When it comes to massively multiplayer online games, World of Warcraft has been the 800 lb gorilla for some time now. That magic and battling game has been so dominant in the MMO field, in fact, that most game developers have been hesitant to spend the time and cash it would take to create anything even remotely competitive.
But when you have something in your hip pocket with as much curb appeal and fan-drawing clout as Star Wars has—cue the John Williams score—you could also argue that you'd be crazy not to try.
While George Lucas may be a lot of things, he's not crazy. So he and the gamemakers at BioWare took the fight right to their WoW competitors with what the Los Angeles Times described as potentially "the largest entertainment production in history." Reportedly more than 800 people on four continents spent six years and nearly $200 million creating Star Wars: The Old Republic.
In a Galaxy Right in Your Family Room
It's immediately cool to hear that iconic theme and see your story scrolling into the starry distance. It's furious fun to run across a wicked and blobby Hutt in your travels. It's smile-worthy when you recognize the buzzing drone of a well-swung lightsaber. But it's the rich storylines that show where Lucas and Co. have spent all their time and coin.
I say storylines because each of the eight different classes that gamers can create their character from—The Republic's Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Trooper and Smuggler, or the Empire's Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Bounty Hunter and Imperial Agent—has its own branching plot to play out. In fact, unlike most MMOs, the tales here feel filled with actual characters you can grow to care about. It's like playing through a number of different movies, with lots of multiple-camera-angle dialogue sequences spread out over some 1,600 hours of leveling, grinding, questing and looting.
Yes, I said one thousand six hundred hours. And I'll come back to that in a bit. As for the action, it takes place a few thousand years before any of the movies' timelines, so there's no worrying about where Obi-Wan or Luke might fit in. It's an ancient starting point for a conflict between the peace-loving Galactic Republic and the dominance-seeking Sith Empire. And no matter whether you're a Zabrak smuggler fighting to regain his stolen ship or a human Sith apprentice hoping to survive her deadly trials, it all eventually feeds into the same good-vs.-evil struggle.
Watch Your Choice, Kid
There are two central parts to the action in every story: talking and battling. On the verbal side of the equation, gamers' conversations work the same way they do in other BioWare titles, namely the Mass Effect games. You interact with others using a "dialogue wheel," a mechanic that generally gives a choice of a nice, neutral or nasty response. The selections you make might mean nothing in the grand scheme of things … or they could greatly impact your "Force" alignment—turning you gradually to the dark or the light side. More on that later, too.
On the violent, slash-and-shoot side, all of the attack, defend and heal moves are lined up in a clickable menu of hotkeys that you can arrange and use as you please. It all comes down to what lightsaber riposte or lightning-bolt-from-your-fingertips zap might be available to your particular Sith or Jedi. Among them, you can pick and choose the best ones to power up and use as your signature move or game-changing ace in the hole.
You can play along as a lone trooper if you want, but trust me, things can get pretty tough if you do. So The Old Republic allows you to recruit A.I. companions that can range from R2-D2-like robots to muscular humanoid fighters. Taking this crew into battle, properly equipping them, balancing their skills in team play, and even sending them off to sell some of your old collected junk adds a whole new dimension to the MMO experience. And with the game's "affection" mechanic, these companions draw closer to you or drift away based on how they respond to what you say to other characters.
And that brings us back to the whole dark/light thing. If you know anything about the Star Wars universe, you know it revolves around a quasi-theology evidenced by the Force. It's the power that characters tap into to perform everything from psychic blasts to mind control. In the game, it's not really explored at any great depth from a religious point of view—it's just accepted as a normal part of existence—but it certainly makes its presence known in the general struggle between the Siths of the dark side and Jedis of the light.
Use the Force, Bob
Moral choices, therefore, abound. And, as I mentioned, a gamer's reaction at any given moment can impact his light or dark meter. Show mercy to a fallen foe or try to pursue peaceful conclusions and you'll earn the right to use equipment that only the light side may access. And you'll also endear any light-minded companions. Running your lightsaber through that aforementioned foe, however, could send friends of the light scattering while eliciting a grunt of approval from a dark-inclined companion who likes to see such deadly work. And, in approximately equal measure, you'll gain access to weapons and equipment reserved for the dark side.
That means the game doesn't really nudge you one way or the other. But it does confirm your choice, for good or for ill, once you start drifting.
Let me point out here that whether you're full of light or consumed with darkness, violence is everywhere, combat is constant and hostilities run hot. There are no dismemberments or decapitations, but animals and humanoids die by the hundreds as you make your way from one quest to another. One Sith quest I participated in featured a skull and a pool of blood. But the game's T rating reflects the fact that the vast majority of the time the action is more restrained than that. Still, the Sith inclination thrives on hate and anger, and it can certainly run in the direction of arrogance, bullying, murder and fearful cruelty—without necessarily reaping any negative consequences.
Mild profanities sometimes pop up. (I encountered the word "d‑‑n.) And there are a few sexual themes too. Characters can flirt. And one quest took me to an dance club filled with shapely, bikini-clad aliens and glowing holographic pole dancers.
This Is Red 5, I'm Staying In
All of that will sound mighty familiar to Star Wars fans. And in most ways this game goes no further, content wise, than any of the movies that inspired it. The plusses and minuses—violence, spirituality, fighting for the good of others—are mostly the same, except for one: time. Watch all six movies back to back and you've still only used a little more than 13 hours of your life. Level up all the way to 50 in this mammoth MMO and you're looking at, oh, a full-time job for about a year.
On that front, Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft are virtual twins. And both should be treated with respect and caution. Respect for being the best there is. Caution for trying to take the best of your time in the cause of a never-ending game.