Free to Play Fridays: The Old Republic

2015-10-02

Welcome to the first installment of TMC’s new “Free to Play Fridays” column. Each week, we’ll be taking a look at one or more F2P games that have caught our attention. Some may be games still in development or, like our first game, an older title you may have forgotten was still around. With a new expansion coming out at the end of this month and millions of fans silently praying Episode VII won’t suck this December, this seems like the right time for this particular title. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at…

STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC

First, a bit of background. Star Wars: The Old Republic launched in 2011 as a normal subscription model MMO. The game’s development deal was the catalyst for LucasArts allowing the license to expire with Sony Online Entertainment, now Daybreak Game Company, and the death knell for the far more sandbox-y Star Wars Galaxies. As BioWare’s first entry into the MMO market, the game was viewed with a great deal of trepidation, but also a fair degree of cautious optimism. BioWare, after all, had a record of success with Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect 1 and 2, and Dragon Age: Origins, and the new MMO offering was largely expected to follow the same basic model of RPG as those games: story-driven with a good mix of action and character interaction. The concerns were that, as a newcomer to MMOs, BioWare might stumble over many of the unique hazards and needs of the genre.

As it turned out, both expectations and worries were well-founded. While the initial gameplay and leveling experience were up to the standards established in previous BioWare games, the mechanics of gameplay offered no significant innovations and once the player completed the story the game defaulted to the cycle of raiding for better gear, to get into higher raids, so you can get better gear. Raiding is, of course, the model for most MMOs once level cap is reached, but ‘most MMOs’ aren’t terribly successful without some significant, standout feature. For SW:TOR, that feature was BioWare’s reputation for a solid story, exactly the element that was set aside once the leveling process ended.

With much of the playerbase coming from other MMOs like World of Warcraft, this meant the content offered in The Old Republic wasn’t sufficiently unique to keep their attention and the game began to fall off of popular radar. Predictably, the confluence of the rise of the microtransaction model and the drop in subscriber numbers meant that in 2012, The Old Republic went Free to Play. Like many F2P MMOs, especially those that began life on the subscription model, the Free to Play version of TOR restricts a number of options and activities that the subscription model enjoyed. Some of these options can be unlocked with in-game currency. Others require subscription or microtransaction using TOR’s premium currency “Hutt Cartel Coins”, or simply Cartel Coins. Microtransactions can be used to unlock additional races, character slots, auction house slots (F2P begins capped at 2 items for sale), quickbars, and also to purchase premium gear, vehicles, pets, and so on.

The Old Republic: Why choose between Twi'lek and Jedi when you can do both?

The Old Republic lets you craft your own Jedi legend.

IT IS A TIME OF GALACTIC CIVIL WAR…

Ok, let’s face it, it’s Star Wars. It’s always a time of Galactic Civil War. You know what happens during those long, peaceful stretches of not Galactic Civil War? Me either. They’re the centuries we skip right over to get to the next Galactic Civil War. This time around, it’s no different.

The previous game, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, took place in 3951 BBY (Before Battle of Yavin, ie: the original Star Wars). The Old Republic skips the intervening three centuries and a 28-year conflict known as the Great Galactic War. That war ended with the Treaty of Coruscant, a heavily-punitive measure forced upon the Galactic Republic by the Sith Empire following the Sacking of Coruscant, which saw the destruction of the Jedi Temple by a Sith assault force. Ten years of uneasy peace have passed, with both sides rebuilding their capacity to make war and rising tensions are rushing towards a resumption of conflict between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

The game allows selection between eight classes: four for the Galactic Republic, four for the Sith Empire. The classes, such as the Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior, are largely mirrors of one another with minor variations, but the classes are part of what sets The Old Republic apart and makes it feel like a BioWare game.

Each class has its own storyline, running from the beginning of the game up to the original level cap at Level 50. The different classes begin paired on the four starting worlds, based on similar backgrounds: Korriban for the Sith Warrior/Sith Inquisitor, Hutta for the Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent, Tython for the Jedi Knight/Jedi Consular, and Ord Mantell for the Republic Trooper/Smuggler. From there, the story crosses a number of worlds, as is to be expected from a Star Wars game. Those worlds range from those familiar even to fans of only the original movies, like Tatooine and Alderaan, to planets introduced in earlier games or other works of the Expanded Universe, like Taris, Tython, Makeb and Illum,

Along the way, each class gains five Companions plus your ship-board protocol droid. Companions can fill various support roles in order to improve your performance when solo or in a partial group. Each of these five has their own story and, as you progress and earn their trust, loyalty, and affections, they’ll open up small side-missions to put unresolved issues to rest. As you might expect from a BioWare game, at least two companions for each class include romantic options. In what was seen as a curious choice, though, the romance options do not include same-sex encounters with your companions, unlike BioWare’s other games.

In addition, the entire game is completely voice-acted, from cutscenes and mission NPCs to the Balmorran junk vendor. This includes your companions which  greatly helps establishing their character and relationship with you. The voice-acting includes lines of dialogue delivered in alien languages like Huttese, the lingua franca of the Hutt Cartel, complete with full subtitles. Your story is broken up into a prologue and three chapters, each getting its own genuine Star Wars™ Brand text crawl, helping to punctuate the beginning of the new act in the story arc.

The combination of these elements results in an engaging experience far more reminiscent of single-player RPGs than the MMO market. The Old Republic isn’t single player, however, and by operating with a group, players can tackle instanced scenarios called Flashpoints, Heroic areas, and other content specifically designed for as many as four people. At max level, this culminates in Operations, TOR’s raid content, made for groups of eight or sixteen. In addition, group members can enter story instances with you to ride along in Spectator Mode to observe the cutscenes and story moments of other classes.

There are, as you advance in level, a series of space combat missions that unlock. These are repeatable missions, though free-to-play players are limited to three per week (more, obviously, can be unlocked with premium Cartel Coins). The space missions are basically shooters on rails, like a chase-camera version of Zaxxon or Galaga. Still, they do present a decent change of pace; a little bit of arcade action whenever you need a break from the lightsabers and Force Lightning…

… not that I can imagine ever wanting to not lightsabers-and-Force-Lightning, but I guess some of you would choose Republic over Sith.

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Lightsabers and Force Lightning: It's good to be bad.

Lightsabers and Force Lightning: It’s good to be bad.

BEYOND THE CORE

As I mentioned in the background section, TOR had some issues once you hit the end of your story. The game went from ‘BioWare RPG’ to ‘Raiding Molten Core’ in the space of ‘yay, you finished your story!’ and that adjustment wasn’t easy for a lot of people to make. When they started talking about Expansions, there was a lot of hope that BioWare would be extending the class stories (or starting new ones). Unfortunately, what happened was… not quite that.

There have been four expansions so far. Two of them have been story expansions, two have been gameplay expansions. Each story expansion has come with a five-level bump in level cap, while the gameplay expansions have added additional features that really were planned well before launch.

The gameplay expansions, Galactic Starfighter and Galactic Strongholds, are semi-self-explanatory. Their names give an immediate, completely accurate, representation of what each added to the game. Galactic Starfighter, unlike the earlier space missions, is a PVP flight simulator that hearkens back to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter for its inspiration, although a full Hands On Throttle And Stick setup (or even a joystick or controller) is not required. Players on each side of the War can choose between three roles: Scout, a fast, maneuverable, but fragile ship, Gunship, with heavy weapons and armor, but slower and less agile, and Fighter, a reasonable balance-point between the two. Each role offers a default hull that players can use, or they can opt to unlock additional hulls, up to five for each role. From there, individuals can customize their starfighter with different fitted modules in order to get the performance tweaks they’re looking for, and even select from a variety of pre-designed paint schemes.

Galactic Strongholds, of course, adds player housing. Each player can purchase up to three apartments: one on the Imperial capital of Dromund Kaas, one on Coruscant, the Republic Capital, and one on the Hutt-controlled city-moon Nar Shadda, a brightly-festooned environment that always strikes me as a mash-up between Las Vegas and any street scene from Blade Runner. Once purchased, the stronghold is accessible by any character the player creates on that server, though going to the other side’s capital city requires being ‘smuggled’ in, costing 1,000 credits. The strongholds can be made accessible to other players, either through direct invitation, or by giving that character a ‘key’ which grants access even when the owner isn’t present. Strongholds can, of course, be decorated with a variety of furniture, wall hangings, and all of the comforts of pretty much any player housing; the available decorations do include fabricator droids that can produce other decorations, if the right parts are acquired.

The story expansions released to date are the first expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, and the fourth, Shadow of Revan. Each expansion brought the story to new worlds and new levels, but neither one advanced the story in a way that focused on the player character. Where Levels 1-50 had been ‘your story’, Levels 51-60 were more ‘a story you happen to be in’. As a result, there’s little or no meaningful character development during these levels. Instead, the leveling content feels… well, it feels like the side-quests in any MMO zone. Which, after 50 very strong levels of being the heart of the story, and not just the person who happens to be in the middle of it, can be a bit underwhelming, especially for a group used to seeing the interwoven threads of 2-4 stories playing out together.

GOING FORWARD

Ok, so now I’ve told you about how SW:TOR was a really solid game that dropped the ball in end-game and expansions, and you’re probably wondering why it rates being covered as a game worth your time. Well, I admit, it’s kind of a gamble right now. On the one hand, as a free-to-play game, if you want to get into a good story in a Star Wars game, TOR’s worth the time invested for the first 50 levels of each story. At the same time, the developers are aware of how far short of their goals the previous expansions fell.

BioWare hopes to correct that with their latest offering, Knights of the Fallen Empire, which goes live at the end of October. Billed as ‘A return to BioWare cinematic storytelling’, Fallen Empire places the player in the role of “The Outlander”, a veteran of the Galactic Civil War, as the Republic and Sith Empire lay in ruins after the entry of the Eternal Empire into the war. The expansion will feature new and old companions, and will be placing an emphasis on the single-player storyline, rather than raids and group instances. Knights of the Fallen Empire will contain nine chapters at release, with a total of sixteen planned.

Notably, while the base game is Free to Play, the first two story expansions have required separate purchases for access, although Rise of the Hutt Cartel is currently included free with a purchase of Shadows of Revan. Fallen Empire, however, will be free for all subscribers when it’s released on October 27. For those players who are subscribed before October 19, the 20th marks the beginning of Early Access, with additional gifts and perks the earlier they subscribed. In addition, for those who don’t necessarily want to wade through the lower-level content, Fallen Empire will allow players to create a single character at level 60 in order to jump straight into the new story.

Make no mistake: The Old Republic is about as far from a Sandbox MMO as you can get, but for fans of the Star Wars franchise looking for a free-to-play way to chew up some time and enjoy a good story, the core game is definitely worth a look. If BioWare’s latest effort lives up to their proven potential, The Old Republic will be once again be a game you won’t want to miss out on.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Arrendis.

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