Not that the galaxy seems to be in much chaos on the whole, though. Even fierce combat feels painfully static and uninvolving unless you play as a melee or cover class, such as a Jedi or agent, respectively. These were the only classes we saw that required more than just standing still and shooting non-stop – with Jedi’s having to get close to unleash their full power and agents able to make use of environmental cover.
Why bounty hunters can’t reap the benefits of crouching behind a crate to avoid bullets is as big a mystery as why lightsabers can’t even cut through un-armoured enemies on a single strike.
We found ourselves wading through an almost obscene amount of combat too, usually against the type of wild beasties and bandits that typify every RPG, ever – but in greater quantity and in an area which felt far smaller. In some cases we’d clear out an area, walk into the next room, turn back and face the exact same enemies we’d killed only moments before. Once or twice we even saw foes respawning over their own corpses as conversations distracted us – very, very anti-fun.
What’s most disappointing of all is how empty and lacking in personality the worlds of The Old Republic felt. It didn’t matter whether we were dealing with ganglords on Hutta or seizing gun emplacements on Alderaan; we never saw any of the pizzazz or colour which we’d expect of the Star Wars franchise. There was none of the hustle or bustle you’d expect of a thriving interstellar universe, merely same-faced folk standing in an under-populated shell of a world. Only in an MMO is it possible to feel so alone.
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Bioware does have an easy defence on hand, at least – namely that the game isn’t finished and that the servers weren’t fully populated. The group of 50 we played in was enough to provide an impression of activity, but still left too much room to breathe. It’s also worth pointing out that there was little collaboration among the players aside from the purely tactical choices. Players would team up to take on epic missions, but then drift silently apart, leaving us uncertain if this was down to the game failing to inspire cohesion among players or simply that 48 hours isn’t long enough to make guilds either fun or necessary.
The Old Republic’s ‘flashpoints’ are interesting, at the least. These are story-driven group missions which see players forced into teaming up to survive particularly challenging environments. The one we fought through took place on an Imperial transport, where the captain refused to follow orders and our group was tasked with retaking the ship. As a plot point it didn’t really feel like it tied into anything, but such unique one-off quests did at least give a sense of individuality to the game.
The chance to affect the larger plot was interesting too, as the finale saw our bounty hunter given final say on whether to spare or sacrifice the mutinous captain. It remains to be seen whether the decision will actually effect anything on a grand-scale, but the potential is there.
Star Wars: The Old Republic trailer
Potential isn’t something that a Star Wars MMO is theoretically short of, so it’s a shame that most of it seems to have been wasted in The Old Republic. What we saw in our time with the game wasn’t always terrible – the combat may be staid and static, but Bioware has at least done a good job at balancing the wide variety of classes against each other.
Instead, the issue that plagues The Old Republic is one of predictability. An MMO from such accomplished RPG writers and based on such a rich fiction could have redefined the genre, but instead appears to merely ape other MMOs, with little thought given to reconciling the fiction with the gameplay or capitalising on the depth of the narrative. From what we've seen, there’s very little to make The Old Republic stand out from any other MMO we’ve played.
Maybe that will change in the mid- and late-game stages. Maybe the caveats of previewing an MMO in such a way unfairly prevent us from being able to assess The Old Republic’s strengths. Maybe. All we’re sure of now is that what we played didn't offer the breakthrough experience that Star Wars fans should hope for and that we’d happily let The Old Republic stay in a galaxy far, far away.