I want to make this very clear. I do not hate The Old Republic. As infuriating as it has been this weekend, I will admit it is not without its charms.
But thankfully, I am without the hazy rose-tinted spectacles of the average Star Wars fan. I am looking at the game not as an extension of the saga, or even a prequel, but as an MMO in general. A game that is designed to capture the imagination, and leave a noticeable gap in our pockets and spare time for months, if not years. It is in this that I feel that The Old Republic falls just a little short.
For those of us not terribly versed in Star Wars, The Old Republic is initially a bewildering entry into predictable and cliche. It’s the kind of introduction that most MMOs try very hard to steer away from; here, they’re served up as the main course. Of course, one could argue this could be seen as a sort of clever and humourous take on traditional stereotypes. One COULD argue that. But without a sharp and witty delivery, something gets lost in translation. The trick is to make you chuckle or even feel slightly bewildered by being able to predict the course of events that unfold – The Old Republic, by contrast, left me a little bored.
My overwhelming sense of annoyance is reserved not for the Star Wars references – they are there, and they’re done rather well. It’s aimed more at the technical aspects of the game, and the sense that it’s being… well… RUSHED.
Let me explain.
The character creator is perhaps the most evil and depressing thing I have seen in a game for many years, and a grotesque step backwards for the genre and BioWare. The body shapes are too exaggerated, too clunky. The range of faces and hair is nice if a little bland and samey, but without a relatively believable body shape to chuck in, the whole thing just doesn’t look right. I have seen people argue this is a nod to The Clone Wars in style, but I swear that is no excuse in this day and age.
The textures and graphical charm are lacking. Now, please don’t get me confused here – I am all for cel-shading. See Champions Online. I am also for stylised visuals – see World of Warcraft. I am also for feature rich landscapes – see Rift. And I love sci-fi settings – my adoration and deep love for Tabula Rasa should be noted here. But I can’t quite get my hopes up with The Old Republic – the gear is texturised to adapt to the body types, and therefore looks like it has been spray-painted onto the character – in low-resolution spray-paint textures. The general landscapes are nice; but every now and then there’s something lacking texture or detail that reminds you this isn’t a particularly polished game. The skies look stunning – they really do – but the overall effect is a game that doesn’t seem to have any cohesive design plan. It feels a little disjointed. A little off.
Also, I’d say that the starter areas aren’t quite ready for primetime. Group-led areas are marked, but you are given little prior warning unless you have a quest marked as “heroic”. Sometimes in the course of the storyline, I found myself in group areas, but felt with a little thought, it was easily soloable. And the dialogue options – well, it’s kind of been seen and done in Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. It’s the same system. Good response, evil response, sarcastic response/neutral response. It’s not really that interesting now. BioWare have slightly overbaked that particular chestnut.
But, on the upside, it is – with some minor exceptions – a considerably less stressful affair when questing, as respawns are measured carefully. There are many options where combat can be avoided, rewarding with light/dark side credits, and the overall effect is of a world that isn’t so much about competing as getting on with it. Minimal waiting, minimal annoyance, maximum grinding.
I suppose it is terribly unfair to judge The Old Republic based on a few starter areas though. I mean, the main attraction tends to be what happens when you get on a little and find yourself in the upper echelons of the game – dungeons, raiding, dailies and that sort of thing. Time will tell if the opposite end of the game richly rewards the patient, the understanding and the sometimes deluded.
But from a pure entry-point look, I find myself standing here wondering what all the fuss is about. Compared to some of what BioWare can do, The Old Republic is… well… boring. World of Warcraft, despite its age, is still a textural, graphical and technical behemoth that dwarfs The Old Republic in almost every regard. The Old Republic should, may I say it, look a bit like Dragon Age 2. I’d go along with that. I’d even say it would make the mapping system make a certain degree of sense. That it seems to be so torn and confused makes me feel confused and depressed, and that is a dangerous place to be when you are releasing a new MMO.
Only one MMO in years has been able to rival WoW in terms of direct confrontation – and that was Rift. And Rift did it by being polished and assured. From the moment I started Rift to the point I left a couple months ago, Rift was the closest I ever got to evoking that same sense of wide-eyed wonderment I felt in Tabula Rasa and World of Warcraft. It looked gorgeous. The talents system was open to interpretation – with some necessary abilities, but as a pioneer of the melee Sab-Dancer, you could find quirky and actually massively enjoyable variations if you took the time to think outside the box. Rift knew what it was though – it wanted you to follow the story. The only reason I left was simply, after months enjoying the company and pleasure of the Refuge server, being forced off it and onto a busier, more progressed one made me unhappy. It was a stressful time, and one I lament as it brought out the worst in so many people. I never could get into the same groove after that. But that’s a personal reason, and despite my thoughts on forced server merges – I still think Rift is a fantastic game. Well worth a few months of anybodies time.
The Old Republic isn’t polished, it’s not especially pretty, and the combat right now isn’t even especially inspired. It’s a game – much like Star Trek Online – that is aimed at fans, pleasing fans, pleasuring fans with an official-ish story and the chance to get a taste of how it all began.
But much like Star Trek Online, it’s not especially inclusive for novices. When you have no real adoration for the subject matter, the game itself HAS to hold its weight – and I don’t think The Old Republic does. Not yet, at least.
And this is a game set for release in less than a months time. BioWare used to be the darlings of the gaming world – a company that we put on a pedestal, and worshiped as a deity. The Old Republic is another example I fear of the slow and awful descent into something altogether more money-driven, where release dates are set and by damn, the game will be out on that day. The spark isn’t there in The Old Republic, the fire isn’t there, and I feel nothing. There’s nothing to feel.
And that is the most shocking thing about The Old Republic for me – a game that has been delayed by almost a year feels unfinished, unloved and almost cynical in its execution. The subject matter is loved by millions; this is the game so many have pinned hopes and dreams on. Initial sales count for nothing if it cannot hook the playerbase; I am reminded of Age of Conan here. A game where the starter area was actually amazing… but the rest of the game left a lot to be desired. And despite over a million sales, Age of Conan in a matter of months lost all but 80,000 of them. It’s only enjoying a revival by going free-to-play; the usual way of admitting a game hasn’t quite gone to plan.
Once the veil of “Ooh, new Star Wars MMO!” has worn off, the game better be ready and patched up to deliver the rest of the goods. Because if it isn’t… well… Sony Online Entertainment showed it off with the Combat Upgrade patch.
Hell hath no fury like a furious fan…