It was a strange turn of events that lead to my return to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sure, a large part of it was the unmitigated Star Wars euphoria that came following my viewing of The Force Awakens in all its derivative, nostalgia-enriched glory, but it’s more than that. While waiting on the development of games like Crowfall and Star Citizen to progress I played Guild Wars 2, grinding for cosmetics and becoming a bigger casual with every passing day. Eventually I moved on, as over the past weeks and months a miasma of cynicism set in over the state of the MMO genre, ushering me out from my chosen genre and into story-driven single-player games like Telltale’s Game of Thrones, 80 Days, Life is Strange, and even a bird dating simulator known as Hatoful Boyfriend – I swear this one is better than it sounds – and little did I know, all the while I was playing these games, a pretty enjoyable story experience was growing in my own genre.
It’s funny in a way that the game that started my distrust for MMOs would be the one I return to at my cynicism’s zenith. At its launch, The Old Republic was my first and biggest disappointment, and remains the game I think back on when girding myself against the hype of an upcoming title. I wasn’t really as sophisticated a consumer back then, and had I known what I know now, I expect I would have seen the signs, but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
In its current state, The Old Republic is edging closer and closer to becoming a good game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still at best a resoundingly mediocre MMO, but as a single-player story experience set in my absolute favorite fandom with an online community and relatively entertaining solo and small group grinding for cosmetics, it’s really come a long way. Massive streamlining to the leveling experience – including experience buffs that make it so that you needn’t bother with side quests -, a solo mode for dungeons, and a level-lock mechanic similar to Guild Wars 2’s downscaling has made the once laughable assertion that players should reroll over and over to experience all the class stories seem like a legitimately good idea, all on top of the fact that the narrative content of each expansion has only gotten better and better by leaps and bounds.
I might even go so far as to say that based on its opening nine chapters, the story in the game’s latest expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire, which will feature monthly episodic content releases starting in February 2016, is one of the best Star Wars story games ever, if you consider it on its own merit apart from the rest of the game. A cast of companions returning from Shadow of Revan comes alive as they interact with each other and the plot in a way that the vanilla companions never did, and BioWare has taken multiple cues from the way in which Telltale’s games present difficult decisions to provide a story with choices far more engaging than I’ve seen from the company before. A lot of the time, Knights of the Fallen Empire feels like KotOR 3. If it were, it would be a resounding success, but as it’s still embedded in a questionable MMO, the team behind it still has their work cut out for them to make the game worthwhile.
Unfortunately, while this new focus on story may have lead to a better game, I can’t really say that it’s made for better value. How the company markets it aside, The Old Republic is a subscription game with an exceptional free-trial, so while the one-hour of story content they plan to add every month may be great story, I doubt that alone will keep many around, and the pivot to story content has come at the expense of raid and PvP development that kept the game fresh for many MMO veterans. While raiding and PvP may not be the best tool to keep people subscribed when focusing on single-player story (solo friendly, casual content would make more sense), BioWare is going to need something before long.
For the solo player, The Old Republic has a solid foundation of content to build on. Its housing system, while one of the most restrictive housing systems I’ve ever seen (it’s “hook” based, not free placement), still satisfies many (including myself), and working towards decorations can keep those so inclined occupied for a long time. Collectors will also find a plethora of pets and mounts to work towards, but the method for working towards these is woefully invariable; while grinding Heroic 2+ weekly missions on each of the planets is actually fairly enjoyable and rewarding (particularly in a group, as bonus missions provide greater rewards with more members), the content is the same every week. If the soloer is to be entertained for long, fresh content will have to be provided.
Star Fortresses, a new feature added with Knights of the Fallen Empire, were presumably meant to be the answer to this. A repeatable dungeon with randomized content elements and a big loot table should stay fresh for a long time, right? Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll be enough. In implementation, the randomization is barely noticeable, as the parts of the whole are all too similar. Still, it’s an interesting step in the right direction, and a more fleshed out version with varying objectives and environments (think The Secret World‘s scenarios meeting Diablo 3‘s dungeons) could be exactly what the game needs.
For now, The Old Republic has me in its grips. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia from my favorite MMO of all time, Star Wars Galaxies, that makes taking up a blaster or a lightsaber again in a game that embodies almost everything that I dislike about the last generation of MMOs feel okay. The dark side has me now, and for whatever reason, I feel totally fine.