January 1st, 2012 was most likely a dreary, overcast winter day — and like the skies outside my window, a dense haze clouded my mind.
I had most likely overdosed on cannabis at a New Year’s Eve party the night before. The drugs left me dazed and disoriented. Reluctantly, I emerged from bed and parked myself in my computer chair. And from there, I resumed playing BioWare’s newly-released Star Wars MMORPG, The Old Republic.
On-screen, I was leading a player group through some menacing space dungeon as a Sith Juggernaut. But after a few skirmishes, I paused and typed out an apology to my group in chat: “Sorry if I’m playing poorly. Partied a little too hard last night.”
That was the last moment I ever remember spending with SWTOR. As is often the case, I shelved the game soon after, although I can’t quite recall why.
But just last week — nearly ten years later — I had the hankering for some Star Wars. The itch seemed to stem from watching Star Wars: Visions, a series of anime-styled vignettes, with my partner. Soon, I had reinstalled SWTOR and was once more immersed in its galactic struggle — only this time, I was a little less weedy.
Choices: Cartoonishly Evil, but Mostly Consequence-Free?
Star Wars is a rich universe, so I like my Star Wars games packed with meaningful choices and stories. To satisfy that craving, I briefly considered playing through one of the Knights Of The Old Republic games. But those are older titles, and I’ve never had the patience for the clunky, slow-paced combat.
Thankfully, SWTOR is a similar, story-driven RPG, but features modernized tab-targeting combat and the customization/progression fixtures of an MMO. In other words: The perfect fit.
But despite being heavily inspired by the KOTOR games and BioWare-developed, SWTOR’s narrative elements have left me underwhelmed. I’m playing a Sith character, and most of the in-game choices amount to “do X in a more evil way, and/or betray Y because you can.” Then, the characters involved in that decision-making disappear and never seem to have any significance or relevance ever again.
These underwhelming narrative moments could be consequences of SWTOR’s MMORPG design. Rather than creating a single, cohesive storyline, BioWare developed eight distinctive storylines for each player class. Combine that fragmented narrative design with the need for ancillary MMO side missions, and the causality starts to become clear. That said, I’m reserving full judgment until I progress further in my character’s class story. Maybe I should just skip the forgettable side missions entirely.
SWTOR’s Strange Money-Making Methodology
Since I last played SWTOR, the game has gone free-to-play. That means you can get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of it without spending a dime — although there are some strange limitations.
As a free player, SWTOR only allows you to map abilities to three “quickbars.” That might sound generous, but my character is halfway to the level cap (75), and I’m already using more than three bars. In fact, I’m so overwhelmed with abilities that I get a palpable pang of anxiety whenever I unlock new ones. You can unlock more “quickbars,” but you’ll have to spend in-game currency, real-world currency, or subscribe. Since using your in-game abilities is essential to, y’know, playing the game, it’s a strange but understandable intersection of gameplay and monetization. Imagine if SWTOR required you to “unlock” the ability to use any number key on your keyboard beyond 1-5 — it’d be a similar restriction.
To bring in the benjamins, SWTOR also features an in-game item shop called the “Cartel Market.” There, you can buy hundreds of cosmetic items with real-world money, but they’re hilariously overpriced. Roughly $25 CAD for a pixelized pet companion? Nah.
This is where I’ve found the most enjoyment in SWTOR. The stylized visuals, vivid colours, and distinctive planetary environments are a joy to behold. More than anything, my recent “itch” for Star Wars was spurred by a desire to just exist in its world, and SWTOR delivers. And thanks to a heavy, almost cartoon stylization, its visuals have aged like a fine wine.
Sadly, I haven’t taken any screenshots to prove this point, but I’ll include some official ones here so you can bask in the sci-fi goodness.
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