Okay, right at the top, I need to run through a list of disclaimers. First and foremost, I'm not a fan of Massively Multiplayer Online games. The things that I value most in games, such as story, depth, characterization, streamlined interface...these are all concepts that fly in the face of your standard MMO. Because of this, I am simply not equipped to accurately judge things such as Player vs Player since, almost universally, that is an un-fun concept to me. I realize, of course, that what I am admitting to goes a long way towards invalidating this review. But for those of you, like me, that play games for more than researching the best quickslot-pressing order, and "pwning noobs", maybe you'll glean some insight as to whether Star Wars: The Old Republic is worth giving a shot. The final disclaimer is that this review will be long...more of a rant, really. You have been warned!
Character Creation - Do you hate differentiation?
Since the Star Wars universe is so diverse and has such a wealth of races and stories to draw from, Bioware's decision to make character creation so dull is quite shocking. As in most MMOs, there are two main choices to make (not counting the choice of sex). The first is class and let's get one giant lie off the table right now, there are not eight classes in SW:TOR, there are four. There are eight stories (more on that later), but in terms of gameplay, you have your choice of four options: melee Jedi/Sith, ranged Jedi/Sith, Smuggler/Agent, and Trooper/Bounty Hunter. The classes are all subdivided into specialties at level ten (e.g. the Trooper/Bounty Hunter can be either a tank or a healer), but for the most part, these classes all play very similarly to each other (even niche roles such as healing can be performed by three of the four classes). And between Republic and Imperial, the classes are exactly copy-and-pasted, with only the names of the skills changed.
Even still, class choice is the only gameplay choice you make at the start. That's because race selection is, in a word, cosmetic. Not only is race ignored in terms of gameplay (no bonuses to your lightsaber fighting for picking Darth Maul's race, sorry), it's also largely ignored in the roleplay and story. Sometimes people will comment that you aren't human, but that's about it. To make matters worse, only certain races are available for certain classes. Inexplicably, you can't be a Chiss Sith Lord and you can't be a Twi'lek Trooper. And to top it all off, the races offered are fairly boring and non-iconic. You can't be a Wookie, a Mon Calamari, a Trandoshan, or anything that isn't essentially just a human being with different colored skin. Talk about a buzz kill.
As for customizing your face and body, the options provided are exactly average. Depending on your race, you can modify things such as tattoos, scars, and cybernetics. The range of different faces is adequate, though why facial hair gave Bioware so much trouble, I'll never understand. Eyebrow color must always be chestnut brown (which makes blond and black haired characters look damn strange), and things like stubble are tied directly to skin complexion. These are odd and unnecessary design decisions (or in the case of the eyebrows, overlooked missing features) and it certainly got me wondering right from the get-go if SW:TOR was going to be cutting lots more corners as I played on.
Gameplay - Do you like WoW?
When I would mention in the game's general chat that SW:TOR played almost exactly like World of Warcraft, aside from the morons who responded with "How can it be like WoW, when it's in space?!", most didn't understand that it was even possible that gameplay could be different. It seems that WoW has so cornered the market that MMO aficionados (people that don't play many games outside of the genre and thus, should be more knowledgeable than amateurs like me) are so brainwashed that the very idea of a game not including target lock-on and quickslot juggling is heresy. When I said, "This game plays exactly like WoW," I got in return, "It's an MMO, what were you expecting?"
I was expecting innovation and creativity, as I always do when I launch a new game. After the debacle of Dragon Age 2, I'm starting to realize that Bioware isn't interested in breaking new ground, and The Old Republic is further evidence of that. Where to begin...well, as I alluded to above, the combat consists of targeting your enemy and then proceeding to hit quickslot abilities in different orders, maximizing synergies and juggling cool-down timers (ie. Grav Shot makes High Impact Bolt more effective, which in turn makes Full Auto recharge faster, etc.). I'm sure the veteran MMO player can manipulate those factors from touch alone, but for the average gamer, what it means is that you stand still and stare at a quickbar, clicking colored buttons like a fancy game of Simon. Sadly, there isn't much more to the combat beyond that. Tanks are still tanks, healers are healers, and DPSs (damage per second) are still DPSs. All of the conventions from WoW and Everquest (a 13 year old game) are simply copy-and-pasted.
My biggest gripe with this gameplay (and, by extension, all WoW derivatives) is that it's painfully static. Not only is movement during combat usually unnecessary, but often, you can't even use your best skills unless you stand still for a few second to "charge it up". The result is lightsaber combat that's as far removed from the movies as you could possibly get, looking and feeling more like children mock-fighting with toys. And given MMO-standardized "hack away at an enemy for five minutes while his giant health bar inches down" trope, it just looks foolish as you chop and slash away with your laser sword and all you get is the occasional flinch. Assassin's Creed, this combat is not. The effect is magnified if you are a soldier. Now you have two guys leveling blasters at each other, with feet firmly planted, and sending an endless hail of gunfire, all the while just accepting return fire in the chest. Rainbow Six this is not. The smuggler/agent class does have a very rudimentary cover mechanic, but once you leap behind a barrel, it remains as static and lifeless as the rest. And let's not forget, you aren't even interacting directly with your environment; all of your inputs have to funnel through your quickbar, like you are controlling a marionette.
Another aspect that can really damage immersion is the fact that, aside from mini-story Flashpoints, there is no instancing. What this means is that when the server population is low, everything runs pretty well, but when things get crowded, you can actually find yourself waiting in line to kill certain numbers of people or certain bosses. Even in getting from point A to point B, if someone is directly ahead of you, he's killing everything before you and you get no loot or experience. I found myself deliberately slowing down, as one would at a crowded mini-golf course, just so I could have a proper gaming experience. And given that most people with little spare time all get on during prime time (6 pm-10 pm), they're always getting the shaft. Instancing is a concept that has been around for a long time now and has been proven to be a better method for MMOs. Why this was opted against at Bioware is beyond me. My guess? WoW doesn't use instancing heavily. And if WoW doesn't do something, neither does SW:TOR.
Graphics, Sound and Presentation - Do you like Saturday morning cartoons?
For a game release shortly before 2012, I have to say, it was a bit jarring to be thrust back in time to around 2006. The Old Republic, presumably in an effort to run on decade-old PCs and laptops, uses exceedingly substandard textures, polygon counts, and animations. There's a reason they picked a cartoony aesthetic similar to The Clone Wars TV series, and it wasn't for artistic reasons; it was to sell to people that owned hand-me-down, Best Buy-bought Hewlett-Packards. It may have been smart from a business standpoint, but damned if it doesn't bring up that old WoW comparison again. That being said, the explosions, lightsabers, blasters bolts and Force powers are acceptable. Likewise the planets and other settings come across as believable and appropriately "Star Warsy".
One minor annoyance for me, however, is the scale of the environments themselves and for two reasons. Firstly, it's annoying, especially at lower levels before you can buy a speeder bike, to have to trek back and forth (there is a fair bit of backtracking in this game) through miles of desert, space station and even gigantic palace lobbies. Most of the space is wasted anyway, and after your fifth trip through the Senate's ginormous main hall, just to turn in a quest, you will be cursing the level designers. Secondly, from an atmospheric standpoint, these cavernous space stations and complexes make the whole universe feel sparse and lifeless, like some ancient civilization of giants created everything and then went extinct, leaving the various Star Wars races to live in their abandoned dwellings. This is a seemingly small nitpick, but you would be surprised how often the topic comes to mind during those long hikes.
The sound effects, music and voice work, however, are expertly handled. Everything sounds as it should, and music will change and swell at just the right times. The voice acting is as good as it comes in gaming, with people showing appreciation, anger, exhaustion and sadness quite well, despite the cartoony, simplistic facial animations. The interface, even cluttered with quickbars left, right and center, is still very clean and colorful, with a well-organized quest list on the side and intuitive map and HUD displays. Overall, the level of polish in SW:TOR is quite high. The bugs are few and far between and never large enough to ruin the experience. None of it may be outwardly impressive, but what little is there is pretty flawless.
Crafting - Do you hate customization?
I played Star Wars: Galaxies for around two years. I was an architect and tailor (I couldn't defend myself in combat if I tried) and aside from running my guild, I lived and breathed item creation. Player-made buildings (man, I still find that concept enticing) had dozens and dozens of floor plans and styles, and clothing was infinitely customizable, with coloring options all over the place. There were some restrictions on what race could wear which pieces and sometimes one needed a "heavy armor proficiency" skill to qualify for the badass Boba Fett chest pieces, but to a large extent, your imagination was the only limit on what you could look and live like in the Star Wars universe.
I bring this up because as awful as Galaxies was on many, many fronts, it was at least trying to push the boundaries of player customization and empowerment, and this was many years ago. Oh, how the times have changed...and by "changed", I mean "been dumbed-down". In SW:TOR, crafting (and gathering resources to craft) is a simple matter of sending your NPC companions on missions. You receive schematics for new pieces of armor or guns or lightsaber components from skill trainers and sometimes as loot.
It's not a horrible system, really, as you can be an expert crafter and a master combatant at the same time. The problem lies in its arbitrary restrictiveness. First off, the look of the armor is immutable: no options for color or shape changes. This has the effect of making all characters of the same class and level look like clones of each other. Oh well, at least crafters can make full sets of clothing and armor for themselves and their friends...well not really. You see, each piece of a set is only available at certain levels. The Heavy Assault Boots can be worn at level 17 but the Heavy Assault gloves have to wait until level 19. By the time you have your full Heavy Assault outfit (chest and leg pieces always come last), those gloves and boots are now woefully obsolete. In essence, by the time you look like a badass, half of your armor is useless for your current level. What does this mean in a stat-driven RPG? It means everyone is running around in mismatched, rainbow-colored outfits. And the people (like me) that have fun taking orders for customers have to explain that you can't look cool and fight well at the same time, because of asinine level restrictions. Overall, the crafting system is one big "ehhhh".
Story - Do you like dialogue?
Here we come to Bioware's much-touted "feature that totally breaks the mold for MMO design", story. I'll save you the suspense: it doesn't. But let me back up and explain. Each class (this is where the "eight classes" claim is accurate) has its own narrative. They range in quality from fairly poor (the Smuggler's treasure hunt across the galaxy is quite lame) to decent (the Imperial Agent's James Bond, spy on enemy organizations story is very fun to roleplay). While these stories are specific to you (other group members can only watch as you do all the talking), they do the best they can to immerse you in whatever lore is appropriate. Jedi and Sith are steeped in tons of pseudo-religion while Bounty Hunters and Smugglers get to see the corrupt underside of each planet they visit.
The main problem (this is getting to be a running theme) with Bioware's approach is that everything is entirely linear. I'm not talking narratively, I'm talking geographically. All four classes for each faction visit the exact same planets in the exact same order. And it gets worse: even within a given planet, everyone visits the same locales in the same order, without fail. It's hyper-streamlining and it makes a mockery of any kind of immersion. Often I would joke with party members that, "I'm going to guess that your next mission has us going to the Sarlacc pit...yeah me too! What are the odds?!"
Side missions and flashpoints are a bit more interesting because everyone in the group rolls (using a random number generator) to see who talks during a conversation. This feature does add quite a bit more fun than simply reading text boxes and shoving quests into your log (though the objectives remain mind-numbingly boring, with countless missions to "Kill X number of thugs"). Things can even get pretty tense if you group with people of different alignments, as sometimes lightside/darkside choices pop up that can (slightly) change the direction or outcome of a mission. You may be the noble, altruistic Jedi but if you roll with a shifty Smuggler, and he wins the chance to speak at a critical moment, suddenly you're an accomplice to murder, theft, or worse. These opposing decisions don't really affect much aside from the dialogue (choosing lightside, even if you don't win the speaking roll, will still give you lightside points), but when Bioware claims that it's interactions like these that make SW:TOR a unique experience, it isn't necessarily just PR bullshit.
PvP - Do you hate life?
This will be the shortest section, as mentioned above. I played a few randomized PvP matches and no matter the locale (war-torn battlefield, Hutt-sponsored team capture the flag), the end result was the same: one big cluster-fuck of lightsabers, Force lighting and blaster bolts, with die-respawn-die-respawn gameplay in full effect. For me, it was the most un-fun a game can possibly get and I got a taste of what girlfriends across the world must feel like when their gamer boyfriends make them play games against their will. It was pure disgust. That's enough of that; if you want detailed analysis of this feature, you are not the kind of gamer I'm writing for and would be better served reading a different review.
Community - Do you like other people?
I purposefully picked a PvE (player vs enemy) server (as opposed to a PvP server) because I assumed they would be more like me in temperament. Aside from people dog-piling on me whenever I mentioned WoW, they all seemed like a pleasant enough lot. Players seem to run the gamut from young teens to mature 30-somethings, in equal measure. The main thing I noticed is that people rarely talked in general chat, with only the occasional request for a group to take on Heroic (extra hard) missions. But then again, other servers might be more raucous.
Space Combat - Do you absolutely love the old Rebel Assault games?
You do remember the old Rebel Assault games, right? Your ship would auto-fly through a space battle and you were simply tasked with shooting things that came on screen. This was a time before game developers understood that a PC was a very different platform than the giant arcade games of the 70's and 80's and thus, the whole thing felt like a port.
Welcome to 2011, where the 80's are alive and well in Bioware game design. The "space combat" portion of SW:TOR is essentially Rebel Assault with prettier graphics (pretty compared to 1993, not 2011). Your ship, once again, auto-flies through a space battle and you can use lasers and missiles to shoot down enemy fighters and hobble (but never actually destroy) capital ships and stations. There is a little wiggle room within the pre-determined tunnel your ship resides in, but make no mistake, this is an on-rails, no freedom, point and click mini-game. For all that, I have to admit, I often found myself having more fun in this dinky little diversion than in the main game itself. Maybe it was just my strong desire for even the least bit of reflex-based gameplay (and this is coming from a life-long Civilization fan, so I'm not mindless Call of Duty drone).
There is, as always, one gigantic problem with this feature (aside from the ancient gameplay mechanics): There are less than a dozen truly unique battles to play though in the entire game. The first time I got a repeat of the same mission with only slighter beefier enemies, I sighed in disappointment. But I was dumbstruck when, to my horror, I found that the only difference between Republic and Imperial space battles were which ships you attacked. Everything from the on-rails route, to the enemy formations, to the background skyboxes (What? These battles ostensibly take place in different parts of the galaxy?) were copied-and-pasted in a "mirror universe" kind of way. It seems Bioware has yet to learn the lesson of Dragon Age 2. Copy-and-paste game design may make your games longer, but the price you pay in the dip in quality is simply not worth it, as once again, I felt insulted and even a little embarrassed for them. How do they keep pushing this half-assed effort out the door? It's like a high school student cheerfully passing off internet-translated homework to their French teacher. Sure, sometimes you have to resort to that for various reasons, but don't feel good about it!
I almost wish that they had left space combat out entirely and maybe added it in as an expansion pack later (like Galaxies did). That way, they could have seriously devoted time and effort towards it. Instead we are left with this shallow experience and really, aside from scrapping it and starting over (unlikely), it's almost impossible to improve on it.
Conclusion - Do you like Star Wars: The Old Republic?
By now, I imagine you are just as sick of reading about SW:TOR as I am of writing about it. MMOs are exceedingly large gameplay experiences, and they have to be in order to maintain a persistent subscription base. I wanted to cover all of the various "kitchen sinks" that Bioware threw in. That said, part of me thinks that this entire review is moot, since, people that love MMOs will love SW:TOR and people that avoid MMOs probably won't change their minds over this one. It's essentially the same game that's been around for over a decade, with slightly prettier window-dressing. And for me, specifically, it's all just lipstick on a pig.
This review is based on a copy of Star Wars: The Old Republic for the PC provided by Electronic Arts.