Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Much Longer Time Ago

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

So with my – extremely short – vacation, I’ve actually had a chance to rediscover a Star Wars property that I hadn’t touched in a long time. And with a newly released expansion (which I am nowhere near approaching gameplay-wise even if I could afford it right now), I thought I’d take to time to give one Saga-fan and I-III champion’s view on the game before returning to the films that earned me this column over two years ago (has it been that long?)

I’m talking, of course, about Star Wars: The Old Republic

First, a little bit of history.

"And no, I'm not writing fanfic about my toons' histories. I learned from 'Craft on a Cracker'."

In 2008, I began playing World of Warcraft, which is to this day a contender for my favorite video game of all time. Soon after getting the hang of WoW, I started looking around for other Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games to sink my teeth into, being a genre that I was unable to sample up to that point for various reasons. Eventually, I found a website that was announcing the creation of an MMORPG based in the Star Wars universe – and just in time for my newly-awakened fandom resurgence! And before someone mocks me at how novel and exciting I found the idea, I must point out that I was completely unaware of the existence of Star Wars Galaxies until it was far too late.

So I subscribed to the forum, signed up for the Beta waiting list, and followed the website updates near-religiously. I was part of the forum petition for same-gender romance options (which I’m still disappointed with the lack of progress), I participated in the last of the Beta builds, and I pre-ordered the Digital Deluxe edition. I actually believed it would be the one game that could give WoW a run for its money.

Then it came out, and I enjoyed it for about six months until reality ensued. I simply couldn’t afford two subscription-based games at the same time, and as much as I love Star Wars more than anything, I realized I was having way more fun with WoW than I was on ToR. So, with a heavy heart, I cancelled my subscription, vowing to one day resubscribe because, after all, I had waited years for this game.

"And sometimes I waited years for my glass cannons to survive a freaking dungeon crawl."

It turns out that I didn’t have to wait very long to return, because just a few short months later, The Old Republic converted to a Free-to-Play model. I was excited to get back to my characters, but when I finally did log in again I found the restrictions to the free accounts were too – well – restrictive. Luckily my characters stayed their original races due to being created before the option locking for non-subscribers, and the fact that I had paid them in the past placed me squarely in the “Preferred” section allowing me to keep all my characters active. But the fact that I could no longer hide my head-slot items in order to see my characters’ faces during cutscenes, nor craft properly due to my third skill being locked, took most of the fun out of the experience for me. Plus, my server was merged with another and I had to rename some of my characters on the fly. I played maybe once every few months, but I didn’t feel I could really dedicate my time without unlocking some of the comforts that had kept me in the game from the beginning.

Fast forward to last week, when I used a holiday gift card to buy a massive amount of the “Cartel Coin” currency for the game. I unlocked my head slot and crew skills. I bought two extra character slots and races to go with them. I bought a few more creature comforts. About the only thing I couldn’t afford was unlocking Artifact (Epic) – level gear, but I can certainly wait for that. And it seems my timing was impeccable, as the latest expansion “Shadow of Revan” did away with both the Talent Tree system and the need to pay for class ability training.

"Lesson one, my apprentice: charging forth with your lightsaber out ALWAYS looks cool."

And so, with that long history out of the way, how do I feel about this game?

Well, there’s a reason it wasn’t the WoW-killer people expected it to be. Even with the recent simplifications, The Old Republic is far less intuitive than WoW, and a hell of a lot buggier. My Jedi Knight arrived on Hoth to find the sky a black void. I’d have taken a screenshot, but screenshots didn’t seem to want to work that day (you’re lucky I got the shots I did). It does a lot of things fairly well, but not as well as some other games.

However, its major saving grace is the one thing that it does better than any other game I’ve seen, even WoW: Story Immersion. Having each quest be a fully voiced cutscene where your character actually interacts based on what you choose to say is one of the most fantastic things I’ve seen, even if the execution could be a little better. And I know the company did this very thing before with its wildly popular “Mass Effect” series, but I’m never playing that because there’s no way I’m going to play a game set in an immersive science-fiction and/or fantasy universe and get stuck playing as a boring old human (and frankly, sometimes I wish ToR would quit with the Rubber Forehead Aliens and just let me play a Dug).

And plus, it’s honest to goodness Star Wars. From a fan perspective, I am still amazed at how the game successfully melds sensibilities from all of the six films AND the Legacy Expanded Universe in a way that’s more-or-less cohesive. With the Force-using classes, you get a full Saga experience with a I-III lean. Bounty Hunter and Smuggler immerse themselves in what many have found most recognizable about IV-VI’s “Used Future.” And the Imperial Agent and Republic Trooper take the recognizable Secret Agent and Army Movie respectively and transplant it into the Galaxy Far, Far Away in a manner that feels like what I’m sure many people did with their action figures in their childhood bedrooms. And though its original music is often merely acceptable, its liberal use of John Williams cues from the entire Saga makes it feel right at home (I’ve even heard Jar Jar’s theme more than once in the game!).

"Many droids! Handle it!"

While The Old Republic has its flaws (and they are many, and become readily apparent), it is still one of the best video game experiences I’ve had. It’s definitely in my Top 5 of all time, and ties with Battlefront II and Episode I Racer as my favorite Star Wars game.

Happy New Year!

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