games / Previews

Star Wars: The Old Republic Preview

December 2, 2011 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

With Blizzard Entertainment’s gaming behemoth known as World of Warcraft dominating the online role-playing market, it seems like no other massively multiplayer online role-playing game can catch a break. Game after game has been released, each one of them purported to be the one true mythical “WoW killer.” And each of them, from City of Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online and Warhammer Online to Aion, Age of Conan, Star Trek Online and so on, have proven to fall short of that task, with most of them falling into free-to-play status eventually. The latest MMORPG to hit the market is the second based on the Star Wars universe, this one produced by Bioware and officially replacing the first, drastically-failed effort. Titled Star Wars: The Old Republic, the game is set to release next month amid a lot of hype and a host of expectations. Having gotten an opportunity to get in game during a recent Beta Weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how the game is looking on the verge of its release…and more importantly, what could it offer to people who are tired of questing around Azeroth again and again and again?

The first and most obvious thing that the game offers that’s new is the chance to play a character within the beloved Star Wars universe. Obviously we’ve had that chance before with Star Wars Galaxies, but considering that it was placed within the well-established continuities of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, there was only so much actual story to be had and one of the early criticisms was a distinct lack of questing content. With The Old Republic, Bioware and LucasArts have set the game well away from the film franchise–3,500 years before, in fact–and about 500 years ahead of the beloved Knights of the Old Republic games. A tenuous peace has been formed between the Galactic Republic and the rejuvenated Sith Empire after twenty-eight years of war, and the players take on the role of characters in either faction, guiding them through the storyline contained within the game.

The system mechanics of Star Wars: The Old Republic are not something that will feel alien or unfamiliar to long-time MMO players. The game has kept itself well within the gameplay lines established by the giants of the genre. You have the same character roles of the Tank (engaging the enemy and protecting the other players from damage), DPS (straight damage-dealers) and the self-explanatory healers, you have a Quest/Reward system, group “dungeons,” talent points, a button-based UI with minimap and key bindings and so on. It’s definitely not a system that players of WoW, LOTRO, STO, City of Heroes or other such games within the genre will feel lost or unfamiliar in and MMO players will be able to jump in without difficulty and get to venturing down their path as a Jedi, Sith, Bounty Hunter or what have you.

Former dancing girl-turned Jedi asskicker? You be the judge.

Before that though, you have to go through character creation like any other MMORPG. SW:TOR’s creation process is fairly extensive, at least falling on the level of Lord of the Rings Online and certainly above the customization options in World of Warcraft. Being a still-new game you don’t have quite the varied options of class/race combinations that you may have in other games but there are still a good selection to choose from. There are two factions, the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire, and both have four classes available; each of those classes has four to five races you can pick from. One thing that is nice about character creation is the full transparency about where you can take each character class, information options at the top show the two specializations you can choose, what group roles each are suited for and so on.

Your specialization is something that you choose at level 10 and it largely determines what you’ll be doing; your specialization is essentially your new class at that level. The Jedi Consular, for example, has two options: the Jedi Shadow, who is basically a rogue-like character who specializes in stealth and damage-dealing, and the Jedi Sage who is a healer class. The Sith Warrior’s options break down to the Sith Juggernaut which is the default tank for the Dark Side and the Sith Marauder, who deals a hefty amount of melee damage via their dual lightsabers. Each advanced class have three “skill trees” (think talent trees) that allow you to specialize further.

The patented Star Wars crawls make an appearance as well, of course.

Probably the most drastic difference, however, is the game’s focus on storyline. With most massively multiplayer online RPG’s, collecting quests and turning them in brings up dialogue boxes that are easy to ignore and while it’s great for expediency, it results in less focus on the storyline and more on the quest goals and reward. Not so with Star Wars, where you are fairly immersed in your character’s journey, that journey being tailored to each class and giving you a good idea what it is like for the characters in the Star Wars universe. The starting zones are home base planets; the Sith Warrior and Inquisitor, for example, start off on the Sith home of Korriban where they are introduced as acolytes and quickly end up thrust into the dog-eat-dog world of the Dark Side, complete with deadly rivals who are constantly trying to kill you and plots by your higher-ups to use you against each other. Rest assured that by the time you earn your lightsaber and take your place as an official Apprentice, the blood of the innocent and not-so-innocent alike will be permanently stained on your warblade.

In fact, that’s one other thing that is distinctly different about The Old Republic compared to many MMO’s; alignment. Most games prefer to not make any particular faction the “bad guys.” Sure, in WoW you have the prettier Alliance and the more aggressive and uglier Horde (Blood Elves aside) and there is a similar current running through many other games. The Old Republic is closer to DC Universe Online or City of Heroes/Villains in that respect. The Sith Empire are not “misunderstood” or “just a different perspective” or anything of the like. They are quite evil and that becomes quite obvious as you play through the opening levels. Sure they have motivations other than just twirling their mustaches and laughing maniacally but by the time you’ve betrayed your third major NPC and haven’t even left the starting world, you get the idea that you’re not going to be sitting down for tea with the other side any time soon.

That being said, even among the “good guys” and “bad guys” there is room for variation, and that is where Light Side and Dark Side points come into play. The choices you make in storylines, quest conversations and more will determine how far to either side you stray. It is entirely possible to be a Sith Warrior who is heavy on the Light Side, though that doesn’t necessarily make you a hero. Similarly as a Jedi you can lean toward the Dark Side by doing things against the Jedi Code; encouraging two Jedi Padawans to carry on their secret romance gets you Dark Side points and even more if you blackmail them for it. As your Dark or Light Side goes up you can gain access to particular items that require a certain alignment, meaning that it’s not just for show.

Twi’leks come in matching colors for the fashion-conscious mass-murderer.

Another feature of the game is the companion. You get your first companion toward the end of your completion of your starting zone, and they are different for each class. Sith Warriors get a Twi’lek named Vette, Smugglers get a Kiffar male known as Corso Riggs, Bounty Hunters have a human female named Mako and so on. As you advance in levels and go through different planets and storylines you can pick up new companions, each of which has their own abilities. These are not just vanity characters; they can help drastically in combat and they are responsible for your trade skill learning. They also have an emotional attachment to you which will go up or down based on how you act. If you do thinks that the companion agrees with you’ll gain affinity, while going against their nature drops it. Companions are an important part of your journey and can factor into storylines.

Yes, I’m taking a lot of damage here. I’m not good at combat and screenshotting at the same time.

Of course, one of the coolest parts of Star Wars is watching people swing those lightsabers around and use those Force powers, and that’s where combat comes into play. Combat, like the rest of the mechanics, is similar to what MMO players have seen before, though it does have its own flavor. Each class has its own secondary pool besides the standard health; it’s not just one of a few options in a one secondary stat-fits-all situation. Whether it’s Force, Rage, Energy, Focus or what-have-you, it makes learning each class a new experience and looks like it will add to replay value. During combat you have blasters, lightsabers, vibroblades and such flying with the iconic LucasFilm sounds fully integrated. The system is, like any MMO, easy to learn but somewhat more difficult to master though the learning curve is quick enough that soon you’ll be slaughtering your enemy like a pro.

All in all, the game looks to be nearly set in stone, which is good as the game’s Early Access for those who pre-ordered the game starts in just two weeks. Will this game be the mythical WoW-killer that people have been waiting for for years? No, but I say that only because I don’t think there ever will be a WoW-killer. BioWare seems to have been smart by carving out their own niche; they don’t seem to be trying to take on the hack-slash nature of Blizzard’s monster and instead are going with a game that will appeal to more story-focused fans. That may well give them the chance to survive in a way that many games–its predecessor Star Wars Galaxies included–failed to do.

Star Wars: The Old Republic releases for the PC on December 20th, with Early Game Access for pre-orders beginning a staggered launch on December 15th.


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Jeremy Thomas
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