Are story, voice acting, sci-fi setting, and companions enough to set SWTOR apart?
The folks at BioWare did something a little crazy recently--they allowed us to preview the first few levels of the Republic side of Star Wars: The Old Republic at our own leisure (and just in time to steal some buzz from BlizzCon, too). For us, that meant no more guilty looks at YouTube leaks or shouldering our way through long lines at Comic Con; instead, we could trot about the galaxy and pretend that we were that most coveted of species, the SW:TOR beta tester.
It also gave us the chance to see if four of SWTOR's most hyped aspects really made the game as unique as we've been hearing--specifically its story, extensive voice acting, science fiction setting, and unique use of companions. They're unique, all right, but are they unique enough?
The story (as much as I saw) is every bit as good as I'd hoped. Whether I was smack talking across the bleak wastes of Ord Mantell on my prissy smuggler or pontificating as a holier-than-thou Jedi Consular over the wooded paths of Tython, SWTOR pulled me into its world like no other MMO has pulled me before. Instead of warranting no more attention than being called "that guy over there," quest givers morphed into something approaching real people thanks to the intense conversation options that accompany the pick-up and turn-in of virtually every quest. In the best moments, I even remembered their names. By the time I was trotting through the Senate District in Coruscant, I felt as though I knew my character as well as I ever knew BioWare staples such as Revan or Hawke.
That's not to say, of course, that other MMOS have exactly scrimped on story. Lord of the Rings Online has done a fair job of expanding Tolkien's base story for a few years now (and, indeed, SWTOR's storyline divisions into chapters echo the chapters of LOTRO's epic story), (Swtor Credits)and Guild Wars featured an engaging story as well. But with its BioWare-themed conversational choice options, SWTOR takes the story concept and launches it into orbit. Not only does the need to respond to NPCs in the cinematics force you to engage with the storyline, but the need to choose specific responses alters the way other characters interact with you in cut scenes (even if it no longer affects whether your companions will leave you, as it did in early beta builds).
Some of these responses are admittedly a little vague. While I was tampering with a courier robot to secure some dirt on an allegedly corrupt Coruscanti senator, the "light side" path had me giving some bogus documents to the person who assigned me the quest. The "dark side" option would have allowed me to give the real documents to the quest giver, who came off as some youthful idealist. One can only imagine what Julian Assange would have thought of this. To be fair, SWTOR's options are always marked with a handy "light side" or "dark side" icon which simplifies these things, but quests such as these would have caused no small amount of headaches in a "normal" BioWare game.
BioWare's big claim that each class has a different story is also a little misleading. Sure, each class has its own companions and interactive cinematics, but questing leaves you with the impression that there are only two truly independent experiences for the Republic with some added fluff for each of the four classes. On the Republic side, for instance, Jedi Consulars and Jedi Knights share many of the same experiences on Tython; and Smugglers and Troopers share many of the same experiences on Ord Mantell. And by the time you arrive on Coruscant, most of the quests are shared anyway. Regardless, SWTOR never fails to deliver a great story experience, whether it's in the copious codex entries that impart lore about almost every aspect of the Star Wars universe or in loading screen that reminds you where your character stands in the story line.