Given that I'm on holiday and that I've had a bit of free time, I've spent the last couple of days playing Star Wars: The New Republic. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's going to use the "Emperor's New Clothes" line in the coming weeks and months about The Old Republic. I haven't quite made my mind up about the game yet, but the obvious one-liner is that it's the bastard love child of World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Given that these are two of my top five games ever made, by rights, The Old Republic should be the end of my social life and career. But somehow, I'm not convinced quite yet...
Bioware's big claim for The Old Republic is that it's supposedly a game-changer for the MMORPG genre, in that it's resolutely story-based and no expense has been spared in the production. Every single line is voice-acted and the experience is undoubtedly cinematic with interactive cutscenes and set pieces, but the question for me is, does this make it a better game? More on that later...
Here's where I am so far: in the last two days of play I've rolled a Bounty Hunter and a Jedi Knight and levelled them up to level 12 and level 11, respectively. It should be said at this point that the Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent starting area on Hutta is fairly terrible. Dull, ugly, not much variety in terms of enemies or scenery, it's a fairly depressing place to spend your first half dozen or so hours in the game. While that's more to do with the planet itself than the game engine (which is impressive for an MMO - at its best, it's really quite pretty and expansive indeed, not nearly to the level of Skyrim of course, but the game engine is a quite massive step up for those familiar with WoW) - I'd question the decision of the designers to have you start one of the more iconic character classes on such a horrible little muckball. Tython, the Jedi Knight/Jedi Consular starting planet is much prettier by comparison, so it's a bit of a shame that it takes ten levels for you to earn your lightsaber (in itself, wearily predictable) and that the prologue is beset by the main enemies you fight (the ludicrously named "Flesh Raiders", which sounds like a rejected Russ Meyer film title) lack variety and are spectacularly tedious.
I'm not convinced by the presentation, either. The cutscenes are obviously given a greater level of graphical fidelity than the main game engine, so while the story cutscenes (which take place in instanced Story areas, so you don't get munched by mobs in the meantime) are immersive and quite well done, the biggest issue I have with them is that the time you spend watching the cutscene is time you could really be spending doing something productive in the game. At least the cutscenes can be subtitled and are skippable, so if you're a very swift reader like myself, you can read the exposition, rather than listen to it being drawled over in Star Warsy mock-British accents. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for story in MMOs. One of the key things I play World of Warcraft for is the story and the world lore. But the game doesn't try and force it down your throat - you can take it at your own pace and access as much detail as you like. I suppose, in modern Star Wars style, The Old Republic is caught up a little bit in its own gravitas, by focusing on delivering an "experience" rather than just being a game to play.
It's easy to see why, because mechanically speaking, The Old Republic isn't really pushing any boundaries. Combat is an MMOtastic blend of cooldown management and quick-button mashing (just like WoW, then) and if you look too closely at the ability descriptions, you can see the class balancing at work. That is, all the powers are essentially identical in effect, they just have different animations. So while, as a Bounty Hunter, you can do pretty much everything that the Bounty Hunter in the Deceived trailer can (only in rather more crappy armour), somehow it feels a little empty. Again, this is more of a criticism of the genre in general than The Old Republic in particular, but if you're really trying to make the definitive statement in MMORPGs, you shouldn't really just be repackaging World of Warcraft in Jedi Robes.
This isn't to say that the game is bad. I don't think Bioware have truly created a bad game yet - an average one or two, perhaps (Neverwinter Nights, anybody?) - but I would be lying if I said at this point I was blown away by the game. I can see myself giving it a chance for a few months to see what kind of direction Bioware take it, and see how the game changes as you get characters up past level 20 and 30, but can I see myself playing it in five years time? Not really. Not unless it goes free-to-play, which I expect it (and WoW too, incidentally) will do in the next couple of years.
My most memorable experiences with the game so far have been with playing with small parties in Flashpoints - the story-based instanced missions - which are effectively The Old Republic's dungeons. Having smaller groups for instances (with gaps able to be filled by the surprisingly effective AI Companions), makes the dungeon content more accessible to everyone and the Social Points system actively rewards you for not playing the game solo. Obviously, it's early days yet for the game and I've not played any of the PvP content yet, but at this point, if there's one thing that's going to keep me motivated to play the game, it's going to be the flashpoints, because the world design isn't open enough to really reward exploration for the sake of sightseeing and the story so far isnt doing anything beyond what I'd expect of a Star Wars game - it's diverting rather than utterly compelling - doing enough to keep me interested without totally grabbing me by the lapels and forcing me to want to sit down and play.
So is The Old Republic a game changer for the MMORPG genre? Not from what I've seen. Not by a long shot. Is it a failure? Again, no - with the amount of polish and backing from Bioware and EA, The Old Republic will be a success, at least in the short term, though that's not to say that it's bug or glitch-free. Also, reports of the horrific server queues (2 hours plus) experienced by some players are not what you'd want to be hearing about a game in launch week. I've not experienced any queues myself - the PVE server I'm on isn't completely barren, but has a healthy population to be getting into groups easily, without having to wait to get onto the server. I'd say that it's an interesting experiment in terms of exploring how to tell stories in MMOs, but I think that the storytelling emphasis has gone too far. Players play games to be in control, not to watch cutscenes. There's a balance to be struck somewhere in telling a personalised story and allowing the player to do stuff without having to wait for hours and hours of exposition to play itself out. Star Wars is at its best not when people are sitting (or standing) around mumbling incoherently about midichlorians or the Living Force, hokey religions or ancient weapons, but when the Tibanna Gas hits the fan and the action starts and doesn't stop for half an hour.
I'll be interested to see what happens to the game over the next six months, particularly if they do something with the obligatory, godawful standard GUI (for Yoda's sake, someone show them the Bartender mod for WoW!), and how Bioware reacts to what I expect will be pretty vociferous feedback on how they should improve the game. I'll give the game a few months, but with WoW's next expansion around the corner (which I can't say I'm too fussed about, frankly) and Guild Wars 2 due next year (which I am most certainly fussed about!), The Old Republic's got its work cut out to keep its head above the murky waters of Hutta's polluted swamps... I'm calling it here and now: Free-to-play within two years, three at most.