STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC - First Look|
Written by Mat Houghton
December 2, 2011
Alright, up front? Yes, Star Wars: The Old Republic feels a lot like WoW. If youíve tromped around Azeroth for any length of time then Korriban will feel like a well-worn trail. . . until you start noticing the new undergrowth, the subtle shades of difference in the light as the sun burns low over the boughs and disappears into darkness. The trail made new in the night. This is the magic Bioware has wrought, not in blazing new trails but in making the familiar new.
Thatís what the Old Republic is: a revolution through evolution. They looked at what WoW did well -- protest as you will, it is the dominant RPG of the moment, MMO or otherwise -- and made it their own. Then they looked at what WoW did terribly and fixed it, with the entire package dressed up in indelible Bioware fashion to breathe life into what is one of the major mythologies of our lives. So I am a fan of this game, wholeheartedly, and Iíll tell you why.
What every MMO has attempted to do before is build a world that you can sink into as comfortably as any chair. They construct worlds for you to play in but these worlds, despite the bright colors and lens flares, despite the cadres of villains both grandiose and paltry, despite the quests and loot and glory, they all seem flat, static. You delve and re-delve the same dungeons endlessly, in a process as heartless as it is mindless. Prometheus pities the Lich King. The Old Republic will get there. Any process repeated often enough will get there. . . but what will make you want to wear a groove that deep in the galaxy is the little tweaks put on the WoW formula that make the world feel less like playing with action figures amongst the card board construction backdrops of your childhood and more like stepping into the the screen and breathing the air in a new world.
This process begins with the first quest you get. Instead of having a text block pop up detailing the number of wolves you have to skin, youíre dropped into a dialogue giving you some background and a goal and you can select your responses. Yes, this is typical Bioware, but itís new for an MMO and the difference is subtle. See, a text box isnít a dialogue bubble and it is a far sight from an audio conversation, so there is an element of removal to the world. There are objects that look like ďpeopleĒ but ultimately they are just puppets who point you to boxes of information. Seeing the characters move though, and having a conversation -- no matter how scripted -- eliminates that disconnection. You transition from a puppet to a character. You get all the emotion, expression and life that you lose from text.
You continue down the rabbit hole with your first fight. Maybe you donít notice it right away. Youíll click on the enemy and push a few buttons to use combat skills, maybe throw some lightning, and with watching the cool-downs and figuring out where the important things are on your HUD you forget to trigger another skill and thatís when you notice. You arenít attacking. Even more interesting, you arenít just standing there. Instead there is an animation of interplay, of actual melee combat, with swords clashing against one another and the enemy occasionally scoring a hit. You donít attack though. Why? Because you havenít hit a button.
Again, weíve moved from a puppet, an Energizer bunny of slaughter, to something deeper. You engage your enemies rather than just hitting the attack button and letting two windmills tilt at each other with the occasional nudge. Not only this, but itís rare that you fight just one enemy. Instead you face groups of three or four regularly and can often cut the weaker ones down with one shot. In other words, even from the start of the game you feel a force to be reckoned with, not brought to your heels by every bear in the woods.
Having heard and seen the world, you come back to turn in the quest and fall further in. Youíll find that Old Republic isnít really an MMO, itís really a co-operative single player campaign. Your character has a plot, not a series of unconnected quests. This is the real break. Yes, there are side quests that any character can complete, but every class has itís own story line. While this could have been accomplished with just making some quests exclusive, Bioware went a step further by setting class restricted instances. So to turn in that quest you transition to your instance, complete it and then return to the outside world.
This is no different from any other instancing mechanic, but what it does is give you a feeling of exclusivity. This is your story away from the larger world, your space behind closed doors. Like I said, this is co-operative though, so if you choose you can group up with friends and let them watch the story as it unfolds for you. They will help you fight when you need to fight, contribute to the conversation from time to time, and get to watch your story unfold when they cannot. This is especially true with Flashpoints, the group dungeons of Old Republic. Like everything else, Flashpoints are plotted events. They are self-contained stories that give you a glimpse into the larger galaxy youíre playing through. While you can re-run them as often as you like, just like any other dungeon in an MMO, they feel like re-reading an exciting short story not re-running an obstacle course.
What Bioware has always excelled at is a well told tale. Even if the large plot is sometimes awkward or side events feel shoe-horned in, you keep coming back for moments like the last combat with Sarin from Mass Effect (especially the Renegade choices), conversations that make you cackle with mad glee and logic puzzles to make LSAT veterans scratch their heads a bit. The Old Republic is no different. What makes this game so interesting though is that there are roughly eight different plots that interweave. Sith Warriors and Inquisitors share Korriban, Jedi Knights and Counselors share Tython. Bounty Hunters and Agents begin on Hutta and the Smuggler and Trooper start on Ord Mantell. Despite shared origins, the events you see diverge wildly. An Inquisitor and a Warrior fight through the same caves and ruins for different purpose and face different challengers on their rise to power. So while other MMOs will have you repeat the same quests every time you start to level a new character, with the Old Republic there will be an entirely new story.
The quest system also keeps things fresh as much as possible. Very rarely are you just sent out into the field to slaughter entire populations of trolls or elves or whatever. Almost every quest Iíve seen was somehow its own goal. Acting with purpose to solve a puzzle or get a specific item left in a specific place, not just repeatedly killing monsters to pick up a strange organ with a 1 in 3 drop rate. Now along with these quests, there are bonus objectives that usually involve killing X number of Y enemy, but they are just that, a bonus quest. If you want to blaze through the plot and deal with as few fights as possible you can do that. What Iíve seen so far of these stories is as good as you would expect from Bioware (complete with sidekicks), and any fans of the developer or the Star Wars setting will be well satisfied with whatís going on. Just check out the cinematics theyíve released so far if youíre curious about some basic plot points and a general feel for the game. I still canít break away when one pops up.
Like any other MMO, Old Republic offers you a set range of options to customize the look of your character. The tweak here that sets it apart? You can select different body types from a stock of five. This may not be as detailed a character generator as previous BioWare RPG's, but compared to all the Orcs, Night Elves and other things which present the same shoulder width, height and weight, Old Republic presents what looks like a diverse galaxy.
The art styling may or may not sit well with you, and it certainly isnít going to do anything for fans of gritty realism, but what Old Republic does excel at is grand vistas (the first speeder flight over Korriban still impresses me), intricately detailed scenery and costuming, and lots of fluid motion (the above mentioned combat animations for one). There are also little touches that add a level of convenience you didnít know you needed. The HUD is kept as minimally invasive as possible, the same with character sheets, inventory and equipment screens and skill trees. Most impressive along this line is the world map. Itíll pop up and fill the whole screen, but start moving and it will fade to almost complete transparency so you can navigate and run around at the same time.
Also, those cinematics are the equal to anything Blizzard has put together as far as quality is concerned, and I donít know who they got to do the fight choreography but they make Fist of Legend look like amateur hour. Iíd love to see an Old Republic movie thrown up on the big screen if they could come up with anything even close to these. Yea, even though I walk through the Valley Unseemly I shall fear no CGI.
Voice acting. Do I have to say more? Oh, yeah, let me elaborate: good voice acting. Despite how sick I am of hearing David Hayterís voice, they also reportedly got Claudia Black and Jennifer Hale so who am I to complain? Aside from the human voices, they do the typical Bioware nonsense dialects for aliens, but the great thing about them in Old Republic is their fidelity to the sound design of the original Star Wars trilogy. With all the Twiíleks, Wookies, Ugnaughts, Hutts and whatever else running around thatís a lot of languages to keep track of and this is probably the weakest part of the voice acting as there are many places where the ďdialogueĒ runs out well before the subtitles of what they are saying does.
And thatís just a quick peak underneath the curtain at that galaxy far, far away. Itíll suck you in, rattle you around a few star systems and set you back in your chair without breaking a sweat. In short, itís already a WoW-killer and it hasnít even launched yet. So get your hiking boots on and get ready to wear a groove in the galaxy when Star Wars: The Old Republic goes live on December 20th, and look for our full review coming in January of 2012.