Hyperspace Beacon: Have Star Wars The Old Republic’s visuals aged well?


Initially I wanted to write a column about how the transition of Star Wars: The Old Republic to Broadsword and how we’re seeing its new owners and old developers handle these first few months. However, I think it’s still too early to tell anything, to be honest. The dust on the move is still settling, and the current patch — Update 7.4 — was in the works before BioWare sent SWTOR spiraling away in an escape pod.

That conversation will need to wait until early 2024 when, one hopes, the studio will regroup after the holidays to share its roadmap for the future of this MMO. Then we might see what Broadsword thinks it can accomplished with its reduced team size and budget. But other than hearing a lot of enthusiasm on the recent livestream — which was welcome to witness — it’s hard to make a judgment call on how this will all shake out.

But there was something tucked into the livestream that I thought was interesting, which is that the team said that it’s working on some improved lighting tech to make cutscenes look more dynamic. A small effort for a significant visual payout.

That’s a cool idea, especially because a frequent line of criticism about this game is that it looks old. Now, I don’t particularly agree with this — SWTOR is stylized in a way that helped to push off the ravages of time — but it definitely doesn’t look like a Star Wars game that came out in the 2020s either. If a game looks and feels “old,” then it starts erecting a barrier to keep out both veteran and new players.

So the question of the day for me is: Has SWTOR’s visual design aged well? Or, more specially, what’s aged well and what hasn’t?

To be honest, I’ve always thought this was a good-looking game. Not the best MMO in the field, but it especially shines with some of its lush or detailed planetary environments. Having played KOTOR 1 and 2 in the past half-decade, I can tell you that those titles look so much more creaky (of course, they have nearly a decade on SWTOR, so let us not judge too harshly). In comparison, SWTOR looks sleek, colorful, and at its best when it’s portraying space battles, explosions, and machines going awry.

What doesn’t work quite as well are the facial expressions of its incredibly large cast of characters. That’s a problem considering how much we look at these people and what they’re saying. Even back in 2011, I found the faces far less emotional and nuanced than they should be. There’s an angry-brows-furrowed look now and then, but that’s about it. So that could use a facelift, if you pardon the expression.

Animations are another point of consideration, and here, SWTOR is also a mixed bag. Having played a wide variety of MMOs, I could easily sort them between games that offer fluid and expressive animations (WoW, WildStar) and ones where stiff and arthritic are the order of the day (The Secret World comes to mind).

SWTOR sits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It all depends on what’s being animated (pets and vehicles are pretty great, on the whole) and when particular cutscenes were added to the game (newer, obviously, trouncing stuff made in the aughts).

What’s bothered me the most about this game is how the player character lacks those much-needed idle animations to make you look more natural. When you stop moving, you stand pretty stock-still while your companion turns to face you and looks down slightly. It’s always the same, and the human eye picks up on this sort of repetitive pattern. Sure, there are some fun emotes to give you more expressive animations when you’re killing time, but you have to activate those.

It’s a small thing, but this unnatural “at attention” pose breaks the illusion of a character’s personality. Even Star Trek Online offers a choice of resting poses as part of that customization and personal roleplay.

The technology and set dressing of SWTOR more than makes up for these small deficiencies. There’s a visual language to the Star Wars universe that’s delighted fans for decades, and it covers every corner of the game. While this is certainly more cartoony than the movies, it’s still the same universe where tech is chunky, powerful, and as unsubtle as can be.

The sci-fi setting in general and the franchise connection in specific do a lot to set this MMO apart from a large bulk of other titles, many of which are duking it out in the same fantasy space. Here? Here is where you get spaceships, lightsabers, droids, hover trains, and aliens that wouldn’t be caught dead at a renaissance faire.

I do agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Maybe not a flat-out overhaul, but smaller, strategic upgrades that give these graphics more depth and personality. Even lighting, if used well, can do so much to appeal to the modern eye.

In the end, there isn’t any MMO on the market that looks like SWTOR. Aging well is a pretty big concern for a game into its second decade of life, and if Broadsword wants to keep the eye candy going strong, it would be wise to look at reasonable ways to touch it up.

In MassivelyOP’s Hyperspace Beacon, we jump into our T-16 back home and ride through the hypergates of BioWare’s – now Broadsword’s – Star Wars: The Old Republic. Strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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