Star Wars: The Old Republic
We’ve spent dozens of hours exploring the beta, and came away with several core features you should grasp to decide if this new Star Wars game is for you.
It seems like we’ve been waiting to play Star Wars: The Old Republic forever. Formally announced in 2008, the MMO has been creeping towards launch ever since. Even so, it’s been hard to get a comprehensive picture of the game, since most press access to the game has been limited to brief convention appearances.
In recent weeks, we finally had the chance to dive in and play the full beta version of the game. Even as BioWare works to polish the final experience, we found a game of impressive scope and ambition.
For players who are still trying to make up their minds, here’s what you need to know to get started and determine if this is the game for you.
Choose A Class, Choose A Story
The Old Republic has eight complete, well-told stories packed in to the package, one for each of the eight core classes in the game. More than any other MMO we’ve played, your story experience will be shaped by your choice of class. The Jedi Knight treads a path of nobility and sacrifice. The Republic Trooper delivers an action-packed military story. Each class’s tale has its own main characters, plot climaxes, and boss battles. We tried out several different classes, and every one stars a different cast of characters and delves into a unique stretch of the universe.
On top of your class story, you’ll also have the chance to participate in innumerable quests that tell the broader story of the conflict between the Republic and the Empire. Though some have the feeling of side missions, many of the quests outside of your quest are sprawling adventures with storylines that equal or exceed events going on in your class story.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, Star Wars fans and wider fans of narrative-focused games will find a lot to love, but MMO players who especially don’t care about story might be frustrated.
It’s A Big Galaxy
Even at launch, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a vast game universe to explore, both in geography and narrative. Your journeys in the game will take you across the Star Wars galaxy to different planets, space stations, moons, and more. Planetary zones are extremely large, packed with quest content, unusual sites to investigate, and challenges to overcome. A huge galactic map includes over a dozen planets for each faction to visit, plus various other sites, like space battles and space stations.
The breadth of locations and storylines is set against the backdrop of a dramatic galactic conflict between the Sith Empire and the Republic that occurred several thousand years before the Star Wars movies, and several hundred years after the Knights of the Old Republic game. As a result, there are lots of new dramatic possibilities, and no one knows how those plotlines will unfold.
Single player gamers who have previously enjoyed other BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age will certainly find a game worth investing time in. However, those same players may need to adjust to the larger areas, longer walks, and slower pace of an MMO. There’s a lot of ground to cover in The Old Republic, so like with any massively multiplayer game, you spend a lot of time traveling from one place to another.
[NEXT UP: Choose your path between light side and dark side]
All About Storytelling
Every conversation you have in The Old Republic is fully voiced, and it makes a huge difference in the engagement we felt with the story in the game. Whether you’re talking to your Jedi master or that unfortunate soldier trapped behind enemy lines, excellent voice actors with well-written dialogue keep you connected to the quest lines as you complete them. Like most BioWare games, you participate directly in these conversations by choosing dialogue options that propel the story forward. In a way, it’s like an extra reward system at the end of a quest. Not only are you going to get that cool new piece of gear, but you’ll get more story and character exposition in a cool cinematic style.
As an extension of an earlier warning, if you hate story and cutscenes in your MMO, The Old Republic is not for you. You spend a lot of time in these conversations, and a big part of the joy of the game is making choices about how those interactions will turn out.
Choices and Morality
Like the Knights of the Old Republic games that came before it, The Old Republic utilizes a morality scale to determine how you fit within the good and evil balance of the universe. The most interesting element of this ethical teeter-totter is its independence from your chosen faction. You can play a Jedi who falls to the dark side, or a Sith who bucks tradition to practice mercy and seek justice.
Most of the many storylines in the game offer choices that can alter your light side or dark side standing. In one instance, your decision might lead a group of Jedi to seek revenge on their attackers or peace in the Jedi Temple. In another instance, you might choose between turning a romantic Padawan couple in to their suspicious masters or accept their bribe for your silence. The choices you make impact the story, but they also change other minor features. For instance, some equipment requires a certain morality rank.
In our time with the game, there didn’t seem to be a strong benefit for remaining neutral by choosing options from both sides of the morality spectrum. It remains to be seen if adopting a neutral stance will have any long-term benefit in the game.
Getting By With A Little Help
Just like most BioWare games, your character will gather an eclectic selection of allies at his or her side as the adventure continues. These are not generic pets that you trade out like another piece of equipment. Each character class has their own set of named companions, each with their own personality and capabilities in combat. At any time, you can choose one of these allies to join you on your adventures.
Each companion acts like a full second character, with their own selection of equipment and abilities, not to mention their own opinions of everything you do. One character ally we acquired believed that grabbing power for its own sake was the most important thing one could do – he hated any light side choice that went contrary to that worldview.
You can change the appearance of your companions with purchased upgrades, and buy them gifts to try to influence their attitude towards you. Companions act as a perfect storytelling foil as you move through the game’s many adventures, plus they offer a whole separate set of skills at your command when you go into combat.
MMO players who don’t enjoy the hassle of pet classes may be frustrated by the use of companions, as they do require some small management on your part. That said, companion AI is quite good on its own, and we found that a selection of different companions held their own in combat quite well.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has a deep and involved profession system called crew skills. You can choose three skills out of a pool of 14 different options. These different crew skills fall under one of three categories. Gathering skills like archaeology and bioanalysis let you harvest things in the game world. Crafting skills like artifice and biochem let you synthesize new objects for your character, or to sell to others. Finally, mission skills like diplomacy or treasure hunting send your companions out across the galaxy on special missions of their own, and they’ll bring back the spoils.
No matter what skills you choose, your companions will help you rank up by completing tasks in that field. Don’t want to take the time to craft a particularly awesome new set of armor? Send one of your crew to do it. They’ll disappear for a designated period, and return with the new equipment. Out in the field, you can even send your companion to run and gather that mineral off the side of the road while you continue your exploration. Most crew skills have interactions with one another, so it’s wise to choose three that work well together.
It’s worth noting that crew skills are an optional game system. There’s no reason you’d need to spend time with them if you don’t like the idea. However, the option to have your crew do all the dirty work makes crafting a more appealing option than in many MMOs.
[NEXT UP: A new style of combat, plus your very own spaceship]
Battles in The Old Republic have a surprising layer of strategy, even when you’re soloing through quests. While many MMOs task your character to take on one or potentially two enemies at a time, many battles in the new Star Wars MMO have you facing off against 3 to 5 enemies at once. As a result, combat feels dynamic and demands that you strategize before an attack, carefully choosing your first target, and regularly switching your attack sequence during a battle. Many character classes are built to fulfill multiple roles, especially in the early levels, so there are lots of opportunities to explore different tactics in a fight.
The addition of a controllable companion character doubles the roles you can fulfill in a fight. Maybe your Jedi Consular can’t take a lot of punishment, but his companion can rush headlong into the fray and take the brunt of the assault. In general, companion characters aren’t as powerful as your hero, but they are a potent force nonetheless.
The other feature of combat that sets The Old Republic apart are the visuals. Many of the explosive effects and battle visuals are great fun to look at. Melee combat makes it look like weapons are really connecting with each other, while ranged explosions and laser blasts fill the air. Force lightning, in particular, is an especially cool visual effect.
Every player in the Old Republic gets his or her own ship. These large vessels unlock after the first 20 hours or so of playing your character, depending on how fast you move through the opening quests of your class; different classes have different ships. Once you have your ship, several new options open up. Most importantly, you can begin to travel the galaxy via a large galactic map overlay in your ship. Click on a planet or other location, and your ship will zoom from its current location to the new site.
You’ll also have all your companions gathered together in one place on your ship, and you can talk with them to further your relationship. A dedicated crafting station on the ship lets you set your crew to task. Finally, you’ll be able to engage in space battles. These rail shooter-style missions unlock over time as you progress through the game, and offer a simple but fun diversion from the normal questing grind. Think Starfox, but with Star Wars ships. By completing these missions, you’ll gain commendations that can contribute to improvements for your ship. If you’re not a fan of these more arcade-like sequences, these space missions appear to be entirely optional.
Whether you like playing with your friends or proving your dominance in player vs. player, The Old Republic has you covered. In the early levels, the most common ways to engage in multiplayer content are through heroic quests, flashpoints, and warzones.
Heroic quests pop up as a natural outgrowth of solo questing. Some missions are designed for 2 or more players, and they’re designated that way once you acquire them. With your companion at your side, some of these missions are possible to complete on your own. However, the easiest path is to partner up into small groups. In our playtime with the game, it was easy to head to the quest location, look for another person or group attempting the mission, and ask for a party invite. Alternately, you can always go out questing with a partner from the start.
The much bigger and more elaborate cooperative multiplayer experience we encountered was through flashpoints. Think of these as dungeons with significant story content included. You’ll gather a group (usually four players) to tackle a flashpoint. If you’re missing a player or party role, you can summon one of your companions to fill in a missing spot. Each flashpoint is filled with big battles and boss encounters, but you’ll also have the chance to engage with group conversations. Every player makes conversation choices in these conversations, but only one of the characters is randomly selected to speak. It’s an exciting way to see role-playing conversations play out in a multiplayer setting. There will be 15 flashpoints in the game at launch – all or them are repeatable, in case you want to see how things turn out if you had made a different decision.
Finally, PvP enthusiasts will want to check out the warzones. These team-based competitions pit you against opponents in focused objective game types. There are three distinct warzones planned for launch, including the territory capturing experience on Alderaan and the capture-the-flag like Hutt Ball. Like PvP in most MMOs, participating is largely optional, unless you choose to join a PvP server.
It’s Star Wars
For many potential fans, all the gameplay features in the world won’t answer one very important question. Does it feel like Star Wars? The short answer is a resounding yes. Though the story of The Old Republic is set many years before Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battled it out over the Death Star, BioWare has done a great job of nailing the aesthetic and fantasy of the Star Wars mythology. Familiar musical themes are interwoven with new melodies to make the audio experience feel genuine. The eight core game classes nail almost any of the big fantasies you might want to experience in a Star Wars game. You want to be Han Solo? Be a Smuggler. You love Boba Fett? Bounty Hunters are for you. Darth Vader gets your blood pumping? The Sith Warrior should fit nicely.
What about fans of Knight of the Old Republic? As BioWare are the originators of the KoTOR brand, the team has gone to great pains to accentuate ideas within the fiction that were first introduced in those now-classic RPGs. Whether you’re looking for some follow-through on what happened to Darth Revan, or you want to meet descendants of companion characters from the original KoTOR, you should be pleased.
Are you already clued in to many of these basic concepts inherent to Star Wars: The Old Republic? Keep an eye out for our in-depth journal feature on the game in the December issue of Game Informer, available in a few weeks. Within that story, four GI editors chronicle their time playing the beta, with lots of additional details about individual classes and gameplay.