Looking at SWTOR without saying “WoW Clone”
Last week or so, the usual ‘what are we all writing about on TheGameJar this week?’ email dropped in to my inbox. After a bit of head scratching I decided I’d try out the new-ish free trial available for Bioware’s first and only MMO – Star Wars: The Old Republic, and write about that. I would cover the first 15 levels available, try to figure out why the game gets so much criticism in some corners of the ‘net, and generally come up with some conclusion as to whether it’s worth you forking over your cash after the trial ended. That was what I was going to do, right up until the moment when Bioware decided to change my plans for me.
At the beginning of last week the developer dropped the news that the game will be ditching its subscription based payment model, and switching to a free to play one in the Autumn. As I’d already spent what felt like days downloading the trial, I decided to press on regardless. Whether it was value for money or not would be kind of irrelevant, but I could still find out if it was a quality game or not. MMO’s by their very definition are big things, and I only have fifteen levels to play with, so a comprehensive review of the game would be out of the question. Will its trial contain enough content to sell the whole game? Let’s find out.
If you did away with the Bioware logo screen when the game first starts up, you’d still know who it was made by. Dragon Age II and a Mass Effect 3 ending aside, the name Bioware means high quality role-playing games to its followers, and it’s no different here. Admittedly I’m not really a Star Wars fan per se, but even still the very first cinematic had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Jedi were swishing their Lightsabers around, the soundtrack from the films was rumbling in the background. It was as perfect an introduction as any fan boy or girl could hope for. Character creation continued to get the Star Wars fever building as I chose my class and race from a suitably iconic selection of humans and aliens, evenly divided between Empire or Republic. For my trial I created a Chiss Bounty Hunter on the Sith Empire side, fully intending to take all the Dark Side choices possible. I entered the world and began my story, the core of the game, and where it really shines.
I began on a dirtball planet with no real reputation to speak of. I join a team of other bounty hunters and pretty soon I’m working for a local Hutt crime boss. Bioware have called this approach to story the fourth pillar, and it’s what they feel sets their MMO apart. Personally I’m not so sure it does, but you certainly can’t fault the quality of the storytelling. From the first “pew pew” of your blaster it feels right. Upon entering the Hutt’s palace you’re greeted by shifty looking aliens hanging around in the dark corners. The cantina band is playing the kind of music you expect them too. The slave girls sitting at the base of Nem’ro the Hutt are in skimpy space bikinis. It is Star Wars.
Having gotten the creation of the world right, SW:TOR reveals its trump card, fully voiced cut scenes. Like the Mass Effect series, you choose what your character says via a dialogue wheel. With just three options there’s not much room for finesse, but it is a huge improvement over the traditional quest text box and a mute hero. I really enjoyed the story side of things, it’s well written and progresses you through the universe quite nicely. Unfortunately is doesn’t quite obscure that fact that the rest of the game is box-standard MMO. Over familiarity with well-worn game mechanics are what kills this game, step away from your storyline quests and you enter a world of deja vu.
Underneath the Star Wars gloss are the same sort of tasks that are found in many older, more established games, and at this point they’re just plain boring. This Yin and Yang of good storyline/boring side quests is why subscription numbers fell away. Gamers played the story to its conclusion and loved it, then tried the side quests and found nothing else to hold their attention besides rolling another character. This perhaps is the reason why gamers are so harsh with SW:TOR, Bioware has such a great reputation that fans were hugely disappointed to see them be so conservative with such an iconic IP. The MMO market is a crowded place, and being an “also ran” isn’t quite good enough if EA Bioware is written on the box.
The switch to free to play.
Personally, I can’t see the switch as anything but a disaster for Bioware. The game launched with a subscription, therefore I think we can safely assume that free to play was never in their plans, so how on earth did they end up here? In my opinion it’s because of a lack of experience in the MMO genre which lead them to making some big mistakes PR wise. Before the game was launched there was massive hype. The Star Wars IP + Bioware’s RPG-making expertise = sure-fire hit. On the face of it a guaranteed success. The game did what most Bioware titles do at launch, sell millions of copies. Maybe that’s where the complacency set in, because they never worked fast enough to add features and content that would retain all those players who bought the game. With a console title, gamers buy the game, play for a few months, and then they stop and move on to something else. Fine if your game is called Mass Effect, very not fine if it’s called SW:TOR.
Bioware’s biggest mistake in my opinion was spending too much time talking about what they were doing to make the game better, and not enough time doing it. A solid three months of pushing content and fixes out is what SW:TOR needed to put it on a firm base for future growth. Looking back, Bioware reminded me of the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, with the full gaze of gaming press and MMO gamers upon them, they froze. Maybe the controversy over Mass Effect 3′s ending was a contributing factor to their indecisiveness, I don’t know. From the outside looking in it seemed to me that they had only planned for a runaway success, and when it didn’t happen they had no plan B.
So is SW:TOR worth your time? Right now with a sub fee? Maybe, only if you’re an avid Star Wars fan. When it finally goes free to play? Most definitely yes. Granted I only played the first 15 levels, but in all that time I never really found anything to really dislike. Bioware’s story telling is as excellent as ever, the fully voiced cut scenes for quest giving really gets you attached to your character, and the Light side/Dark side choices add the same sort of twist as choosing Paragon or Renegade. It’s a solid, fun RPG game that just happens to be an MMO too. With a subscription Star Wars: The Old Republic restricts itself to the real hard-core fans and that’s a shame because the story on offer here is really worth playing. Thankfully when it finally goes free to play, the question of whether the good bits are value for money goes away, and Star Wars:The Old Republic will get the number of players it deserves.