Star Wars: The Old Republic is fascinating. Next to World of Warcraft, it has somehow become the MMO I've invested the most time into, despite not always being sure what I think of it. In 2011, it was a game at odds with itself, and while so much has changed since then, that has not. But that conflict has also lead to seismic shifts, with BioWare Austin dragging it in unexpected directions. I keep coming back and, with a new expansion on the horizon, some of you might be contemplating the same. You should. With some Death Star-sized caveats.
At launch it was disappointing. There was BioWare's RPG, an enthusiastic Star Wars fantasy full of scintillating class stories that offered up countless lightsaber duels, Sith intrigue, superweapons, a personal spaceship and you could play as a Chiss James Bond. Great stuff. But then there was the MMO, which stuck rigidly to the most conservative adaptation of World of Warcraft, from the combat to the structure. For every great Star Wars moment, there were a hundred lacklustre fights and hours upon hours of running between repetitive quests.
Things have progressed quite a bit since those days, however. After you finish your class story around level 50, for instance, you've now got several games' worth of adventures and crises and character-driven yarns left to play through. The first couple of expansions aren't really worth repeated playthroughs, but everything from Shadow of Revan onwards is surprisingly gripping stuff, evocative of the singleplayer RPGs that inspired it, but not beholden to them. Perhaps most like Knights of the Old Republic 2, the later chapters make the Star Wars universe and the Force feel strange again.
All of that is far, far ahead of you if you're starting from scratch, but vanilla TOR has been tweaked countless times, and overhauled, so it's not quite the chore it sometimes used to be. Even before setting foot on one of the starting planets, however, you might want to consider if you want to spend any money.
Since 2012, TOR has been free-to-play with a cash shop and optional subscription. The free-to-play tier ain't great. You miss out on raids, gear, rewards, crew skills, the bank, races and have an absurdly low credit cap that means you'll never be able to buy anything decent. You do get all of the class storylines, however, which will take you to the free cap of level 50. And while there are a lot of restrictions, many of them can be eased with one purchase, no matter how small.
Buying anything from the Cartel Market, the in-game cash shop, confers Preferred status immediately, easing up on the limitations for free players. Preferred players still miss out on a lot and don't get access to the expansions, but that can be sorted by subscribing for a single month. During that month, you'll have access to everything, but you'll also be able to keep a lot of it even if you choose not to continue your subscription.
Think of it like buying all the expansions and races for £9/$15. You'll be able to keep playing through all the expansion missions and you'll unlock those previously locked races if you picked them while you were subscribing. You'll keep the subscription level cap, too. My recommendation is to try it for free, but if you think you're going to keep playing, absolutely get that one month subscription. It'll net you some Cartel Credits, too, which you can spend in the shop. It's also worth noting that BioWare is making some changes to the system in July, which will raise the credit cap and give free players an extra quick bar, as well as access to medical probes upon death and quick travel.
Right. Time to talk about the shop. It sucks. It's chock full of neat weapons and outfits (largely cosmetic), and you can also use it to alleviate a lot of restrictions, spending cash on specific species on feature unlocks if you don't mind dropping money but don't want a subscription. It's expensive, though, and loves double dipping. If you buy a pricey bit of Sith Lord armour, for instance, or an inventory expansion, that's just it unlocked for a single character. To unlock it for everyone, you have to pay another fee. SWTOR is a massive game you can enjoy without too many headaches for less than a tenner, it's generous, but the shop is full of this nickel-and-diming nonsense.
Those first 50 levels are going to either fly by if you're subscribing, or take a good while longer if you're not. All the XP bonuses and complimentary boosts means that subscribers can get to the original level cap purely doing class and planetary quests. They're invariably the best written and most engaging parts of the game, to the point where it feels like a classic BioWare RPG. Everything else is a crapshoot. The actual objectives for every kind of quest rarely deviate from the most uninspired MMO tropes of fetching and killing, so most of the heavy lifting is done by story and characters. I do regret blasting through it these days, because there are some interesting little side stories going on between all the important, fate of the galaxy missions. There are also plenty of duds. Even the poorer ones typically have convincing voice acting and more context than your average MMO quest, however, and if you're playing for the first time, you'll probably want to do most of them.
There are lots of other ways to earn XP and rewards, of course, so you could try some space missions, space PvP, regular PvP, raids and multiplayer flashpoints. The latter I particularly recommend, since lots of the flashpoints contain important story beats that relate to the main space opera, and generally they're just a bit more involved and tricky than your standard missions. PvP I confess I've barely touched in years because it's never been my cup of blue milk. There are several modes, but the brawls are messy and balance is questionable. It's also not especially integrated into galaxy—you could go through the whole game without noticing it at all. Galactic Starfighter, the aforementioned space PvP, is the most novel of the bunch, but finding a game is very much going to depend on how busy your server is. The PvE space missions are briefly diverting, however, and worth doing every now and then just to blow up some spaceships.
OK, here's the real reason I keep playing this game: I can't get enough of that hot Jedi fashion. TOR is a brilliant dress-up MMO. Every item of clothing you find can be worn over your proper gear as cosmetic armour, so you never need to look like crap again. Or you can always look like crap. Similarly, you can dress your companions up however you want, without impacting their stats. And while a lot of the best clothes and weapons are found in the Cartel Market or inside loot boxes, these items can still be sold on the auction house for in-game currency, letting you get them without spending real cash.
Between 1 and 50, TOR has been significantly improved since launch, and it's often seemingly insignificant things that make the greatest difference. Group missions, for instance, are now conveniently doled out by terminals, so you can get all the multiplayer stuff in an area straight away and find some groups. It also lets you teleport to the quest area, so if you're several zones away when you finally find someone to play with, you won't have to spend 10 minutes hoofing it back. There's less hassle, meaning more time to spend insulting snivelling Imperial bootlickers and electrocuting Jedi.
Most of it is also all based on stuff that was a bit dated in 2011. The environments are large but lifeless, the characters are plentiful but look and move like soulless marionettes, and the quest design is just a bit boring. But this is also stuff that I've explored to death. Familiarity has made it more of a chore, and apparently not enough of one to stop me from making my second Sith Inquisitor and playing through that exact same story again. You don't understand, this time I gave him a terrible beard and a sassy attitude. It's a huge difference! You're the one with a problem!
The quality of the class stories vary between 'better than your average MMO' and 'you're Indiana Jones but also an evil wizard'. And this is one of the few MMOs that actually manages to make it feel like the game is all about your character, and where character development isn't just about stats, but personality, history and the relationships they have with their companions. Instead of plain quest-givers, there are characters for you to befriend, betray, murder and occasionally hook up with. This goes for the planet storylines, too. They're faction-based and broader in scope, but they're of similar quality and provide plenty of neat character moments.
When you finish the class story, there's a weird lull. You can't start Knights of the Fallen Empire, where BioWare made some of its most significant changes, until level 60. The Dread Lords and Rise of the Hutt Cartel arcs are related to other stuff you'll know about from your 1-50 journey, but they're weaker than the class stories and, while I didn't mind them the first time around, I'm never eager to return. I usually skip straight to Shadow of Revan. It's a brisk expansion if you're just in it for the main yarn, which ties together lots of threads from both the MMO and its singleplayer predecessors. The writers' treatment of Revan and the Exile is perhaps a bit divisive, but I think that's inevitable when dealing with characters that people have actually played. It's a solid expansion and leads into an even better one.
Knights of the Fallen Empire was bold in 2015. BioWare made a singleplayer game in their MMO and it was, and still is, surprisingly great. The original promise of TOR was that it was going to be KotOR 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. Better than a new singleplayer RPG. Nobody believed it, and that was because it was bollocks. But with Fallen Empire it gets much closer than any MMO has a right to. Calling it KotOR 3 might be a stretch, but there's a great deal of KotOR in it.
The expansion introduced a new galaxy, adversaries, companions and an entirely new structure that swapped open-world questing for episodic adventures that could be embarked upon from a hub, the base of your alliance. It's essentially a sequel built inside the old game, with the universe even kicked five years into the future. And it homed in on what TOR was best at, and then refined it and gave it more flair.
Cutscenes and dialogue greatly benefit from the additional attention. Companions don't just interact with you, they chat and bicker with each other while they're trying to pilot spaceships through battles. There's just a lot more dynamism. They aren't a bunch of Yes Men, either. While the original cast sort of just went with whatever you decided, the later roster is full of characters with at least a bit of agency. They will shout at you, disagree, leave your alliance and even betray you.
The episodic structure also works wonders. Instead of trying to have your singleplayer fun while all these other Jedi and bounty hunters are jumping around and doing the same quests, you're transported to a personal instance where BioWare's been able to make a more curated experience. There aren't any interruptions, long jogs between objectives or repetitive odd jobs. They're brisk but manage to squeeze in plenty of action and plot, and while the story is shared across all classes and both factions, each episode gives you opportunities to leave your own mark and reap the consequences. The big choices are still binary and framed as Dark and Light side options, but they are more nuanced than that limitation suggests. A villainous Sith Lord can make what is ostensibly a Light side choice for evil reasons, like saving a city block from devastation because one day soon you intend to rule all the people you've saved.
Along with the follow-up, Knights of the Eternal Throne, it's TOR at its most engaging and polished, and it can be easy to forget about all the MMO stuff on the peripheries. But it's still there. There have been lulls, certainly, and with all the focus on the Alliance's war with the Eternal Empire and the episodic missions, multiplayer has sometimes been put on the backburner, with big gaps between new operations and PvP updates. Between episodes, though, it still feels like an MMO.
There are countless diversions, loads of flashpoints and operations, fast-paced PvE uprisings, and level-scaling that ensures there's always people in the queue, even if a lot of the worlds seem quieter now. A lot of the multiplayer PvE is also playable solo, while older flashpoints have also been given solo versions, letting you experience the story even if you can't, or don't want to, find a group. The rewards are slighter and fights less engaging, but it's still a welcome alternative. Groups are typically too impatient to watch the cutscenes, so if you want to enjoy the story without people moaning, you're better off using your companion and the handy robo-pal the game provides you with.
Once you get off your faction capital for the first time, you get a fancy ship to call your own. It's your personal hub, but you can also buy a home on some of the worlds dotting the galaxy. They're just big, empty apartments at first, but you can earn and purchase an absurd array of props to stick in them, transforming your impersonal space into a Sith sanctum on Dromund Kaas or a party pad on Nar Shaddaa. They offer a few conveniences, though nothing you can't find elsewhere, so the main appeal is just designing the thing and staring at your handwork. Highly recommended.
As a new or returning player, especially, you're not going to run out of group of singleplayer stuff for a very long time—and the busiest servers feel as lively as a fresh MMO, so you won't be starved for people to play with. It's still growing, too. After a long break, the war between the Empire and Republic and their Sith and Jedi pals has flared up again, and a new storyline has kicked off that takes players to new worlds like Ossus and Dantooine. Along with new missions, operations and special events, the latest string of updates has also given additional attention to PvP, introducing new maps, modes and free-for-all PvP areas.
I'm surprised I keep coming back, but each time I do it's a little bit different, usually for the better. And then I proceed to start a new character because, despite my earlier protestations, I absolutely do have a problem. I'll do it again when the Nautolans appear with the Onslaught expansion in September. Part of the allure is the fact that Star Wars fans have been a bit underserved in the game department under EA's stewardship, and while the Battlefront games do an excellent job recreating the movies' impressive battles, they don't really capture the universe in the same way that a massive RPG like TOR does. And if you're looking for a good Star Wars yarn, this game's overflowing with them.