It is a dark time for the Empire
At the start of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Empire is the top dog. The Republic is still recovering from several losses and the attack on Coruscant before the start of the game, and there's a general lack of confidence from citizens all across the galaxy. Players start off with the Republic trying to rebuild and the Empire moving to expand to new worlds.
I don't want to spoil any of the stories of the game, but the short version is that Rise of the Hutt Cartel started with my Bounty Hunter being told in no uncertain terms that the Empire was on the brink of collapse. Without a major tactical advantage, the Republic would soon be in complete control, and that meant that the Empire was looking for something to turn the tides. That "something" came in the form of a rare mineral on the planet Makeb, a power source that could be leveraged to Imperial advantage as a last-ditch effort to restore power.
Meanwhile, the Republic story found my Jedi Knight brought to Makeb for very different reasons. The planet had requested Republic aid after the Hutts seized control of the planet, and the Republic leadership saw the opportunity to send a message of victory to the galaxy as a whole. Unfortunately, Makeb's atmosphere doesn't play nicely with starships, forcing a small-scale deployment of capable individuals to lead the charge of recovering the planet.
Makeb's story starts off interestingly for both factions, and part of what makes it fun is the fact that it's one of the few planets in the game where the main story isn't concerned with pitting the Republic and the Empire against one another. Both are on the planet, but they're working in parallel and trying to solve separate problems. The real villains for both sides are the Hutts and their boundless greed, enough to threaten the destruction of an entire planet just for momentary gain.
Playing to strengths
None of this would matter if the expansion weren't actually fun, but here's where Rise of the Hutt Cartel really won me over. It's full of subtle changes to the core of the game that wind up having a real impact on play as a whole.
Quest structure is part of this. SWTOR launched with cleanly designed hubs in linked sequence, which worked well but still left you with several disconnected quests at any given point. You had your main planetary story, your class story, and a large number of disconnected smaller objectives that didn't add much to the narrative but were important for leveling purposes.
Makeb, meanwhile, has one thrust during the main story. Each mesa on the planet has a very distinct goal for players, usually accompanied by a daily quest for reputation and experience. Rather than drowning you in a lot of superfluous goals, the game hands out individual quests that are more involved and ornate, with most of the main storyline quests spanning the entirety of any given mesa and requiring several objectives to be cleared before they conclude.
The net result is that instead of getting a story through disconnected vignettes, you experience it over the course of a longer linked narrative. This extends to NPCs, as well; players will be dealing with a cast of characters for an extended period, getting to know the individuals and having several chances to understand their support network.
It also helps that the story itself is good, with twists that don't feel random and a building tension that gives you plenty of forward momentum. Everything flows very nicely, and it's enough to keep you invested in Makeb all the way to the conclusion.
They call me the Seeker
Puzzle elements have existed in SWTOR since launch; most of the datacrons require some jumping puzzle elements to retrieve, but some branch into different directions. RotHC goes in a new direction with all of this with the addition of the Macrobinoculars and the Seeker Droid, two new systems that send you across the galaxy to older planets in search of hidden locales and data.
At first glance, these additions seem incredibly simple. You go back to planets you've previously explored, do some searching and figuring out some minor clicking or jumping puzzles, and then you get a quest reward. Nothing ground-breaking. But much like the layout of Makeb, it winds up having a bigger impact than you'd expect, starting with the simple fact that it gives you a chance to do something other than fling yourself against the highest-level enemies in the game. If you want to just quietly search and explore, you've got space to do that.
More to the point, it's fun. The actual combat in these missions is largely perfunctory, but the bits of investigation mean traveling back to worlds you've largely left behind and investigating new elements. It turns older planets from brief waypoints into larger destinations worth exploring and investigating in depth.
And it's optional. If you like these features, they're present, but you aren't missing anything if you don't. There's a reputation attached and plenty to like about the missions, but it's more of a branching option than a mandatory addition.
Stumbles and catches
Not everything is sunshine and light. While I love the way that the game handled the extra five levels in the game's talent trees (thereby expanding the middles rather than adding another layer of talents to the top), some of the added abilities are of mixed utility. Marauders/Sentinels get an unambiguously useful area tool and pulling talent while Shadows/Assassins get a trick that seems built primarily for PvP and has wonky mechanics, just as an example. Most of them do seem like an effort to patch a hole in abilities, but they vary in their success.
I'm also a bit disappointed by the same-gender flirtation options. They exist, and they're consistent with the flirtations found on other planets, but they're still fairly limited, and you only have a few people to flirt with based on faction. Hurrah for the addition, but more options would be better.
Crafting is likewise something of a mess. While everything else feels smooth and well-integrated, the extra five crafting levels seem a bit haphazard, as if the designers weren't totally sure how to expand the crafting system upward. Part of that is the fact that there's an emphasis on modifications rather than the fixed items of the early game, but it could have used a bit more revision.
But on a whole, Rise of the Hutt Cartel does everything it needs to do and then some. Part of the problem is simply one of scope, I imagine, since it's meant to be a small addition. As it stands, you get three new storylines, a new endgame routine (which I've heard enough about to find interesting), missions with new mechanics, new armor, streamlined progression, and plenty of options for any veteran player to enjoy.
For $10 as a subscriber, it's a no-brainer. At $20 for a non-subscriber it's a bit more ambiguous, but even still I'd argue that it might be worth it. Certainly you'll not want for things to do, but you'll run up against any gear restrictions pretty hard from an early point.
How much of an expansion can you really get from one new planet and five new levels? As it turns out, lots.
Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?