Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft could soon be feeling a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of subscribers suddenly cried out and started heading for a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: The Old Republic is an impressive and easy to play new competitor from Electronic Arts that makes great use of the Star Wars license. It is the most promising new massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) since World of Warcraft claimed the genre’s throne seven years ago.

The Old Republic developer, BioWare, obviously studied the market leader’s playbook and relies on many tested game play mechanics. But it also added excellent storytelling, dialogue choices and companion characters in the tradition of the studio’s renowned single-player RPGs. The result is an engrossing and addictive online game that is particularly welcoming to solo adventurers and newcomers alike.

Having one of the most prolific science fiction universes to play with doesn’t hurt. Set thousands of years before the events of the Star Wars movies, The Old Republic delivers an original take on George Lucas’ saga. It’s lacking the star power of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader or Han Solo, but allows players to create their own Jedi Knight, Sith Warrior or Smuggler in the mold of those iconic characters. Among the 17 worlds are recognizable movie settings such as Tatooine, Hoth or Coruscant.

Big bet in the toughest gaming market

Electronic Arts has much riding on The Old Republic, which was a major reason why the publisher purchased development studio BioWare (and the now defunct Pandemic) for $860 million in 2007. The game’s budget is reportedly in the range of $100 million dollars. The payoff could, however, be substantial, as users must shell out a monthly subscription fee ($12.99 – $14.99 depending on the term length) if they want to continue playing, as the $60 game comes with just one month of included server access.

Electronic Arts management has repeatedly stated that the game would be profitable with half a million subscribers, a modest amount in light of World of Warcraft’s 10 million player numbers. But it’s a big gamble on a business model that hasn’t worked well for most others. MMORPGs like EverQuest II, The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online switched from mandatory subscriptions to a free-to-play model with optional in-game purchases and reportedly increased both player numbers and overall revenue.

Climbing the ranks in the Empire and the Republic

At the beginning of the game, players pick one of two sides for each of their game characters, the “good” Galactic Republic or the “evil” Sith Empire. Each faction offers four starting classes which are mirrored on the other side. The Jedi Knight is a lightsaber-wielding melee fighter like the Sith Warrior, the Smuggler shares his cover abilities with the Imperial Agent, Troopers use similar gadgets to Bounty Hunters and Jedi Consulars cast force magic tricks just as Sith Inquisitors do.

At level 10 players choose between two advanced classes with slightly different strengths. For example, a Bounty Hunter can learn additional healing skills by becoming a Mercenary or gain tanking abilities instead by picking the Powertech specialization. Further character customization happens in three class-specific skill trees, where bonuses and additional skills are unlocked by spending points.

For my Sith Inquisitor, I chose the Sorcerer advanced class, which offers the trees Corruption (healing), Lightning (dealing damage) and Madness (weakening enemies). In order to get access to one of the top skills by character level 40, I need to limit my point spending to one of the three trees. Being able to specialize a character class in this way is a welcome feature, though the way to the top-tier skills doesn’t allow as many interesting choices as World of Warcraft’s sophisticated talent tree system.

Leia buns and Maul horns

Character creation also offers a good deal of visual customization, with several prominent Star Wars races to choose from. For example, by selecting the Zabrak race and tweaking the horn and tattoo patterns, I was able to create a pretty convincing Darth Maul wannabe. And devotees of Princess Leia’s hairdo will be delighted that her classic buns are one of dozens of hairstyle options to choose from.

But who would play a non-Force character when Jedi and Sith classes get to swing customizable lightsabers and use crowd pleasers like Force Choke or Lightning? I would, because BioWare made the regular guys sufficiently powerful and cool. The Trooper/Bounty Hunter classes are pretty badass with gadgets like sticky grenades, flamethrowers, missiles and jetpacks. Smugglers/Imperial Agents have a unique cover mechanic that grants them defensive bonuses while they are hiding behind objects. It’s somehow hard to believe that a single Imperial Agent is an equal match to a Jedi Knight, but for the sake of game balance I’ll gladly swallow it.

According to BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka, the studio’s core vision is “to deliver powerful, immersive experiences that engage our players emotionally”. For years The Old Republic’s developers have been emphasizing that they would bring a “fourth pillar” to the MMORPG table, with “story” joining genre staples “exploration”, “combat”, and “progression.”

It’s not that other MMORPGs haven’t incorporated intriguing story lines. Just look at the massive Warcraft fiction. But truth to be told, compared to the standards of modern single-player games, the story presentation in MMORPGs sucks. The typical quest in World of Warcraft is introduced as a text window that hardly anybody bothers to read. Who cares why I have to kill a dozen baddies anyway? Well, in The Old Republic I actually care and find myself seduced by the cinematic storytelling.

Bioware are gifted storytellers

It shows that BioWare has a long track record of creating excellent stories and dialogue in role-playing games, from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect. Almost every quest in The Old Republic is presented with a fully-voiced interactive conversation, much in the tradition of Bioware’s single-player RPGs. Hearing spoken lines and seeing the drama unfold from multiple camera angles isn’t exactly groundbreaking per se, but a big step forward for storytelling in MMORPGs.

The writing and voice acting are spot-on and create a special mood for each character class. The Old Republic’s dialogue scenes don’t offer the same high level of visual detail as single-player games like Mass Effect 2, but are good enough to make direct competitors like World of Warcraft look outdated in that department.

Sith with a heart of gold (relatively speaking)

All the eye and ear candy aside, the dialogue system also lets players pick from three different replies during conversations. Usually they just add flavor by selecting a cocky response or more polite lines. Sometimes these choices actually influence the outcome of a quest, granting the character light or dark points, which can be collected to gain access to special gear and titles.

This basically allows me to play odd characters like a Sith with a heart of gold or a rather mean-spirited Jedi, adding a nice splash of role-playing freedom. But the goodness or evilness of moral choices is relative to my character’s faction. As an example, in an early Imperial mission I have to sabotage the water reservoirs of slaves in order to stop their uprising. The dark points solution is to dose the poison in such a way that the victims die a slow, painful death, to set an example. Light points are earned by releasing enough poison to kill the slaves quickly. Kindness is relative among the Sith.

Each class has a unique story arc that stretches all the way to the maximum character level 50, giving players a real incentive to try different avatars. The atmosphere and mood are quite different depending on what hero I’m playing. For each chosen character class, new players begin their galactic adventures on one of four planets. Sith have more fun – I like the content, look and feel of the Empire’s kickoff settings a tad better than the Republic’s initial stomping grounds.

For example, Inquisitors start out on the ancient Sith home world Korriban to begin their trials at the local academy, where the curriculum is filled with intrigues, treachery and murder. Our character is a former slave who was granted access to the academy because the Force seems to be mighty strong within her. But this is no Hogwarts; failing students are usually punished by death. After some twist and turns, our character overcomes these perils, learns more about her origins and starts serving Sith Lord Zash in her quest to assemble powerful relics on various planets.

Fight the new boss, same as the old boss

The quality of the storytelling and the interactive conversations do a decent job of masking the fact that missions usually revolve around, well, killing things. The Old Republic is not above the proven rinse and repeat gameplay formula of typical MMORPGs. Killing enemies and collecting quest rewards leads to character level promotions, resulting in access to better gear and more powerful abilities, which are needed to fight ever stronger foes on the next planet.

The combat looks action-packed, but is essentially the same old ability management gameplay typical for MMORPGs. Most special attacks require a certain resource, like Focus energy, and can only be activated again after a certain cooldown time period. Fighting enemies is all about picking targets and the right skill for each combat situation.

The Old Republic often pits single players against whole enemy groups, giving even minor skirmishes a heroic feel. The scope of battles and cool visual effects, like whirring lightsabers or exploding grenades, make fighting fun and satisfying. But players who have always hated the combat style of World of Warcraft won’t find anything drastically different here; an action game this is not.

Human and alien resources – get to know your companions

The Old Republic adds a big twist to combat in the form of companion characters. So-called “pet classes” are nothing new. In World of Warcraft, hunters can tame wild animals, while warlocks summon demons to assist them in combat. The Old Republic doesn’t limit companions to certain classes, but allows every character to unlock five sidekicks over the course of the game. These party members have specific abilities and can be outfitted with better equipment.

Companions also add plenty of story flavor as they mumble the occasional comment while exploring and sometimes even want to have a deep, meaningful discussion. They have their own moral codex; player choices in dialogues can increase or decrease their relationship rating. Once this hits a certain level (careful gift-giving doesn’t hurt), even romance options might become available. Improving the relationship score can also unlock companion missions and new background story revelations.

A game character can only have one companion tagging along by his side, but I can choose between up to five crew members to compliment my play style. If I want my enemies to be distracted so that I can cast Force spells undisturbed, bringing a robust “tank” helper with taunt abilities is highly beneficial. If I don’t mind being the center of my enemies’ attention, a different companion who will heal me during the battle might be a better option.

Delegating handiworks

I can put the other companions who remain behind on my spaceship to good use by giving them crafting orders. The Old Republic has an assortment of collecting and manufacturing skills for creating useful items. Workshop activities are not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Star Wars, but it’s an expected feature in MMORPGs. Instead of fiddling around with minuscule details himself, our mighty hero entrusts less glorious tasks, such as transforming goo into medpacs, to his handy subordinates. Crew members can also be sent away for several minutes on retrieval missions to receive additional crafting items upon successful completion.

One annoying aspect of companions is that pretty much every other player has one as well. It felt a little odd when my Inquisitor freed her first companion Khem Val from a Sith vault and learned about his unique background story, only to see other characters roaming around with their very own Khem Val – like a cloning experiment gone wrong. Later in the game it’s less of an issue as a greater companion selection, and different kits to customize the sidekicks’ look, foster diversity.

Having a computer-controlled buddy who assists in combat makes the game very accessible to players who are used to single-player RPGs. But it also creates unexpected dents in the difficulty curve. The early game feels well-balanced and offers a decent challenge. Upon gaining the first companion around level 8, combat all of a sudden gets a whole lot easier. For example, my heavily armored Bounty Hunter with his devastating gadgets started receiving heals from his first companion Mako. Experienced players looking for a greater challenge in solo play should dismiss companions and only summon them to overcome particularly tough situations.

It’s not without minor flaws, but generally I like the companions system a lot. Unlocking additional crew members feels very rewarding. A highlight of every Smuggler career is gaining a personal Wookiee sidekick, while Bounty Hunters recruit the services of an irresistibly cute Jawa. Upgrading companions with better gear and managing their combat abilities are great gameplay additions and learning more about their personalities adds a little extra sparkle to the Star Wars atmosphere.

Occupants of interplanetary craft

After gaining the first companion and picking an advanced class, getting access to a personal spaceship is the next highlight in the career of an Old Republic hero. Players are given the keys to their interplanetary rides as a story quest reward somewhere around character level 15. Traveling to different planets requires entering the ship’s interior at the local spaceport and selecting the destination on a galaxy map. Space travel happens rather quickly on autopilot, no navigational skill required.

The 17 planets that can be visited offer a mix of familiar locales from the movies and new settings. Each world caters to a certain character level range. The iconic deserts of Tatooine are designed for characters in their mid-twenties while the ice landscape of Hoth offers challenges for the level range 37 and up. Other famous locations include Alderaan and Coruscant. The less well-known planets hold their own, offering diverse landscapes ranging from jungles to futuristic cities.

The Old Republic players don’t control their ship directly – with the notable exception of arcade missions. The galaxy map offers several space battles, which grant character experience points and the occasional ship upgrade upon completion. The space gameplay is radically different from the planet-based questing and reminiscent of 1990s 3D action games such as Star Fox or Star Wars Rebel Assault. Essentially these missions are “rail shooters”, meaning that the ship is flying on autopilot and the player focuses on evading obstacles and targeting hostiles with lasers and missiles.

Those who expect to freely navigate their ship in a 3D space will probably feel disappointed. The ship combat missions are just a simple and entertaining diversion, designed to recreate the excitement of space battles in the Star Wars movies. I enjoy the arcade nature of these interludes, as they are fast-paced and good-looking, with beautiful planet backdrops, enemy fighters whizzing around large frigates and asteroids threatening to dent my ship’s armor. Space missions are a fun distraction that can be completely skipped.

Playing nice with (or against) others

Much has been said about the solo-friendliness of The Old Republic. In many regards the game feels like a hybrid between traditional MMORPGs and Bioware’s 2003 single-player RPG Knights of the Old Republic. But it’s a persistent online world after all with plenty of opportunities to play with or against other players. Users keen on the thrill of “player vs. player” confrontation can even choose a PVP server, where it’s open season once you explore beyond the starting worlds. For more casual players, I strongly recommend regular PVE servers where players of the opposing faction can’t attack at will, as being “ganked” while questing can be an irritating experience.

Fighting other players on regular servers is limited to three designated warzones that can be entered from character level 10 on. Empire and Republic form teams that try to win by achieving different goals. Three nodes have to be conquered and defended on the Alderaan Civil War map. Voidstar offers Assault-style gameplay with both teams alternating in the roles of attackers and defenders. And in the Huttball scenario, players try to carry a ball into the other team’s end zone. The ball carrier can pass the ball to the nearest player but must be careful not to hand it over to an enemy (my completion rates tend to be in Tim Tebow territory.

Up to four players can form a party for some cooperative fun. Each planet has challenging missions designed specifically for groups and heroic areas that are filled with tougher opponents and better loot. The most exciting group activities are Flashpoints, which offer story-driven quests and tough boss battles in a particular environment. Requiring a balanced group and well-coordinated combat tactics, Flashpoints offer an experience similar to World of Warcraft’s instanced dungeons. High-level characters can also participate in Operations, designed for large raid groups of 8 – 16 players.

The best MMORPG of the post-WoW era

For anyone with even a faint interest in role-playing games, The Old Republic is easily worth the price of admission, as the game delivers a great starting experience. The first 20 character levels are filled with juicy motivation carrots dangling in front of the player’s nose all the time: learning the hero’s background story, gaining the first companion, leaving the starting planet, choosing an advanced class and earning a personal starship. Factor in the usual joys of playing RPGs, like leveling up, learning new abilities and equipping better gear, and the result is a high dose of addictiveness.

Not unlike real life, some of that freshness and excitement wears off once a character becomes a 20-something. But there’s always the thrill of advancing to new planets and unlocking additional companions. Those Star Wars worlds look great and offer a good visual variety, although there are few opportunities to interact with inhabitants other than quest givers and vendors.

The core gameplay – character progression and combat – is conservative almost to a fault. But after the failure of SOE’s more experimental (and less entertaining) Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG, which just shut down for good, it’s understandable why the developers stayed close to the proven formula of World of Warcraft (whose development in turn was influenced by EverQuest). Even the Emperor would be forgiving.

Talk the talk and walk the walk

The Old Republic’s story and voiced dialogues are so well executed that I have a hard time focusing on playing just one character. The pace settles down a bit upon leaving the starting world, as the emphasis shifts from class-specific story missions to more generic world quests that are accessible to other professions as well. Still, the story arcs and their cinematic presentation set new standards for the MMORPG genre and do a great job of keeping me motivated in advancing my characters

For such a complex game the learning curve is pleasantly moderate and the user interface sticks close to MMORPG standards. The game mostly does a good job of always letting the player know where to go for mission progress. But why does the important advanced class selection require players to visit an easy-to-miss character on a space station? And for a science fiction world, there sure is a lot of running around involved to reach mission targets. Personal speeder bikes only become accessible at level 25 and the walking speed boost “Sprint” brings relief from level 14 on (the Force only knows what keeps my hero from jogging any earlier).

The game performed well during the early access period from December 13 – 19. I didn’t experience any crashes or major bugs, but had to wait up to 50 minutes in server queues during busy evening hours. The year-end holiday period will be taxing times with the influx of many new players. Bioware has already begun adding additional game servers to cope with traffic demands.

Those server queues are not the only indication that the community is strong with this one. There are already independent game databases, web comics and dozens of fan sites dedicated to The Old Republic, which is only available for Windows PCs. Minimum system requirements are higher than for World of Warcraft.

Those pesky monthly payments

Regrettably, there are no alternatives to the “all you can play” flat rate of about $15 per month. It has to be seen how much additional content will be added to the game on a regular basis to justify this fee. Electronic Arts obviously feels that they have a premium product that wasn’t designed for the free-to-play business model. But with a mainstream license such as Star Wars, why not offer a cheaper subscription fee for a limited number of hours? Casual players who can’t sink enormous amounts of time into the game would be more willing to stick around.

How long will customers continue paying monthly fees? Are there enough interesting things to do once players hit the highest character level 50? This early in the game’s lifecycle, it’s impossible to tell. For this review, I played The Old Republic with several character classes during the late beta stages and the early access period of the release version. My impressions are based on early to mid game content. Just experiencing the different classes and their unique gameplay mechanics and stories make this game a worthwhile purchase.

Conclusion

The borderlines between MMORPGs and single-player games are not what they used to be. Star Wars: The Old Republic successfully blends engrossing storytelling with a persistent online world that can be explored alone or with other players. The character classes and the cinematic presentation do the Star Wars license proud. Let’s bear in mind that MMORPGs are moving targets for review scores. They are being expanded all the time and are never as “finished” as a single-player game. Based on on my first 40 hours of game play, I rate Star Wars The Old Republic 89 out of 100.