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Game Review: Star Wars: The Old Republic

(Video Game - PC)

Once in a while there is a franchise that is so massive, so pervasive that it literally transcends its original media. Star Wars broke that barrier decades ago. Movies, television, toys, books, comics, trading cards, a pen & paper role-playing game, and of course, video games.

There have been a lot of Star Wars video games, from the side-scrolling Super Star Wars trilogy to more modern fare like Star Wars The Force Unleashed. For the most part they stick to movie cannon, and are set within the confines of the movie timeline. In 2003, a company called Bioware released a game based on a comic series called Knights of the Old Republic (commonly abbreviated as KOTOR). This wildly divergent tale is set millennia before the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Against this backdrop of what is essentially a blank slate with a Star Wars setting, they crafted a game that was extremely ambitious and story driven. It was the first Star Wars game that attempted to bring RPG (role-playing game) aspects to the material. It was widely popular and spawned a successful, albeit slightly flawed, sequel a year later. Then there was nothing. Some rumors of a second sequel in the works, that was eventually cancelled. Then in October of 2008, nearly four years after KOTOR II was released, Bioware announced that they were working on something big. The announcement was for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Star Wars: The Old Republic (commonly abbreviated to SWTOR or TOR). To really drive up the excitement, they coupled the announcement with this: SWTOR: Deceived Trailer. It promised to be a game so big that it could take a player a couple hundred hours to complete a single story line, and they were talking about having several story lines.

Three years since that announcement, and I can tell you this -- it was worth the wait! There are in fact eight (yes, eight) complete story lines, each easily totaling in the hundred and fifty hour time frame. That would be impressive enough, but it is also fully voiced and animated. I've been playing it now for a couple of weeks, and I have explored all of the starter content and several worlds in the greater galaxy. I couldn't possibly review all the aspects of this, since it would take months to have that good a picture of the whole. Still, there are some great things, some good things, some bad things, and some decidedly ugly things about this game that I can pass on to you.

It breaks down pretty simply. Set approximately 3,000 years before the first movie, it is a time where the Sith Empire has come out of hiding from the outer edge of the galaxy rim to devastate the Galactic Republic. This isn't Luke and Vader duking it out one on one. We're talking thousands of Jedi and Sith going lightsaber to lightsaber. This galactic war has hit a stalemate with the invasion of the Republic core world (Coruscant) as depicted in the trailer I've linked to above. This uneasy peace has left the galaxy at the edge of total destruction, as both Republic and Imperial forces are building up for a final confrontation. This elegant set-up allows players to pick sides, and to choose from one of four classes per side. There are two types of both Jedi and Sith: an Imperial Agent which plays like a space age James Bond, a Smuggler (like Han Solo), a Republic Trooper (Storm Trooper complete with white armor), and a Bounty Hunter (Boba Fett).

The Great:

For three years Bioware touted the so called "Forth Pillar" of the MMO experience, story. Well, they have delivered in excess. There are unique storylines for each of the eight classes. It is very engaging, since all the dialogue is voiced by talented actors and written by people who can actually write a story. Gone is the stilted conversations and clich├ęd writing of George Lucas. Instead, there are specific tributes to his good choices. There is so much in this game that all six movies could fit into one of the class stories. You feel important to this setting, as if you are really making a difference in a galaxy at the precipice of another massive war that threatens to destroy entire solar systems.

Everything feels like Star Wars, but different. There's all the races you've come to know from the movies, plus some stuff that you've never heard of. Then there are the planets. Getting to walk on Coruscant or Tatooine is a really pleasure. Playing a Smuggler and walking onto your own ship and walking side by side with your own Wookie sidekick is really fun. Playing a Sith and throwing lightning from your finger tips never gets old. Turning on your lightsaber and jumping into the fray as a Jedi feels just as exhilarating as it does in the movies. There are features in this game that truly make the experience cinematic and compelling. That Wookie sidekick is one of them. He is what is called a companion character. These companions fight with you, and co-exist with you as you progress through the game. They have fully fleshed out personalities, and you can even strike up a romantic relationship with them. (Which makes it sound like I'm hot for Wookies, but non-humanoid romances are not allowed quite yet. Neither are same sex relationships, although I hear that might change.)

The Good:

The graphics are interesting and subtle, but not top end. There are some low resolution textures and some lip syncing issues, but for the most part it is a lot of fun to watch your character interact with NPC's (non-player characters). Conversations are done with an interactive cut-scene. These can be extremely active and action packed, but are primarily used for exposition. Several camera angles are used to create some visual interest, and it is nice to see your character up close as they throw out some witty response. This is also how the story unfolds, and it gives weight to the missions you have to go out into the world to perform. There is also choice in these conversations, although it usually boils down to good, bad, and neutral.

Combat is really fun, and each class feels important to a group. There are four basic class structures, which are mirrored for Republic and Empire, and then two advanced classes per base class. Which means there are sixteen total possible avenues to chose from. Additionally, there are three talent trees per advance class, which make that advance class play fairly differently. This gives the player a lot of options, and enough variety that you feel pretty unique in some regards. However, once you pick an advanced class, you're locked into it. Much like your dialogue choices, there is no reset button. Given the malleability of most MMO's of late, this is an interesting choice by the designers. It forces the players to consider their choices instead of just clicking past content.

The Bad:

Although the graphics are good, they do detract a little from the experience. They are far and above the original KOTOR, and I really like some of the beautiful vistas and character/npc/beast designs. But there are only so many NPC faces, and after a while you do start to see some repetition. Also, there are only so many interior designs, and after a while you see these same spaces redressed and repositioned. It isn't really a detractor, but it can be a little distracting.

As much as I love the dialogue, and the choices you get to make in conversations, there is so much of it that it can get a little tiresome. But complaining about too much of a good thing isn't really a gripe. This brings me to the problem with world content. World content isn't required, and there are enough options that you could forgo doing this content. But each world has a set story and specific quests that aren't unique to the class. Although you still get your specific class story on each world, the rest is the same for everyone. This is really fun and engaging the first time through, but if you play any alternate characters, it can get a little repetitive.

The Ugly:

Mirrors, mirrors everywhere... and I do mean everywhere. The Republic and Empire are light and dark mirrors of each other. The four classes per side are the same only redressed, quests are frequently the same on both sides just redressed with different races, settings, and dialogue. This is recurring throughout the game, and although I completely understand the reasons behind this choice, it is one of the things that bothers me the most about the game. Budget and time constraints, balance between the two factions, and the desire to give the same level of experience are the contributing factors here. I have no real argument with those reasons, but I feel a little cheated.

Other than these few minor issues, I think this is a wonderful game, and I believe it is innovative in ways I can't fully express in a few pages. It has a truly engaging story experience and a really fun gameplay model. The action feels exciting, and it makes you feel like an action hero from level 1. I hope over the coming years this will continue to be a game I go back to again and again.

It is hard to rate something like this, because even with the dozens of hours of game time I've already put in, I've barely scratched the surface of the total content. Still, if I have to give a rating, I would give it 3.5 out of 4 double bladed lightsabers.
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Samantha M. Quinn spends most of her time in front of a computer typing away at one thing or another; when she has free time, she enjoys pretty much anything science fiction or fantasy-related.

8 comments:

  1. Is this the first ever game review? Very cool direction to go if it is guys! Avid gamer and Billie Doux fan here :-)

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  2. Yes, it's our very, very first game review, and hopefully, not our last. Tomorrow, the world!

    J.D., you did a great job with this review. I'm not a gamer at all, and you made it sound very appealing.

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  3. What Mark said. I love games, too. I might have a look at The Old Republic after I'm done with Skyrim. Assuming that ever happens. I'm a hundred and ninety hours in as it is. I'd get finished a lot quicker if I hadn't taken that arrow to the knee.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this, too, J.D., and I haven't played a video game since Mario Brothers in the 80s.

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  5. Josie, I can't believe you even saw the 80s. Your avatar looks so young.

    I used to play Mario Brothers, too. Oh, the headaches I used to get. Such happy (and painful) memories. (Mainly painful.)

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  6. I started with the Atari 2600 which had games like Pac Man, Space Invaders, and the original Mario Bros. on it. I have very fond memories of Super Mario Bros., although the third one was my personal favorite.

    I've heard Skyrim is a lot of fun, but I doubt my computer could play it that well. SWTOR is a little bit lower on the system requirement totem pole.

    Anyway, thank you all for your comments. I would love to do another game review later on.

    J.D.

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  7. Hey, JD. I started out with an Atari 2600, too. I think I had Asteroids, Pac Man, Haunted House, Defender and Galaxian. How fragile were those joysticks? The micro-switches always used to break on them, and all of mine had a perpetual right lean on the stick itself. I even owned a ZX Spectrum... complete with rickety tape player and forever crashing processor. But my Atari ST was my favourite gaming machine. The hours I used to spend playing Mindscape's Knightmare and Dungeon Master. This was back in the days before the internet, too. If you got stuck in a game, that was it. You couldn't do anything about it. There was no online community to help out. Me and four of my friends got stuck in exactly the same place in Knightmare, and we had to stop playing altogether. I think we went and played Football, or maybe cricket, instead. You know... activities which took us outdoors. Healthy stuff. Good God, those were bleak times.

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