World of Warcraft: Star Wars Edition (SWTOR Beta Review)

Star Wars: The Old Republic is near.  But is it really all it’s cracked up to be?  Feast your eyes on one of the first legally allowed reviews to hit the web.  Note: this review was written upon completion of the first stress test Weekend Beta event November 11 through 13.  Due to Non-Disclosure Agreements, however, it was not allowed to be published until now.  I’ve done my best to update it to stay current with any changes that have been made to the game, but as I am not a developer at Bioware, there could easily be changes that affect this review I don’t know about.

Once upon a time, I can’t remember when or where, Bioware made the claim that Star Wars: The Old Republic would “reinvent the MMO.”  The game that’s coming out on December 20, 2011, does no such thing.  It makes use of hotkeys for all player abilities, it involves questing and gear upgrades for player advancement, instances for groups to take on big nasty bosses, and it even rewards players with rested experience for logging off in a tavern…  Cantina!  Sorry.  Cantina.  Those are just some of the ways that The Old Republic falls firmly into the MMORPG category.  In short, it’s World of Warcraft: The Star Wars Edition.  In almost no way does it attempt to reinvent the genre, so any claim that it does is kind of a joke.  However, Star Wars: The Old Republic is leaps and bounds ahead of all the other cookie-cutter WoW games out there-including, dare I say, WoW itself.

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The game is fully voiced, meaning that every single character speaks with real words you can hear play out of your speakers or headphones.  Even some of the NPCs you walk past on the side of the road that serve only decorative purposes can be heard talking to each other.  That’s #1 on the list of perks.  #2 is the incredibly immersive story.  You almost have no choice but to do a little bit of role-playing in this game because of the way it treats its story.  To me, that’s what makes the game stand out most of all.  In true Bioware fashion, every quest features anywhere between one and a buttload of interactive cinematics in which your character, and your party members, carry on conversations with quest NPCs.  You and up to three of your friends automatically roll a 200 sided die on every dialog option to see who takes the opportunity to speak with the NPC, even though any choices that affect your character’s personality (light side/dark side) reward you based on your individual decisions, marking the one major revolutionary advancement in RPGs this game has to offer.  I’ve never seen a successful implementation of multiplayer story advancement in an RPG, and this game does it.

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When the game was announced a jillion years ago, I was filled with excitement and anticipation.  As more and more content was released showcasing the game’s features, my excitement changed to skepticism and dread, worried that it was just another WoW.  My skepticism washed away when I reached my first flashpoint (instance).  Remember the first time you ran Deadmines and thought you’d never fall out of love with Azeroth? Maybe that wasn’t everybody, but it was me once upon a time.  It was me again when I ran the Esseles flashpoint in SWTOR, and it’s just as good the third time as it is the first.  I got a taste of a second flashpoint toward the end of the weekend that seemed just as good, but our group was without a tank and we couldn’t get past the second boss fight.  The improvements SWTOR makes on the tried and true design template make up for the fact that the combat is the boring same ol’ same ol’ I got tired of three years ago.

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However, that’s not to say the game is without its downfalls.  There are four unique character classes per faction, each with two unique advanced classes you start up relatively early in the game, leaving you with essentially sixteen different possible playstyles.  Right?  Wrong.  What you may not notice at first glance is that the four classes on the Republic are exact mirrors of the four classes on the Sith, as well as their corresponding advanced classes.  The Trooper is the Bounty Hunter.  The Smuggler is the Agent.  The Jedi Knight is the Sith Warrior.  Not similar to, but the same.  The skills have different names and animations, but they have the exact same effects.  Sure, it makes balance easy, but you’d think they could’ve added a little variety and made some creative balancing choices instead.

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There’s surprisingly very little open world exploration for an MMO.  While the environments are very pretty to look at, they’re not very big.  Although your starting quest line that takes you through the first ten levels is supposed to encompass an entire planet, you’re basically confined to about three or four chambers.  It’s an issue you’re not likely to notice on your first or second playthrough because of the storyline you’ll be so engrossed in.  But, if you get to a point where you’ve seen all those cinematics three or four times, you’re going to start wishing there was a little more to look at.  The smaller areas do, however, make questing and leveling feel a lot faster, easier, and generally more enjoyable, so it’s not something I’m too concerned with losing.  I certainly won’t miss spending an hour walking across an entire continent just to meet up with friends that started in another zone.

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“Star Wars” is in the name of the game, so you’d expect space to play a pretty big role.  Sadly, at least through the first 20 or so levels, there’s very little space in the game at all.  You don’t get your own starship until somewhere between level 15 and 18 (depending on the attention you pay to the extra quests that go alongside your story quests), and once you do, travel between planets happens in a quick jump to lightspeed.  There are three entirely optional space combat missions you can run, and I’m sure there are more on the way, but they’re all relatively short tube shooters.  Another term would be “on rails.”  If you ever played StarFox, you’ve played the space missions from SWTOR.  Sadly, StarFox, even the original for the SNES, did a better job at it almost twenty years ago.  Your ship has blasters and missiles and a lifebar.  You play the entire mission with your mouse, leaving your left hand free to do… other things.  (Eat.  Drink.  Nothing nasty, you perv.)  Left click fires blasters, right click fires missiles.  Once your missiles are depleted, you’re out for the duration of the mission.  There are no power-ups to pick up and refill.  The same goes for your lifebar.  Although you may have a full 1920×1080 pixels displaying on your screen, your ship’s movement is confined to essentially the center third of it.  Some of the obstacles you find yourself frantically dragging your mouse across the table to avoid are actually impossible to crash into because of the lack of control you actually have over movement and its only-slightly-disguised automation.  Similarly, some obstacles become more difficult to dodge because you don’t realize they’re on a different side of the track than you expected.  But, it’s a tube shooter, so what do you expect?

As the game develops, I expect space combat to be one of the first things they expand upon.  Hell, if you’re gonna imitate StarFox in an MMO, at least give us some good multiplayer.  You’re flying solo for all three of the current missions, and they get old after you run them once.  I’d like to see some all-range mode battles like StarFox 64, amped up to full 10v10 or 20v20 PvP Warzones (battlegrounds).  And definitely some lengthy co-op runs that feel more like a Death Star trench run.

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All in all, SWTOR is definitely a winner.  It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but what MMO is?  If you’re a loyal fan of WoW, you’re going to love SWTOR even more.  If you’re a loyal fan of Star Wars and/or Bioware, you’re probably going to love SWTOR in spite of its WoW-like tendencies.  I do worry a bit about the game’s longevity because of its heavy reliance upon the story (what happens when you reach end-game?) but with fifty levels and counting of eight class stories to go through (those are all unique), it’s not going to be an issue for quite a while.  If you haven’t already pre-ordered the game, I suggest you do so now; get in on that early access before the release on the 20th.  And, if you’re still too skeptical to make the purchase, do yourself a favor and check out the free trial they’re sure to launch at some point in the coming months.