Blame the trailer release for The Last Jedi, but this time around I finally worked myself up to trying out Star Wars The Old Republic free to play.
To be honest, I'd been putting off having this game in this column on account of a lot of assumptions held by myself and many other MMORPG players. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that those assumptions I had were formed by reading what others have rather explosively written than first-hand experience.
So with that in mind and The Last Jedi trailer repeating once more, I decided to return to the Old Republic to find the truth.
There's not a whole lot more about Star Wars The Old Republic I could tell anyone or that one of our own writers more eloquently expressed himself, but let's assume that you're new to this game.
Star Wars The Old Republic is the single-player multi-story RPG epic surrounded by a thin MMO shell. The game does an excellent job of letting you live out the storyline of your own character in the Star Wars universe while being officially divorced from the greater canon - a move that, honestly, makes the game's later story content additions feel all the better. In essence, you're getting to play a Star War fanfic in video game form.
The game itself is not exactly the pretties thing in the world, but it also most certainly isn't the ugliest. An engine that does a good job of conveying emotion both in combat and in cinematics drives along SWTOR with all of the familiar beats of any of BioWare's more entertaining RPGs. Of course, whether that's entertaining to you or not is wholly dependent on one liking how BioWare runs its stories, but for me, they're some of the Western market's finest RPG gaming examples.
As far as combat goes, every other themepark MMORPG has done this before and SWTOR most definitely is no different. You've got hotbars of abilities, a little global and off-global cooldown management, and that's kind of about it. I would grant a nod to the Companions that tag along with you, but really they feel less like a vital part of the combat and more an extension of your own DPS. Or better yet, a constantly reusable healthpack, as I always set my companion to a Healer role and played the game.
That sounds like a complaint, but trust me, when the game had fixed roles for Companions and you had to suffer through hours of class and planetary questing to get to the role you wanted, it was misery. Nowadays you can have any of the Companions who join you on your adventure take up any role you want. But really, you're probably silly if you don't put them in Healer mode. Just trust me on this.
While the RPG element of Star Wars The Old Republic absolutely shines, the MMO portion just...doessn't. It's got dungeons and raids and PvP and things of that sort, but those aspects of the title feel about as tacked on as crafting systems in most MMOs do. If you're wanting to Star Wars it up with other people at once, I'm not sure I'd call this the right tree to bark up at. That said, for experiencing the high sci-fantasy that only Star Wars can bring, there's really no finer title.
So full disclosure here: I'm returning to this game after having been a subscriber. This basically means, as illustrated in the image above, that I'm not a "true" free player but a "preferred" player. As you can see, upon my initial login I was greeted with the above screen detailing the things I wouldn't have access to...which, honestly, kind of set the tone for the rest of my free play experience.
On the note of that experience, I'll be breaking it up into four categories: Account Limitations, Store Offerings, Store Interruption, and Store Reliance. Each category will be rated as either Minimal, Acceptable, or Unacceptable, and explanations on why I reached those ratings will be provided. Finally, I'll close out with my thoughts on how SWTOR treated me and how I believe it would treat the truly free-to-play.
Account Limitations: Uncceptable
What are Account Limitations? Anything that locks content away from you, from character or class choices to hotbars, access to dungeons or end game. These are things that flag you as one of the "freeloaders" and restricts your play.
SWTOR is infamous for locking away the ability to get additional hotbars behind a paywall, so of course I had to give it this rating. Not only that, but a lot of this game just feels walled off and uncomfortable.
Despite this, the base game - which lets you play every single class story up to level 50 - is widely available. That, essentially, is eight BioWare RPGs for absolutely free. Which isn't a bad deal if one likes Star Wars stories written by BioWare.
Store Offerings: Acceptable
The Store Offerings section is a quick look at what the store has to offer. From the selection to the variety of items, this is your at-a-glance idea of whether the store is interesting and if prices seem to be fair.
Yep, SWTOR has lockboxes, and yep, those lockboxes tend to have the most desirable items in terms of cosmetics. That said, the a la carte store offerings aren't exactly bad either. It really all depends on how badly one wants a Kylo Ren-style lightsaber crystal. Honestly, the store would make a killing if it emptied its lockboxes and sold the contents individually. Then again, they did kind of try that before to not terribly brilliant effect, in my opinion.
Otherwise, the store offerings are reasonable and reasonably priced as things go. With that said, I do have to admit that I found the store interruptions...
Store Interruption: Unacceptable
Store Interruption is based on how frequently you're reminded of the in-game store during play. This either occurs through pop-up reminders that dominate your screen or buttons that redirect you to items offered in the store.
At nearly every turn, I was assailed by reminders that things were not available to me or less available to me as a preferred player. Even at level 20, a window popped up that alerted me to the fact that my XP earnings were going to be lessened unless I subscribed.
Everything about SWTOR's store warnings were intrusive, aggressive, and unnecessary. It was like being panhandled by zombies. I honestly can't stress this enough; you are not going to get my money if you repeatedly beg me for it or tell me what I'm not getting at every open moment. You're just not.
Store Reliance: Acceptable
This is an overall score of whether a game enters the "pay-to-win" realm with its offerings. Does the in-game store have an abundance of boosts? Does the leveling curve feel like you need to buy pots in order to progress? That's what Store Reliance measures.
With all of the bad things about how SWTOR treats its free players, the "pay to win" issue is, in my opinion, not one of them. It has lockouts for group content that you can buy, but I care about as much about this game's group content as its devs perceptually do, and while having modifiable Artifact gear would be nice as a free player, having a Healer role companion makes the gear grind not feel like that big of a deal.
That said, this is solely because I treat SWTOR as a single-player RPG series. If you are looking for group content, then your restrictions will perhaps feel heavier and so you will likely want to bear that in mind when looking at this grade.
Sometimes, the raging of MMORPG discussion threads and comment boxes bear a grain of truth to them, and while it's easy for people to swing at companies like EA because they're the biggest target, in the case of Star Wars The Old Republic I have to admit that there's a bit of a reason for that.
It's hard for me to fully recommend this game, but I also really can't stop anyone from wanting to download and give it a try. To that point, I'm lining these findings out not as an ultimatum to never play but as a warning about what you're getting yourself in to. Perhaps you can see past that fog. In which case, good for you. Feel free to enjoy eight genuinely entertaining single-player Star Wars RPGs.