Set approximately 3,000 years prior to the events in the films, BioWare’s epic The Old Republic allows gamers and fans to experience and help shape the conflict between the newly re-emergent Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic. Allowing players to choose either side of the war, and to specialize in one of eight different playstyles, SWTOR has the potential to truly change the shape of MMOs, with its focus on deep storylines and morality choices that affect how in-game characters react to you.
I received an invitation from BioWare to play the beta for one weekend, and I was blown away by the polished state of the game. Now that the non-disclosure agreement has been lifted, I can talk about my experiences in the beta, and why I’m eagerly awaiting the release on Dec. 20, less than two weeks away.
Each character class (Jedi, Sith, Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, Smuggler, Trooper) has its own story arc that plays out and evolves as you progress through the game. The character I played during the beta weekend event, a Jedi Consular, began by being tasked to stop a plague that slowly turned Jedi Masters to the Dark Side and drew them down into the depth of insanity. And that’s only in the first 10 levels or so of the character’s storyline, out of a level limit of 50.
One of the items of note is that all dialogue with between the player’s character and in-game characters is fully-voiced. This had the added bonus of making my interactions much more cinematic and engaging, and the dialog choices are presented in a wheel-format similar to what BioWare has done in their other games. The voice acting is nuanced and well-done. I don’t think I got any significant quests at all that weren’t fully voiced. There were a few random quests that were offered in the field (defeat x-number of sith warriors) but almost every quest I received was from a fully-voiced and interactive NPC.
The dialogue system, one of the ways that the game is designed to immerse you while grouped with other players, is absolutely inspired. When a dialogue option is presented, all the people in the group choose which option they like, and the game assigns a random number to the responses chosen. Whichever answer has the highest number wins the conversation choice and that player’s character delivers the line, making for a dynamic and ever-changing conversational system. If you chose the same answer as the person who won the random number generation, you both will earn bonus Social Points for thinking “like a team,” which can be spent to purchase various rewards from vendors.
Dialogue options that include morality decisions, those decisions that will color your character with more Dark side or Light side aspects of the Force, are also subject to the whim of the group: Your choice can be overridden by those in your group. For example, I was in a group with three other players. We’d attempted to rescue a spy from the Sith Empire, but she had led us on a merry chase throughout the battleship we were trying to find her on. At the end, I optioned to take her back with us (hey, I was playing a Jedi), but my teammates all voted to leave her behind because she’d caused so much trouble. I stared in disbelief as I was outvoted and the unlucky spy was left to the tender mercies of the Sith.
It’s this kind of storytelling depth and options that will be the hallmark of SWTOR, I suspect.
Yes, the combat is more hotkey-mashing like almost all other MMOs out there. Yes, the planets are HUGE and you’re going to run everywhere for the first several levels. (Coruscant alone is massive, and having to run or take taxis everywhere can be a bit of a drag.) The music is appropriately stirring, using John Williams’ cues throughout, and intermingled with new compositions.
However, there are issues that cropped up in the beta, even at this late stage. Several times, an issue with the map system caused all the markers and location information to disappear from the map. This bug affected me and several others that I personally know of. The sound effects also were having directional issues, sometimes coming from the wrong speakers. There was also a lot of confusion in the game’s chat channels about how to do some things, so I suspect there’ll be some last-minute polishing on the instructions provided in-game to make things a bit clearer. The player-vs.-player combat can be a bit unbalanced at times, and I suspect that there will be some patches to address those issues.
Another slightly concerning issue is that BioWare, which has championed equality in almost all their previous games by placing the opportunity for romance/flirtation with members of either gender, has spent more than three years working on SWTOR and yet there isn’t a single option for same-gender romance/flirtation/etc. My male Jedi had the option of flirting (and romancing) any of several female characters in my time playing, but I never had an option to flirt with a male in-game character, up through level 18. There’s not even an NPC that says something a bit flirtatious to player characters of the same gender as you walk by…
As for Bioware, a company that prides itself on crafting detailed lore and expansive worlds, a company that works hard to create living, breathing societies, it’s very discouraging to see them craft a world where I don’t exist. Bioware has recently stated that the options for same-gender romance/flirtations/etc. will be added at a future point through patches or an expansion pack. However, they’ve been writing and recording voices for SWTOR for three years … why wasn’t it just included from the start?
These issues aside, I have faith that Star Wars: The Old Republic will offer enough variety and depth that it will succeed, and that BioWare will work towards offering a level playing field for all their subscribers.
The inspired conversational system, and the ability to relive my childhood dreams of wielding a lightsaber?
Well, let’s just say that I’m looking forward to SWTOR with a new hope.