And while it’s also possible to moan that the sophisticated moral choices of Bioware’s best games have been reduced to simple, binary decisions to follow the true ways of the force or give into its dark side, there’s still a feeling that each one is helping to redefine your character and transform the tale in some small way. Just as WoW showed us that even necromancers can be heroes in the eyes of their own side, so The Old Republic makes it possible to be a Sith lord yet still have some twisted nobility of spirit. Your path isn’t set the moment that you pick your side.
This, of course, is the first decision of the game. In case you don’t know, The Old Republic takes place a few centuries after the events of Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel but a couple of millennia before the demise of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. In this timeframe, the Republic is locked in conflict with the forces of a resurgent Sith Empire, pitting Jedi, Republican warriors and smugglers against Sith, bounty hunters and imperial agents. While a slightly limited range of alien forms means The Old Republic hasn’t WoW’s range of characters and roles, each class has its own abilities, its own equipment and its own story and character progression, with the opportunity to specialise further as the game moves on.
Whichever role you take, the first section of the game effectively works as a tutorial, taking you through the basics of combat, solo play and group play, before a second section gives you more scope to explore, take on side-quests and engage in more group activities. At this point, The Old Republic sets you loose on the wider galaxy.
The great thing is that the structure never feels this obvious, for the simple reason that the cut-scenes and events have you too engrossed in your character’s story arc to notice. Whereas other MMOs can feel all about levelling and upgrading, The Old Republic has you immersed in the internal power struggles of the Sith or your own more petty rivalries, discoveries and missions of revenge. While the early stages are hardly bereft of tedious dungeon crawls and grindy, monster-bashing missions, the plot always pulls you through.
In a way, the effect is that The Old Republic feels more like one of Bioware’s single-player RPGs than a conventional MMO. You can happily work your way through huge chunks of the game as a solo player, and the game even has a successful system of companions; as in the later Guild Wars expansions, players will gather CPU-controlled allies who can fight alongside them. However, here it’s a bit more sophisticated. For one thing, the companions are designed to complement the player, making it possible for classes with a weakness in combat to level on their own without needing to find other players with heavier fighting skills. For another, companions respond to player choices a little like they did in Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. If you don’t keep them sweet, there will be consequences.