Let’s get this out there right now — Star Wars: The Old Republic probably won’t kill World of Warcraft. At least, not in terms of sheer gameplay.
BioWare’s latest Star Wars epic The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game set in the Star Wars universe, is everything Star Wars fans are hoping for in an MMO.
BioWare showed off the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo today in Los Angeles, Calif. I got a chance to play one of the Sith Marauder classes on a quest — and it is about as good as MMO games come. But The Old Republic is following the recipe for a successful MMO, not a World of Warcraft killer. The only way to defeat World of Warcraft is to discover and create the next big innovation in the MMO genre, not adopt the same tropes World of Warcraft has spent years nailing perfectly.
That being said, The Old Republic is quite fun to play. The game plants players in the Star Wars universe as one of eight classes. There are two factions in the game that are at each others’ throats — four classes per faction — that players have to choose from: the Republic (the good guys) and the Sith (the bad guys.) There are advanced classes that players progress through over time, and each class has three different skill trees to help players specialize the character to their liking. (World of Warcraft classes also have three different skill trees per class.)
BioWare wants to make the MMO’s story a core part of the experience as well. Most MMO games — World of Warcraft included — gloss over the storyline and focus mostly on combat, exploration and progression. Each class in the game has story lines that are unique to the class. Each choice the player makes typically has some kind of an effect on the story line, so a player replaying a class should typically end up with a different experience. The classes also each have a companion character that helps advance the story.
Then there’s the whole Star Wars universe. The series is an iconic piece of pop culture that shows up in movies, books, cartoons, comics and even other video games — World of Warcraft included. Players get to travel to iconic worlds like the desert world of Tatooine and the lush forest planet Alderaan, which is unfortunately blown up in a few thousand years. There are dozens of alien races and tropes, along with the whole mysterious and fascinating story of the Jedi and the Sith. BioWare has a lot to work with in order to create a brand new MMO gaming experience.
BioWare plans to use its story-telling prowess — which is orders of magnitude better than many other game developers — to unseat the current MMO champion from its throne. But the company has been very tight-lipped about what kind of story the players are going to experience when they play through the classes. That’s understandable, because they don’t want to spoil the game, but it’s really the only thing the game might have going for it if it wants to give World of Warcraft a run for its money.
The gameplay is just as similar because World of Warcraft has standardized so many parts of the MMO gaming experience. The damage-over-time abilities, the healing skills, the vehicles and the fantastic animations are all there. Your character looks elegant as she flings around her lightsabers and mows down her enemies. But we’ve seen this all before, and we’ve seen it done very well by World of Warcraft. There is room for copycats, but a copycat game is not going to unseat the current champion.
The aesthetic gameplay similarities to World of Warcraft are endless. The names of some skills in World of Warcraft — like Rupture and Shiv — make an appearance in The Old Republic. Those skills are unique to the Rogue class in World of Warcraft, and they’re skills for the rogue-equivalent Marauder class in The Old Republic. Rage, a resource for some classes that charges up as you execute certain abilities, operates almost identically to the resource of the same name in World of Warcraft. Even the color of the text that appears on the screen and the font (white for damage, yellow for special damage, and purple for experience points) is the same as the MMO titan.
Star Wars Galaxies, the last Star Wars MMO game run by Sony, was relatively successful because it had a unique crafting system and skill progression system that was unlike other MMO games that were around at the time. Players could master several classes at once and create characters that truly suited themselves by cherry picking the skills they wanted. You could create a doctor who was a deadly sniper, or a fighting monk who could also build starships. It was also extremely difficult to unlock the Jedi class, but very rewarding.
World of Warcraft stole a lot of the game’s subscriber base, but Star Wars Galaxies still held onto a core population that enjoyed the skill progression the game had. Then Sony decided to revamp the game with “New Game Enhancements,” which turned the game’s original character progression into a class-based system that featured nine archetypes. It was much like World of Warcraft, at its core, and I don’t really blame Sony for trying to do what was already successful in the MMO genre.
The problem with that move was that there was already a World of Warcraft. Even with a Star Wars skin on top of it, Star Wars Galaxies was not polished enough as a World of Warcraft-like MMO to hold onto its core subscriber base. The company shuttered twelve of the game’s servers in 2009. I took a chance to explore the game one more time recently before the recent PlayStation Network outage and found the cities in the game to be completely desolate when they were once buzzing with doctors handing out buffs and hundreds of people clustered around auction terminals.
I’ve played through at least a dozen MMOs in my time, including the likes of Rift, Star Wars Galaxies, Everquest and just about everything in between. I haven’t seen anything come close to the level of polish that World of Warcraft has and the mass appeal it has with gamers — which is why the game has more than 11 million subscribers in its persistent world. World of Warcraft is still the game to beat, and I’m not sure that The Old Republic can offer players something new enough to unseat it.
The Old Republic will probably pull a small chunk of World of Warcraft’s subscribers over to its side for a period of time because they might be looking for something new. After all, World of Warcraft has been out for nearly a decade. But those same users might find themselves heading back to World of Warcraft because the team has much more experience operating a persistent world than the BioWare team and because it’s a world that is familiar and has a good number of people they know playing the game.
BioWare isn’t trying to create the next most innovative game mechanic for an MMO. It’s trying to create a very polished MMO gaming experience. And it succeeded in that.
Star Wars: The Old Republic should come out sometime later this year. (Sorry for spoiling that bit about Alderaan exploding if you still haven’t seen the films.)