In a time of great uncertainty and some short-term chaos as Star Wars: The Old Republic moves from BioWare to Broadsword, one might assume that this situation would repel prospective players (or returning vets) from the MMO. Weirdly enough, for me it’s had the opposite effect. With this transition and the foundational work that the team’s been doing this year (64-bit client, cloud servers), I found myself pulled right back into playing SWTOR for all it’s worth.
I have a lot of respect for games that swing big for the fences. In a risk-adverse genre, it’s refreshing to see a bold vision and a lot of effort expended to carry that out. For SWTOR, it was dedicating teams to write, animate, and program these incredibly extensive stories for each of the eight classes — and then provide male and female voices for each one.
Yes, I’m equally bummed that we haven’t gotten any new classes or (for the most part) class storylines since, but I can understand why. This was a monumental project that to this day sets apart this game’s early experience. By the time you’re done with your class story, you have a genuine feel of who you are and how you are different from the rest of the game’s roles.
Having grown up on BioWare RPGs, I was delighted to see the studio carry the companion concept over into its MMO. Not only do I like having a helpful “pet” at my side for healing and DPS, but the moments when a companion features into a story, spouts out a line of action dialogue, or invites me to go on a questline adds to the richness of the game experience. I also don’t like feeling lonely when I play solo, and having some intergalactic cowboy or alien doctor at my side helps with that.
While MMO quests are all well and good, I chafe under their assumption that I’m going to blithely go along with whatever the developer deems is the “right” way to do it. While its choices could be superficial at times, SWTOR gave players far more agency in dev-structured storytelling than we see pretty much everywhere else. I can be sassy, defiant, helpful, curious, or however I feel at the moment.
But I especially like the light/darkside choices, even if they can be a little wonky. Let me be the bad guy in the context of a single quest. Let me agonize over a decision to be merciful or get the revenge that I crave. Let me probe the creativity of the dev team to see what they’ll have the game do when I choose B over A. Let me deal with some consequences, even if they’re confined to narrative (or little follow-up emails that my character receives).
Star Wars theming
Despite it being an “even longer time ago” in a galaxy far, far away, SWTOR still adheres to many of the theming conventions that we’re familiar with from the movie era. That’s a theming I always adore, from the chunky armor to the ridiculous bottomless pits (without guardrails!) to the sound effects, neon, and magic glow sticks o’ death. If you love the “feel” of Star Wars, you can marinate in this MMO all you like.
It’s also a great antidote to your standard high fantasy MMORPGs. Seeing spaceships, computers, holograms, and the rest is a welcome change of pace.
One of my most-requested features for any MMO is some place for me to set up shop and call “home.” The galactic strongholds were a great addition — perhaps not as flexible as non-hook housing can be, but still very functional and easy to set up. As a bonus, if you end up really loving a particular planet, you might be able to buy a house that shares that planet’s theming! I love my house in SWTOR and take any excuse to skitter off to add to it.
While I will never not be low-key grumpy over the fact that you can’t alter or customize your starship, I still love that we get them (and that there’s six in total). They’re wonderfully detailed spaces that feel welcoming after a long mission and even offer some degree of functionality. These ships also fill the role of transitions between planets and settings, a kind of pause and sanctuary before jumping back into the fray again.
I know, a lot of what I’m saying here is very old hat, but I still appreciate stuff like this. In sci-fi MMOs, it’s really important to me to have a mobile base of operations — i.e., a starship — as a grounding point.
After a dozen years, SWTOR’s silent success is how much of the Star Wars universe that it’s explored. This galaxy’s been populated by a wide variety of planets, some seen in the movies, some in the games, and some that are brand-new to most of us. By sectioning off the game between planets, this MMO feels huge and expansive in a way that fantasy worlds usually do not.
And maybe I sound like a naive waif seeing the great outdoors for the first time, but I really have to give it to these world designers for doing outstanding work in a multitude of biomes. There are some very creative and immersive environments here, and even today I can’t help but take screenshots at all of the eye-catching vistas.
Cosmetics, mounts, and pets
SWTOR has never had the best cosmetic wardrobe system in MMORPGs… but it has one that can be used to great effect by fashionistas, which is the important thing. And there are a lot of very fun costume pieces to collect and use, offering up a sci-fi flair that is enjoyable to use in mix-and-match experiments.
But there’s plenty more on-the-go expressions of customization, such as the choice of mount, what adorable (or repulsive) pet you pull out, and what title you sling over your head. All of these are MMO staples at this point, but if they weren’t here, they’d be pretty glaring.
I used to really hate the user interface in this game for being a little too clunky and inflexible, but boy has that changed over the years! Now we enjoy a ton of placement, scaling, and toggle options for setting up an ideal UI. I came back this year to discover that I could replace the minimap radar with a scaled-down version of the full world map, which delighted me to no end.
Being able to play the character you envision
One thing that I think developers don’t get is that players often have a very specific vision for their character’s motivation and behavior. Most MMOs don’t allow for you to pursue your own head canon — but SWTOR does. Want your character to be sarcastic? Defiant? Counter-cultural? A drooling toadie? A murderous malefactor or a benevolent blessing? The dialogue choices and action options quite often give you the ability to back up what’s in your head with what transpires on screen.