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Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
I’ve been playing MMO’s for over 12 years now and I tend to follow development of these games from reveal through testings and launches. With thousands of hours of my life gone thanks to games like Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, and much more, I was waiting for the time when my blood rush for MMO’s would die out. The time when I just couldn’t bring myself to continue the grind and quest recently felt near when I had returned to World of Warcraft for the 5th time and cancelled my subscription just two days later. Every MMO I was playing or get my hands on just felt the same. As soon as I enter the world my quest log fills up and I’m back where I always am: fetching 12 bear hides or scattered weapon crates. Sure, there’s more to MMO’s than the fetch quests but those features are found in nearly every other online game. MMO’s were getting stale for me and for a period of time I had though myself done with them.
Back in 2008 when Star Wars: The Old Republic was announced I was generally excited but I had feared it to just be a next-gen Star Wars: Galaxies. I, like many others, spent a lot of time when SW:G launched only to see Sony Online tear apart the experience and replace the good parts with streamlined, cluttered crap. At first, I dismissed The Old Republic as a huge risk for BioWare and EA (EA especially after the disaster that Warhammer Online turned out to be). While waiting to see what would come of BioWare’s massive undertaking, one MMO released that manage to take my attention for a fair amount of time: DC Universe Online. Why? It was different. I was still looking for an escape from the redundancy that I was sunk so much time into and DCUO gave me that. Many of the underlying features that MMO’s had were featured in DCUO but the combat and quest flow were so fresh and felt new. For one, I had no mouse pointer on the screen (aside from menus). The mouse instead moved my camera and direction the character looked. The action-adventure combat style made me excited to log on and play in Metropolis and Gotham City. It helped that I’m also an avid comic reader and gigantic Green Lantern fan but the game itself kept my attention. Being one of the only games that captured me long enough to hit top level and experience end game content, I gave DC Universe Online a lot of props.
Unsurprising to myself and a few friends, the game has a major problem. At one point, near 200 hours played, I felt that I had beat the game. I had a fully geared level 30 healer who had went through all of the Batcave raids and beaten Brainiac. SOE’s content release schedule was monthly which meant for a while my adventure was over. In that time, I lost interested and while I returned to see the newest update, there wasn’t enough to hold me. They failed to fix the bugs fast enough (I guess SOE never heard of maintenance patches) and from reports that I had read, DCUO only had somewhere around 35,000 to 50,000 subscribers before going free-to-play. I was back to where I was before DCUO released.
What SWTOR means to MMO’s
Flash forward to when Star Wars: The Old Republic had entered closed beta. Leaked information had started to pour out and major features of the game were beginning to make headlines. BioWare being the story masters that they are (Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, Mass Effect) had set their focus on making the player feel engaged through story. Well, I was interested but I’ve heard it all before. Boy, was I wrong. The Old Republic’s release means a lot to the future of MMO’s. BioWare has crafted a masterful set of stories that grips the player and doesn’t let go. Just like Commander Shepard’s journey in Mass Effect and the tragedy of Kirkwall and Ferelden in Dragon Age, the player feels emotionally interested in what the main character is doing. That is what The Old Republic does so well. You don’t feel like Warrior Tank #40,000 or Mage “Face Melter” #75,000. My Jedi Knight or Bounty Hunter feels like MY character. The significance of this is heavy. Not only do the quests help further your character’s progression but with every inch further in the story you feel more attached to what’s going on and the key players involved.
With the attachment to your character solidified, BioWare continued to craft majestic views and planets. The Old Republic just looks beautiful. From Tython to Coruscant to Alderaan, every planet has its own unique look and feel. Looking out from a cliff will offer players amazing views of the backgrounds of fields, mountains, city scapes, and more. The textures may look underwhelming but overall the package is very satisfying and makes for some great screen capture shots. Star Wars: The Old Republic sets a high bar for what MMO’s should be. The connection to characters, story telling, atmosphere, and flow beg to be talked about. The game feels like Star Wars and oozes lore for hardcore fans. There is a lot in this game for people looking to play alone or with friends. I urge developers to look at what BioWare has accomplished and move on from there.
Out of Beta and Launching
Thanks to my long list of alphas and betas that I’ve been a part of, I think I can honestly say that The Old Republic’s testing phases have been the most smooth and precise. BioWare listened to their testers and did much flip flopping on some crucial issues to produce a great testing period. During the last few beta tests, including the last near-open test, the game felt like a launched product. Compared to some other big market MMO’s and how they launched, The Old Republic’s was very successful. In fact, the biggest issue that faced the game at launch was server queues. Sure, some had problems getting through on the website to sign up and use their CD keys but that only showed the demand for the game. BioWare stepped up and fixed many issues during the last weeks of beta and soon after launch. Since launch, there has been plenty of bug smashing fixes and even a week or two with multiple server maintenance. While some may not like that, I look at it as dedication to deliver as close to a fantastic product as they can. I applaud BioWare for their hustle and dedication to The Old Republic.
The game isn’t without its faults, however. BioWare has much to fix and tweak but given the amount of work they put on the game throughout testing and launch, I have no problem believing they’ll fix what they can as fast as they can.
Starting Out and Focus on Story
Creating your character is very important in The Old Republic. With the focus on feeling attached to what your character does, everything should be set to what you want before you start your journey. With that said, this is one area where I feel BioWare somewhat failed. This may have to do with the low texture issue, but most of the hair and beard choices look very dull and ugly. I have never chosen the bald head option on an MMO character before playing The Old Republic. In fact, I have two bald characters. Both male. I can’t bring myself to make a bald female character but I get tempted to. This really hampers the creation process as the one-time decisions during this time should feel as personal as the story does.
Getting past the creation, players are greeted by a very familiar text scrawl that Star Wars is known for. Every class has their own story and opening text scrawl. Although you only get one scrawl, every time you log in the loading screen reprises your most recent events in a similar yet still way. This isn’t an important part of the game but it is one way that the game successfully translates the feeling of Lucas’ masterpiece to online gaming.
BioWare spent a long time making these stories and of course they’d want players to know. Immediately out the gate you are introduced to the conversation feature and alignment. These choices, while most are neutral, are very important. Every conversation can yield results in your alignment and/or the way your companions feel towards you. Thankfully, and very important, BioWare gave players a quick escape in case someone picks the wrong choice. Hitting the ESC (escape) key exits the conversation and allows you to re-enter it. This can be very helpful if you accidentally click on a light side choice while playing a dark side Sith Warrior. This works while playing alone or even in groups. Players generally understand whenever you exit a conversation due to an accident since they know how important these decisions are.
Every class starts on an origin planet (Korriban, Hutta, Tython, or Ord Mantell). These planets last for the first ten levels and end with your player flying off towards either the Republic of Imperial Fleet to continue your journey. Within those first ten levels, players learn how to play every feature the game has. Even when you first hit the Fleets, the first NPC you see standing there has a quest for the first Flashpoint (4-person dungeons). They did a great job introducing the features of MMO’s and those exclusive to The Old Republic.
Within the first 10 to 12 levels, players will have experienced how quests flow, their first story arc, boss battles, group quests, their first planet, the first Flashpoint, and see their faction’s capital city. With so much being thrown at you so fast, BioWare had to make sure the flow of the game worked right and wasn’t too fast or too slow. The origin planet really showcases how The Old Republic plays: a well-oiled machine.
Questing and Socializing
Quest flow is something that developers work on from early dev days until the day their game dies. It is so important to make the player feel that they are getting somewhere. Areas in the world need to feel like they are moving somewhere because of your progression. If the player feels like it is becoming a grind they may stop playing. Back in Vanilla World of Warcraft levels 40 to 55 felt like that. It was gruesome to go through it. Until you were able to hit Wintergrasp for a different change of scenery and quest set, you felt trapped.
After playing The Old Republic for weeks, I have not felt trapped or stuck in a grind. Every planet has a set of areas and each area has a set of quests that empty into the next area. Strung into the areas are heroic spots where the enemies are much stronger and the quests for them require more than just you and your companion. Heroic quests come in three styles: Heroic 2, 2+, or 4 to signify how many players are recommended. The good thing for people who like to go at leveling alone, if you skip over the heroic quests every planet has enough content to get you to the next one. Most planets will keep you there for at least 4 levels and if you don’t quite make it there by the last outpost, you can find an NPC that starts a bonus series questline. These quests are usually one level above you to give you maximum XP allotment. If you don’t hit the next planet at the right level, these bonus quests will get you there.
Socializing in The Old Republic is easy and well thought out. With the Heroic quests being positioned near all major quest hubs, you will undoubtedly find enough people at some point in the day to do them. At certain levels, outposts on planets will have a shuttle to the Fleet with a quest right next to it stating “Flashpoint Courier”. These NPC’s give you a request to head back to the Fleet and try and participate in a group dungeon with friends or other players. There are always PvP Warzones and Huttball matches going and even at level 50 players can do hard mode versions of the Flashpoints. There is so much to do at any given time it doesn’t matter if you want to play by yourself or with others. The way BioWare positioned quests and group content was very smart. One more thing, you’ll never see a quest line end with a Heroic quest. Every quest line is either marked for solo play or group play. If you start alone, you end alone. Could you group? Sure but you won’t be trapped into grouping.
You’ll be rewarded for doing Heroic and other group content, though. Not only are the quest rewards greater, you have a chance at increasing your alignment gains and credits by over double what you’d get in normal quests. Of course, the conversation feature persists while in a group. Every player gets to pick what they want to say and the game has a behind-the-scenes roll to see who gets to say it. It is completely random and keeps the experience different every time you run with a group.
At level 16, every class gets their spaceship. It is with this tool that you’ll gain access to other planets and space combat. Your ship is just like you and your companion in that it needs gear. It is recommended that you purchase the Grade 1 tier of gear for your ship as soon as possible. These pieces of ship parts will help you survive space quests up until level 30 or so. Through out the 20’s and lower 30’s space combat quests generally only recommend Grade 1 or higher but you’ll soon hit Grade 3 quests. I would keep up with the latest gear you can purchase from Ship Upgrade NPC’s and the Galactic Trade Network (auction house). Cybertech crafters can made ship parts so if outer space is really your thing, you may want to look into picking up that crew skill.
As for combat itself, if you were a fan of Star Fox you’ll feel right at home. You don’t even have to use the keyboard at all. Your ship is completely controlled with the mouse as you fly around the screen to dodge cannon fire, enemy ships, and debris. Armed with blasters and missiles, every mission sees you tackling some sort of enemy be it enemy crafts, infamous ships, battle stations, and capital cruisers. Space combat can last several minutes and the on-rails experiences can range from easy to very difficult. Conversation of your missiles is usually key to the success of your mission. During the battle stations missions, you’ll be tasked with destroying key points on the station using missiles. You’ll have to try and not feel the urge to devastate cruisers and destroyers before you make your next pass over the station.
Overall, space combat is easy to get into and very fun. The quest rewards for these missions are very bountiful and can sometimes even tip you over the edge of a level. After completing missions you’ll receive the same ones to do again but this time they’ll be bundled into Operations. Operations will require you to complete all of the missions they entail before you actually complete it and receive the rewards. Space combat is daily and you receive special Fleet Commendations which can be spent on unique ship parts and other gear.
In The Driver’s Seat
I’ve mentioned plenty of times in this review about the personal feel of your character in The Old Republic but I’ve only lightly touched on the features that enhance this. Everything about your character is yours to choose. From the creation, gear, alignment, companions, relationships, and more it is you who choose everything. Will you be light sided or dark? Snarky or straight-forward? Serious or comedic? The conversation feature allows you to pick between these different attitudes and help define who your character is. You don’t even have to be completely evil or a goody-two-shoes. While in its current state, being neutral is not a smart thing due to their being alignment-specific gear, BioWare has stated that they are attempting to figure out a good method for neutral gear and choices. Some players argue that gear with no alignment restriction is neutral gear and that conversation choices that yield no alignment are neutral, others want a true neutral choice in order to stay perfectly even in the spectrum.
Alignment is very important to your character. It defined who you are, how you look, how your companions feel about you, and what gear you can use. Being evil can change your appearance and your companions and NPC’s will notice. My Jedi Knight is an evil bastard. His eyes are bright yellow with red shadowing and my face is getting darker and darker each day. It would be nice if light sided characters got something to show their niceness. Maybe an Obi-Wan beard. Anyways, like I said earlier, being neutral or stuck in the middle isn’t a good choice right now. I didn’t decide on going dark side with my Jedi Knight until level 9. I have 551 light side points hampering my dark side progression. I would recommend that you decide what side you want to be during creation and stick with it. My Bounty Hunter has nearly 6000 light side points and only 50 dark side (some noble on Alderaan pissed me off).
Your companions are important to your story, as well. They learn alongside you and some of them are pivotal to your main story. Each companion has their own problems and if they like and trust you enough they may confide in you for help. Some are romance-able and while same-sex relationships aren’t in the game yet, BioWare has expressed that they will be. Romancing a companion isn’t quick. In fact, you’ll be waiting for that special moment for quiet some time into your story. Either way, with each companion you pick up, you’re game changes as you have another attitude and person to take charge of. You may not use them all but you’ll enjoy every one of them.
Combat and Companions
Combat is very similar to World of Warcraft even with the omission of an auto attack. Skills have cooldowns and theirs time between each attack. There isn’t much innovation here so there’s not much to talk about. However, the companions bring out a new side of fun. Every class gets 5 unique companions (and a useless ship droid that can somewhat heal). Each companion has a role and they either do damage, heal you, or tank for you. Every one is good for a specific situation but if you pick a specialization that allows you to be a tank or a healer, having the opposite for a companion can be very helpful. For example, my Bounty Hunter is a Powertech and can tank pretty well. I use Mako to heal both of us and stun enemies. The combo is nice and figures for some quick fights with minimal downtime.
Even though BioWare didn’t do much in the ways of combat past companions, it does its job nicely enough. There are some bugs with ability delays and some classes being under powered compared to others (I’m looking at you Jedi Sentinel) but they’ve recognized some issues and are working on them.
Customer Support and Rewards
And now to the worst part about The Old Republic: the customer service. While it has gotten better over the weeks, during the week or so before launch and the first week or so after, reaching customer service and finding a resolution to an issue was near impossible. I had forgotten one of my security questions and it took me over a week to finally get in contact with customer support and get it straightened out. I obviously wouldn’t have had that problem if I didn’t forget my secret answer in the first place but the fact that getting in touch with support was that difficult is a problem. There was even a few days where their contact number was actually disconnected.
Like I said, it has gotten better but they would still benefit from a proper queue system to let you always connect to support instead of a “sorry call back later” message that is very discouraging.
In-game, it isn’t much better. The ticket system for in-game support is poorly set-up. Sometimes you create a long message in a ticket and think its sent in but you didn’t hit the second confirmation message correctly. I’m sure BioWare will have this all straightened out shortly but the support systems for The Old Republic are in need for some help and quick.
What I mean by rewards for this section is that BioWare has implemented a few different systems for giving things to players who want to remain safe and even give some extra money. The Collector’s Edition is a wonderful package that gives some pretty nice in-game items and the Security Key vendor is a nifty add-on for people who want to keep their account safe. It is worth it to use a smartphone or get the $4.99 security key to stay a bit safer and have access to some extra items in-game.
Other Bugs and Glitches
The Old Republic isn’t without its issues. I’ve labeled some above but there are more. The launch of this huge game has been pretty smooth and while it is more bug-free than most MMO launches there are some bugs that need addressing. BioWare is doing a good job smashing some every week but there are still some big graphical issues, performance issues, and AI problems. The shadows options takes up way too many resources than it should and is normally recommended to be turned off. Structures in-game that produce light can sometimes have those lights beam off into several directions causing weird “light walls” to show up on screen.
One of the biggest bugs that they just fixed dealt with a companion progression issue with the Jedi Knight’s Kira Carsen. Choosing any dark side flirting option would bug her out and stop any romantic or personal conversation from appearing. Thankfully the fix also works for Jedi Knights who are past that point in the game so they can now fix their companion’s progression.
Another game breaking bug is for the Imperial Agent. If Agents complete Alderaan before Tatooine they may find their Chapter 1 ending quest bugged and unable to complete. This can halt progress in leveling and story progression. This bug, as far as I know, is still not fixed (as of January 11th, 2012).
Besides those two bugs, most of the problems in the game are or will be fixed. BioWare is committed to fixing as much as they can every week and sometimes twice a week.
The Future of SWTOR
With one big content patch already quickly approaching, BioWare seems to be keeping busy to add more and more to this already giant galaxy. The upcoming patch will add a new Flashpoint and expand an existing raid with new bosses and loot. The leveling content has plenty to keep players interested so they need to focus on keeping players that are already at the end game interested and subbed up.
All-in-all, BioWare has created a masterful online experience. The biggest MMO launch since World of Warcraft is quite a success with news breaking only three days after December 20th that over a million people were subbed and playing. It is a big weird that we haven’t heard anything since then but I’m sure they expected a small drop in subs during and after the first month. I believe that The Old Republic will be fine and grow with these content patches and bug fixes. I haven’t been this dedicated to an online game since World of Warcraft and while I sunk a couple hundred hours into DC Universe Online, I feel that The Old Republic will be my go-to MMO for a long time. I can’t see myself going back to an online game without the feeling of being my character and having my own story and characters to care for. BioWare truly has changed the way I think about MMO’s.