I just could not fathom why BioWare didn’t release Star Wars: The Old Republic outside the US and Europe. It’s fine that they don’t have localised servers for people in Oceania – we’re used to all sorts of neglect and abandonment here in the Southern Hemisphere, and mistreatment at the hands of companies with a focus on North Atlantic countries is essentially par for the course. But it just didn’t make any sense not to make the game available in Australia, New Zealand, et al – especially when BioWare representatives came out and said that residents in such countries would be free to import their own copies and play via an international server. Clearly, there are higher machinations at work here that i don’t fully comprehend – but all the same, it doesn’t sit right that in 2011, a digitally distributed piece of software isn’t available throughout the world.
In any case, having secured a copy for myself, despite the risk of insufferable 500ms latency, I have very little else to say about SWTOR that is negative. I’m not one for MMORPGs, as a rule – my brief stint playing World of Warcraft ended up turning into an obligation, where I felt guilty if a second of free time wasn’t spent grinding to keep up with my guildmates. I flirted with Pirates of the Burning Sea a few years ago, but it suffered the same caveats – the standard MMORPG, it seems, is just a processor of numbers, and certain people who input numbers into the processor are slightly better at it than others. That’s enough, for a lot of people – character and build optimisation, collecting pixellated adornments for an intangible digital avatar that are deemed “epic” and/or “brutal” by some collective conscious out there in the aether.
That’s the bread and butter of the MMORPG – along with a constant, addictive pressure to become better than you are. There are immutable reminders at every turn that you’ll be so much better if you just stick around for a little bit longer, get that next bit of gear or that next item. And they’re no less present in SwTOR – the immediate resemblence to a game like WoW is startling. It’s almost, you feel, just WoW with lightsabers. Initially I wondered whether that would be enough for me, as a Star Wars fan of the old school – well, as old school as someone born in the late eighties can be, so perhaps not so old school in the grand scheme of things – because I require all-too-overlooked elements to be present in videogames, things like plot, compelling characters, and immersive gameplay. I wasn’t expecting huge measures of any of these things in SWTOR – after all, it’s a MMORPG.
It is, then, enormously pleasing to say that SWTOR contains all these elements. I was drawn into the game very quickly indeed, and was astonished by how persuasive the game was when it came to immersion. Gone were the cardboard characters, instructing me to collect x items for y purpose, and in their stead were KOTOR/Mass Effect style conversations with characters that had purposeful motivations. It was incredible to actually find myself invested in the plot – the plot – that was unfolding as I worked my way through the prologue. I cared about the outcome, I considered the choices I had with great care. It was, for all intents and purposes, like playing an old single-player BioWare title like Dragon Age, except here there is the blessing and curse that is other people. For the most part, it’s fine – people exchanging tepid rehashes of interactions between arrows and knees are ignorable, and the unforgivingly ruthless way seasoned MMO players go about their business is something to become accustomed to. But it’s a joy to team up with someone and smash through an instance, especially with the role-playing element that separates SWTOR from its competitors.
Two-thirds of the letters in MMORPG tend to be ignored by those who make them – they are, rather obviously, R and P. A role-playing game is one in which you’re induced to develop more personal attributes of your character that expand and enrich his role in the game world. As an old hand at D&D, it’s such a vital component of good videogaming for me – which is why I’m so taken by SWTOR. There was one point, while questing with another player, where I realised just how well the game had been done. He was incredibly mercantile, and I was more interested in light side points – meaning that the two of us had to argue as to how we would complete quests. It reminded me of the morality conflicts while playing D&D, and it gave SWTOR incredible life and vigour.
SWTOR feels like a real videogame, not another shitty Star Wars license that would be best left alone. BioWare are good developers – if terrible marketers – and they’ve produced a true masterpiece in SWTOR. By subverting the classically overplayed experience of MMORPGs, they’ve established a highly legitimate and extremely enjoyable online multiplayer experience, in a setting that has been the stuff of nerd wet dreams for the past forty years. It’s terrific stuff, and worth all the hoops I had to jump through to play it.