There is a real dearth of science fiction-based Massively Multiplayer (MMO) games on the market today, which is odd given the relative frequency with which other gaming genres tend to leverage that kind of narrative. If there was ever a story that was crying out to be made into one, however, it has to be the Star Wars saga - especially given the recent demise of the (similar, on the surface) Star Wars Galaxies.
While it's true that the films got somewhat sickly sweet as the series progressed, becoming more of a money machine than a genuine epic (some of the NZGamer.com crew sat through the 3D version of the Phantom menace; it was a dare, and oh so painful), everyone agrees that lightsabers were cool.
The game has been out for a few months now in the US - and we know some of you have snaffled an early copy - but it was only last week that it made its official launch here in New Zealand. With it came the spinning up of a set of oceanic servers, which are physically located in Australia. It's time, then, that we head to a Galaxy far, far away and begin our own adventure...
Alas, we were not plucked from a small backward planet; instead, our story began with a 20GB download (Luke, I am downloading the schematics of the death star to your ship..........hang on you have blown your cap..). If you buy the retail copy of the game, you can - of course - ameliorate much of this cap-blowing download, however people who buy direct from Origin should definitely factor this in as part of the overall cost.
One of the first things you'll need to do in the game is create your character. There is the obvious choice between the light and dark sides of the force, and we do admit we tried to play the part of the good guys - for a while. However, a few hours in, we had to move to the dark side and play as a Sith (must kill Jar Jar Binks!).
Each of the factions have four basic character types to choose from, including ranged damage, healers, and tank classes. Once you hit level ten, you can then chose from one of two sub-classes, which open differing skill trees, weapons, and core skills.
Character selection is made from Humans and 8 alien humanoid species (thankfully there is no Gungan), with many familiar alien faces making an appearance (including Twi Lek, Zabrak, and Chiss). Each faction has five possible races to choose from.
The character creation system is well-featured, right down to determining scars and facial tattoos. A major departure from the movies is the inclusion of sexual equality, with the choice of both male and female characters.
Once you have finished the formalities, you head planet-side. Planets are different for each faction, with two different destinations for each - depending on your class. The story starts in classic Star Wars fashion, with the rolling text and music, however this time it features your name and your story. This is a key theme in the game.
The game feels very personal, with an underlying story that revolves around your character. Despite our reservations and bad experiences from the recent films, the story is very well crafted. In fact, it is one of the better ones we have played in an MMO. There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and your in-game decisions can influence how it plays out.
The UI layout is pretty straight forward and, if you have played any modern MMO, you will have no trouble mastering the layout. Why change a familiar interface? Move and action controls are also where you would expect them to be, so the learning curve is almost nil for most players.
Blasters, lightsabers, laser pistols, rockets, and mortars! For a fantasy-MMO enthusiast, combat initially feels very different. The pew-pew of rifles and the ffrrrrnnwmmm of sabers can be a bit overwhelming at first, but you soon get into the swing of it and - depending on your character - be burning, cutting, and zapping enemies with reckless abandon. Be warned, though, death is clean and - in most cases - happens with nary a squeak. This is strictly Star Wars, a galaxy where blood and gore has yet to be invented.
The quests are largely story-based, with the usual "kill a bunch of creature type x" variety done as bonus quests. There are a lot of different story threads that generate quests, and they culminate in one final event that will open up the next planet.
There are heroic quests and elite areas where a party is required, however these are not compulsory and most of the instances are designed for your character to tackle alone. This sort of setup is used often, both in the adventure areas and as part of the story sequences. They are largely seamless in how they load, so you soon just treat them as your own private green door. The only person who can come with you is one of your "companions".
The first companion becomes available around level ten, and they are a real boon in combat. A lot of the battles are quite tough, you see, and even a one or two level gap between you an your enemy will result in a quick death if you are on your own.
The companion system is an interesting game component. Companions can be individualised with different looks, and you can set them up with weapons and equipment. You can only have one companion by your side at a time, however the crew you build up over time is never idle.
Not just for combat, companions also play a vital part in crafting. Rather than soiling your own hands, you train your crew in differing skills. The trades on offer range from archeology (mining), biotech, artisan, and armorsmith, to the interesting underworld trading, diplomacy, and investigation. All have their benefits and rewards. Where the companions come in, is that you can send them off to do crafting and gathering while you adventure. There is an incredible amount of depth to crafting and, although confusing at first, it soon becomes a major component of gameplay.
The graphics have a lot of variety with specific ecology on each planet. Of course, it is all done in the style of Star Wars, with brash industrial looking cities. Moving about the worlds is done by speeders, taxi hover cars, and transporters. You do spend a lot of time running about and, although we understand that they wanted to give the game a sense of scale, the lack of fast convenient transport can be a real time waster.
The voice acting is very well done. There is a wide variety of people to interact with and, despite this, we have yet to meet a person who took a blaster shot to the knee. Interacting with NPCs often involves three possible replies you can make, much like Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. None of them are wrong but each has a consequence. Some replies sway your leaning in the force, and they can also result in positive or adverse affects on your companion loyalty.
Importantly the answers you make also change the outcomes of some the story or quest lines. This plays a significant part in the game and, while it can be a laborious question and answer game at times, the outcomes and rewards certainly make it worthwhile.
Game performance was at times great with hardly any combat delay. Launch day was an exception, of course, and when hitting large populated areas there can be noticeable lag (the test rigs we played on are neither cutting edge nor bargain basement in configuration). It's not unplayable lag, but enough to make character control awkward momentarily.
It's a bit early for us to dive into the end-game, a part of the experience that many seasoned MMO players will suggest is the most important. There is definitely end-game to participate in, including structured PvP and PvE material, however like most MMOs what's there is still quite lightweight. BioWare promise to continually expand this aspect of the title, so we'll check back in once the launch phase is over and the developers start improving the options available for players at max level.
Star Wars: The OId Republic is a good game. It pays excellent homage to the film series (even though it's set before the movies), and is a really solid MMO. The crafting system and the interesting quest lines make it compelling and refreshing to level up, even if there's not a lot to do once you've finished that phase of the game. If you want to drop your green skin and go red, exchange your axes for a vibro blade, or dare we say your possible Panda for a possible Ewok, this is a game that is well worth having a go at.