Should You Play SWTOR?

This year’s annual Star Wars movie release – that still feels weird to write – has come and gone. With Rogue One‘s theatrical debut last week, a new wave of hype and excitement has reinvigorated fans of the franchise. For those of us who are gamers, the desire to jump back into the universe has come rushing towards us in full force.

Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One has some of those gamers looking to SWTOR as a place to get their Star Wars fix, especially those of the MMO persuasion. Visiting any number of message boards uncovers posters asking one simple question: is SWTOR worth playing? Well, let’s talk about that.

SWTOR is the definition of a mixed bag. From the moment BioWare announced its intent for the game to be an MMO that focused on story, SWTOR has been a game at battle with itself. The nature of the game has changed dramatically over the years as it was aligned and realigned to fit new development and monetization paradigms, ultimately settling down into what it is now. To uncover exactly what that is, we’ll need to look at SWTOR twice: once as an MMO and once as a single-player RPG set in the Star Wars universe.

 

SWTOR the MMORPG

For a good chunk of its storied existence post-release, SWTOR followed the path of so many MMORPGs before it, borrowing heavily from themepark forebears with an endgame meta mostly revolving around flashpoints (dungeons) and operations (raids). These largely turned out to be fine in their own right. They weren’t spectacular, but they got the job done if you had a special appreciation for the Star Wars flair the setting lent them, and, let’s face it, a lot of people do.

In the end though, SWTOR could never compete as WoW-in-space. First, the game’s monetization was realigned, with a controversial transition to one of the most heavily restrictive free-to-play models available to this day. It included several provisions that were rightly seen as deplorable money grubbing – the most infamous being charging for additional action bars – and the game’s reputation continued to decline as a result. The cash shop expanded, with a growing emphasis on everyone’s least favorite item, the RNG lockbox, that continues strong to this day.

SWTOR Ziost Postcard

At this point, things were looking pretty dark, so the company realigned its development strategy to focus more on what it did best and most uniquely – deliver that classic BioWare story experience in the Star Wars‘ Old Republic setting. It wasn’t the flip of a switch overnight. New expansions, while introducing story content that was solid, were also accompanied by  the addition of flashpoints and operations. But as time went on, that focus shifted further and further in favor of narrative delivery. With each successive release, the story grew better and the MMO receded further, until, with Knights of the Fallen Empire‘s release, it seems to have disappeared completely.

The Old Republic‘s most recent MMO systems transgression is also perhaps its most comically misplaced, in which its once traditional gearing system has been replaced by one where players grind XP to obtain what are essentially cash shop lockboxes (though mercifully without the actual RMT) filled with mostly garbage and a slim chance at good gear. I do see what they’re going for, but without new group content being added, the whole concept of progression itself seems entirely pointless, while the command system offends aesthetic (if not pragmatic) sensibilities with its similarity to cash shop lockboxes. If the game’s focus is going to be on episodic story, maybe a carrot other than gear progression would be more appropriate to lure players along with.

At this point, there is virtually no reason to play SWTOR for its MMO offerings, as it’s been almost three years since the game has added anything resembling group content. Now it has been alleged that the team will be refocusing on group content in 2017, but with regards to what’s available right now? SWTOR simply doesn’t give you a compelling reason to play the game as you normally would an MMO. Fortunately, that’s not all the game has to offer.

 

SWTOR the Single Player RPG

Ever since its gradual re-positioning to focus on single-player content began, Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s single-player RPG experience has gotten better and better. When the studio switched to an episodic story format with the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire (which continued into Knights of the Eternal Throne), SWTOR evolved into one of the best sources of the Star Wars experience on the market and finally become the true successor to KotOR we were always promised.

It’s hard to talk about a story experience without spoiling anything, but in vague terms, every aspect of delivery has improved with each additional entrant to the game’s narrative experience. Cutscenes, voice acting, level design, characters – everything has gotten better, to the point where the vanilla experience – no slouch in its own right – honestly feels like playing an unfinished beta for what was to come. Maybe that’s not too far from the truth.

SWTOR Odessen Postcard

There are some shortcomings. The improvements are partially made possible by the abandonment of the class story, with all classes of both factions progressing down more or less the same path after finishing the main story (with the exception of the first expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which is different for the Empire and Republic).

This definitely leads to some odd moments here and there, particularly if you’re not playing a force sensitive character. While nods to your class and faction affiliations do poke their head in from time to time regardless of what you play, the actual story of Knights of the Fallen Empire and beyond feels by far the most coherent as an extension of the Jedi Knight or Sith Warrior class stories. If you’re looking to get the most out of a return to SWTOR, I’d highly recommend doing so on whichever of these classes corresponds to your faction of choice.

My biggest complaint is that any pretense at difficulty has been abandoned over the years. While SWTOR used to offer some crude semblance of challenge here and there, buffs to companion performance has made the game so easy that it’s at times aggressively boring. This is especially true during the lengthier story boss encounters, which, without any difficulty to engage you (you can literally alt tab out and let your companion heal you and kill the boss at the same time), are extremely tedious and anticlimactic.

That aside though, the base game has seen numerous improvements since its launch. Experience curves have been adjusted to make side quests, which were criticized at launch for feeling like vestigial MMO bloat that added nothing to the game experience, more or less obsolete. So players only need to complete their class story and each planet’s main world arc to level. And if you want to do those side quests? Game wide level scaling (similar to Guild Wars 2) is now in place, ensuring that players never feel they’ve progressed too far ahead to play in their current zone.

 

The Verdict

Do you enjoy BioWare’s single-player games? Do you like Star Wars? Do you not care whether or not the game offers anything in the way of an MMO experience? Then you should play Star Wars: The Old Republic.

SWTOR is a lackluster MMO, and the game’s remaining community is right to be upset that this aspect of the game feels more and more abandoned with every new release. But somehow, in the midst of all those shortcomings, BioWare managed to polish out a more than enjoyable single-player RPG experience. And the best part? It’s extremely accessible. You can easily subscribe and play through the game’s expansions in the course of a single month, avoiding all the worst parts of its monetization and getting way more than $15 worth of entertainment before you promptly unsubscribe. It doesn’t seem all that sustainable for the company, but for the customer it really is an awesome deal.

It wasn’t true at the game’s launch, but with each chapter added to the game’s ever expanding story, SWTOR moved closer and closer to realizing its potential as the spiritual successor to its single-player progenitor: the original Knights of the Old Republic. I would never recommend the game as an MMO, but if more Star Wars story is all you’ve ever wanted, Star Wars: The Old Republic is now, finally, exactly what you’re looking for.

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About Ethan "Isarii" Macfie

A lover of social gaming and virtual worlds, Ethan hails from a land flowing with craft beer and free-range chickens - Portland, OR. Best known for his work at Tamriel Foundry and The Errant Penman, he continues his search for a new MMO home as the Hobo Gamer to this day. Find more of Ethan's writing on his blog at The Errant Penman and on Twitter at @ethanmacfie.