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Review: Star Wars The Old Republic

29/02/2012

As I mentioned in my last post, I have started playing Star Wars The Old Republic. I was doing a pretty good job of resisting, but then some old English guy in a bathrobe walked up to me and waved his hand in front of my face. Next thing I know I’m creating a character.

If you’re not familiar with The Old Republic, here’s a Star Wars crawl to bring you up to speed.

Now that we’re all caught up, on to the review…

Part 1
Overview

On the surface, The Old Republic is similar in look, feel, and gameplay to WoW. The graphics are less cartoony, but not quite as polished as games like Aion. Personally, I don’t mind this. It is reminiscent of the Clone Wars TV series, only less stylised. You can tell which class someone is playing just by looking at them (most of the time), and gear looks just close enough to what we’ve seen in the movies without being a direct copy.  It helps that the Star Wars universe exists in a state of perpetual arrested development, with one era looking very much like another. This is convenient more than anything, allowing the expanded universe to retain much of the look of the original movies, with varying levels of Gungan.

Overall, it feels like a mix of World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. There’s questing and grinding aplenty, but also an overarching story for each class. It is this story that drives the game; guiding the player from planet to planet, as well as unlocking companions at key moments. You don’t have to follow the story missions, but there’s no reason not to. They are closely mapped to the adventure paths for each planet, and make the play experience much more enjoyable overall.

Part 2
Character Options

Anyone familiar with the Star Wars universe will be able to make a pretty educated guess as to which classes appear in The Old Republic. The big difference with many other games is that classes are not shared between the two factions (the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire). This isn’t exactly true, however. For example, the Republic Trooper has abilities that are very similar to the Imperial Bounty Hunter, while the same is true with the Sith Warrior and Jedi Knight. Sure, Jedi Knights aren’t known for Force Choking opponents, and Troopers can’t leap up into the air and pepper their target with missiles, but that’s just fluff. Most of the time, the base effects are pretty similar.

On the side of the Republic you find the Republic Trooper, the Smuggler, the Jedi Knight, and Jedi Consular. Opposing them are the Imperial Agent, the Bounty Hunter, the Sith Warrior, and the Sith Inquisitor. Each of these classes splits into two advanced classes at 10th level (basically once you get off your starting planet) each of which plays up a different aspect of the class. This does seem a little limited at first, but the advanced classes are often sufficiently different that you could play through a class twice with a different experience each time.

You don’t have to spend your time in the Star Wars universe alone, however. Each character gains companions, based on their class, as they progress in levels. You can have one of these companions following you around at any one time, and they each provide a different benefit to your character (the best of which is usually the healer). On top of this you can gain, and sometimes lose, affection with your companions as you complete missions, there is even the option to become romantically involved with some of your companions later in the game.

With some limitations...

The species options are almost as limited as the classes, with most shared between the two factions. The ubiquitous humans are there, as well as some of the other common humanoid races like twi’lek and zabrak. There are also some less well-known races like miralan, miraluka, and chiss. The weirdest choice (in my mind at least) is the cyborg. These are basically humans who are showing a bit of chrome. In my mind, there isn’t really enough of an in-game difference between them and humans to justify a separate species, but then I’m not George Lucas.

Aside from cosmetic differences, the only benefit a species grants is a social ability (that can only be used while grouped with other players). This keeps things nice and simple, and prevents species/class min-maxing that is so often found in other games. Your choice of species does affect how NPCs talk to you during the game, but this comes up so rarely that it doesn’t make much of a difference. There is also only one species that changes based on which faction you choose. Zabrak fighting for the Republic have human skin tones, while those who fight for the Empire follow the path of Darth Maul with crimson skin tones.

Part 3
Gameplay

As mentioned earlier, it will be easy for players of existing MMO’s to jump right in to The Old Republic. This can be a bit of a trap, however, as there are some significant differences that can catch you out. For starters, there is no auto-attack feature. You have to actively use your abilities during combat, otherwise your character will stand there doing nothing more than passively dodging the occasional attack. This is confusing at first, but once you get into the swing of things it works quite well – even if you do end up mashing the basic attack button. To counter this, the game has made it easier to loot the bodies of your enemies after you have finished them off. The Loot Area function allows you to gather all items within  a certain range.

As an added benefit, combat is a little more forgiving in The Old Republic. Things get even easier once you pick up your first companion, though you also find yourself taking on tougher opponents more often. Add to this the ability to revive on the spot where you died (with a brief period of invulnerability so you can get to safety) means you don’ t have to run through the same area over and over again until you are successful. I’ve found that dying can sometimes be a good option when you enter combat in a disadvantageous way. First time around you clear out the lesser mobs, die, then come back and take on the boss alone. A tactic used by movie monsters for decades.

As with other MMO’s, The Old Republic is divided into zones. As this is an interstellar setting, each zone is actually a planet. Not a whole planet, however. That would be insane. You end up running around part of the planet, ringed by convenient cliffs, large bodies of water, or the ‘dead zones’ that were found in Battlefield 1942. Run too far out into the vast desert of Tatooine and you’ll eventually die. Just like real life. As with other games there is a transport system that will help you get around, some of which are already active to allow you to get to areas that would otherwise be unreachable (like when you travel between districts on city-planets like Coruscant). The instant-travel option is an improvement over WoW’s hearthstone. Instead of binding to a single site at a time, you choose one of the sites you have discovered and unlocked each time you use the ability. Combined with a half hour cooldown, this allows for a lot of jumping around a map.

Part 4
Equipment

Weapons and armour are something of an afterthought when playing The Old Republic. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Each class relies on one stat more than the others (Strength for Sith Warriors, Wisdom for Sith Inquisitors, etc), with all of them finding Endurance useful. You can’t ignore the other stats, of course, they’re just not as important. With this in mind, each stat enhancing item grants bonuses to one of the four class stats as well as Endurance. This makes it very easy to figure out which equipment is best for your character, simply look for the one that grants the appropriate benefits. Everything else is mostly gravy. The only time you need to take care is when your companion focuses on different stats. Fortunately, you can enable a tool tip that lets you compare an item to what both your character and your character’s companion currently have equipped.

This system has the added bonus of allowing designers to make items that suit the sterotypical image of each class. It may make the game feel a bit homogeneous, but take a look at the existing Star Wars films. The Jedi all were pretty much the same thing, with a few small differences. Sure, you could equip your character with gear that isn’t designed for it, but sometimes it’s not worth taking the hit to the stats. There is also the option to craft your own weapons and armour, but I haven’t seen enough of that to know how much those items differ from loot drops and mission rewards.

Speaking of crafting, TOR breaks from tradition by having your companion characters do all your crafting for you. You can even assign them to undertake crafting missions while in the middle of a mission deep within an enemy base. It’s a little hard at first when you only have one companion, but once you’ve got a couple (plus the protocol droid on your ship) you can start leveling up those skills pretty quickly.

Part 5
PvP

There is PvP in The Old Republic. Both on certain shared planets and in special arenas called Warzones, one of which is actually a sports game called Huttball. That’s all I know about PvP, so that’s all I’ll say.

Part 6
Music

No Star Wars game is complete without the obligatory John Williams soundtrack. The Old Republic takes a slightly different route, however, bringing in different people to compose all new music for the game. Luckily, they’ve predicted what the fans really want and borrowed heavily from Williams’ existing work. A prime example of this is the theme for the Jedi classes. Take a listen to the video below and see if you can spot the influence:

Pretty obvious, isn’t it. They knew what the fans wanted and did everything they could to give it to them. They also wrote a number of tracks that only play within the cantinas. While none is quite as catchy as the classic Cantina Band music from A New Hope, they do have funky names like “Do The Holos Appear On The Bill”, “Take Over Porkins”, and “Yesterday’s Jawa”.

(Speaking of Jawas, the Bounty Hunter gets a Jawa companion named Blizz who has a thing for rocket launchers. I am not kidding.)

The music adds atmosphere to the gameplay experience. And while it does fade into the background at times, that’s fine. You tend to notice it most when you’re in the middle of a hard-fought battle with an elite enemy and you’ve got fight music straight out of the movies pumping in the background. The only downside to the music is that, unlike the movies, it doesn’t closely mirror your character’s actions. It would be impossible to do something like this, of course. What you experience in the game is still pretty epic.

Part 7
The Future

It’s a fair bet that we’ll be seeing more from The Old Republic in the near(ish) future. They could create a couple of new classes for each faction (with a new starting planet designed for them), and I guarantee you we’ll see new species and planets in future expansions. What I would also really like to see are continuations of the existing class story arcs. Not necessarily following on from where each one ends up, but perhaps bringing in a new plot element that each class reacts to in its own way. So many planets have been left out of the existing game (including Naboo, thankfully) that there is plenty of room to expand. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see where they decide to take it.

As for how well the game will do, the Star Wars universe does have a certain level of fandom pre-built into it. I know Star Wars Galaxies disappointed a lot of people, but The Old Republic seems to have addressed a most of the problems that game had, while incorporating elements from other games that have made them successful. I don’t think it will be a WoW killer (even with female twi’leks running around in slave girl outfits), but it will probably put a significant dent in its server populations – at least until Mists of Pandaria releases.

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