And so it was, ladies and gentlemen, that what just might be the most expensive video game ever developed officially went free-to-play for all of us, a solar eclipsed-sized foreshadowing of the ultimate end to subscription-based MMORPGs. Let’s face it: when the expectedly-glorious combination of beloved BioWare and the Star Wars lore cannot thrive behind monthly paywalls, the opportune moment to take down industry leader World of Warcraft with a straightforward strike has passed.
But such introspective inquiries are better left for writers with more experience inside the evolving massively multiplayer market. Today, we’re specifically interested in Star Wars: The Old Republic. When paid subscriptions started to slide mere months after SWTOR became the “Fast-Growing MMO Ever,” developer BioWare reluctantly announced an impending transition to a free-to-play model in an attempt to capitalize on the modern approach to MMOs. As of this Thursday, that report became a reality.
The success of similar titles fueled by microtransactions and other paid perks — The Lord of the Rings Online, for example — prove that such a system can be incredibly profitable. However, can a gargantuan game created without a no-cost option in mind flourish in the free-to-play arena? My question exactly, and so I spent five hours in the expansive Star Wars universe in search for an answer, documenting my impressions and reactions at hourly intervals. A few five hours exploring an MMO is child’s play, I know, but I figure an enjoyable five hours doing anything deserves your time at the unbeatable price of absolutely free.
That said, is free-to-play The Old Republic worth a go? Sit back and enjoy the show as we find out together.
“This trailer alone is the reason why I’m excited for Star Wars: The Old Republic:
A Star Wars junky born and raised, I believe that cinematic from E3 2010 completely pulverized even the most impressive moments from any of the prequels. And oh, what I wouldn’t give to be able to link you to an old camcorder recording of elementary-aged me screaming, “It’s the trilogy!” upon unwrapping the VHS triple-pack that served as the most amazing Christmas present of the year. Throughout that childhood, I lost more than a few good nights to awful MMOs you’ve never heard of during the dark times when the words ‘free-to-play’ were still equivalent to saying ‘piece-of-s%!t.’ Fortunately, those days are nothing more than memories.
Always keeping a microscope-close eye on the gaming industry, I realize that The Old Republic isn’t as revolutionary as many were hoping it would be. Regardless, I’ve been living away from this genre for years and haven’t been burned out by any MMO blandness from the past decade or so since World of Warcraft’s fateful debut. Additionally, I prefer to play solo anyway so, on paper, the story-heavy SWTOR should be the perfect game for me. My only worries at this point involve getting the thing to run on my outdated and underpowered laptop. In the name of Fun and Playability, cross your fingers as I take my first steps inside The Old Republic.”
“My PC really shouldn’t be running this thing. But even aside from the slowdowns and broken textures, I’m surprised at the same-yness. Not meeting minimum requirements means this is far from an ideal SWTOR experience, yet still the systems feel far too familiar in a few unfortunate ways. With early tasks consisting of the standard kill and fetch quests, it barely feels like Star Wars at the start. (Well, other than the incredible opening cinematics, that is. If nothing else, play The Old Republic for those beauties.) Even the combat feels uninspired, a sort-of-more-action-oriented take on the traditional Click To Attack battles. At the end of the hour, though, the fighting isn’t any more involved than the old-school style, and is actually more annoying as it requires you to keep inputting commands for each and every action. Alas, it is but an hour, after all, and these first impressions shouldn’t be extrapolated beyond that.
But those fully-voiced NPC interactions, though…hot dang.”
“‘This looks exactly like WoW.”
Those eerily accurate words were just uttered by my definitely-not-a-gamer roommate as his unknowing self passed by, and I don’t blame him a bit. I see a thing, I click a thing, I kill a thing, and I collect from a thing. Rinse, repeat, and consult your doctor if symptoms persist for more than four hours.
Also, it’s becoming blatantly obvious that The Old Republic was not built to be a free-to-play outing. Closing off character classes I can understand, but more expensive prices at every vendor? Nuh-uh, don’t dig that. This is only one example of many, and it seems like every turned corner reveals another limitation levied on free players. So EA needs to make money. I get that. However, wouldn’t it make more sense to nurture a new audience, to allow these individuals to fall deeply in love and actually want to support this experience with a personal investment? According to marketing teams, apparently not.
But damn, those voices do wonders for making me care about the Star Wars story. I’m actually engrossed with the back-and-forths before and after each quest, something I’ve never been able to say about the typical torrents of text that bog down the other MMO big boys. Hopefully this narrative drive overshadows the game’s other shortcomings; back to work.”
[Note: I took a dinner break after Hour 2, and honestly avoided jumping back in for quite a while, fully free of any interest whatsoever…Just saying.]
“Well, I’m not bored. I don’t think I am, at least…
No major developments to emphasize after another hour. I’m still stuck doing traditional MMO duties for traditionally lazy MMO NPCs who cannot be bothered to take a two-minute trot to the nearest town and deliver Object X to Person of Importance Y. Certainly their existence is better spent standing in the same spot along this pathway throughout all hours of the day.
But I digress.
Combat must be my next gripe. I touched on the absence of innovation earlier, yet ignored additional issues to blame my PC’s performance instead. But that was unfair; I just don’t like it. Hitting somewhere halfway between the established Select Target, Attack and a truly real-time system, fighting fails to adopt the advantages of either approach. It’s too involved to sit back against easy enemies as in the skill-based emphasis of the understood MMO style, yet never feels as direct or engaging as something real-time would. Rather, it’s an unhappy middle ground, with traces of both systems while being the best at nothing at all.
Ah, but it’s still early, right? Let’s see what happens…”
“Okay, so a little leveling up snagged me some skills and the combat might be all right after all.
And on that note, how about we roll along the positive path for a while longer?
I’m extremely enjoying having branching dialogue choices in an MMO. It’s unusual for the genre, and a stand-out feature is exactly what The Old Republic needs to keep the kids from Warcrafting (or Guild Warring). Whatever battles lack in personal involvement, the story makes up for it with gusto. Anyone with Mass Effect experience will immediately recognize the response wheel to dictate your character’s tone during conversation. What worked for Shepard works for Anonymous Jedi as well, although I wish the developers would have done away with the insignia that explicitly shows whether a certain statement will attribute to your Light or Dark morality score. Despite that slight complaint, it’s nice to speak of something unique about The Old Republic, and especially when said unique item is such an enjoyable one.
While we’re at it, I cannot forget to mention the music. Backing your actions throughout the adventure, SWTOR’s score brings that Star Wars magic to remind you that this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill MMO. Orchestral and empowering, it strikes the nostalgia and successfully sets a satisfying mood. For now, I’m more content with The Old Republic than at any moment prior.”
“And so, in the last leg of our exploratory experiment, I’m finally plagued with the apparently-inherent problems infecting nearly every MMO out there. This hour was especially fetch-quest heavy, and I spent an absurd amount of time running in circles in crowded locales while scoping the landscape for a still-alive beast to bring down myself. As fantastic as the story elements are, being told I’m something extraordinary when the 18 other Heroes of Destiny surrounding me are received the same message is beginning to get ridiculous. There is a way for the genre to evolve out of these issues, but I’m afraid nobody has figured it out yet.
Although The Old Republic is comparatively remarkable in terms of polish and production values, in terms of story and conversation, it is indeed another iteration on the World of Warcraft formula. Evolutionary, but not revolutionary. Still, if you’ve ever enjoyed an MMORPG of modern design, I dare you to discover a more attractive option without spending a dime. Assuming you have 20+GB of storage space to spare (seriously), The Old Republic delivers an unbelievable amount of content for the low cost of a time commitment. Expect a Star Wars-themed MMO with stellar storytelling that doesn’t stray from the established blueprints, and SWTOR is sure to bring about a good time.”