With my first full spring break while employed as a teacher on the horizon and the recent creation of the Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) 7 day trial it was clearly time to really give this game a try. Its creators, BioWare, had graced me with the beta weekend but I only managed to swing one day on that weekend and another day on their free trial weekend. Both had managed to peak my curiosity, but my feelings after the beta weekend led me to the conclusion that SWTOR simply was not a next generation MMORPG. It mimicked too much of what World of Warcraft (WoW) had brought to the genre almost seven years ago with few advances in the overall mechanics of this kind of game.
The primary concepts of MMOs are ever present, adapted to the Star Wars universe. A game that levels to 50, classes that include the roles of tank, DPS, and healer, and zones designed for various level ranges broken into planets rather than various parts of a continent. After my beta weekend, I determined that too much was the same, and I simply wasn’t impressed with the changes. However, I have trouble turning down free video game time on a good game, so into the trial week I plunged.
One thing that struck me the first time I played SWTOR was how like Dragon Age it was. Not surprising considering how BioWare made them both. But what I hadn’t realized until jumping into the 7 day trial was how engaging this made the game. I loved the Dragon Age’s detailed storylines and numerous dialogue options. With Dragon Age 2 I feared adding someone else’s voice to MY character would destroy the sense of ownership I felt. This wasn’t the case at all. The addition of a voice made my character come alive, even though she didn’t always say what I wanted. SWTOR had brought this feature into a MMO, and I loved it.
When it comes to significant additions to the MMO genre another major feature of SWTOR is a companion system somewhat similar to Eldar Scroll’s Skyrim. Though containing a far more limited choice of companions (five per starting class) and only being able to experience a single companion choice in each class during the trial due to the level cap, the addition of a companion made my game much more enjoyable. It meant that I could have assistance against significant opponents and I could play solo without having to build a specific solo class type. Because of the presence of a tank companion, I could build my ranged sniper and actually fulfill my role as DPS without fear of anything that reached me killing me instantly. I could solo with a healer and play healer to my companion.
However, it wasn’t until my wife decided to pick up a trial account that I really saw the boon of the companion system. SWTOR contains numerous instanced dungeon type quests called flashpoints. Flashpoints are designed for and limited to four characters. While having a two person combo in other MMOs made some opponents more feasible, taking on serious challenges was still impossible. But with the SWTOR companion system, our two person duo became a fully functioning group. The two of us and our two companions were able to handle the big challenges appropriately. We weren’t as effective as a full of group of actual players, but anyone who has spent serious time in a MMO knows the struggles of establishing a quality dungeon running group. Considering I’m not willing to make the investment to make friends online, being able to experience a majority of the content with only a couple of players is a necessity for my enjoyment.
In playing Dragon Age 2 I experienced three main frustrations: the lack of a multiplayer mode, frustration of having to control a handful of characters that never did what I wanted them to (even with numerous tactics set) and a very linear storyline that railroaded me into numerous lose-lose situations with an ending I wasn’t fond of. With SWTOR being an MMO the multiplayer issue was resolved. The companion system and companion AI meant that the companions pretty much always did what I wanted. If they were a healer -- they healed, if they were a tank -- they taunted, and they always shot at my enemies. Finally, in my trial I couldn’t see where the end of each individual class storyline would take me but because of the endless nature of a MMO, I wouldn’t be left with a feeling of abandonment and resentment towards the writers as I could still play on after my quests ended.
I’d like to be clear that I don’t feel that SWTOR is everything I could hope for in an MMO. It fails to contain the vast economy and sense of danger that is present in Eve Online. It sticks to the same old taunt, heal, DPS mantra that has been present in MMOs for almost fifteen years since Everquest. But it has made progress in zoning, storytelling, and playability over WoW and Everquest 2. As progress in MMORPGs go SWTOR is a small step up from the old classics, but as the RPG genre goes it represents a large step up from Dragon Age 2. We’re still debating spending the money on it until our new baby is due in August. But I’m sure I can get similar value from it as I did from Dragon Age 2 and Skyrim, if not more.