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The Old Republic and the Lower MMO Standard

A look at the BioWare Star Wars MMORPG and where it fails as an immersive story-driven game.

I have read several reviews of BioWare Austin's Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR), and it always takes me by surprise when the game's story is praised and the overall experience is deemed excellent. I personally think that TOR is better than World of Warcraft (WoW), and that is the standard by which massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are judged these days. However, TOR was crafted by BioWare and set as an informal sequel to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a classic of role-playing games. That is the standard by which TOR should be judged, and the one by which it fails.

TOR has often been described as WoW with lightsabers, but the more accurate analogy is TOR is WoW with cinematographic conversations. The format of the two games is very similar, but where in WoW you have to read quest information in a window before clicking on a button to accept said quest, TOR will serve up a full-on conversation with one or two non-player characters (NPC) and will offer dialogue choices. These usually matter little, and the only options at the end are to accept the quest, accept it with an attitude or refuse the quest. Of course, if you want your character to progress and be rewarded, you will accept the quest.

The problem with these quests is that they are extremely formulaic, which is a side effect of having to write hundreds of quests. It always begins with some character that has been tasked with doing something, but can't seem to get it done. You come by, and seeing as you are so impressive, the NPC will give his task to you and give you a reward when you complete it. Perhaps this is meant to make the player feel heroic, but how heroic can you feel in a world where everyone is too lazy to accomplish their given jobs? And that is even without taking into consideration the fact that thousands of other heroes like your character have already completed that quest. That, however, is a failing of MMORPGs in general and not just TOR.

Quests will generally give you the choice, at some point, to be good or evil. And that is it. Some of these choices might be difficult, but there is never a shade of gray. You can only choose between two options, and you can see which one will give you light-side points or dark-side points. It is neat for character progression, as some gear restrictions are tied to your alignment, but it leaves the game feeling lifeless. Worse, choices have no real consequences, except for said alignment points. Your companion might also like you less, but that is easily remedied with a gift, or ten, bought from a vendor. That being said, companion affection simply opens up quests for you to complete; there is no danger of your companion attacking you or leaving. Once again, no consequences.

But wait. Saying that choices have no consequences is a big claim. Let me paint you a picture or two. Suppose that you decide to let the knave go instead of slaying him; will you ever see him again? No. Will he relapse and steal or kill again? Not a clue, which is to say that your choice will not affect any other quest thereafter. But surely, in the more involved class-specific quests, who you kill or spare changes the story somewhat? Barely, and that is the most disappointing aspect of this much-anticipated game by BioWare.

For example, and this is something of a little spoiler, as an Imperial Agent, you will run into a Sith Lord who has faked his own death earlier in the story and who now plans to take control of the Dark Council. You can either join him and betray the presence of Watcher Two aboard, or you can capture him for the Dark Council. If you join him, you will thereafter see him a couple of times after he has taken control of the Empire and have people call you his Hand a few times, but at the beginning of the last chapter he will leave for a dubious reason and never be heard from again. Either way, it changes almost nothing for the rest of the story.

Things get a little more involved with an NPC you can spare or kill at the end of the middle chapter and might actually change the game's ending, but that is the only exception. You would think that helping a Sith Lord take control of the Empire would have dire ramifications, but you would be wrong. I have not played through every class, but as the rest of the game is so formulaic and all classes have three acts, I assume they are similar.

TOR does deliver a unique story for each of its eight classes, but this is no accomplishment as the content specific to that story is rare in comparison to the shared content. If anything, TOR is an accomplishment in the number of hours a team of writers have put in the creation of a single game.

Also suffering in this game is the feeling of immersion. It is hard to feel immersed when you constantly succeed where entire platoons have failed, and you are indeed sent alone with your companion on missions that have led entire groups of trained and armed men to their deaths. It is also hard to feel immersed when your companion is running around with every other character that shares your class. It is hard to feel immersed when you run through a building you have liberated from an enemy faction, yet still being overrun with the enemies you vanquished. Most of all, it is hard to feel immersed when you can complete a Flashpoint over and over again, with the people you cruelly killed suddenly alive again and ready to be betrayed once more.

By most accounts, the Imperial Agent storyline is the best of the class-specific stories, and I agree that it offers good plot twists, but if it were a single-player game, it would be nothing to write home about, especially considering BioWare's portfolio, and the world quests shared by all classes in a faction would be downright forgettable. Yet, I read in quite a few places that The Old Republic feels like a single-player game with multiplayer features. If that were the case, we would say that BioWare was sleeping at the wheel and has delivered a static experience that failed to build on the studio's previous offerings. Instead, it is hailed as a great game, hence the lower MMORPG standard. It is more engaging than World of Warcraft, therefore it is gold.

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