After spending many hours within Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, I find myself caught between two very distinct opinions. This game is both amazing and insulting, quite literally, at the same time. The reasoning behind this decision is a much more difficult and detailed description than I envisioned making, but a necessary one nonetheless. I would like to start with the positive, but will be nitpicking over various things as I go.
TOR (for the sake of simplicity) is a massively-multiplayer online game set in the Star Wars universe, many years before the events of the movies. You are able to pick one of two factions, Imperial or Republic (good vs evil). Within each faction, you are given the opportunity to move along a Light/Dark path, somewhat reminiscent of the Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil-style systems of D&D. Decisions you make throughout your leveling experience will impact your character’s alignment and appearance, as well as give you access to various goods that would be otherwise unavailable. The quests that allow these decisions are a feature at which Bioware excels. Each of the stories for the various classes is different, interesting, and thoroughly enjoyable to play through. There are a few dull moments here and there, but the individual storylines are well-written and quite excellent.
Where one might begin to see an issue is within the ‘grind’ that appears to occur at each new planet. The formula runs a little something like this: Arrive on X planet to continue main story, be bombarded by side-quests. Do main story quest and attempt next section, but forced by inadequate level to go back and do the far less-interesting side quests, many of which require a decently-sized group. Fine, fine; so you go about your business and finally get to continue the interesting quest. Wait, no, now you have yet another zone of seemingly-endless side quests to complete.
This formula spans the entire slew of planets that you are given to explore. But don’t let the word “planet” fool you; because these zones are more like large zones that span a few pages on your zoomed-in map, but no more. While one surely doesn’t expect a game to have dozens of entire worlds to explore, the concept was somewhat overstated during the marketing process.
More points must be given to the game for voice-acting. I’ll admit, I was skeptical about really needing an actor to tell me to go kill the equivalent of eight pigs, but they did a fine job, and I was more happy to sit through the various conversations than I expected. Bravo here, it really gave the game a more immersive feel. It seems that this is one of those bars that other companies considering or working on MMOs should aspire to. While on the topic of aspirations then, let’s discuss Bioware’s engine and gameplay itself. Here I am afraid that there is more criticism than positive feedback.
First and foremost, mouse smoothing and acceleration are forced (and still so as of 1/27/12). Many PC gamers have thrown up their hands in outrage at this discovery. When people invest large sums of money into their peripherals, they expect to be able to use them to the best of their ability. Being restricted to using a software mouse rather than your well-worn hardware is incredibly frustrating, not to mention a poor business move. If you cater to a particular group in particular, you learn that group’s quirks, interests, and requirements. PC gamers are a picky bunch, and demand quite a bit from their developers. This is why some companies are on nearly-untouchable pedestals while others are the subject of derisive scorn.
The engine itself also appears to need a bit of work. If you’ve ever played World of Warcraft, you’re well aware of what response-time means in regards to pressing a button and having your character perform an action. MMO-players expect that when you hit the cast button, your avatar will begin to cast. Likewise, when the cast is finished, you expect to be able to move around or begin another spell or ability. Not so with The Old Republic. There is a delay between pressing a key and having your character perform an action, and casts are not always properly finished. If, for example, you attempt to use a speeder (the equivalent of a mount), there are three primary actions that must occur. First, your character must begin a cast. Second, you must finish that cast. Third, the animation used to do the cast must complete before you can do something else. Many other games have eliminated step 3 long ago, incorporating it into step 2 or allowing it to work while on the move. This odd requirement vexed me for several minutes while playing, and still irritates me to this day.
While on the subject of engines and options, one should note that the user interface is not terribly customizable, nor are mods yet allowed. Many hardcore gamers absolutely require things like this for an MMO that they are expected to spend many hours on. If a company wants people to treat their game like a digital world and not just a single-player game, the players will require the ability to change things about how that world is presented to them. But I digress.
Regarding in-game content, there is quite a bit to level on. I had few moments where I was utterly sick of a particular planet, and the pace kept me moving fairly quickly. The addition of “Flash-Points” (dungeons) offered a nice refresher from the regular grind of questing and killing monsters, though I can’t help but feel like they were implemented fairly late in the development cycle. Call me skeptical, but they are all accessible from the exact same spot in your factions space-station; perhaps they were added that way in order to allow the developers an easier time when adding new ones in the future. Regardless, each one was quite enjoyable, and occasionally vexing as my group figured out the best ways to deal with certain mobs. Every so often, it was possible to run across a world boss: a large, imposing, and very tough monster that existed in the open world. I made several attempts with a large group at killing one of these, but we were ultimately unsuccessful. However, I feel that this was more a problem of latency delay (lag) than anything. Enough people in one area seems to choke Bioware’s servers, and if they’re all using abilities…. Well, let’s just say that PvP, in its current state, needs some work.
Given the fact that The Old Republic is fairly new, and that the Bioware team seems to be at least reasonably responsive when responding to forum movement, I believe that we will be seeing quite a few improvements over the next couple of months. For now, I will keep my subscription active, and I very much want to see TOR succeed. Only time will tell, but given the current state of content, I am going to give it the following score:
I review games based on a five-point system. Ten and one-hundred point scales offer too many options, and many gamers will not go near a game that has anything less than a seven or seventy. There is no need for the abundance of extra points when trying to convey a simple score. Let’s break down a few of the features that influenced my decision below.
Story gets a wonderful score, with sound receiving a very similar one. Gameplay suffers from the latency and delay issues, while customization takes a major hit with the lack of options presented to players. Immersion would score higher, but the constant frustration with delay and inability to remove the software mouse kept me from enjoying the game as much as I felt I would normally be.