Knights of The Fallen Empire, Star Wars: The Old Republic's newly released story-focussed expansion, isn't quite BioWare throwing its hands up in the air and finally giving us Knights of The Old Republic 3, but it's close. Very close. Even factoring in the rise of personal quests in the last few years, this is about nine hours of new content (with more to come) that completely sidelines the MMO side to the point that the very occasional shared area comes as less a surprise than a shock. Hello, fellow meatbag! What are you doing in my personal war to save the galaxy?
The catch is that while the focus is on a single player story, the foundations are still the creaking Old Republic engine and its even creakier systems. They constantly sabotage the action, be it lag interrupting with scripted events, and those events rarely allowing to break out of the dirt simple MMO mission design of 'hit some things and then use a thing' in the way that an actual single RPG could be done. Whether it's the engine scripting not allowing it or BioWare just wanting to keep things simple, the shadow of the Knights of The Old Republic 3 we never got constantly hangs heavy.
Had that happened though, this would have been a great story - certainly, in terms of scale and scope, BioWare has delivered. The Sith Emperor, last seen draining a whole planet's life force to make an immortality smoothie, has disappeared, and both factions have briefly joined forces to give chase. Unfortunately, following him into Wild Space reveals that he not only has a broken family he's never talked about before, but has been running a whole empire on the side.
Things don't exactly go according to plan, leading to your character spending five years frozen in carbonite and awakening to find the war over and the Eternal Empire now calling the shots from Korriban to Tython . Now, hunted by the Emperor's son and daughter, who makes Avatar's Princess Azula look like a model of self-restraint, the only hope is to put aside old feuds and assemble a new Alliance of Sith, Jedi and anyone else who'll join in order to strike back.
BioWare has pulled out almost all of the stops here. Almost. The writing is a solid step above the majority of The Old Republic, as is the cinematography and much of the location design. It's even more impressive when you consider that this isn't an expansion pack per se, but free to any subscriber - along with a Level 60 character to start playing it. Of course, the idea is that players will stick around to see the second half of the story as it unfolds, still paying that sub fee, but never mind. Even with just one month, you get nine solid hours of content, plus that character boost, and a few unlocks as a Preferred member that you don't get as a regular free-to-player.
As the story whips past though, some cut corners do grate. The Eternal Empire's conquest of the galaxy is literally told rather than shown, in casual dialogue while looking for groundwater of all things. More unfortunate is that as important as its seat of power, Zakuul, is, there's only the most half-hearted attempt at a hub there, and despite being a whole new mysterious society, it just feels like more stock Star Wars. Instead of exploring it, the overwhelming majority of the story is spent just running down linear corridors fighting the same handful of enemies. No real sub-quests, no exploration beyond running to the next pointer, just a laser focus on the next objective.
Fortunately the pace keeps things moving, as does the constant chatter from your team, regular cut-scenes, and decisions to make. So far I can't say most of them felt like they had much direct effect on what played out, and it's of course not possible to reload a save here. Still, they certainly don't hurt, and offered both fun moments with the crew and, for my Sith Inquisitor, a solid moral dilemma. Save the galaxy because it's right to do that, or just to leave something to rule?
There's some great character work here. It's not quite up to BioWare's best, but it's certainly higher than any other MMO save for The Secret World. I particularly like a scene where HK-55 (note to BioWare, not every new droid needs to be a quotable assassin, and with every one you make, HK-47 becomes less special) spends a whole mission back on the ship, keeping his masters up to date with his attempt to sort out a minor critter infestation. It has nothing to do with the main story, but acts as a fun way of widening the scope out a little. Sadly, if you've got favourite companions from the earlier game, they're all AWOL for this adventure.
For all the good stuff here though, it's hard to recommend jumping into The Old Republic just to play it. In the first place, while it's free with a subscription, that's still a fairly hefty £8.99, and completing the story will end up being the cost of a full game. If you have other reasons to jump in of course, that's not necessarily a problem. The action though isn't up to the standards you'd get by buying an actual single player game, ranging from the hotbar combat being a good generation out of date through to Fallen Empire's weirdest quirk - being utterly terrified of offering a challenge.
I rolled a Level 60 Sith Inquisitor to play the expansion with, and without any attention to rotations or tactics or even looking at the screen, the whole game was a cakewalk. I don't just mean against trash mobs. If a boss managed to knock my health under 90 per cent, they were doing well. The final boss of the game, nine hours in, couldn't even scratch my armour when I took my hands off the keyboard and just let him have free shots for about ten straight minutes.
Perhaps other characters or builds have it harder, but with my Companion set to heal (which they are by default), it was basically impossible to lose a fight even if I sat back and just let them have at it. In the rare fights when there isn't a Companion, there's some mechanic to compensate, like the boss summoning ghosts that die in one hit and regenerate you, or being buffed by the spirit of the Emperor. To paraphrase the movies: BioWare, I find your lack of faith in me disturbing.
Once it became obvious that there was never going to be any push-back, much of the initial enthusiasm faded - and more went at the end of the campaign. It climaxes with you getting a base to build up and await the next chapter of the story, complete with characters wanting you to go and collect things for them and otherwise recruit more help. Think World of Warcraft's Garrisons, or any other MMO base. Oddly though, when you get to that point, suddenly the dialogue system changes to be like Knights of the Old Republic - no spoken player dialogue, no cut-scenes, just choices against a black screen. It'd be fine if the rest of the game was like that, but still strange, like watching a movie where half-way through all the dialogue is replaced with silent movie style cards.
Knights of the Fallen Empire is not Knights of the Old Republic 3. That's the bitter pill that has to be swallowed, despite its every attempt to suggest that it might be otherwise. The storytelling, the quest design, the balance, the world-building - even at its best, there's no arguing that BioWare couldn't do better if not being hobbled by trying to build a single player experience on an aging MMO.
Taken on its own terms though, and treated as an expansion of that ageing MMO, Knights of the Fallen Empire is a great addition. When I say that at times it deserves better, I mean it as a compliment, and not a backhanded one. If BioWare was to make the Knights of The Old Republic 3 that so many of us still want, this is exactly the kind of story, scope and treatment of the universe it would offer.
It also marks an interesting time to try The Old Republic again, whether you subscribe to play Knights of the Fallen Empire or not, as it's not only the new stuff that's seen a change of direction. The big change is to the levelling process. Most agreed at the time that the class stories were well worth playing, and mostly let down by the mountains of MMO cruft that not only weren't very interesting the first time around, but that would have to be replayed later on if you wanted to do another one.
Now, after several months of just straight up giving subscribers an XP boost to skip everything but the class stories, the main levelling has been reworked to give a dedicated Critical Path through the core game that won't let you slip too far behind. It's also possible to buy various boosts in the store to speed through even faster. The promise is that now, you can actually treat The Old Republic as the all-in-one Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, Star Wars: Sith Inquisitor, Star Wars: Imperial Agent games and so on that it was originally sold as. Though for the record, along with that Knights of The Old Republic 3, I'd still totally play a dedicated Imperial Agent game.
Even ignoring the old stuff though, I had more fun with Knights of the Fallen Empire than with anything else The Old Republic has offered. I doubt I'll keep my new subscription active, but I do want to see the rest of the story after it's done, and for the first time since launch, am actually tempted to take some time to polish off some of the other class stories. I won't go so far as to say this makes Knights of the Fallen Empire a whole new start for The Old Republic, never mind a brand new hope, but it certainly came as both a pleasant surprise, and a pretty good warm up for Christmas' hottest new movie. After Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Road Chip, obviously.