I've never liked a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) enough to keep playing beyond the free first month, but I'm hooked on BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic. And I know the exact moment it won me over: When I received my own starship.
I spent my first week as a padawan defending the Jedi homeworld from a secret Sith attack and running errands for senators on the Republic capital Coruscant. It was fun, but forgettable. Then, just shy of his 20th level, my Jedi Knight was given keys to the Defender, a bulky but graceful craft fit to rival the Millennium Falcon. The whole galaxy suddenly opened up.
Tatooine, Alderaan, Ord Mantell and other classic Star Wars worlds – all beautifully and spaciously rendered to create the illusion of vast, breathing planets – were waiting to be discovered. So, too, were epic space battles that had me weaving between spinning asteroids and skimming the hulls of Imperial cruisers.
It brought back the giddy joy I experienced watching The Empire Strikes Back as a child, and felt more like the Star Wars I grew up with than anything released in the decades since. BioWare clearly understands what mature fans crave from the franchise, better even than George Lucas himself.
Indeed, the game's pitch-perfect recreation of classic Star Wars action and atmosphere is the primary reason for my enjoyment. It's certainly not due to any great genre innovations.
Like other MMORPGs, quests boil down to travelling to a location, performing a set task (killing enemies, hacking terminals, etc.), and returning for a reward. The outcomes of battles – which involve selecting targets and clicking on skills in a bar – are dictated more by character levels than any kind of strategy. And some areas – like the depressing, ruined city-planet Taris – are simply long, objective-driven grinds. Those who haven't gotten excited by this kind of gameplay in the past aren't likely to do so here.
Where it does stand apart from other MMORPGs is in its storytelling. This genre tends to reduce players to mere cogs in a massive machine, but The Old Republic has a strong, forward-moving, individualistic plot bolstered by quality voiced dialogue that makes me feel as though I'm the central agent in a steadily evolving intrigue.
Side quests are equally satisfying. Many are part of discrete, legitimately interesting story arcs that pose ethical dilemmas meant to shape your character, your decisions subtly tipping a blue and red Force scale. And with different missions for Jedi knights, smugglers and other classes, there's an enormous amount of narrative value to be exploited by those who run multiple characters.
But the draw remains the game's deeply authentic Star Wars vibe. Whether there are enough MMORPG-loving Jedi and Sith fans out there to make Electronic Arts' enormous investment – some have pegged The Old Republic's development budget north of $300-million, making it the priciest game ever – pay off is an open question.
All I know is that once I set foot on the Defender and calculated the jump to light speed, EA had locked onto my $15 monthly subscription like a ship caught in a tractor beam.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Platform: Windows PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts