All My Thoughts On SW:TOR
I don’t like doing reviews because I don’t really feel qualified to write them – not as a gamer that is, but as a journalist. I’m far too opinionated and biased to be comfortable scoring games plus MMOs are a huge endeavour and I don’t think reviewing one within a few weeks of release does them justice. Still, I can’t get SW:TOR out of my head (which probably says a lot about how strong a hold it has on me and how good it is) and strangely feel the need to blab my thoughts about it, detailing its many aspects, good and bad. So anyway, I guess this is my so sort of ‘non-review’ review:
First and foremost I guess I have to talk about the story element in the game as it’s the thing that’s being touted as an incredible revolution in the industry. It’s not. But it is very, very good. Basically imagine Tortage in Age of Conan but for 50 levels instead of 20 and on a much bigger and more elaborate scale.
Essentially, every class has their own story, a tale of treachery, revenge, deceit and/or love and it forms a backbone to your entire adventures which is really nice and helps give your progression a lot of meaning and purpose. I would love to see this being implemented in a lot more MMOs although the downside if that it does give the game a distinct single player feeling, perhaps either because we’re just so used to not having any story in our MMORPGs or because you get so caught up in it you forget that you’re playing online with thousands of other people.
The story aspect does raise a few issues though like how BioWare will continue with it in expansion and does form a bit of a dead albatross around the games neck as it’s a huge burden to maintain. How this will impact ongoing content creation is anyone’s guess.
Although not strictly related to the main stories, the voice acting, cutscenes and ability to select answers in conversations are all very cool and do help immerse you, even if ultimately they do just cover up some pretty basic questlines and make facing the same content again a bit of a disparaging chore. I can’t help but feel that we could’ve done without 100% voice acting in order to get a bit more variety and content in there.
Graphics & Sound
I have to say that I’m actually quite fond of the graphical style BioWare used and it manages to walk a very fine line between being slightly cartoony yet also ‘real’ enough to take seriously. They’ve managed to make the whole aesthetic fit the Star Wars theme and imbue the right vibe. You’ll find no complaints from me here about the graphics.
Although some people disagree, I also find the sound, music and voice acting to be of a really high standard even if some of the character voices sound a little out of place (my Jedi Knight sounds about 12 years old). Personally, I would’ve loved for the voices to either be selectable or tied to races instead of classes.
Races, Classes & Skill Trees
I need to be totally honest here and get this out or I’m going to choke on my own bile of hatred – the racial and class selection in SW:TOR absolutely stinks and skill trees are all utterly boring and predictable. There, I said it.
To elaborate, if you don’t know, the game follows a mirrored class concept meaning that essentially the Republic and Imperial classes are exact copies of each other but only with differently animated abilities. Not only is this rather annoying but, when combined with the archaic archetypal Advanced Class system (where ACs share the same core abilities and don’t really differ much until high level), effectively the game only feels like you’ve got four classes to pick from. Not to mention that some of the abilities don’t even make much sense when mirrored over and whilst giving a Bounty Hunter a flamethrower is perfectly logicial, shooting people with some silly ion cannon thingy with your Trooper feels ridiculous. Frankly the whole system just seems quite lazy and cheap.
Slightly less annoying, although still irritating, is the very poor selection of races available. Basically you get to pick from humans that either alter in colour or have varying degrees of facial disfigurement. This isn’t Star Trek. Give me Wookies, Ewoks, Trandoshans and Mon Calamari over Blind Human, Green Human, Blue Human any day. Again, this is unfortunately just another concession made to facilitate the voice acting in the game and I’m not sure if it pays off.
A few people have complained that the combat in SW:TOR feels unresponsive and a bit disjointed and, whilst it doesn’t bother me personally that much, I can see what they mean. It definitely is a bit of an odd experience pressing a number on your keyboard and then watching for two seconds as your Jedi waves his lightsaber about. Other than that, the combat mechanics themselves are exactly as you would expect from any MMO if on the simplistic and basic side. Every class has a resource which either goes up or down (depending on whether or not it’s accumulated by actions or spent) and then you basically pick from the attacks available, starting with your most damaging first and saving your smattering of high powered abilities on long cool downs for the ‘big’ fights.
Overall the system works fine but (I’m going to no doubt say something very unpopular here) it does make you appreciate the complexity of combat (and healing) mechanics in a game like WoW – The Old Republic is quite simple in comparison.
I’m quite an avid PvPer and I find the Warzones in the game to be a lot of fun. The developers took an odd decision and, instead of having cross server PvP in five or ten level brackets, opted for single server PvP with no level ranges, instead boosting all players effectively to level 50 when you join the Warzone. Although it does cause some issues in that obviously higher level players have access to more abilities, it actually works surprisingly well and is quite liberating in the fact that it lets you team up with your friends of any level. Now they just need to add more Warzones because having only three is really too limited.
Flashpoints (aka dungeons) are very enjoyable but deceptive in that the higher level ones (or at least the mid level ones) are pretty straightforward dungeon crawls compared to the epic – and truly fantastic – initial flashpoint you get access to after leaving the first planet. I was blown away by how much fun the Black Talon flashpoint was, for example, and enjoyed itx interwoven story tremendously. In comparison the other flashpoints felt a bit basic and less epic.
Light Side/Dark Side
I must confess I absolutely love the ability to either follow either the Light or Dark Side and make quest selections with (slightly) varying outcomes based on each. It’s a ton of fun and draws you into the game very deeply, helping up to build up a sense of characterisation and immersion. For instance, roleplaying a ‘good’ Bounty Hunter who only kills when necessary is very rewarding plus really annoys all of the Sith I group with when I pick Light Side outcomes in groups. I also would’ve loved the ability to change sides by following either the Light or Dark path (i.e. switch from being a Jedi to a Sith) á la EQ2’s betrayal system but maybe that’s something that will come in the future.
I wasn’t expecting to like the companion system as much as I did and I actually think it’s pretty cool. Aside from having a buddy to hang around with and call upon to help out without tougher opponents, it ties in with the crafting system nicely. Not only does it mean that you can craft whilst you do missions and PvP but it also makes you deal with the decision of whether or not you want to send your companion off and risk fighting on your own for a while.
The selection of companions available is also pretty good although whether or not you get an initial one that you click with is pretty hit or miss. For instance I really like Mako, my Bounty Hunter companion, and her healing is a fantastic addition to my tank spec yet I found my Trooper companion, Aric Jorgan, to be highly annoying and a bit limited in only offering additional DPS.
I’ve barely bothered with space combat because, frankly, the few times I tried it the whole experience felt out of place and utterly superfluous. I’m sure it will appeal to some people but, honestly, I’m at a loss as to why BioWare even bothered to include it and can’t help but feel they would’ve been better off allocating their resources somewhere else.
Itemisation & Customisation
I’m one of those vain people who likes his character in MMOs to look cool and, perhaps more importantly, unique and interesting. SW:TOR certainly has a lot of itemisation and variety of costume design which is great but, unfortunately, you do notice that there’s a tendency to end up looking pretty much identical to everyone else of the same class. It also doesn’t help that weapon selection is linked to Advanced Classes meaning that, for instance, every Commando will always use an Assault Cannon and every Bounty Hunter will always use pistols. I think it’s a bit of a shame that weapons selection isn’t a bit more freeform and, if anything, linked to Skill Trees instead of Advanced Classes.
Performance, Polish & Bugs
Generally the level of polish in SW:TOR is very, very high and it performs well on my two year old PC. There are some annoying bugs, however, such as getting trapped behind the gate in Warzones and then eventually being booted and a graphical glitch where fat Jedi can’t grip their lightsaber properly when they run but generally these issues don’t distract from the core game and are easy to live with. No doubt they will probably be fixed soon anyway.
The Little Things
It’s worth pointing out that The Old Republic is filled with lots of small subtleties, little nuances and nods that are barely noticeable yet all add up to elevate the game into a stratosphere of high quality and perfection. It’s the little touches like the datacrons scattered around the planets, the way your face changes if you venture down the Dark Side and how the Bounty Hunter’s jetpack ignites when he’s flying in the air if your armour has a backpack (otherwise little jets fire out of your boots) that all combine to make that extra bit of a difference.
No doubt there’s a ton of stuff I missed out but there you have a pretty long winded low down on my thoughts about SW:TOR anyway. Sheesh, it was good to get it all out of my system.
Anyway, to summarise, The Old Republic is a fine game and it’s giving me a lot of pleasure right now (that sounded a little weird) but I stand by my initial assertion that it’s essentially Mass Effect combined with a MMO from 2007. It really is. The class driven stories, the voice acting and cutscenes, the ability to select dialogue responses, choosing Light or Dark Side options that alter outcomes may not be completely original to the MMO genre but the degree and polish that SW:TOR implements them is very welcome and refreshing. You will get sucked into the story, you will get attached to your character and you will certainly have a huge amount of fun.
However, underlying the whole game is very tried and tested gameplay that is now a little dated and predictable, perhaps even a bit boring. BioWare certainly opted to play it safe and pretty much carbon copied mechanics from themepark MMOs from a few years ago, mechanics that now feel kinda old fashioned. Class archetypes, limited paths of progression, weapon restrictions, uninspiring skill trees, and monotonous combat are all aspects of gameplay that MMOs like EQ2 and WoW have been trying to distance themselves from for years.
The Old Republic is a lot of fun and well worth buying however I do have concerns that the replayability is fairly limited and that BioWare made a lot of concessions in gameplay in order to accommodate their class driven stories and the ridiculous amount of voice acting required overall. As a result, for me to still be playing SW:TOR in a couple of months time seems quite unlikely.
(Now hands up everyone who skipped straight down to the conclusion?)