Ever since Star Wars: The Old Republic released late last month, comparisons to World of Warcraft became unavoidable. While the two popular MMOs share many similarities, the focus on what makes them alike has distracted from what makes The Old Republic unique. Bioware’s first MMO doesn’t redefine what it means to be an MMO, but it iterates the formula in significant ways. Ways that, for the most part, have changed my personal expectation of what games of this genre can present.
The strongest component to The Old Republic is the use of story and dialogue throughout the level progression. Until now, quest information in an MMO was handed to the player as large masses of text that most players uninterestedly clicked past. Because almost all of the missions are presented with full voice acting and require player interaction, the stories are easier to grasp and more involving. All of the class storylines I have encountered so far are good enough that I feel compelled to see them through to their conclusions. The dialogue in The Old Republic may be the biggest feature it brings to the table, and I can’t imagine trying to take another MMO’s story seriously if it can’t hit BioWare’s high mark.
When I heard BioWare was turning the Knights of the Old Republic franchise into an MMO, I was certain that they would forgo the AI companions in favor of player-controlled party members. I could not have been more wrong. While this game only allows one companion out at a time — where previous games allowed two — their attachment to the player feels the same as it ever did. In addition to being an extra hand during combat, companions will often offer their opinions while entering new areas, speaking with other NPCs, or being sent on crafting missions. All of the crafting in The Old Republic is handled by your companions, which allows the player to continue questing while also raising his or her crafting skills. Companions are a great addition to the MMO formula that make questing and crafting easier while offering company on the lonely sands of Tatooine.
The four non-Jedi-or-Sith classes’ combat feel unlike traditional MMOs. All of these classes employ a regeneration system that means the more you employ your skills in a fight, the slower your energy or ammo will regenerate. This promotes a more conservative level of play, at least until an enemy is near death. A class with this system is incentivized to avoid busting through their talents immediately, while a Jedi or Sith is only constrained by how much force or rage they have at the moment. Additionally, two of the classes, Imperial Agent and Smuggler, have the ability to take cover. While the cover system boils down to a simple stat boost and access to more skills, it makes the combat feel that much more distinctive. I know this is Star Wars and everyone wants to be a Jedi, but the other classes offer a more progressive combat experience that might surprise you.
I will be the first to admit that the space combat in The Old Republic leaves a lot to be desired, but it should still be applauded for what it achieves. Built into the MMO experience is a rail-shooter that, if nothing else, serves as a change of pace from the more cerebral task of MMO combat. Even though you don’t have direct control of where the ship is going, the game maintains a presentation that makes each quest feel like you’re zipping around a massive firefight. The missions can be played out entirely with the mouse and are arguably too simplistic, but it’s still fun while remaining uncomplicated. I hope BioWare will iterate on the space combat to improve it, maybe make it more complex at some point, but for now it serves its purpose. It’s a unique set of side-quests that feel like a smaller game within this massive online experience.
I know it sounds immaterial at first, but having a fresh, new MMO in the Star Wars universe is attractive to a lot of gamers. While I am not opposed to the orcs and elves appeal that World of Warcraft provides, I am far more enticed by spaceships and blasters. BioWare does a terrific job of fitting The Old Republic into the Star Wars universe while keeping each class storyline completely distinct. My adventures as a Sith Warrior are entirely unrelated to my adventures as an Imperial Agent. At times, the two can feel like completely different universes only loosely connected, and it’s when the experiences mix that the overarching story really shines. It is impressive that these distinct classes can exist in one game without ever feeling out of place.