Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Year: 2011
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
Platform: PC
Metacritic score: 85
VGAChartz sales to date: 2.47 million

Some might cry foul over the inclusion of a game that is still active and has sold over 2 million copies in it's first year, and for most games they'd be correct.  But this is an MMORPG involving one of the world's most lucrative brands developed by a renown studio at a cost of over $150 million.  The goal was to topple the reigning heavyweight in the genre, World of Warcraft, and in some respects they were successful right out of the gate.   It set records for it's stratospheric development costs and becoming the fastest growing MMO with over 1 million subscribers signed up in just three days.  The future for Bioware and EA must have looked pretty rosy at the time since active subscribers are key to an MMO's success, but the party was short lived.  In just a year numbers rose to a peak of nearly 2 million subscriptions to somewhere between 500k - 1 million as of this writing. The hemorrhaging has led to layoffs of the Bioware Austin studio (including the game's Executive Producer) and may have contributed to the resignation of Bioware founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from their positions and the industry as a whole.  How could things go so wrong?  SWToR was the chosen one, it was supposed to destroy the MMO status quo, not join it.  Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.

Building on the foundations set by Ultima Online and EverQuest, The Old Republic combines classic MMORPG gameplay with the fully-voiced dialogue and emphasis on story found in western RPG's like Skyrim or Bioware's on Mass Effect.  Taking place in everyone's favorite galaxy far, far away but in a time even longer ago, SWToR is set around 3,500 years prior to the rise of Vader and fall of the Emperor.  This is a time of outright war between armies of Jedi defending the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire attempting to dominate it.   Players join the fray alongside and against other smugglers, Jedi Knights, Sith Inquisitors and bounty hunters with each of the 8 playable classes receiving a unique storyline.  These main missions will each take around 50-200 hours depending on how quickly you race through them and are enjoyable from start to finish thanks to the quality voice-acting and immersive cutscenes which can be influenced by player choices like in Mass Effect.  These decisions often have lasting impacts and can alter your characters Force alignment to the light or dark side.  

Whether you're playing a light or dark side Sith Inquisitor, the option to Force choke it always the right one. 
The genuinely engaging story missions are just one of many ways to level your character.   There are hundreds of fully-voiced side missions (most of which avoid standard fetch-quest gimmicks) across numerous planets, moons and space stations which you can freely travel to upon obtaining your own ship.  There's also cooperative instanced Flashpoints which delve into important battles or moments and provide special weapons and armor.  PvP fans can get their fix from Warzones which can be queued up at any time from any spot, dropping you into competitive 16 player objective-based matches.  In addition to serving as personal housing, player ships also let you complete on-rails space combat missions that play out like cinematic space battles found in the Star Wars films.  Once you do reach the endgame, you'll find 8 and 16 player Operations (SWToR's version of raids) with multiple difficulty levels as well as Warzone matches dedicated to level-capped players.  

Each faction has four playable class types representing traditional MMO roles of tanks, ranged or melee DPS and healer which can be further modified through specializations such as ranged, melee, stealth, crowd-control and more.  Combat is handled through customizable hotbars and new skills are learned by leveling up through quest completion, crafting, combat and other XP-earning activities though NPC companions put a new twist on many of these genre staples.  Crafting, for example, is handled through your companion's crew skills which allow you to automate the tedious process of collecting raw materials and crafting them into usable goods that can be equipped or sold through player markets.  A bigger impact is felt in combat where your companion will fight alongside you, augmenting the strengths or weaknesses of your chosen class and specialization.  My stealth DPS focused Jedi Consular can use a companion to tank, opening up my powerful attacks from behind while soaking up damage and drawing attention away from me.  Each class will accrue multiple companions over the course of their story, putting a fresh coat of paint on MMO mainstays while also making solo and small group play more viable.

The Jedi Consular class can master the Force to heal companions and control crowds, or wield a dual-bladed lightsaber and strike from stealth to deal massive damage.  Each can be further customized to augment traditional MMO roles.

Obviously a major component to any MMORPG is player customization, and SWToR excels at making you feel like part of the Star Wars universe.  Each class has two specialization routes to choose from which can be further augmented to personal taste by assigning points across three distinct skill trees.  Weapon and armor types are restricted by class (don't expect a Jedi to use something as clumsy or random as a blaster or a smuggler to try his hand at hokey religions or ancient weapons), but you can expect to personalize your lightsaber/blaster with color crystals or wear purely cosmetic sets of armor.  Armor, weapons and even some speeders (SWToR's player mounts) can be crafted using crew skills to give your gear a more personal touch.  Each account also has a persistent legacy rank which rewards player progress and encourages you to roll multiple characters by creating a personal lore and family lineage that connects each of your characters.  Legacy perks include stat boosts, bonus skills and even unlocking the various alien races for different classes when making subsequent characters.  

Companion outfits can also be customized to suit your tastes, but anyone who doesn't dress their Twi'lek in a skimpy slave girl outfit is really missing the point.

I've prattled on quite a bit about about what this game is, but it's harder to convey exactly what makes it great without spending some quality time playing it.  A lot of what's been said will be immediately familiar to anyone that's played an MMO, and yet SWToR does such a great job refining each of these aspects as to make you remember why you liked MMO's in the first place.  The Star Wars setting provides an endlessly rich sandbox to play in and who hasn't wanted to live vicariously as a Jedi Knight or bounty hunter?  But I think what this game does particularly well is find that elusive middle ground between the hardcore and casual MMO player.  The engaging story and settings intrigue gamers who feel more comfortable in single-player RPG's.  At the same time, the interface and mechanics have the depth and customization options experienced players demand but each concept is introduced in a gradual and organic way that won't leave newcomers feeling like they've been dropped into the deep end.  What it all boils down to is The Old Republic is the best possible way to become a part of the Star Wars universe and for most people that's all the justification needed to pronounce this game as great.

This can best be described as the "Dark Knight Phenomenon".  Simply put, SWToR was the game we deserved, but not the one we needed right then.  Given that this is both an MMO and a Star Wars game, it was inevitable that the fanbase would be highly vocal about any slight quibble.  And sure enough before the game was even released the forums were jam packed with people decrying the limited endgame options, repetitive weapon and armor designs, and an ever-growing list of features whose absence signified nothing short of an epic failure.  And while some of these oversights were genuinely frustrating, it's more then a little unfair to compare a newly launched MMO to one that's had over a decade of post-release updates and patches.  But the bigger issue, and I think the ultimate source of these numerous minor complaints, is that SWToR is not the Star Wars game players wanted.

Far and away, the most common refrain in the criticism was that it's an MMO.  A lot of players had been waiting for Bioware to continue their Knights of the Old Republic series, an excellent single-player RPG with a dedicated following.  But Bioware was hoping to break into the MMO space and wanted to further its own IP (they even handed the sequel to KotOR off to Obsidian Entertainment to develop externally).  Eventually this path led them to using the core team behind KotOR to develop SWToR, making it the spiritual successor if not exactly a true continuation of the beloved series.  Players frequently complain that SWToR gave them eight average KotOR stories (one for each playable class) when they really wanted a single great one.  Simultaneously, just as SWToR was going live an existing MMO set in the same period as the films was shutting down.  Star Wars Galaxies may have come up short in terms of combat, content and balance but it offered a staggering level of customization and gameplay options.  There might not be many people out there who wanted to live out a digital life as Watto or those musicians in Mos Eisley Cantina, but for those who wanted to experience Galactic Civil War from the perspective of a Mon Calamari mayor in a player-created city on Tattoine then SWG was everything you had ever dreamed of.  

A ship will bring you work, a gun will help you keep it.  A Bounty Hunter's goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying.
The end result was two disparate communities being brought together over ToR and none of them were completely satisfied.  Fans of KotOR complained that Bioware spilled MMO all over their single-player RPG while the displaced SWG fans levied the exact opposite charge.  Some players expressed this sentiment through complaints that ToR didn't reinvent the MMO genre despite all the refinements, while others felt the community and PvP aspects never evolved the way other MMO's did since players could solo much of the content without ever needing to group up.  The general hype over all things Star Wars helped drive early sales, but once that first free month was up the majority let their subscriptions lapse.  The KotOR fans stuck to soloing one or two characters to play their stories before being satisfied and the hardcore MMO crowd returned to the established MMO's they had already invested so much time and money in (though judging by WoW's subscription problems it would seem many quit the grind for good).  The declining subscriptions were compounded by the decision to drastically increase the number of servers when long waits were reported immediately after launch.  This resulted in many servers feeling barren and making it difficult to find quality players in PvP and endgame content.  A chain reaction had started which Bioware was incapable of reversing leaving even the most active and dedicated players at a loss.  Even those of us who had been most active in the server guilds and online community felt a great disturbance in the Force.  It was as if millions of voices had suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.  

It may seem silly asking this question since SWToR was released only a year ago.  However, just like Obi-Wan there's a chance that after being struck down, SWToR will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.  Bioware has announced SWToR will be going free to play this Fall.  This means you can purchase the game at retail (currently available for under $10) and then enjoy it without ever needing to spend another dollar.  Some restrictions will be in place to encourage people to spend some money now and again, but based on details so far it appears the bulk of the game, including the entire story missions up to the current level cap, will be available to all sans subscription.  

Huttball is a fantastic take on PvP capture the flag and will get even the most reluctant player to give the Warzones a try
Not only does this significantly lower the cost of entry, it also entices players who don't have the time to make a $15/month investment in a game.  Despite letting my own subscription lapse, I immensely enjoyed my time exploring the galaxy trying out new characters and becoming active in a guild.  But like most players, I hit a point where my interests moved on to other things and it became hard to justify maintaining a sub when I was only logging a few hours a month.  I'm willing to bet a lot of people shared this feeling, especially gamers who had wanted more KotOR or had grown bored with MMO's in general.  As for the hardcore crowd, very few are willing to maintain more than one active sub and it's hard to walk away from a game you've already but a ton of time into.  Going F2P gives these players a way to ease into the game without making big commitments with their money or time.  This could be just the trick to convince lapsed players such as myself to dust off the cobwebs and dive back in.  

Of course, you can't count this as a success unless it can overcome the record setting development costs and turn a profit for Bioware and EA.  If they strike the right balance between what's free and what's behind the pay-firewall it could result in better returns than during the subscription high water mark.  Turbine's continued success with Lord of the Rings: Online after its move to F2P proves it's certainly possible.  If they can manage to generate another flood of new and returning players (myself happily among them), the odds are high at least some will decide they like the game enough to chip in a few bucks now and again to support the people who made it.  Death is a natural part of life and we should rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force, but it's not clear that SWToR is willing to give up the Force ghost just yet.  I've got a feeling that the Force will be with SWToR.  Always.      

IT'S A TRAP!!!! Mon Calamari aren't actually a playable race though they do appear in-game.  I just shattered your dreams, didn't I?
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments, and be sure to Like us on Facebook for updates and teasers on upcoming posts!

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1 comment:

  1. I'm personally one of those who REALLY wanted a Kotor sequel... I only own a PS 1 and an Xbox, but I would have bought ANY console needed just to play a new Kotor. (That is, of course, if made by bioware, not Obsidian...) Kotor 2 was just not enough for me, although I *did* finished it twice... I'm very eager to try this MMo, however, now that it's going F2P. Kudos for your great reviews.