Epic MMO Battles of History: Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic
Asking whether Star Trek or Star Wars is the better science fiction series is like asking whether Game of Thrones or The Tudors is a better fantasy series. That hasn't stopped it from being hotly (and pointlessly) debated in fandom circles more or less since the dawn of time, with the only unity to be found in both sides telling the guy who brings up Doctor Who to be quiet. I'm willing to bet pretty much everyone reading this knows where I stand on that, since it's not exactly a secret, but I will say that in spite of my inclination toward Trek, I'm still very excited about Star Wars: Can't Take The Sky From Me and really didn't like Star Trek: James T Kirk Completely Ruins The Enterprise Yet Again.
This article isn't going to answer that debate, obviously. But it can deal with the fact that we have two active "free-to-play" MMOs based on these IPs. Star Wars: The Old Republic is set a good three millennia before the movies, sure, but Star Trek Online is also set during a time period that neither movies nor TV shows has touched for 15 years now. So how do these games do head-to-head? Which one is the better game, and which one more closely resembles the IP it's meant to be an adaptation of?
Setting and lore
The Star Wars EU was always hot garbage. For every good bit from it there was far too much nonsense, and while it certainly bulked out the setting it never actually made the setting feel any more real. Most of it felt like find-and-replace lore than actual development of alternate cultures and societies, or like taking the old D&D Monstrous Manual approach to world-building. "This drink is called Hyper-Brandy... and it's Bothan... and it's served and used exactly like whiskey! Ship it."
By contrast, even when you take into account weird inconsistencies with Star Trek lore and references here and there (like what, exactly, kanar is supposed to look like), the core of the setting has remained pretty well stable all along. Sure, there are outliers and bits where things don't work as well, but things like Romulan ale, the Obsidian Order, the Eugenics Wars, and the Kobayashi Maru hold steady. There are some lore inconsistencies, but it holds up overall as a comprehensible and utopian world.
Unfortunately, SWTOR uses the most blandly inoffensive version of Star Wars nonhuman races. Our first glimpse of non-human entities in Star Wars was of species that were, at best, vaguely humanoid and completely incapable of speaking the language of the other characters; more often than not they were entirely, well, alien. As the fiction progressed, however, we got a wide variety of races that were essentially human but just alien enough to not count, and none of these races seem to have a particularly well-developed racial identity. Twi'leks dance, Mirialans are kind of spiritual, Chiss are shady, but none of them is an entirely different cultural landscape.
Mind you, I like the Chiss a lot, but "blue human with red eyes" is not exactly lighting me on fire in terms of race design.
STO gives us three factions with multiple "official" races and a catch-all "Alien" category to both recreate otherwise unplayable canon races (like Cardassians) or completely new races. You're still limited to fairly humanoid races, sure, but since Star Trek aliens have always been predominantly humanoid it doesn't feel all that unusual. And the amount of control and weirdness possible in the "Alien" race alone makes it feel far less restrictive.
The most compelling part of Star Trek has never been in the movement and sweep of galactic politics or alien artifacts; it's about the interactions between the crew members on a given ship and how they react to various struggles. Unfortunately, STO cannot really deliver that. While it tells a functional story that moves over a lot of fun stuff in the game's lore, my captain can never have a lively debate with her first officer. It's storytelling that's entirely focused on plot and lore elements rather than characters, which is understandable from a technical standpoint but rather lacking.
Of course, SWTOR made a big point of selling itself on the strength of storytelling, and... yeah, it pretty well delivers on that front. There's room to debate whether it's enough to carry the game on its own, sure, but it is good on a whole, and offers plenty of memorable and interesting character while also making your character feel relevant, even if it's just in broad strokes. It does stories pretty darn well, in other words, and it definitely holds its own in this matchup.
No one would call SWTOR's questing terribly innovative. I mean, sure, the personal phases are nice and the bits of dialogue are fun, but for the most part it's pretty straightforward and standard. By contrast, STO has a very different structure wherein you fly across various sectors, wind up on various planets, and explore a mission as its own distinct thing. So that makes it a clear winner, right?
Except... for a lot of SWTOR's playtime, you can run into other players. For most of your time in STO, you won't. STO feels, much of the time, like a single-player experience with persistent servers, even more than SWTOR does at its most insular times. Combine that with some weaker storytelling and I really have to give the nod to SWTOR on this one.
Not everyone is super on-board with SWTOR's ground game. I get that. But the combat works and is generally something I find pretty fun, even if there are some specs that I feel play better than others. It feels very true to its contemporaries and does some things better, some things worse. You know how it is.
Meanwhile, STO is so cognizant of how little people like its ground combat that the game has revised it more than once and continues to fight an uphill battle to get people to suffer through it. This is an easy one.
I actually like rail shooters, and I'll be the first to say that the space combat in SWTOR at launch has its charms. I haven't played much of Galactic Starfighter, but I'm sure that has its charms, too. But who cares? This contest right here is an easy win for STO, because its fluid, dynamic, engaging space combat is one of the game's main claims to fame.
Seriously, there's so much to the combat based on fine details of your ship, so many different options and tactics... just writing about it makes me want to hit full impulse before kicking down to one-quarter for a hairpin turn while unloading with tachyon cannons. Dang, that's fun.
Oh, bleh. Neither of these games has what I would call a good crafting system; SWTOR is basically the ultimate expression of wait-for-a-bar-to-fill crafting with the slightest bits of mechanical depth, and STO has revised its crafting system so much that it's easy to forget what the system actually entails even as you're using it. I'm giving SWTOR the edge here mostly because its system has, at least, remained largely consistent over the years, and at the end of the day it works for what it's trying to do, which is something STO has never quite managed.
While the old-style talent trees had their issues, I liked them. SWTOR currently lets you build a character more or less by choosing a specialization and then watching it come together with a handful of utility choices, none of which really change your playstyle. It certainly helps balance, but it also strikes me as supremely boring.
STO has a skill system that's always been kind of awkward and stuttering, but especially with specializations it gives players a lot of different options about how to play. Like much of the game, it's a hacked-together mess that has been majorly revised multiple times, yet it's also the sort of thing that winds up being really fun once you understand how it's supposed to work. Shame about the dearth of respecs, though.
Look, you can be as salty as you want about the implementation of endgame group content in SWTOR, but it exists. STO, on the other hand, really has endgame group content mostly as a group of ships in the same area trying not to get in one another's way. I can count the number of tanks I've actually flown with on one hand, and I can count the number of healers I've flown with on one elbow.
So for whatever messes SWTOR has, it at least pushes the idea that group content has some structure. That's an edge in my book.
I've written in the past about liking the endgame structure in SWTOR, and there are parts of it that I really do like. There are also parts that are really messy, and the fact that it keeps changing doesn't help. I certainly like a lot of the ideas going into its latest revamp of the endgame, but the mechanics seem as if they're still very much in the early stages, like a few more passes would have made things far more refined.
On the flip side, STO has a messy, messy endgame, and it always has. But it's also a pretty fun endgame. It places less emphasis on cosmetics and more emphasis on unlocking options and resources. It's sometimes a bit less than intuitive.
In both cases, though, you get to really assemble the sort of endgame you want and can sidestep the group grind progression if you want to. It is, fundamentally, doing the same stuff you did while leveling, only more. I'm giving that as a wash, then; they both do enough things that I like that I'm not giving either one an unqualified nod over the other.
Yeah, this one's even. I love the aesthetics of both. STO sometimes shows its rough edges in different ways, but they both match what they're supposed to look like. SWTOR has that rusted and worn look that made the original trilogy so fun along with expressive and stylized models; STO has that sleek, blocky futurism on lock. They both look very different, but they both look good, and they both look right for the source material.
Seriously, I'm always going to love the scuffed armor my Trooper favored. That was nice to have.
Let's be real for a moment: no game, ever, wants free players. A free player takes resources while providing nothing. If you're a developer, you want your free players to become paying players. Think of it like a pair of dials you can adjust, then; the "compassion" dial encourages people to pay for the game by being so darn fun that it's worth the money, while the "contempt" dial ensures that it's just so much harder to play the game without paying money.
SWTOR is a great game that really relies, first and foremost, on that "contempt" dial. Can you play through the game for free? Yes, but the game will never, ever let you forget that it doesn't want you to do that. Which means that if you're going in planning on not spending money, you will be met with the occasional stick to the back of the head and the game telling you to pay people, darn it.
Is that wrong? No. But it makes you feel as if payments are being extorted rather than given freely, and that's never fun.
In SWTOR, you can buy random item packs. Do I like that? No, I don't like buying random anything. I like to have control over that sort of thing. You can, however, also buy the stuff in those random packs off of the auction house and make them part of your collection, and if you never want to buy one you never have to do so. So while it's something I'm not crazy about, it's also something easily dealt with and it does have tools to mitigate the randomness.
In STO, lockboxes drop and you have to buy keys. I hate this much more than random boxes. I didn't like buying random packs of Magic cards when I was into that game, but I could live with it; I qould have really disliked it if someone had given me magic cards and then told me I have to buy keys to get at this random pack of things. Making me buy keys costs you the advantage, STO, let that be a lesson to you.
If you're still playing the drinking game from my roleplaying column, take a shot.
I really adore STO, but it never quite manages to feel like an actual Star Trek series. It feels like it's based off of Star Trek, yes, and it has all of the setting pieces right, but it never once lets me imagine that I'm actually part of the franchise that I love. There are lots of reasons for this, from the storytelling to the ranking up to the very nature of the game environment.
SWTOR, on the other hand, feels like a Star Wars bit. You'd have to do minimal work to adapt it into a movie or a series, and that means something. Yes, it takes place during a wildly divergent time period and often feels like it exists in a closely related parallel universe, but I've never watched that opening crawl for a new character or storyline section and though "meh, this is just window-dressing." Whatever faults it has as a game, fidelity to its source material isn't one of them.
Here's an interesting trivia bit for all of you reading: I don't actually know the outcomes of these beforehand. I just write out the categories and tally things up, and then I see where the chips lie. And in this case, they wind up with a distinct advantage for Star Wars: The Old Republic, when all is said and done.
In many ways, this is a pretty asymmetrical match; what one game does well the other usually doesn't do at all, or at least does it with such non-enthusiasm that the other one can easily coast to victory. However, at the end of the day, SWTOR manages to both feel more like an actual bit of Star Wars fiction and has just the slight edge in terms of things like crafting.
However, the strong degree of asymmetry here means that both games do enough different things that you get very different experiences. So they're both fun to play, and both well worth the time to play if you only like one IP but not the other.
Sorry, Doctor Who fans, but we'll include you in one of these just as soon as you get an MMO.