I have a love/hate relationship with Star Wars. While I love the original three films and the universe they have established, there is very little else that is both Star Wars-related and not objectively terrible. So when I heard that Canadian video game developer Bioware was developing a Star Wars massively multiplayer online game, I forced myself to reel in my initial optimism.
While Bioware has already succeeded in making a Star Wars video game with the critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic, they have never before attempted to develop an MMO. The Edmonton-based company is known almost exclusively for its story-driven single player games, and making the transition to a genre infamous for its disregard of story may seem like a recipe for disaster.
Yet Star Wars: The Old Republic is far from the catastrophe it could have been. By combining the best parts of single-player and massively-multiplayer games, SW:TOR creates a wholly unique experience, and is far and away the best MMO I have ever played.
The most striking part of SW:TOR is its emphasis on story. While other MMOs tend to have very weak and impersonal plots, SW:TOR is centred around the players' characters and the choices they make. The story is mainly told through conversations, where players must choose what their characters will say next. These conversations are fully voice-acted and brilliantly written, and despite being a part of every mission in the game they rarely get tedious.
Occasionally, important choices must be made to advance the plot, and these are often split between 'light-side' choices and 'dark-side' choices. There isn't always a clear distinction between good and bad, however. Once I was faced with a decision to either expose a politician who had been giving money to a gang, or to keep quiet and cover it up. While telling the authorities would be the morally correct thing to do, the politician happened to be a huge proponent of helping to rebuild war-torn areas of her planet, and had only given the gang money to stop them from interfering. Situations like this actually forced me to stop and think about my choice, unlike many games with morality systems where the choices are far more clear-cut and uninteresting.
Although many of the game's missions are accessible by every player, the most interesting and meaningful ones are those that are specific to your character's class. These comprise the main plot thread of the game, and vary wildly depending on what kind of character you have chosen.
For example, the class missions for my Republic Trooper provide plenty of opportunities to make me feel like a crack space commando: defusing bombs, rescuing hostages and taking down hardened Imperial commanders. I don't feel like just another player doing a selection of meaningless tasks, as I have with other MMOs. I feel like an individual force, actually effecting change through my actions.
Combat itself is more of a mixed bag. While Bioware has done a few things to make their fights feel different, such as removing passive 'auto- attacks' and putting more of an emphasis on ranged combat, there is little that hasn't already been done to death by other MMOs. While it isn't necessarily awful, the uninspired mechanics are disappointing considering the amount of originality present in the rest of the game. Fortunately, combat feels much more fun when grouped with other players, such as in the story-driven 'Flashpoint' missions or in the team-based player-versus-player 'Warzones.'
The aesthetic elements are all done with standard Bioware aplomb, with stylish, often breathtaking visuals and classic Star Wars music and sound effects. The whole thing feels very polished and refined -- with the exception of a few small bugs, such as characters changing colour or shrinking in the middle of conversations. These don't occur often, and they will undoubtedly be fixed soon.
While it does borrow elements from the standard MMO formula, Star Wars: The Old Republic isn't simply World of Warcraft with a George Lucas coat of paint. It's a game experience unlike any that has come before it, and will appeal to both fans of single-player and massively-multiplayer games alike. And my fellow Star Wars fans can breathe easy -- thankfully, there is not a single gungan in sight.