Review by Art Schmidt

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always wanted a lightsaber for Christmas.  Even more than a Red Rider BB gun, I wanted a glowing blue sword made of light, even though had that wish been granted, I would have most likely cut my own arm off with it.  Every kid who grew up a fan of Star Wars did; there could not be a finer gift in all the whole galaxy.  And this Christmas, my wife got me one!

No, it’s wasn’t one of those long glass ones that light up with a fluorescent bulb, though they do look cool. And it wasn’t one of the extendable costume light sabers that kids like to play with, I’ve had one of those for years.  That is, my son has one and I occasionally quality test it for him. :)

For Christmas in 2011 I got a real lightsaber.  And better yet, I get to cut down Sith with it!

On December 20th, Bioware Studios, renowned for award-winning video games such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, fantasy classics Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, and the 2003 Game of the Year Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR for short), has boldly warped into the MMORPG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, ‘MMO’ for short) market.  Star Wars: The Old Republic is here, and it’s massive.  Massive in size, massive in population (passing one million subscribers in less than one week) and massively awesome.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR for short) is set during just after the time period of the previous single-player KOTOR video game, which itself is some four thousand years before the birth of Anakin, Luke and Leia.  The Old Republic is a sweeping era of war between the Republic and the Sith Empire, and Jedi Knights battle against Sith Lords all across the galaxy.

[WARNING: Newb Training Ahead; L33Ts can skip] For those who do not know, MMOs are a type of game that is played over the Internet, on servers hosted by the software company.  In these games, players can group together with other players from across the world to go on adventures together.  World of Warcraft is by far the most popular and well-known of these games, boasting ten million active subscribers world-wide and the only MMO to purchase television ad time (featuring William Shatner and other famous folks, no less!)  A subscription, by the way, costs real money; you purchase the game itself and then pay a fee, normally between $12 and $15 per month, to continue to play on the hosted servers.

As some may recall, the Star Wars brand was brought to MMOs in 2003 by Sony Online Entertainment, in form of Star Wars Galaxies.  This game was set in the time period in between Episodes 4 and 6, while Luke was training to be a Jedi and the Emperor and Darth Vader were cruising around the galaxy smashing the Rebellion and working on the second Death Star.  And while this has been a fruitful time period for Star Wars novels and other media types to draw engaging stories from, it failed to satisfy gamers to any appreciable degree.  The game mechanics were tired (even then) and the potential to wield a lightsaber, while present, was slim and involved long, difficult quests and massive amounts of time.  And, once a player achieved Jedi status, the added difficulty of not being able to die made it all the more rare, and unfortunately, drove away players en mass.

[Newb Note] In most MMOs, your character will die but is able to be revived or resuscitated in a nearby safe area, losing you experience and incurring other penalties but allowing you to continue playing the game with little more than a bruised ego.  In Star Wars Galaxies, anyone who reached Jedi status and then died was turned into a ‘blue glowie’ like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda from Episodes 5 and 6, powerless and not a lot of fun for $15/mo.  SOE eventually made it easier to become a Jedi, at which time people who had gone through the struggle were angry and felt cheated.  The MMO continued to survive but it never really thrived.

Ironically, the Galaxies MMO has limped along until just this month, when a much-publicized ‘galaxy-ending’ event took place to coincide with Sony shutting down the game for good.  That occurred on December 15th, and The Old Republic was released a mere five days later.

The Old Republic enables the player to pick up a lightsaber from the onset, or at least a training saber, if you pick one of the force-wielding classes.  There are currently eight classes in The Old Republic, four Republic classes (good guys) and four Empire classes (bad guys).  The Republic and Empire factions each have two force-wielding classes and two others.  The Republic features Jedi Knights, Jedi Consulars, Republic Troopers (think clone troopers from The Clone Wars, except that they aren’t clones), and smugglers.  The Empire classes consist of Sith Warriors, Sith Inquisitors, Imperial Agents, and Bounty Hunters.  Each class also has two specialization ‘branch’ options at 10th level, providing for a diverse playing experience no matter what side you choose.

Oh, did I mention the experience?  Get ready to experience a total loss of association with real-time once you buckle in for this ride.  The folks at Bioware have always excelled at creating games where you become totally immersed in your character, and you feel the game as much as play it.  KOTOR was a ground-breaking title in its day, bringing the real feel of being a Jedi Knight (or Sith) and exploring the galaxy in ways no one had previously been able to deliver.  Companion characters who reacted to your actions and words, a storyline that revolved around the player directly and changed depending on their actions, a star ship to pilot and explore the galaxy as you wanted, and customizable lightsabers were all part of that experience.

And they’ve brought it all into The Old Republic.  Using a clever combination of instanced areas and cut scenes, and the first MMO world to be completely done in real actors’ voices (rather than endless boxes of text), Bioware has delivered an experience that did not exist until now.  Previous games have taken you to famous Star Wars locations like Tatooine, Nar Shaddaa, Coruscant, and Endor, but not like this.  These places come to life in The Old Republic like in no other game.  Want to explore Hoth?  Piloting your starship there and walking out of the Republic base is enough to give the hard-core Star Wars fan goosebumps.

Fly to Tatooine and you can explore Anchorhead and the endless desert surrounding it, encountering Jawas, Banthas, and of course the Sand People.

And each character class has its own storyline, specific to the class.  You start out in one of four planets depending on your class, and work your way through your own personal Star Wars story until around 10th level you travel to a larger world to continue your quest.  Along the way, you meet companions who you can choose to bring with you on your adventure, earn your lightsaber (for force wielders), purchase personal vehicles such as speeders to make planetary travel a bit easier, and gain access to your own personal starship around 16th level for planet-hopping.  Each class has its own starship, and while you can’t bring other players into your starship, you can communicate from them, store gear in them, house your companions (and put them to work exploring and crafting items on their own) and also engage in starship combat missions for extra experience points and mission rewards.

The space fighting missions are simple combat missions where you fly a pre-determined course (or ‘rail’ as many people refer to it as) and take out targets along the way.  They are a fun diversion and a good way to kill time waiting for your companions to log in or travel to your planet.  They are optional and can be completely ignored, but I think they are a blast.

From within your starship you can access the galaxy map, selecting a sector and planet to travel to. Missions on each planet are conveniently displayed beneath the planet they are on, to help you plot a beneficial course. From there you blast into light speed and are on your way!

The game shipped with eighteen planets in the known galaxy that can be explored, and the developers have promised more content to be announced in the very near future.  Of course, as the game ages and more players achieve the upper levels, higher-level content will be in constant demand.

The game is not perfect by any means; players can level perhaps too quickly, there are glitches on every planet, and numerous reports abound about crashing clients and server wait times.  However, for a MMO launch that is not even two weeks old, The Old Republic has done remarkably well, and the amount of glitches is amazingly small given the size and complexity of the game.

Having played Everquest (and EQ2), Dark Age of Camelot, and of course World of Warcraft at their launches, I can say that this is by far the smoothest launch of a game of this type to date.  Bioware did a huge amount of beta testing and is managing what they call a controlled release in order to manage server populations and wait queues.  Not sure if that is anything ground-breaking, but the force seems to be strong with this game, holding the lag monster at bay on my three year-old gaming rig during all of my fifty-odd hours of logged game play.

The most striking thing about the game, in addition to the amazing storylines worked into what is otherwise at its core essentially World of Warcraft in space (and I actually mean that as sort of a compliment, honest!), is the voice work done in the game.  Every single encounter you have, every quest you accept, every vendor you speak with, every character sitting at their own table in the back of the Red Sun cantina in Coruscant, it is all spoken word.  People who haven’t played MMOs cannot appreciate the time, effort, and immersive effect that has on the game play experience.  It’s the next best thing to being in one of the movies yourself.

On the downside, though, is the ease with which you can advance.  I literally have only had one of my five characters die in the first five levels of the game.  And I’ve advanced three characters to sixteenth and higher levels in the last ten days.  Reports in-game and on the SWTOR forums of characters who are already 50th level (and did not participate in beta) abound.  So, while this keeps the story flowing, and avoids the usual MMO grind that Star Wars Galaxies was notorious for, it may not be challenging enough to keep people subscribing for long periods of time, which is what it takes for an online game like this to flourish.

In short, The Old Republic is well worth the price tag on the box, even if you don’t get into MMOs and monthly subscription fees.  You can literally play one or perhaps even two characters all the way to 50th level with the free 30 days you get with the game, and experience the rich storyline, wonderfully detailed locations, cinematic cut scenes, and pure enjoyment of star-hopping around the galaxy.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have tracked a rogue Jedi named Fain to the smuggler’s moon, and I have to stop him.  If you feel up to it, meet me at Deucalon spaceport on Nar Shaddaa.  I could use a hand!

And may for Force be with you!

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