The gravest mistake the producers of the latest Star Wars movies ever made was to think they could tell a great story. In doing so they failed to realise that the greatest of all Star Wars stories have already been told and told repeatedly, in school playgrounds, at friend’s houses and almost anywhere where fans of the series may roam and gather. Disappointment was inevitable, as was the decidedly unpleasant nature of much of the backlash.
George Lucas openly admitted that seeing kids with the toys was in effect more important to him than the movies and stories he himself had made. That it gave so many people inspiration to imagine this or that was ultimately more fulfilling. So whilst his own attempt to rekindle the franchise collapsed like so much ill-made soufflé, Star Wars fans came up with their own stories and their own ideas that, more than anything else, have allowed the series to thrive for so many years in spite of everything.
A few of these fans were lucky enough to get their stories made, be it in books or in video games, and the Knights of the Old Republic series remains, for me at least, the apex of these. Sure enough, Obsidian’s sequel was marred with technical issues, but they both showcased the great opportunities afforded to RPGs set in its universe. The light/dark choices, the different planets and species to encounter, it’s an ideal setting.
Yet we never got Knights of the Old Republic 3, instead we got this, The Old Republic, Bioware’s Star Wars MMO. Originally released in 2011 it existed as part of a time when MMOs were the cat’s meow, and publisher EA were, and are, nothing if not slaves to economically attractive fashions. I remember playing it at the time yet struggle to remember too much. I do remember enjoying myself though; the use of full voice acting for NPCs was extremely ambitious at the time and even now is a relatively rarity in the genre.
Nevertheless that was then and this now, so to speak. In 2020, 9 years since release one would imagine that no small number of improvements would have been implemented. A number of expansions have since been released to some degree of acclaim and with the franchise once more in the wider cultural spotlight what better time to take another look at one of the few older MMORPGs that World of Warcraft couldn’t kill.
It goes without saying that the game is vast, both in terms of scope and just general content. 8 class stories up to level 50 and beyond to 75, a multitude of races, sub-classes, group missions, expansions and the like, it’s a dizzying amount of game to try and grapple with so be under no illusions as to the limited nature of this critique. As someone who likes a definitive end to games, The Old Republic is anathema to me, yet its Star Wars and a role-playing game, so I’ll play it, although who knows for how long.
Well I do know how long; however long it takes for me to think that £8.99 per month is no longer worth it. You can play it for free but it puts many restrictions on things like character limits, inventory space, and access to the expansions etc. so pulling the trigger on getting a subscription seems relatively refreshing rather than running the gauntlet of cartel coins, not that they don’t wall off a bunch of cool items behind that paywall regardless.
It’s these modern vices more than anything else that drags the experience down. As otherwise The Old Republic was and is, a lot of fun. I tried all the classes, which do offer a good deal of variation, but ended up primarily with a Jedi Guardian tank (hoping for what would essentially be a KOTOR 3 story) and my original Sith Sorcerer character from 2011 which I left hanging at level 45.
The game holds up well visually, even with some blurry textures at the highest settings it’s certainly not an ugly game given its age, which is rare for Bioware to be honest. The planet environments are pretty and lush with lots of colossal structures to give a sense of scale and awe. Character movement is kind of silly with its jaunty gallop but as mentioned with every NPC being voiced the world comes alive and feels more vibrant, even if everyone is mostly rooted to the spot. One thing that hasn’t aged at all is the music and it is really quite superb, running all the classic Star Wars signature motifs along with its own, often surprisingly affecting, arrangements.
Combat is classic tab-targeting so it doesn’t have the free form action of some more modern MMOs but attacks are flashy and impactful so even if combat feels a bit dull, it generally doesn’t look dull. The flash of a lightsabre, the red-dot wind-up of a sniper shot; there are lots of flashy animations to help hide the somewhat archaic gameplay design. The variety in classes and the use of companions do elevate things above classic World of Warcraft level, but this is pretty traditional stuff for the genre as a whole.
The variety in classes is also readily apparent in the storytelling. Each class has its own tale and it’s quite impressive how much effort had clearly gone into each. The quality inevitably varies, but few games, let alone MMOs which tend to view stories like adventure games view gameplay, manage to have such ambitions in creating an appealing context. Most missions involve going to a place and killing X or interacting with Y but The Old Republic’s greatest strength is to veil all this in something other than a quest for higher numbers.
There is still that of course and the loot system is usually quite excellent in the ‘ooh-shiny’ stakes. Weapons and armours are changed up regularly, appearances and outfits can be customised and even though the fancier of things are pay-walled off, the experience is still good value in supplying you with a steady stream of gear to play around with.
As an enthusiast for gaming fashions it can be a disheartening struggle in today’s climate to be adequately catered for (i.e. Not exploited); cosmetic items are usually the first to get carved up on the micro transaction table and even though I am prepared to pay for an MMO subscription for a month or two (to get something close to the full experience) there are lines I simply will not cross. The Old Republic is, alas, not immune to this disease and there is, as ever with these things, a sense of ‘what if’ as to the kinds of cool rewards you could potentially get though, whisper it quietly, playing the actual game. Nevertheless, despite the restrictions on the free-to-play service it’s hard to baulk too much at what can be accessed for nothing.
The whole light and dark mechanic is present and correct although its impact seems mostly superficial. Aside from a change of line here and a reaction there the longer term effects were noticeable by their absence. Some items are restricted to either side but by in large central story elements are fixed and whether you’re a saint or psychopath bares little beyond a reflection of your choices in the moment to moment decisions. Some of these decisions are quite interesting but again it feels like something of missed opportunity to play around with shifting loyalties and their wider consequences.
Nevertheless The Old Republic, nearly a decade on, is still one of the best MMORPGs I’ve played. Its sensibilities are clearly taken from Warcraft but few Masters are as wise and as ancient as Blizzard’s seemingly immortal warrior. Its production values are high; it has a compelling and popular setting and along with The Secret World attempts to offer some actual storytelling and proper characters. I’ll never be the kind of person who’ll rack up thousands of hours in these things; other people generally terrify me and the inevitable grind eventually becomes unbearable, but even for a largely solo RPG player The Old Republic offers far more than most in keeping the daylight from the magic.