Second Wind: The Old Republic at the 15-month mark

SWTOR - This dude is no longer carbon-frozen

A long time ago, I previewed Star Wars: The Old Republic. It was a beta build, and a limited press preview to boot, so it's fair to say that I didn't have the full measure of BioWare's latest Star Wars opus. Even so, it exceeded my expectations in some respects, and despite the reams of hate fan mail I received for being Massively's leering, anti-SWTOR Sith villain, the truth of the matter is that I love Star Wars and video games to such a degree that it's impossible to stay away from any product that marries them.

I own Super Bombad Racing, for funk's sake.

SWTOR - Holotaunting

Fortunately SWTOR is quite a bit better than Super Bombad Racing, and despite the fact that some of you are probably hoping for a flamebait comparison to the late, great Star Wars Galaxies, well, this isn't the article you're looking for.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that I've been on a Star Wars bender of late, and SWTOR is the latest stop on my reunion tour of a galaxy far, far away. I've been playing heavily over the past month, and I've gotten my first character to 40 (a Gunslinger) and am now weighing whether to continue with him or continue dabbling on my level 10 Sage, my level 15 Sniper, or my level 10 Mercenary.

My experiences on the Gunslinger and the lower-level dabblers could well be from two different games. The hours I've put into the former have been almost entirely single-player. Aside from an Esseles speed run with Massively's MJ, he has yet to group with another player, and I've yet to speak to anyone in chat or even buy anything off the auction house. The Sniper and Sage, on the other hand, have been grouping with two buddies for all of the newb quests on Tython and Hutta plus a few runs through the Black Talon flashpoint.

The group cutscene gimmick changed my impression of the game a little bit, and as much as I'd rather play a Rebel-aligned rogue as opposed to yet-another-Force-user or a James Bond darksider, tag-teaming the game's story dialogue is as much mindless fun as tearing through mobs Star Wars-style.

SWTOR - Jedi posse

The good

Remember several years ago when there was a considerable amount of bellyaching over the size of SWTOR's lightsaber hilts? It seems sorta silly now because the game is flat out gorgeous in almost every respect. It's clearly been made to run on a wide variety of systems, but to my untrained artistic eye at least, it acquits itself extremely well across a range of diverse planetscapes. The avatars and their associated gear aren't too shabby either, and when you combine all that with a bluesy, customizable, and appropriately Star Warsy UI, there's precious little to complain about in terms of visuals.

BioWare's environment artists deserve a significant amount of praise in my book. While it was somewhat disappointing to see that the Republic and Imperial fleet space stations were visually similar, each of the planets I've explored thus far has been large, beautifully rendered, and in the case of Star Wars staples like Tatooine, pleasingly familiar and even homey.

SWTOR - Home again

You're probably here to read about the gameplay, though, and I'll stick with the Gunslinger since that's what I've sampled the most. To start with, the combat mechanics are decent fun, though not particularly challenging. And look, I'm definitely not an MMO combat guy. I could not care less about builds, min-maxing, or stat-based character growth, and as such I literally face-rolled my way from one to 40 in terms of talent... er, skill points and gear. I wore whatever dropped with no thought to anything other than how it looked, and I did heroic dungeons only when they were gray enough to be duoed with my companion.

To some, the ability to lackadaisically progress like this might be a turnoff, but at this point on my own personal MMO timeline, it was an unabashed positive. There's something strangely relaxing about rolling in and out of cover, spamming the same DPS rotation, and melting just about everything I've come across without ever breaking a sweat. It does feel, dare I say it, Star Warsy and iconic, particularly if you remember how awful the film saga's Stormtroopers and other antagonists were at aiming their weapons. Like most MMO combat, though, it gets unbearably repetitive for me after an hour or two.

SWTOR - Alderaan air taxi

There is a ton, and I do mean a ton of questing and leveling content, especially considering that I haven't even sampled half of the game's classes after nearly 110 hours of combined gameplay. Though BioWare was less than honest in its pre-launch marketing drive (more on that a little later), it wasn't exaggerating when it said that SWTOR was basically the equivalent of Knights of the Old Republic III through XIII.

It's also worth mentioning the legacy system here, as it's an interesting twist on typical MMO progression. It's chock-full of handy unlocks that benefit your current character and future alts, and it eventually allows you to roll various race/class combinations not available when you first start the game. There are also character perks including fast travel, bonus XP, and a number of other niceties that provide a pretty lengthy list of desirable goals if you're into SWTOR for the long haul.

In short, it's a grind, but it's a good-natured one that's well thought-out. It's also got a cash-shop powered skip-the-really-tedious-crap button, which I'm not ashamed to say that I used in order to put an auction house terminal and a mailbox on my starship straight away. Seriously guys, a frickin' spaceship overflowing with computer terminals doesn't allow its owner to check his holomail by default? Mmkay.

SWTOR - Drommund Kaas cab fare

The bad

As mentioned earlier, I find SWTOR to be repetitive after an hour or two of sustained play, and this is largely because there's little to do aside from combat-flavored questing (or instanced PvP, which is absent from this article because I would rather watch the Star Wars Holiday Special director's cut with bonus Jar Jar Binks footage than engage in it).

And don't get me wrong -- SWTOR's combat-flavored questing is pretty enjoyable. The game's bad points aren't bad execution as much as they are a lack of ambition. If all you want from your MMO is combat, combat, and more combat along with the ability to watch your XP bar tick up, SWTOR delivers. If you're of the opinion that MMOs ought to be more than violence simulators, well, I don't know that this is your game. It has crafting, if you consider pressing a button and ending up with an item a couple of minutes later crafting, and that's about all I can say about that.

SWTOR - Meaningless choice

BioWare's traditional light side/dark side alignment system and branching dialogue trees are here too, but they're largely for show. It doesn't matter how badly you want to just put a blaster to an NPC's head and make him understand that you don't care about his kill-10-space-rats objective; you'll still have to accept it even after several rounds of choosing the rudest response possible.

Repeated efforts to give my Han Solo clone a deeper, darker personality via the game's moral alignment system have amounted to a whole lot of nothing. I elected to execute quite a few of my quest arc antagonists despite playing the good- (or at least, Republic-aligned) Gunslinger class, and while my actions have resulted in my standing trending a bit more toward the dark side than the light, I'm hovering right around neutral on the sliding scale and the effect on my gameplay has been negligible.

This is disappointing but hardly surprising. Time and budgetary constraints being what they are, developer-driven MMO content is always going to be an exercise in repetition no matter how much you attempt to dress it up with cutscenes and voice acting.

SWTOR - Waste of space

The space game was an opportunity to inject some much-needed variety here, but unfortunately BioWare's idea of space content is a weaksauce behind-the-ship arcade shooter. This was fun circa 1994, but nowadays it's the kind of gunk that fills out generic indie browser projects, not $200 million licensed epics.

This wouldn't be as problematic if the thing weren't called Star Wars, but stuff to do in outer space ain't optional if you're using this IP, dudes. I know I said I was going to avoid SWG discussion today, but, well, bear with me here because this is relevant and only slightly flammable: BioWare basically would've been better served to follow SOE's lead and release the base game without any space flight.

The outcry over the lack of a space game on SWG's launch date was considerable, but it was also completely forgotten when the extremely well-received Jump to Lightspeed expansion eventually shipped. Recall that this was such a robust content dump that it effectively created another game -- and another community devoted to it -- within the game. In short, I really hope to revisit SWTOR for a third wind after a proper space expansion.

SWTOR - Nemro the Hutt

The story

I didn't include MMO story under the good or the bad sub-headings above because frankly, I'm still of the opinion that a static story shoehorned into an MMO framework is a sideshow at best and downright silly at worst.

I know BioWare spent a significant portion of TOR's budget on story, but really that just illustrates how much a firm known for its offline single-player games wanted a piece of online gaming's giant recurring revenue pie. Fortunately for themepark MMO fans, TOR's gooftastic "fourth pillar" doesn't detract from tried and true progression mechanics that the game does well. The stories, while relatively enjoyable the first time through, are ultimately nothing more than an experiment that didn't pan out and very likely won't be repeated in the MMO industry any time soon, if ever.

It's also worth noting that for all of BioWare's presumed storytelling prowess, SWTOR's Smuggler character is a walking cliche. Stop me if you've heard this one before: I'm a wise-ass ladies' man with a Wookiee companion, a hotrod freighter, and a penchant for self-preservation that's usually offset by my heart of gold.

SWTOR - Nar Shaddaa

Granted, tropes are a time-honored tradition in Star Wars, and for some they're part of the IP's charm. Also to be fair, I've barely scratched the surface of the game's other classes, so I may well be missing the narrative badassery that BioWare used to build its pre-SWTOR reputation. Since the Smuggler's yarn is all I really have to go on, though, I'm forced to report that SWTOR's much-vaunted story is OK... for a video game.

And of course my personal affinity for the IP plays a huge role in making the story elements palatable. Would I care one whit about the latest Solo/Reynolds clone if it didn't say Star Wars on the box? Is this game meaningful or even necessary if you subtract its underlying IP?

That dependency, coupled with BioWare's often exaggerated sense of accomplishment, is the thing that rankles me the most about SWTOR. The game was made with a high level of craftsmanship and is enjoyable enough if you take it for what it is. The discourse surrounding the game, though, and the lengths that BioWare went to to paint it as something that it was not are where I think TOR leaves itself vulnerable to both criticism and a certain amount of scorn.

The company's marketing machine spent the pre-launch months going on and on about how SWTOR was revolutionizing the MMO genre, and I won't even get into the lulz-worthy post-launch comparisons with film and gaming greats. The company would have you believe that it made a watershed MMO that marries traditional genre mechanics with meaningful choice and consequence.

SWTOR - Balmorra

The reality, though, is that all of SWTOR's choices excepting your level 10 advanced class are illusions. If you suspend your disbelief and roleplay along with them, then sure, you might convince yourself that your Smuggler is negotiating his fee rather than being forced to accept the same 400 credit payout from NPC XYZ no matter which button you press. But that's not gameplay choice. It's watching a movie that lets you pick pre-determined and ultimately ancillary dialogue.

The business model

For some gamers, BioWare's half-hearted attempt at a free-to-play business model will chaff a bit. Personally I just paid the 15 bucks and I highly recommend doing the same unless you have time to dork around with buying bag slots and hotbars and looking at charts and graphs to figure out just how many gear upgrades you can eke out of $4.99.

Fifteen dollars a month is easy to justify if you're a Star Wars nerd, particularly when it buys you an all-expenses-paid trip to limitless-entertainmentville while bypassing the Watto-esque F2P flea market feel. Hell, it's easy to justify even if you're not a Star Wars nerd. As I mentioned earlier, I'm closing in on 110 hours worth of leveling content with, what, three quarters of the game still to go?

SWTOR - To the ship!

The verdict

I should probably wrap up this wall of text, so let me close by saying that my view of SWTOR at the 15-month mark is that it's simultaneously a good video game and a sub-par MMORPG. This duality is possible because MMORPGs are much more than mere video games, despite the fact that the industry has forgotten this in its mad rush to monetize the huge influx of post-2004 casuals.

And look, I know there are plenty of pundits who say hey, as long as a game does what it sets out to do, regardless of how unambitious that may be, it's a good game.

I would agree with that sentiment if we're talking single-player titles, mobile games, etc. But when you step up to the plate in the MMO genre, anything less than a virtual world is a wasted opportunity. In this case, though, that wasted opportunity is also Star Wars, so it's my hope that BioWare injects a bit more MMO into its RPG going forward.

If it doesn't, eh, I bought Super Bombad Racing too, didn't I?

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!