A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a stage was set for what was touted to be the most unforgettable gaming experience of the new decade. Sadly, it fell just short of accomplishing this starry-eyed feat.
From the minds of the universally-respected developer Bioware, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) was their first foray into the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming market, and a notably ambitious one at that. Sporting the gaming industry’s largest-ever budget, estimated between $150 and $200 million, boasting that it took 12 full-time writers two years to write the game’s dialogue, and even recognized by the people at Guinness as the “Largest Entertainment Voice-Over Project Ever.” Was that enough to create an experience that frequently picky Star Wars fans would approve of?
To reach that conclusion, I should tackle the game’s most prominent selling point: the writing. It is not an exaggeration that the game has over 200,000 lines of voiced dialogue, and I would go so far as to say that nearly all of it is natural, interesting and rarely gave me reason to skip ahead. It was quite a feat for a game to overpower my inherent impatience and get me deeply involved in the character I was playing. That being said, I found a few moments where the voice actors were running out of different ways to stretch and manipulate their voices, breaking the illusion that each entity in this age-old galaxy was a unique and stellar person. Unfortunate, but not enough to take away from the sheer enjoyment of hearing the next perilous plea for my help.
Being a game set in the Star Wars universe, there was no way to get around the core theme of good vs. evil, and that concept was directly built into your character in his or her alignment meter. When you perform a benevolent (or malevolent) deed, your alignment shifts towards the light or dark side, and even begins to change your facial features if you become deeply invested in one direction. I can attest to the strength of this mechanic, as I proudly displayed my avatar’s grossly disfigured veins and face, a reward for my various misdeeds across the core worlds. It didn’t come easy though, as many choices legitimately force you to pause and question the ethics of your decisions, even if they are only numbers in an inconsequential program.
I cannot weigh the value of a game, of course, without also criticizing the gameplay. As great as the literate and emotional aspects of the game were, at its core mechanics it was a poor clone of its predecessors. I found myself pressing the exact same four buttons with the same animations for sixty straight hours and at times questioning why I was subjecting myself to what seemed like a chore. Mechanical tedium aside, I was so heavily invested in seeing my character’s personal story play to the end that I brushed aside the annoyance of actually advancing it. Each of eight unique classes has a personally-tailored story that tackles different galactic issues, such as human trafficking, political scandals, and even world destruction.
It would be fair to say that SWTOR was not so much an exceptional game, but moreso an exceptional interactive movie with bits of gameplay in between the expertly-crafted cinematic moments. One can quickly tell that Bioware has a lot to learn about crafting an inherently fun game, but they are light years ahead in creating an all-engrossing experience for those patient enough to sit through it all.