I've been a subscriber to The Old Republic off and on since two days after launch. Back when it came out my experience with MMOs was getting a character to 30 in DCUO in a weekend. The Old Republic was pretty much my first dive into MMORPGs. I won't sit here and claim it's been a flawless thing; I'd go so far as to say that the game wasn't all that good when it came out. I wasn't a huge fan of playing it, but I stuck around because of the friends I had made and the stories we told in our RP guild on our wonderful RP server. Since launch some quality of life elements have been added, the game has underwent fundamental changes in regards to UI, skill trees, gearing, and everything in between. Today was the release of patch 4.0 and the early access for the new expansion Knights of the Fallen Empire.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is an absolutely different game now.
Before diving into the contents of the expansion itself, it's important that some of the changes from patch 4.0 be brought to attention. With patch 4.0 The Old Republic has essentially become a single player game with a chatroom. Some might argue that it has ALWAYS been this, but it's especially obvious now.
-Main Stats are gone. There are 'eight' base classes in the game and for the longest the classes had a main stat to worry about when gearing. Strength, Willpower, Aim, or Cunning. This was in addition to the secondary stats like Endurance, Crit, Surge, or Power. The main stats have been rolled into one stat known as Mastery. How this will influence drops in dungeons I have no idea, especially since most of the drops in group content is adaptive gear to begin with - now when a chestpiece drops everyone can need it.
-Group Content is reworked. During your time on planets you often come across missions meant for a group of four people. These missions, called heroics in the game, have been changed to be done with two people. And by 'two people' they mean 'you and your A.I. companion'. It's not just the heroics that have changed, story heavy dungeons have been retooled so that you can do them in solo mode. Solo mode was introduced in the last expansion. You get a droid that is a one man raid team to run you through a flash point so you can experience the story without having to group up. Not every dungeon is a solo mode affair now, just the ones important to the overall story of the game. Which is the ones people care about anyway.
-Companions aren't special anymore. Every class has five A.I. companions that join you at various points in the game. (With two optional ones that can be purchased). These five companions all fit into a specific role. You had a healer, a melee dps, a ranged dps, a melee tank, and a ranged tank. Most players used their healer companion because why not. Now, however, every companion can do any role so now you can use your favorites. You want your beefy Force eating monster slave to stop tanking and heal you instead? Now you can. You want your tech savvy, hologram loving scientist medic to stop healing and tank for you? Fuckin' go right ahead. Now you're free to use whoever you want.
-Companions STILL aren't special. Gearing in an MMO is rarely fun. Gearing for an entire team is less so. In SWTOR there was always the guy who needed on a drop 'for companion' without asking. That excuse will no longer fly because companions don't NEED gear anymore. You can equip stuff on them for the sake of cosmetics, but their stats increase as you level and not with gear.
-Seriously, companions aren't important now. In typical BioWare fashion your companions respond based on your influence. You gain or lose approval and that gates their conversations/quests/romance. That's all gone now. Oh sure you still gain points with them, but now there's no direct number attached just a 'so and so approves' or 'so and so appreciates that' or straight up Telltale style 'so and so will remember that'. Rather than gating conversations, quests, and romances by how much they like you, now all that shit is unlocked as you progress in the questing process. So if you spent the whole game ignoring someone, just get to the end of your class shit and suddenly your companions will spill their story even if you don't want them to.
-Questing? Fuck that! Now that the new expansion is out, BioWare REALLY wants you to play it. So much so that they've changed the leveling process. Used to be that you went to a planet, did all the quests in an area (barring a heroic or two) and move on to the next area until you got bored or the planet ended. Now there are side quests which you shrug off and things known as Story Missions. These are the things you'll want to do and they consist of your class specific missions and the planetary questline for each planet. In essence: find the big purple icons and just do those missions. It's streamlined so you can just trim the fat and get the bare essentials all the way to 60.
Those are all fundamental changes to the game that make it easier to play. You really have no reason to group up for anything other than end game gearing/content now. But of course the main draw of the expansion is the new story known as Knights of the Fallen Empire.
Knights of the Fallen Empire feels like what The Old Republic should've been. When it opens, either with you rolling a freshly made 60 or your main character, it acts like a big fat undo button. Any previous companion or story or planet quests get cancelled, the Star Wars title crawl plays, and you're dumped into a series of events that revolve solely around you. It's all largely phased off. The focus is suddenly less on the civil war but more about you, the player.
Essentially the story is about this group called The Eternal Empire of Zakuul who shows up, fucks shit up now that the Republic and Empire are weakened from the LAST expansion, and after shit hits the fan you're frozen in carbonite for five years and, once freed, find yourself having to deal with this Eternal Empire now that there pretty much is no longer a Republic or an Empire. Right from the start this feels way more like a Star Wars story than anything The Old Republic ever had. The antagonists are appropriately menacing and cool sounding, the heroes might as well call themselves a Rebel Alliance for how outmatched, outnumbered, and untrusting of each other they are, and rather than embarking on a series of tangentially related events, you're wrapping yourself up in the conflict directly.
Dialog scenes are much more dramatic. In the base game the conversations were flat. Two people standing and talking with some canned ass animations and repeated dialog from the player. In KOTFE, the conversations are much more engaging to watch. Faces animate! Characters will move their eyes to emote naturally. The camera will actually move to match the action going on. The game will cut to characters in different locations relative to you and watch them converse. It feels like they're telling an actual story. You'll finish a mission and the game will cut to the antagonists being up to evil shit rather than having characters tell you how evil this person is. This is the type of thing that I would've expected out of a KOTOR sequel. Past choices will come up in conversation. Characters interact with each other. You've got your own faux-Normandy/Skyhold. This content FINALLY feels like something BioWare made.
The downside is that...there's not a whole lot of it. As it stands Knights of the Fallen Empire is releasing with nine chapters out of a planned sixteen. The chapters will release monthly starting next year. The chapters are not especially long and there aren't any side missions to do. There's really no exploration involved, either. The chapters mainly consist of one area with some instances. The content is so heavily revolved around the narrative and the parts between that are less interesting. I've got two chapters left and I only played about four hours. I'm not sure if there's enough at the endgame to hold my attention while waiting for the rest of the chapters to come out.
The narrative that's there is at least enough of a carrot-on-a-stick to keep you going and the new characters are absolutely more engaging than the companions of old.
Knights of the Fallen Empire brings some much needed...well..soul to The Old Republic. Cutscenes have life to them. There's an engaging story being told. It might not be Knights of the Old Republic 3 but god dammit it's closer than it's ever been to realizing that dream.