Most MMORPGs have far too narrow a definition of the term “RPG.” For them, it seems like a game is an RPG just so long as it has ability scores, character levels, and boots that improve your accuracy. To me, those are just incidentals. What makes for real roleplaying is being given an opportunity to express an attitude or a principle and then watch the game world respond to it. Being a hero or villain should matter not just in terms of the missions you choose to run, but by how you choose to run them. Games tend to define characters almost exclusively in terms of mathematical values – strength, speed, accuracy, etc. – but characters in nearly every other medium are more often defined by psychology. BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic gives us the best of both worlds with characters who not only advance both in terms of physical ability, but also express a kind of emotional identity.

When I think about my main character in The Old Republic, I don’t immediately think of him as a “tank” who’s just there to soak up damage. In fact, my character’s mechanical identity is pretty far down on the list of things I think about. Instead, I think of him as a Sith, totally invested in the desire to be remembered and honored for his service to the Empire long after his own death. To that end, he adopts the Roman idea of the patron-client relationship. Do what you can for people in power and trust that their influence and favor will benefit you one day. Likewise, reward those who seek out your patronage but do not hesitate to punish disloyalty.

While I may have similar notions about characters I play in other MMOs, The Old Republic is the first MMO where that attitude actually seems to matter within the context of the game. Suddenly, I’m not making choices based on the purely mechanical benefit to my character. Now I’m actually investing myself in the situations and making decisions based on my character’s outlook. The sum total of those decisions creates a character biography that transcends the skills and equipment I’ve gained along the way. I mean, what’s more meaningful: that my character has a lightsaber that boosts his strength or that he seduces (and allows himself to be seduced by) women in power? To me, that’s real roleplaying and it’s something that The Old Republic does better than any other MMO I’ve ever played. In fact, it does it better than most single-player RPGs I’ve played.

What makes it work is that the game offers really engaging choices in nearly every single encounter. Do you let the bad guy go in order to save a few innocent lives? Do you exploit a high-ranking member of your faction who has lost touch with reality? Do you give a defeated enemy the right to an honorable death? The decisions are reinforced by the game’s frequent callbacks to your previous adventures and your companions’ almost immediate reaction to what you’re doing. Stand firm for the Empire and your junior officer will beam with pride. Perform a selfless act and your Twi’lek thief will shake her head in disgust. While there is some resetting for the sake of preserving other players’ experiences, The Old Republic makes you feel like your decisions really matter.

The situation becomes even more appealing once you add in other players who have the opportunity to take your interactions with other NPCs into territories you didn’t expect. In fact, sharing conversations with other players makes the game feel even more dynamic and relevant. Imagine you’ve just fought your way onto the bridge of a starship and confronted an enemy admiral. You’d like to spare his life, but your bounty hunter friend decides to kill him anyway. What’s especially cool is that each player gets to choose the response they’d like to make at that crucial moment. Those who choose the merciful option gain Light Side points, even if the player who finally gets to make the call ends up killing the guy.

The combat is fantastic, not just in terms of the exciting visuals, but also in terms of the choices you get to make. These characters really look like they’re connecting with each other with every lightsaber swipe and every blaster shot. There’s a strong kinetic element to the battles here so, when a bounty hunter launches a rocket strike, you really feel the weight of it in the way the characters respond. It’s too bad, then, that you miss a lot of the combat just watching abilities cycle in your hot bar. I’m willing to overlook a bit of bar-watching, because it’s sort of standard with most MMOs, but it’s a shame that BioWare made such great animations for game that demands so much of your attention elsewhere.

Some of this attention is a result of the flexibility of the characters. While my Sith Juggernaut is, mechanically speaking, a tank-oriented character, he can choose what kind of tank to be at any moment. Is he interested in finishing the fight as quickly as possible? He has a range of abilities that are good at that. Does he just want to draw agro and debuff nearby enemies? He has a whole other set of abilities for that. Or maybe he just needs to stay alive long enough for his allies to take out the enemies. Well, he’s got abilities for that. In fact, each class can choose a couple of different strategies for most combat encounters and, when you add in the different types of companion characters, you can pick just about any class and find a play style that suits both you and the encounter in question.

The only thing I truly don’t like about The Old Republic is the space combat. It’s objectionable on two main grounds. First, it lacks the story-telling and consequence of the ground content. There are no personalities in space and no meaningful decisions to be made, at least narratively speaking. Given all that the team has accomplished with the story on the ground, it’s a massive letdown to find yourself stripped of all those innovations in space. While it may work as an action oriented diversion, it feels like it’s part of an entirely different game.

Even worse, there’s virtually no mechanical choice, either. Each space sequence is essentially an on-rails shooter where your flight path is pre-determined and your only real choice is whether to shoot the thing right in front of you, or to shoot the thing slightly beside it. I definitely appreciated the fantastic visuals and set pieces of the space battles. You’re either flying through crowded asteroid fields, strafing massive enemy capital ships, or escorting tediously slow VIP shuttles in these missions, all of which feels iconic and important on the surface, but you never really lose the feeling that you’re playing someone else’s idea of the mission and not your own. And when you fly away from the last objective you need to accomplish and end up getting killed before the game gives you another chance to accomplish the objective, well, that’s just unfair.

While the space battles are the only serious shortcoming for The Old Republic, the game does have a number of other faults that are likely to frustrate gamers from time to time. For the most part, these are consequences of the game’s intense focus on telling a compelling story for each of the eight classes. First, a player’s allegiance to the Light or Dark Side of the Force has no bearing on their factional affiliation, which seems out of character for the franchise. Whenever a character in Star Wars turns toward the Light or Dark side, it usually follows that they have to shift political sides as well. Also out of character for the franchise is the tremendous restriction on the types of races players can be. If your Star Wars fantasy isn’t to be a human, or a human with funny makeup or a head tentacle, you’re pretty much out of luck here. The progress through the game is also much more linear than you’re likely to find in other MMOs. Where you go next in The Old Republic is almost always decided for you.

But like I said, all of these problems are relatively unavoidable given what BioWare hoped to achieve with the story. You can’t have real choice without letting the bad guys opt to be good every once in a while, and you can’t have Wookiees and Ithorians messing up the fully-voiced cutscenes. You also can’t give players a focused story without taking some of the larger choices away. If you’re willing to accept the costs of BioWare’s innovations, the game delivers one of the most refreshing and attractive advancements the MMO genre has seen in years.

Bottom Line: BioWare lived up to its promises to make story really matter in an MMO context with The Old Republic. Here, your characters are so much more than just avatars with stats.

Recommendation: Buy it if you like at least two of the following: Star Wars, BioWare, or MMOs.

[rating= 4.5]

If Steve Butts could actually choke people with his mind, he probably would.

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Game: The Old Republic
Genre: MMORPG
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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