- Strong storytelling and great Star Wars atmosphere
- Masses of content for solo players and groups
- Feels like Knights of the Old Republic
- Not a big step on from World of Warcraft and its clones
- Slow, grindy sections and excess backtracking
- Performance poor on laptops and slower systems
- Review Price: £36.70
The actual game experience, however, is a little more open to question. At this point in time – nearly seven years after WoW hit European shores – there’s a sense that we’re all looking for an MMO to take the genre to the next level; an MMO that can surprise us with new styles of gameplay and an experience we haven’t had before.
On this level, The Old Republic could be seen as a failure. It’s an oddly conservative MMO, playing straight by the rulebook established by the likes of EverQuest then refined by WoW, and feeling perhaps a bit too similar to Blizzard’s monolithic enterprise. It remains a game where you wander landscapes populated by mobs of enemies who do nothing but wait until you hit aggro range, and who you then mop up in a flurry of targeting clicks and hotkey presses to activate the attacks, heals and perks in your action bar. It’s a game of heavy-duty levelling, looting, inventory management and perk deployment, where the majority of quests still follow the fetch and deliver or follow the trail templates set down by WoW and its antecedents.
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Nor does it look like the next-generation. The art design is impressive and the graphics are an improvement on WoW’s, but visually The Old Republic is a little underwhelming when set against console games of even five years ago; something we might forgive if the game ran and looked better on low-end hardware. Basically, if you’re already bored to tears with the established MMOs, then it’s doubtful that The Old Republic will re-ignite your passion for the genre.
Yet, on another level The Old Republic is a triumph. Bioware promised to bring us the sort of richer narrative and choice-focused gameplay that has always been a company hallmark to the MMO, and it’s done it. While it’s easy to dismiss the elaborate cut-scenes, the symphonic score and the fully-voiced dialogue as window dressing, they do make a difference. More than any other MMO we’ve played, The Old Republic makes you feel at the centre of your own personal story.
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.
This is great for lone-wolf players, but it’s also a double-edged sword. The Old Republic is heavily-instanced, meaning areas are broken off for single-players or established groups to share without the community at large getting involved, and at times The Old Republic can be a slightly lonely MMO. It’s not always easy to find players to group with when you need to, and you will need to. Why? Because the game also features two or more player ‘heroic’ missions which can’t easily be managed on your tod, and because grouping up is also the only way to enjoy the game’s ‘flashpoints’. These are self-contained, story-led group missions with a series of stages and a final boss. You could theoretically go through the game without doing these, and in fact we did for quite some time, but without the rewards and experience earned through completing the group missions it can get difficult to get through solo missions later on.
Luckily, the payoff makes it all worthwhile. This is a vast game, with enough content to fill two single-player RPGs even if you only count the Empire and Republic tales and don’t cover the individual classes. The game has a solid PvP element – though not one we’ve had much time to explore – and even simplified space-combat as you move on. Even after many hours of play we have yet to do more than scratch the surface of the crafting systems, crews and crew management and the skills tree. Given the wealth of content on offer, the £8.99 monthly subscription doesn’t seem ludicrously high, even in an age of Free 2 Play.
That doesn’t mean Bioware’s work is done. There are still areas that lack any serious interest and also too many sections of endless plodding back towards a quest-giver while eliminating foes you dispatched half-an-hour ago. There are some fast travel options, but these are either too limited or possessed of their own weird kind of tedium. It also must be said that The Old Republic’s worlds don’t quite have that sense of exploration and discovery that characterised vintage WoW or even the best chunks of Guild Wars. From what we’ve seen the galaxy has pockets of brilliance, but not the coherence and depth in detail of Blizzard’s Azetoth.
Still, for any complaints let’s not lose sight of what’s really important: this is an impressive start to a new MMO and as compulsive an example of the genre as we’ve yet encountered. Only time will tell how the game will pan out and how rewarding later content will be. After all, it’s the support that Blizzard has given WoW since its inception that has kept it running so strong for so long. For the moment, what we have is a Star Wars MMO that might do little to revolutionise the genre, but that has plenty to please fans of Star Wars, Bioware and WoW. For most of us, that’s more than enough.
The Old Republic is not the MMO to sign up for if you’re looking for revolutionary gameplay or a new approach to the genre. There are still irritations and sections that drag, and at times group play feels like a secondary priority. Yet it’s hard to ignore the appeal of the Star Wars atmosphere, high production values and Bioware’s storytelling expertise, and the gameplay is as rich and compulsive as any MMO out there. Of all World of Warcraft’s would-be rivals, the force is strongest in this one.
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