Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

Bioware

ESRB: Teen (Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Sexual Themes, Violence)

Original release: December 2011

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May the Fourth…er, Force, be with you.  This weekend marks the annual Star Wars holiday, which makes it a perfect time to play The Old Republic (SWTOR), the Star Wars based Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG, or MMO for short).

For those familiar with the Star Wars universe, the game is set in the past, before the movies.  Jedi are in their heyday, as are the Sith forces that oppose them.  There’s several races available, and several character types.  Players can choose wise Jedi, stalwart Troopers, wily Smugglers, or other classes.

Gameplay follows many of the classic MMO formulae: characters start in a tutorial area to learn the basic controls; they are given missions to perform, with experience points, money, and gear as rewards; and there are plenty of options for solo and group play.

The missions that you receive are one of the game’s strengths: its story-driven nature.  While there are certainly a vast number of side quests (inconsequential tasks, such as helping a local with a minor issue, something that can be easily skipped) to help your character grow stronger on their journeys, they are simply steps along the path in a greater story, an almost movie-like tale that focuses on you.

Another helpful feature of the game is the companion mechanic.  Each character is paired with a non-player character (NPC), a computer-controlled companion that helps you out, converses with you, and lets you know what they think about what is going on.  Though the companion has their own story, and own tasks, they are your greatest asset when it comes to completing the missions, which are woven into a consistent story line.  While players can team up with other players (for the short- or long-term), players can also play solo, with the companion’s help.

At the core of the game, though, is a series of moral decisions: there is a Light Side and a Dark Side to the Force, and that concept infuses the game.  While players can choose to side with the Jedi (Republic) or the Sith (Empire), they also have to decide whether to stay with the Light or the Dark, based on the decisions they make during their story: do they spare their defeated foe, and send them to a trial, or do they finish them off and end the threat?  These aren’t simply theoretical questions; characters are faced with not only the decisions, but the consequences.  Companions will change their opinion of you based on your actions, and characters will be marked by which path they take; fall too deeply to the Dark Side, and the corruption will start to show, as a character will start to look scarred and diseased.

The Light/Dark mechanic is the greatest teaching moment of the game, but is also the source of greatest concern, in my mind.  While the Light options are solid virtues to reinforce (honesty, selflessness, bravery), the Dark options can be very dark (senseless violence, torture, etc.)  I would recommend encouraging teens to stick to the Light side, and either keeping up with their progress to see how they’re doing, or by playing with them.

The other issue to watch for is play time.  By nature, MMO games are time-consuming, with many hours of gameplay going into completing “just one more mission!”  Parents will want to monitor the amount of time that players sink into the game.

Gameplay is a combination of mouse and keyboard work; the mouse controls movement, while actions can be selected by keyboard or mouse.  Actions happen in real time, so younger players (and maybe even a few older ones!) might be challenged to determine what to do during a fight.  Problem-solving and tactical skills will definitely be put to the test.  Fortunately, if you’re defeated, you are simply sent back to the nearest medical station, from where you can continue your story.

The visuals are good, but not phenomenal; they’re to be expected of a game that’s 2+ years old.  The sound, on the other hand, is top-notch, full of familiar Star Wars music and excellent voice-acting.  Dialog is also subtitled, allowing someone to read along with the dialog (either to work on reading skills, or to play with the sound down in case younger siblings are sleeping.)

Following a recent trend in MMO, there’s two tiers of play in SWTOR: free, and subscription.  Subscribed members earn better rewards from missions and have more options as a result of their paid status.  For folks not interested in paying out $15 a month for a full subscription (or who play too infrequently or erratically to warrant a subscription), there is a mechanic to unlock subscription benefits in an a la carte manner.

Overall, Star Wars the Old Republic is a good game for fans of Star Wars.  The Light/Dark mechanic is a great method to teach (and reinforce) moral decision-making skills, and the Free play option makes it accessible for gamers on a budget.  For mature teens (and parents!), this is a good way to get your lightsaber fix, but the younger crowd might want to skip this one.

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