I haven’t played Star Wars: The Old Republic in over two years. Like many people, I took a character to the end of their personal story and then stopped. Since then, especially since the game went free to play, I’d assumed EA had decided to let the flawed but interesting MMO quietly die. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While there’s been a steady drip of updates for years, Knights of the Fallen Empire represents a massive expansion for a three year old game you might have thought extinct.
Fallen Empire is set five years after our last visit to the SW:TOR universe. The war between the Empire and the Republic has weakened both parties to such a degree that a third party, the Eternal Empire, has managed to defeat both and seize control of the galaxy. While the original game featured different stories for each character class, the new expansion places everyone, regardless of affiliation, into position as the leader of a fragile alliance of old foes against the new threat.
It’s a pragmatic decision, creating a single story is far easier than having one for each faction but it’s also a liberating one. Bioware have seized on what could have been a limitation and used it as an excuse to bring a degree of nuance and moral complexity that the Star Wars universe hasn’t seen since, well, KOTOR 2. SW:TOR always dabbled in shades of grey, a necessary part of letting us play as the baddies, but Knights of the Fallen Empire takes this to extremes by showing us Empire and Republic fighting side by side. There’s even the possibility of a Sith/Jedi romance, only the Force knows how they’ll raise the children.
The enemy too is humanised. It would be easy to present the Eternal Empire as a simplistic ‘greater evil’ that united the two factions, but an enormous amount of time is spent on fleshing out their society. Two of your new companions are former Eternal Empire officers, and they’re still proud of their nation in a way. Even one of the most over-the-top villains of the series gets a surprising degree of character development.
Roughly half the story is on offer right away. The rest will be doled out on a monthly basis over the course of 2016. It’s only available to subscribers, making the slow release a transparent attempt to hook players for longer, but an effective one. It’s hard to suppress the urge to see how the tale ends. The expansion is very reminiscent of Dragon Age Inquisition, and I’m excited to see if Bioware can translate Inquisition’s grand sense of gathering forces into the MMO.
I’m now in paragraph five of an article about an MMO and I’ve only spoken about the story, which should give you some indication of where Fallen Empire’s priorities lie. At release, SW:TOR awkwardly straddled the line between Bioware RPG and traditional WoW style MMO, the new expansion dives right off that line and into story-driven goodness. It is at times an almost comically single player experience, with heavy use of instances and linear areas. I outright forgot I was playing an MMO. At least until until someone called “BootyFett69” coasted past on a speeder.
This solo-friendly attitude isn’t restricted to the new expansion either. The original single player stories have also been aggressively streamlined, removing the grind and allowing players to keep pace with the levelling curve by only playing the important story missions. The ‘flashpoints’ (four player co-op missions) that were important to the main story have also had a single player mode added, although doing so means missing out on SW:TOR’s delightful co-op conversations. SW:TOR always had some spectacular writing (the Imperial Agent storyline in particular is a treat) and thanks to these changes it’s now more accessible than ever. As much as I enjoyed Fallen Empire, I’m going to enjoy playing the remaining class stories even more.
There’s a host of convenience improvements too. All companions can be healer, tank or DPS, ensuring they’re always useful while a new outfit customisation system lets you wear whatever you want regardless of stats. At every point Bioware have tried to get their uninspiring MMO systems out of the way, and let the players focus on fantasy of starring in their own Star Wars story.
There’s a ‘but’ coming though, and it’s a big one. All the pseudo-single player trappings in the world can’t mask the fact that SWTOR’s combat is still old fashioned MMO fare. The basic hotbar combat was dated even when the game first came out, now in a post Guild Wars 2 world it feels ancient. The whole system relies far too much on number crunching and optimised skill rotations, a sure fire turn off for those coming to the game from a love of Mass Effect or Dragon Age.
Bioware’s solution to this problem is a drastic one. The difficulty has been reduced to an almost absurd degree. Most combats are astonishingly easy, as enemies simply can’t hurt you as fast as your companions can heal. It’s something I’ve put up with before, the original KOTOR games also became trivial past a certain level, but it’s still jarring when even the much feared evil Emperor hits like a weak kitten. It’s an ugly, heavy handed solution to the game’s combat problem, but it’s hard to see an alternative, bar redesigning the entire game from the ground up.
Knights of the Fallen Empire is SWTOR playing to its strengths: strong storytelling, and trying its hardest to make us forget about its greatest weakness: that it’s a terribly dated MMO. It doesn’t quite work properly, SW:TOR never really has, but it’s still well worth putting up with the poor combat in exchange for some truly great writing.