While dozens of video games have strived to capture the hearts of Star Wars fans through previously untold tales of epic space fantasy, BioWare's massively multiplayer Star Wars: The Old Republic is the first that's attempted to tell eight stories to thousands of people at the same time.
From the early days of video games developers have used the medium to explore the shadowy corners of the Star Wars universe, defining and expanding the fuzzy edges of the franchise's fiction via interactive entertainment. No single developer has done this quite as profoundly as BioWare.
In 2003 BioWare released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, creating an entirely new chapter in the science fantasy saga. Set thousands of years before the events of the films, The Old Republic setting was a playground for developers and fans alike, allowing both to tell a new set of stories without worrying about drastically affecting the established fiction.
Knights of the Old Republic helped BioWare establish many of the unique features that define its single-player role-playing games today. Cinematic storytelling, high-quality voice acting, emotional engagement, a strong emphasis on morality; these are the elements that define a BioWare RPG.
It's that same winning formula that powers Star Wars: The Old Republic, only instead of being applied to a self-contained story crafted with a single player in mind it's been expanded to cover the daunting framework of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. When you stretch anything that thin some fraying is bound to occur.
At the center of Star Wars: The Old Republic lies the beating heart of BioWare's best single-player role-playing games. In fact it's quite easy to imagine the game as eight separate single-player adventures bound together by massively multiplayer trappings. Each of the game's eight player classes (four for each faction) features a distinct self-contained story easily enjoyable enough to have carried a standalone title. Had BioWare been less ambitious we might be playing through The Old Republic: Smuggler's Revenge right now, eagerly awaiting the release of The Old Republic: The Great Hunt for a chance to step into the boots of a Bounty Hunter.
Instead these eight stories form the basis for the game's single-player experience, helping to define the player's character through a combination of expertly-acted dialog, well-developed companion characters, and tough moral choices.
This unique single-player experience is satisfying enough that it's served as the basis for me recommending the game to other fans of the franchise. Even if you completely despise playing with other people you've still got eight excellent single-player BioWare role-playing games for the price of entry. You might only have a month to play them before you'll need to subscribe, but still.
Starting with a strong single-player focus may be a revolutionary way to develop a massively multiplayer online game, but it doesn't necessarily result in a revolutionary MMO. When you aren't basking in the cinematic cut scenes or losing yourself in your personal tale of good and/or evil you'll still encounter the same sort of drudgery you do in other role-playing games.
There's still a hotkey bar filled with various powers you'll be constantly clicking (more than average thanks to the purposeful omission of an auto-attack). You'll still be tasked with killing X number of Y creatures, or looting X number of Y items, or clicking X number of Y objects. You'll grind unrelated quests for experience points so you can advance to the next level and gain another point for your skill tree. While the presentation is unique to the genre the core gameplay is par for the course.
In fact long-time players of all things massive and multiplayer might take issue with the game's linear progression. There are two starting planets for each side. Once the missions in those starting zones are complete both sides move onto a single second-tier planet. Once the missions there are done, it's on to the next planet in the series.
It's a good thing those thousands of other players are there to break the monotony.
Multiplayer interaction takes many forms in Star Wars: The Old Republic. There are Flashpoints, instanced missions with their own self-contained stories for two to four players. Once you've gotten some levels under your belt you can partake in Operations, large multi-group missions that some MMO games call Raids. Or you could simply hop into a group and run regular missions, relying on the safety in numbers principle to see you through.
I've found, as is often the case with MMO games, that the quality of the multiplayer content relies heavily on the quality of the people you are grouped with. The agonizing delay in the multiplayer cinematic dialog system while waiting for other players to finish watching a cut scene you've already seen four times is lessened considerably when you've got a chatty group. An interesting mix of personalities can make even the most mundane fetch quest a memorable adventure. Even the game's player-versus-player content, which I've often called an unbalanced mess, can be enjoyed in the correct company.
That having been said, so far the community that's sprung up around The Old Republic is one of the best-behaved, most well-mannered, and most generous group of geeks I've had the pleasure of sharing a general chat box with. They've been considerably more helpful, mature, and tolerant than those I've encountered in other games. I'm the sort of player that shies away from grouping much of the time for fear that I'll screw something up and get booted, but so far I've yet to encounter such treatment, even after I allowed a gigantic insect to devour our entire party by breaking crowd control. How am I supposed to tell one swirly red light from another?
It's a group that not only respects other players (not once did I see anyone get yelled at for role-playing on the role-playing server!), but the Star Wars franchise as a whole. At its very best playing The Old Republic is like attending the world's largest Star Wars convention, only the lightsabers actually work.
I do worry how BioWare can possibly put out new content at a pace that will satisfy the players voraciously devouring it. Within a week of the game's release there were already entire guilds of players that had reached the level 50 cap, and with each new mission requiring hours of voice acting (both sexes of each character class, companion characters, and non-player characters) it's hard to imagine we'll be seeing a great deal of free content coming down the pipe.
As it stands, however, Star Wars: The Old Republic is one of the most unique, highly-polished products I've come across in my long and storied career as a massively multiplayer gamer. Now we have a way to share the experience of playing through a quality BioWare role-playing game with a few thousand of our closest friends.