Wars tales we know and love don’t occur in the far-flung future but, rather, in the distant past. It’s appropriate, then, that Star Wars: The Old Republic does not represent the future of online role-playing games but a refinement of what has preceded it. Instead of opening a wormhole into an unknown dimension, BioWare has remained in the local galaxy, taking proven game mechanics and heightening them with the branching narrative and overall structure that have characterized the developer’s output for many a year now. The result is an enjoyable massively multiplayer online game with knockout production values. The Old Republic’s foundation is somewhat ordinary; what makes it great are the fine details that gild its edges.
Many of those details should be familiar to anyone that’s played a BioWare game in recent years, such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age II. However, The Old Republic owes less to past BioWare successes (including the related single-player role-playing game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) than it does to the MMOGs that have come before. In fact, the license and a few other elements aside, the first hours of the game might have you thinking: “I’ve already played this game.” You select from a number of humanoid races, none of which seems particularly unusual, given the breadth of unusual creatures to be found in Star Wars lore. You then choose a faction (Sith Empire or Galactic Republic) and one of eight classes (and after the starting area, an advanced class).
The familiarity continues as you make your way through your class’s opening area. You take some missions and kill some creatures using the game’s straightforward hotkey combat system, all while a bunch of other people do the same thing. Where Star Wars: The Old Republic tries to stand out in this early stage is with its fully voiced character interactions. Other MMOGs have featured plenty of voice acting (EverQuest II, for example), but not to this extent. In The Old Republic, your interactions play out much as they do in BioWare’s single-player games: in oft-lengthy cutscenes in which you respond to others using a dialogue wheel. The three options for even the most minor of conversations are of the usual “kind,” “neutral,” and “mean” classifications.
Of course, such a description isn’t exact, but it’s the general gist–at least, as far as standard interactions are concerned. In many cases, these decisions are all smoke and mirrors: a way of playing your chosen moral role but ultimately leading to the same conclusion. Other times (far fewer times), you face decisions that have impact, and the “good” decision might bring you closer to the light side of the Force, while the “mean” might align you with the dark side. A previous ally has been exposed as a traitor; do you kill her or allow her to live? If you show mercy, you earn light side points, which affects your moral alignment. But if you sink your lightsaber into her flesh, you earn dark side points. Your light side/dark side level determines access to certain gear. When you reach a certain tier, you might then use a weapon previously unavailable to you.
The downside to this morality system is that there’s little mechanical benefit to staying neutral. If you stay morally ambiguous, your rewards are fewer and less diverse. You may find yourself choosing the light or dark option for the sake of that blaster you want, rather than following the code of your convictions. Yet, your choices don’t just have practical implications; there are narrative ones as well. Some are relatively minor. That traitorous ally? If you kill her, your vengeance will be noted in conversation at a later date. If you overlook her transgressions, she might send you gifts to show her gratitude. Some have more dramatic repercussions. A Sith lord gone rogue needs to be put in line. You might send him a warning by killing his son or spare the offspring and kill his duplicitous dad. The implications aren’t always major in the broad scheme of things. Even so, they make you feel as if you have power over your own adventure, though not over the world you inhabit.
How involved you feel with the plot depends in part on what class you choose. The Jedi knight tale is plain enough that some long conversations feel more like filler than necessary plot or character development. The terrorist conspiracy driving the Imperial agent story, on the other hand, is far more complex and compelling. Even then, some of the writing falls flat, with much of it coming across as what an author might write on a page, but not what a living being would say. But all of that voice acting goes a long way toward making the characters come alive onscreen. Almost all of it is high quality, with the actors making even the most stilted dialogue brim with character. Even the shortest line readings, such as your companions’ battlefield quips, are loaded with personality.
Ah, yes–companions. You’ve seen this structure in BioWare games already: You amass a crew on your spaceship, which functions as a central hub, and then take one into the fray when you reach planetside. But companions are more than combat pets, though they are certainly effective in that role. They also figure into the story, which makes you far more invested in whomever you summon to your side than you would expect. In fact, your teammates enrich almost every aspect of your virtual life in one manner or another. Equipping new gear is a treat in any RPG; maintaining your crew’s equipment, as well as your own, enhances the joys of progression. Combat is better, too. Because you get to know your companions outside of battle, it’s like having a real individual at your side rather than a disposable henchman. You can even send your crew members off on gathering missions, have them craft equipment for you, and sell your vendor trash. These conveniences keep the pace moving. BioWare clearly thinks your time is better spent swinging sabers and firing blasters–not mining crystals and scavenging for droid parts. You can still do these things, but they aren’t likely to occupy much of your time.
Of course, this is an online game, so AI companions aren’t the only individuals you have at your side. When playing with others, you participate in conversations as a group, earning a currency called social points as a reward for consistent responses. You need to be with guildmates or other players to conquer heroic quests, which might require a full party of four. Heroic areas offer a nice difficulty curve. You could steamroll through earlier ones, only to find your party must make good use of crowd-control skills and heals later on. You can also join others for four-person dungeons called flashpoints, which give you a chance to exercise the power of choice as a group. Do you overload power conduits, distracting enemy forces but risking innocent lives? Or do you disable them and keep losses to a minimum? Either way, flashpoints are a lot of fun, and they too offer a wonderful difficulty curve. Early skirmishes might be easy enough to handle. Facing a boss that leaps about the room while turrets pelt you with lasers is a greater challenge. It’s also an enjoyable one, particularly if you’ve got a good tank to absorb all of that turret fire. Prefer something a little more epic? Then you should enjoy the eight-man and 16-man dungeons called Operations.