Not everyone is going to like The Old Republic, but it has a lot to like about it. If you're a gnarly veteran of many an MMO, you may find TOR refreshing or not your cup of tea. If you've never played an MMO in your life, TOR may surprise you. If you take away one thing from this review, I would say that you need to look at the game, try it, and form your own opinion. MMOs with a subscription are a big ongoing investment; after a few weeks in the game, I believe TOR is worth that investment, but it's very much dependent on what *you* want to get out of an MMO.
What is TOR? Cutting through the marketing blurb, it is a relatively standard MMORPG where you have a hotbar of skills and run around saving the galaxy, but with a few huge twists. This is an RPG that contains 8 distinct stories, and practically the entire content of the MMO is voiced. If you've played Mass Effect or KOTOR, you will know the drill; Bioware's usual excellent storytelling, coupled with some great voice acting. In many ways TOR is an homage to & continuation of KOTOR & KOTOR2, set around 200 years later in the Old Republic (hence the name); it extends the saga which began with Revan and then followed with the Exile, and without spoilers, lets' just say it ties up a few loose ends.
What does this mean for you the player? If you get emotively involved even a tiny amount in voiced story in RPGs, you will find yourself caught up in TOR. Perhaps the greatest difference compared to any other MMO before it is that quests in, say, LOTRO, to kill ten boars are just some text you click on and go do. In TOR, the game does its level best to make you understand why you have to go kill something and the impact of your decisions around that. This leads nicely onto choices - yes, this is an MMO with choices, and no reloading an earlier saved game either for obvious reasons. Characters in dialogue get the now-classic Bioware dialogue wheel, and are able to respond in various ways. You can mould your character; are they sarcastic & snarky, or earnest & caring, or just in it for the money? As with KOTOR, you gain companions, with whom you develop your story, outfit, and can take with you into the game world. These will vary in their capabilities, but all players start either with a heavy-armoured tanking companion or a healing companion, to take the edge off needing those specific archetypes around (there is of course no substitute for a real capable player).
Conversations bring two additional mechanics not really seen in MMOs before: some choices can yield Light or Dark Side points (akin to Renegade & Paragon in ME), leading your character down a given path over time, or you can try and stay neutral. There are benefits for going far down a given path, and Bioware intend to add some for staying neutral as well. Conversations whilst grouped with other players has the game roll dice to determine whose choice wins (though it respects your individual light/dark choices regardless), and you gain social points for conversations whilst grouped, unlocking a variety of cosmetic items. This yields both surprises & replay value - one player may choose to spare someone and the game takes a given course from that.
The game world is currently at launch set across around eighteen planets, and fifty levels. Your personal story falls across several Acts of what is currently Chapter 1, which gives you a good hint that Bioware aren't exactly finished, nor would we expect so in an evolving MMO. The content of the game is relatively linear in that each planet as it stands is bracketed for a given level, but you do revisit planets later in your story. Content is essentially split into:
1) Personal missions, which can be grouped for, solo is not a requirement, but they advance your story specifically and so other players present are mostly observers outside of combat
2) Standard missions, which also can be grouped for but are usually feasible with just yourself and your companion at the appropriate level. These can be taken or declined as you prefer.
3) Heroic missions, which require a group, offer much greater reward for that investment, but are definitely optional.
All of the above content happens 'out in the world', though occasionally part of them is inside an instanced area if the content is complex enough that multiple groups running it would just get confusing. You will come across red & green 'doors' in the world that are essentially the instanced parts that separate things out for your individual story or key encounters so that groups don't disrupt each other too much but you still will see everyone running around the map. The scale of the worlds is impressive; it's pretty easy to lose twenty or thirty people into an area and wonder where everyone is, but it's very rare that I've not come across at least one or two other people in doing even the most remote activity.
There is also some additional instanced content akin to Warcraft dungeons; these are flashpoints. These are where your party essentially shuttles off to somewhere in your own instance to play more challenging group content. Some flashpoints are very much standard tank,heal,dps boring affairs, and others are very innovative & clever in their execution. Your mileage may vary. Finally there are larger scale affairs called operations which are akin to raids. The game is as solo or grouped as you make it - it is entirely feasible to achieve max level solo but you will have missed out on some content.
Crafting is quite innovatively handled. You gain three crew skills, two of which are gathering skills, and one which is the actual crafting skill. You gather materials in the game, or by paying for your companions to go off on crafting missions to gather more esoteric materials. One very nice aspect is the way you can have either yourself or your companion harvest materials, so there is less trudging around and more 'go over there and pick that up'. The actual crafting is done by your companions; as you gain companions, your crafting ability will scale up and you'll be able to get more done in the same time. The mechanics are pretty straightforward - you learn basic recipes, reverse engineer results from those to learn more advanced recipes, and repeat, with some nice 'critical' results yielding superior versions, both of recipes & results. The end result is a crafting system that requires time & investment to become truly capable in your given craft, but doesn't feel like it's overly onerous compared to some out there. As there are six crafting professions and numerous gathering skills, one can expect a fairly active economy as populations stabilise.
Space combat is currently solo only but fun enough as a little diversion within the game; it's very reminiscent of Starfox and is not very complex, but it's still a good addition to the game. It offers a lot of potential for future expansions into more complex & group mechanisms, and given that few MMOs combine both ground & space combat at all, this is noteworthy all by itself. It's certainly an area I'd like to see real expansion in.
The game is filled to the brim with lore & codex entries and other little nuggets of things to discover. Datacrons can be found that require some puzzling to figure out how to reach them, and provide more lore entries & tiny stat boosts. Despite the linear and slightly rail-roaded feel that most quest-based MMOs yield, there's a fair bit on planets to go out & find.
Replay value is actually quite high. With two factions, two major branches of choices & approach, and eight stories, there's a lot to try out with multiple characters. Even the same side-missions will feel different as the NPCs will greet & react to you in quite different manners - an alien bounty hunter in the Empire is viewed very differently to a Sith Lord for example. There is a legacy system that kicks in once one character has reached the end of Act 1 (around level 35), where any additional characters subsequently played add to a legacy level system which will unlock future rewards (yet to be determined) - one existing benefit is the ability to add a shared legacy surname to your characters across your server.
From a technical perspective, the game has been extremely stable, the servers solid, and general performance good. Even in busy areas like the Fleet the game copes with a hundred people running around you. Graphics looks good & suitably Star Wars, sound effects all fit, and there are enough graphical options to allow the game to be tailored to lower end machines. It is more demanding than some other MMOs, but the quality of the result is also equivalently higher.
For all of the above praise, the game is not without flaws or areas that need improvement. PvP is a little lacklustre currently, and I would not go into TOR as it stands looking for the same open world PvP one sees in WoW or EVE for example simply due to the planets breaking things up. To compare with EVE, there isn't really an large area of EVE low-security space currently. There are of course quite a lot of bugs; I don't think I've played an MMO yet that didn't have its fair share of them. There is, especially relevant to PvP, under investigation right now an ability delay bug that is causing some difficulty around cooldown and reacting to other players, for example. Most however are simple bits of polish needed and will get updated as the game evolves. My own experience with Customer Service has been pretty good; a lot of stock responses but they do respond to more complex or urgent issues in a reasonable manner most of the time. Considering that the number of CS tickets (about any and all issues) went into the millions on day two due to the sheer number of players, that's fairly good going. Read more ›