6348305Hutts don't just look like giant worms--they act like them, too.None
MMOG veterans should note that Star Wars: The Old Republic isn't a sandbox in the way of Star Wars Galaxies; it's a more guided experience, featuring planets that feel more like large levels than vast continents waiting to be explored. The sense of linearity is most notable on planets like Coruscant and Nar Shaddaa, where you trot down corridor after corridor. To be fair, the sights of shiny towering structures in the distance and skyways busy with rushing vehicles convey the sense of a grand world beyond your understanding. Even planets that offer more breathing room, like Balmorra, funnel you down valleys and force you to kill time waiting for elevators. (And waiting for elevators is something you do far too often in The Old Republic.)
Open planets like Alderaan and Tatooine are refreshing treats because they feel more like lands of untold mysteries than big collections of hallways. The downside to the vaster areas is that they can feel remarkably empty. Even on the most heavily populated servers, it's possible to go for extended periods without seeing another player. Each planet might also be split into multiple instances, which thins out the population and exacerbates the loneliness. Fortunately, if you aren't with friends and want to jump into a heroic area, a call out for help in the general chat is all it takes to have a comrade at your side.
Alone or with others, combat is snazzy enough for you to remain entertained. Short ability cooldowns and the absence of an auto-attack get your fingers busy, while spirited animations and stirring sound effects make combat a pleasure. Not that the action is mechanically unusual: it boils down to the traditional hotkey presses/hotbar clicks that have long characterized the genre. But it remains consistently exciting once your hotbars fill up with a variety of skills. The vivid glow of lightsabers flashes across the screen, Jedi knights leap about like robed acrobats, and combat droids fire bright lasers as they swoop and whir around you.
It's hot out herrre.
In fact, Star Wars: The Old Republic deserves kudos for its excellent sound design. That is due in part to the evocative audio associated with the franchise; after all, the drone of a lightsaber is immediately recognizable. There are other iconic audio cues, too, such as the exhausted whine of a forcefield as it powers down. But The Old Republic does more than rely on the old standbys: it elevates them. The thwap of a bounty hunter firing his pistol and the electric buzz of lightning flowing from a sorcerer's fingertips are but a few of the many superb examples of effects that heighten the action. Even the hums of lightsabers retain their edge. The various attacks vary in musical pitch, and they are broken up by other sounds, like the violent crunch of the sentinel's pommel strike. The soundtrack follows suit, mixing new tracks with old and reimagined music from various Star Wars films and games. Tatooine's ambient soundtrack will have you recalling Luke's wistful gaze toward the twin suns. The tranquil tones that purr throughout Alderaan's grasslands aren't so familiar, but they are no less impressive for it.
The visuals join the audio to make for a striking presentation that captures the Star Wars universe. That doesn't mean that The Old Republic sets new standards for graphics engines. Facial features are flat, hair looks more like glued-on plastic than actual hair, and textures are plain. So don't come to the game looking to show off the capabilities of your fancy new video card. But The Old Republic was built to look good on as many computers as possible--even those that aren't state of the art.
And it does look good. The Galactic Senate on Coruscant looks stolid and imposing behind the soft blue lights that rise into the nearby sky. On Nar Shaddaa, you glimpse neon silhouettes of exotic dancers on the taxi ride to the red light sector, which is a great visual element that betrays the seediness of the neighborhood. The diverse locations look uniformly attractive, from the rolling sands of Tatooine to the craggy mountains of Balmorra. Attention to visual details goes a long way toward making these feel like lived-in places. Quest givers don't just stand around: they crouch behind boulders, bandage an injured soldier's arm, and bend over computer terminals. Enemies tinker with speeders and lean against walls as if relaxing for a spell. How disappointing that other details common to online RPGs, such as weather effects and a day/night cycle, didn't make the cut.
The Old Republic: Transcending space, but not time.
The Star Wars-iness of the production carries over into The Old Republic's space battles. You access space missions from your ship's console, though these aren't massive PVP space battles or even cooperative missions for a small party. Instead, they are solo minigames: shallow affairs in which you don't get full control of your ship. Like in the Star Fox series, such battles are on rails; the game guides your ship through the levels, and you shoot lasers and missiles at fighters and turrets. Space missions are a good way to earn extra experience and credits, and the bright explosions and enthusiastic voice-overs make for some simple fun--at first. But the battles are so easy--and there are so few of them--that they lose their appeal. Considering what the previous Star Wars MMOG accomplished in regards to space combat (albeit, not at launch), this element is a missed opportunity.
The disappointment of space combat, like most of Star Wars: The Old Republic's minor disappointments, is one of scope and originality, as opposed to its level of refinement. 2011's Rift proved once and for all that there is no reason a modern MMOG shouldn't be able to launch in a stable, feature-complete state. The Old Republic follows Rift's lead: It's lag free and delivers a smooth playing experience. It isn't free of the occasional bug or annoyance, however. Galactic market (read: auction house) sort options don't work as they should. A group of sand people may not behave properly or a quest may not complete as intended. You also can't customize the interface: Hotbars can't be moved around and macros aren't yet supported. But rarely does a technological or mechanical failure interfere with progress. There's always something to do, and it almost always works as intended. And most importantly, it's usually fun.
Nothing like a heroic quest to make you feel like, well, a hero.
And ultimately, that's what Star Wars: The Old Republic delivers to make it so compelling: a lot of fun. Don't come to it seeking the next online revolution. In fact, when you heard that the developers of Mass Effect were making an MMOG, this is the one you probably predicted: a prototypical online game with the standard BioWare trappings layered on top of them. The surprises are few, but The Old Republic is nonetheless an online RPG of uncommon quality. And with a broad, overarching story to guide you through, you might even reach maximum level with a smile on your face, even if you are one to abandon an MMOG before that point. Such is the power of a beloved universe with so many tales still left to tell.