"You are not eligible for this conversation." But... but... I'm a psychotic Bounty Hunter who guns down her clients almost as often as she does her contracts. I've executed prisoners in cold blood, then laughed about it. I've presented horrified wives with their husbands' severed heads in a burlap sack. I've poisoned water supplies, killing hundreds of innocents just because there's a fee in it. I am a stone-cold murderous bastard who'll do anything for a handful of credits. And you're telling me I'm not able to talk to a passer-by because... well, because you need to partition the world into neat little slices for different types of player?
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game at war with itself. The deep-down, unabashed fantasy-fulfilment of role-playing a galactic hero or villain is in perpetual conflict with an MMO's need to marginalise its every individual player so they're each just a tiny dot on an ever-spinning wheel. It is an incredibly ambitious, even audacious attempt to fuse two disparate elements of RPGs into one all-things-to-all-men whole, and for that reason the "it's just Warcraft in space" dismissals are desperately myopic. Trouble is, while both elements - the epic single-player destiny-chasing that BioWare is most known for, and the deeply traditional XP and loot-hunting of the EverQuest-model MMOs - are indeed in there, they don't always mesh, and the sudden switches between the two can be jarring.
The game changes in an instant from your game to everyone's game; its chatty cut-scenes, moral dilemmas and dramatic score disappear, other players flood your screen with emotes and chatter and shooting roaming mercenaries before you can get to them. You start to feel very, very small, like when dreamy Professor Brian Cox goes off on one about how none of us humans are worth anything more than dust in the grand galactic scheme of things.
Mass Effect turns into World of Warcraft, and back and forth and back and forth. It's like owning a pet cat that you come to know and love, popping out the room for a moment and when you return there's a dog there instead. Sure, it's looking at you happily with its big brown eyes and its big dumb tongue is lolling adorably, but you were expecting a cat.
And so it is that I become engrossed in the attempts of my enthusiastically sadistic Bounty Hunter (which, God help me, I named after my actual cat) to emerge victor of the impossibly prestigious Great Hunt, and the universe feels like it's all about me.
From planet to planet I go, leaving a trail of corpses in my wake, with my trusty and adoring NPC companion Mako at my side, and... waitaminnit. Why's Mako with that guy? Mako, get back here, you're supposed to be with me... Oh. I see. Two Makos. Three, four, five, infinity Makos. Every bloody bounty hunter in this zone has a Mako, don't they? And every bloody bounty hunter is trying to win the Great Hunt and, moreover, will win the Great Hunt, just like I will. We're all winners! We're all losers.
Never mind how many planets there are in SWTOR - the reality is that it's two worlds superimposed on top of each other, intermittently turning translucent but never truly mixing. My grand destiny-tale is forever undermined by seeing someone chatting to a character I assassinated 10 minutes ago, by shimmering red squares that tell me I'm the wrong class and can't go into that room, by sodding "you are not eligible for this conversation". It's undermined by not letting me try to murder the room in a hail of lasers and rockets and flame whenever I feel like it, my choice invariably being without long-term consequence because this infinite wheel must keep infinitely spinning, infinitely resetting, infinitely repeating for the clone armies of me that have, are and will embark on the same journey I'm on.
Yet for all this confusion, SWTOR's forced blend of single and massively multiplayer role-playing really does achieve great things. When I visit a hub area like the Imperial Fleet, it isn't populated only by semi-static NPCs waiting to sell me hats or ask me to resolve their marital difficulties, as on Mass Effect's resplendent but anodyne Citadel. There is real life at this space station, and in the many cities on the planets I can travel to from here - great gobbets of people swarming around, doing their own thing rather than following programmed routines. I could talk to any of them, I could ask their motivations, I could hear stories that have never been written before and never will be again.
This city is a working city, full of space adventurers seeking fame and fortune just like I am, rather than just waiting for me to turn up so they can trot out their preordained line. Rather than robbing me of self-importance, the presence of so many others supports my single-player fantasy, of being a Bounty Hunter visiting a city in the stars. Yes, someone screaming a stream of invective or asking in broken English if the second series of The Killing is as good as the first in General Chat rather brings down the mood, but then real cities are full of wankers and irrelevant chatter too.
Similarly, the perks of single-player fold into enriching the MMO hemisphere of SWTOR. The Edge review of the original Doom will forever live in infamy thanks to its endearingly point-missing conclusion, commonly paraphrased as "if only you could talk to the monsters". In SWTOR, you really can, and it helps. The vast majority of NPCs you interact with are ultimately kill-fodder in the same way that World of Warcraft's are, but regularly enough major fights will be preceded by a quick chat.
There's some top-notch voice-acting, some often funny dialogue, and by the time the blasters come out you have some sense of who it is you're about to kill; perhaps even why you're about to kill them. You're not just making some graphics temporarily disappear in exchange for a few experience points and credits. And you get to be the you that you want to be, for a moment at least - in my case, the stone-hearted, mickey-taking killer. I could have been a charming diplomat, but I tried that with another character and pfft, frankly. In the often over-earnest environs of the Star Wars universe, a little pith and sadism goes a long way. So it is that I have a strong sense of my own character's character, and not just of their abilities and armour. Look at me ma, I'm a real boy now.
At its best, SWTOR rescues the MMO from its emptiest, most miserable ghettos. There is a good chance it's the last of a dying breed of expensive, subscription-based games, but it is also a signpost to a possible future where the offline and the online truly integrate, where playing an MMO solo doesn't feel like it's missing the point. I can't imagine SWTOR will be ultimately able to churn out enough high-quality new story content to keep me paying a monthly fee for long, but for all its missteps, for all its slavish copycatting of World of Warcraft's features, it often comes close to a game I've long wished-for - the infinite online adventure, free from the cyclic hollowness of MMOs.