I can't believe I've been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for a decade. I would have scoffed at the idea at launch, when it felt like a decent BioWare RPG strapped to a crap MMO—more awkward than Luke snogging Leia. It's had a real glow-up since then, however, and there are exciting things on the horizon: a complete separation between class stories and advanced classes, allowing you to, say, play through the Bounty Hunter storyline as an Agent. Another excuse to roll yet another alt.
The change is a welcome one, and I can't wait to roll a secret Sith trying to corrupt the Jedi Order from the inside, but my anticipation for SWTOR updates has been waning. After so long I'm ready for something more substantial. It's evolved a great deal, but now it feels like the big improvements it needs, the real growth, can only come from something more significant than a new expansion.
I was on a SWTOR break when the expansion was announced, but I've dutifully returned in preparation. I've been kept pretty busy. There's a seasonal structure now, with daily and weekly challenges that let you work your way through the pass and unlock a bunch of rewards. It's very grindy, the challenges are things I've done a million times before, and the rewards aren't very good, so it's a perfect example of the awful system.
Playing through this season, I've been reminded of what SWTOR used to be and sometimes still is: this awkward marriage of story-driven RPG and unimaginative MMO. It's possible to ignore it completely and just engage with the good bits, of course, and there's plenty of good stuff to mine, but it's also got me wondering what it would have looked like if BioWare had been confident enough to run with its dream of a true story-driven MMO. Or what it could look like if it was able to make another attempt. A sequel.
For all its improvements, SWTOR's legacy as a shit MMO still rears its head often. And while the new seasons aren't doing it for me, a lot of the issues holding it back are as old as the game itself. The real problems can be found in its foundations, and they aren't things that can be simply repaired, no matter how many more expansions BioWare has planned.
My favourite classes can all sneak. I don't play a lot of rogues in RPGs and MMOs—it's never as much fun as it is in a dedicated stealth romp—but in SWTOR the chance to avoid combat is too good an offer to pass up. Look, I love unleashing lots of pretty purple lightning or using the Force to leap off bridges and onto unsuspecting enemies, but the button fest that is SWTOR's combat is just exhausting. There are some iconic abilities, but most of them are entirely forgettable and don't make it particularly obvious how they fit into fights. There are only so many different lightsaber strikes I can learn before I just stop giving a shit.
Outside of the trickier operations and flashpoints, I find myself defaulting to a small handful of largely underwhelming abilities, in a rotation that I know like the back of my hand. At least it means I only have to pay attention to a small number of my needlessly big bag of boring tricks, but the routine is just making me miserable. Whenever a fight breaks out, I sigh and resign myself to another minute of boredom. There have been loads of class and combat updates, and some massive ones are on the way, but none of them have made much difference to the bog standard PvE confrontations. It's not even that it's egregiously terrible—not even close. It's just not good, and after a decade I'm finding it harder to overlook.
For something like Star Wars, with its flashy, acrobatic lightsaber duels, a more kinetic and dynamic combat model just seems like a better fit. Something action-based. For all the current system's problems, the real let-down is that it just doesn't play into the fantasy of being these mystical warriors. The gun-toting classes do fare better, admittedly, but not much, and I'll never get used to seeing bendy laser bolts hitting enemies I'm not even facing.
Even more insurmountable is the engine itself. The third-party Hero Engine has been criticised a lot by SWTOR players over the last decade, but it would be fairer to say that it's BioWare's implementation of the engine that's the real problem, and the lack of meaningful updates to it. The engine wasn't even finished when BioWare started using it, which explains why things were so incredibly janky in those early days. And even once things settled down, SWTOR still felt archaic in comparison to the other big online games of the day—a gulf that has naturally grown quite a bit since then.
SWTOR was never a good-looking game. It has some good art, and some great concept art, but the scale is all off—a common MMO quirk, but particularly noticeable here—the textures are hideous, and the awkward animations frequently undermine what would otherwise be compelling cutscenes. Performance, too, has been a persistent issue, especially in PvP. Even when things are working as intended, it never quite feels smooth, never quite reaches the level of polish you'd expect given EA's resources and the size of the Star Wars license.
Honestly, I'd just be happy with a game that didn't have so much terrible clipping. My Sith Assassin can't wear cloaks because doing any spinning attack makes the cloak appear in front of them. I also gave up on my dream of making my very own Kit Fisto, because the nautolans can't wear anything without their head tentacles clipping through their clothes. The only solution is picking a head where the tentacles are tied in a topknot, which unfortunately looks terrible. Nautolans also can't wear any head gear, since they're all designed for humanlike skulls. Other races have similar issues. These are problems that will never be solved, and it speaks to a lack of foresight.
It's not like BioWare hasn't pushed the engine. When it pivoted to more cinematic storytelling with Knights of the Fallen Empire back in 2015, we got much flashier cutscenes and NPC character models that weren't eyesores, and it really revitalised the flagging MMO—for these and several other reasons—but it always felt like SWTOR was being pushed to its limit, and the cracks were noticeable. The team has big ambitions and a taste for experiments, but there's always this sense that it lacks the tools to make its full vision a reality.
That it's still managed to keep me on the hook for a decade is a testament to the quality of the writing and all the brilliant roleplaying opportunities the class stories offer. It helps, of course, that it's excellent value, offering plenty for free, and even more if you make a single purchase—of anything—in the premium Cartel Market. The class stories, expansions and all the important bits can be experienced for next to nothing. And there have been a lot of improvements when it comes to onboarding, making navigating this old and increasingly complex MMO a lot more straightforward. It's still one of my favourite MMOs, despite the fact that I don't really care for the MMO bits.
So I love SWTOR, and that's why I want a sequel so badly, to bring to life the game it could be. Even more so than Knights of the Old Republic 3. Look, I'd be giddy if BioWare announced that it was working on a sequel to one of my most beloved RPG series, even the BioWare of today, which isn't quite at the level it was at back when it was churning out the classics, but I also know that I could (maybe) get something just as compelling as KOTOR 3 inside an SWTOR sequel. That was the promise with this one: that SWTOR would give us KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. And while it hasn't lived up to that, it's certainly managed to get close a few times.
I know, I know—I should be jailed for suggesting this. But I will gladly take my punishment. SWTOR might not have reached the lofty heights of its predecessors, but it does have more potential. KOTOR 3 would inevitably come with a lot of baggage and a long list of expectations, but SWTOR 2 could be anything. And that's a lot more exciting. I've already played two amazing KOTORs; let's have something different. And really I think that's what most people want. We've latched onto KOTOR because it's unlike any of the other Star Wars adaptations, and the best of them all to boot. If we want something like that again, we have to look beyond KOTOR.
Occasionally, when I really feel like making myself upset, I imagine an MMO that has the scripted stories and characters of SWTOR within the freewheeling, you-can-earn-a-living-as-a-cantina-dancer sandbox of Star Wars: Galaxies. The problem was never that BioWare tried to make an MMO. It was that BioWare picked the wrong MMO for inspiration. Now, I realise that I'm still just invoking the name of a classic game, just like we do with KOTOR, but something that draws from the Star Wars: Galaxies sandbox has a lot more to work with, and a lot more unusual directions that it could go in.
Galaxies is just a convenient point of comparison, anyway, and it's the sandbox, I reckon, that's key. For me, the main benefit is what it means for the narrative. I would get to have my cake and eat it too, with a quality RPG yarn sitting next to emergent player stories. We'd still get our KOTOR fix, but we'd also have something new, something experimental—at least for BioWare.
Your mileage may differ, but for me SWTOR always threatens to fall apart once I'm out of the story stuff. Roleplayers have tried to make the most of it, but there's just not much there for them if they want to live the fantasy of being a Sith Lord or a famous bounty hunter outside of the class stories. It needs more tools to let people tell their own stories. More ways for players to carve out a life on the Outer Rim or on Coruscant. It's wild how little smuggling I can do as a smuggler, or how small a role bounty hunting plays when it's literally my job. But there are already plenty of solutions to this that we've seen implemented in many sandbox MMOs.
This is a pipe dream, of course. SWTOR took five years to make and ended up being one of the most expensive games ever created, and not long after that EA had to revise its business model because it just wasn't good enough to inspire the masses to pay a subscription. MMOs are a gargantuan investment and now have so much competition from other live service games, so I can't see a risk-averse publisher like EA greenlighting another one. And I can't see an embattled developer like BioWare taking the risk again either. Its last multiplayer experiment didn't do very well.
So I guess it's back to fighting through far-too-large nondescript corridors and forgoing my dreams of putting a cape on my depressed Sith Assassin. And that's fine for now, I suppose. But if BioWare's planning more expansions beyond Legacy of the Sith, it's going to have a much harder time seducing me back to the dark side.