I didn't really have high hopes for BioWare's foray into the crowded MMOG field — I've consistently tried out most releases since WoW came out so many millions of players ago and the results have ranged from interesting to boring, but never long-lasting. Some demonstrated their disappointment right away while with others at least lived out the included first month subscription fee, but it's rare I stuck around longer than that.
Star Wars: The Old Republic returns to the Star Wars universe BioWare first explored with Knights of the Old Republic. It takes place three hundred years after those games (and nearly four thousand years before the films) following a tenuous peace between the Republic and the re-emerged Sith Empire. In typical BioWare fashion — and contrary to any MMOGs before it, really — the focus is squarely on the overall storyline to such a degree that it is probably better to describe SWTOR as a single-player game with heavy multiplayer elements. Every quest and character interaction (including that of your own) is fully voiced and has animated cut-scenes as missions are delivered. This is a level of depth absent from any other MMOGs and makes "skipping the quest text" difficult to accomplish. While it's possible to skip through these scenes — and indeed, I suspect they might eventually grow tedious after a while — doing so will cut out a large chunk of the actual game itself.
After numerous issues actually purchasing and activating the game (it presently has no launch in Australia, so buying it and getting it patched required the use of my US credit card/billing address and a VPN) I was finally able to actually get started playing. I went back and forth over whether or not I would grab this or skip it entirely, but glowing recommendations from friends and my overall love for the Star Wars universe eventually provided enough temptation. The duelling factions available to choose from are the Republic or Empire and I picked a Sith Inquisitor as my first character. The initial ten levels or so have you trudging along a starting area designated as the Sith Academy on the planet Korriban, and if I hadn't pushed myself to keep playing my experience likely would have ended here.
It wasn't that the game itself was particularly bad — the cut-scenes were interesting and definitely gave your character more motivation behind the quests than I've ever felt in World of Warcraft, but ultimately they were still more or less framing the same "kill ten rats" quests that seem to plague every other MMOG. The quest chat system — shamelessly continued from their use in Mass Effect 2 — gave the quests more depth, and some responses increase your Force affiliation; positive responses and actions move you towards the Light, bad ones move you towards the Dark. I've thus far stuck strictly on the side of being an evil bastard.
While the game can more or less be played alone save for the heroic group quests and SWTOR's version of dungeons (you even get a variety of NPC companions that follow you and can be love interests) I started playing it with a friend towards the end of my time in the starting area. Finally leaving the planet presented us with the opportunity to go through a Flashpoint, and this is where the truly stunning parts of the game finally emerged.
Vaguely similar to the starting sequence for the Death Knights in WoW's Lich King expansion, Flashpoints are self-contained, story-driven sequences that advance your character's story and culminate in outcomes that are referenced later on in the game (and open or close quest paths further along as well). The first one available to Empire characters has them boarding a Republic vessel that is helping a defector with secret information escape. The entire sequence took us about an hour and half to get through and it was probably the most compelling multiplayer gaming experience I've ever had. While the internal quests were still largely killing x-number of enemies, the framework surrounding that impetus was — dare I use the adjective — thrilling. I had an emotional investment in the outcome itself and when, at the end, the defector pleaded with me to be spared in order to help prevent the oncoming war, I had a moment of hesitation before deciding to kill him as a proper Sith would. Quest givers brought up my amazing success later on, but it laid the groundwork for a story I truly hadn't expected to become interested in. Once finished I thought that this was the sort of experience that could get me sticking around for more than the initial month.
BioWare is known for its cinematic, story-driven games, and while they repeatedly claimed this would be the focus in SWTOR too it seemed unlikely to actually work in practice; the writing found in WoW is great as well, but it's still an act of discipline for a voracious reader like myself to sit through and pay attention to the quest text every time anyway.
That's not to say it's perfect — while it's had a decent enough launch the game itself is riddled with often maddening bugs and strange glitches. I've lost quest rewards twice because they popped up in the middle of a hostile area and being attacked by an NPC made the item acceptance window poof magically. But, no game has been perfect out the door (single or multiplayer) these days, and the weirdness is at least not outright preventing me from playing.
I was quite impressed with the game once I slumbered through the starting area, and I think BioWare might be setting expectations low by waiting so long to introduce this element — and, unfortunately, there's only a handful of them available presently. More have been promised, and this will be the aspect that engages me the most I suspect, but I think this is the sort of thing they should be selling themselves on and providing to their customers. While SWTOR overall borrows brazenly from WoW in many, many aspects, this is one of the parts of the game that stands truly on its own and it's the best feature that is likely to pull me from my MMOG malaise.