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Star Wars: A new hope for The Old Republic

Do or do not, there is reason to try.

I am an Imperial Agent. I am a Smuggler. I am a Jedi Knight.

This is my story.

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that BioWare's The Old Republic disappointed many players. The pitch was that instead of getting Knights Of The Old Republic 3, we were getting Knights of the Old Republic 3 through to 9, in a game that hoped to fuse the tight single-player action BioWare was known for with a whole new level of group content and epic action. Instead, the true civil war turned out not to be between Republic and Empire but between those two flavours of RPG. If you liked group play, it was pushed off to the side by the single-player content. If you liked single-player action, it was all too often sabotaged by the MMO design - particularly the endless bloody padding thrown in for the sake of the monthly subscription fee rather than the needs of the game.

With the recent Knights Of The Fallen Empire though, things have changed. For a few months now, BioWare has offered a band-aid solution for subscribers, courtesy of just handing out generous experience boosters so that the main story quests - class quests - offer enough oomph to get players through the game. Now though, it's been worked into a far more streamlined experience throughout. I wanted to see how much, so I fired up a brand new Smuggler character with the following rule - I would only worry about the story quests, and run past anyone who wanted my help finding their space-cat or whatever. Sorry, but there'll be someone else along soon enough.

And what a difference it made. At their best, The Old Republic's class quests are some of the finest interactive Star Wars stories you can be a part of, with the Imperial Agent's being the cream of the crop. Being a Smuggler, sarcastically dealing with scumbags and inevitable betrayals and the fishier side of the universe, was so much fun that it's hard to believe it never became a full game. What was previously a spectacularly tedious few hours stuck on Ord Mantell now became a fast-paced story of back-stabbings and cheery doings on the very edge of the law, never ruined by The Old Republic's traditional problems like being told to hurry and do something now, only to then have to dick about gaining the levels to do it.

Hey, Hilrross. Say hello to your brother Darth for me.

The way things work now is that every planet flags up important quests in purple, and then clarifies further in the mission log whether they're part of the overall planet story, which everyone on your side goes through, or your personal story quest. Other quests are still available, floating over characters' heads, but entirely optional - the promise is that if you do the purple ones, you're doing the most interesting stuff on the current world, and that will give you more than enough gear and XP to move on. It certainly seemed to in my - ahem - experience. Arriving on a new world is no longer a prison sentence until you climb enough levels to secure your release to the next, but far closer to how it should feel: you land, you do your business, you move on.

The irony is, as was pointed out back at launch, this makes the idea of going back and actually completing multiple class stories far more compelling. One of the biggest frustrations was that, while the padding and running odd-jobs for people as an Imperial Agent was annoying, the real sting was the knowledge that you'd have to do most of them all over again if you decided to check out, say, the Sith Inquisitor story and its return to these places. The Legacy system that unlocked bonuses was nowhere near generous enough to counter this.

I'd recommend taking a gap between stories as it'd be very easy to burn out on them. Just finishing the first Smuggler chapter took a good deal over 10 hours, though to its credit, I only realised that when I typed '/played' and went "Really?" I'd totally gotten into its story of sleazy crooks and having the moral authority to deliver lines like "It's hard to be humble when you're as amazing as I am," and had entirely lost track. The Old Republic's minute-by-minute action isn't that great, unfortunately, with weak combat and a general lack of range in terms of interactions, but it still develops a good rhythm of combat, comedy, exploration and drama.

The biggest drag is that the scale of the world isn't just big, it's cavernous. Even with the taxis on offer, locations like Coruscant and Nar Shaddaa can be achingly boring to travel around - to say nothing of indoor locations like the palaces of Alderaan where you can't even jump on a speeder to get around faster. It's not that they're big specifically, but that they're big and empty and mostly lacking in anything of interest to actually see, and often sprinkled with enemies that just get in the damn way and have no reason to have a beef with some wandering Jedi or whatever.

My original goal was to level without any assistance, but I cracked in the end. I had a subscription running from playing Knights of the Fallen Empire, and that came with a few in-game coins - Cartel Coins. I bought a speeder and piloting skill early, and didn't regret it for a single damn minute. If you're a free player, you're also further hobbled by not being given the Sprint skill until Level 10, which was always the pettiest of The Old Republic's restrictions and now just feels outright stupid. You can unlock it by spending $4.99 in any way, even if you're not a subscriber, but still: urgh. The Old Republic has toned down its outright punitive approach to free-to-play since launch, but still tends to operate in the reverse of most F2P MMOs - instead of trying to make paying players feel special, treating non-paying ones as grubby second-class citizens.

If only The Old Republic's maps could be the quality of its standout areas - bursts of personality in endless warehouse sized corridors and over-sized generic space stuff.

Unless you subscribe, you also don't get a few other handy features, including rapid Quick Travel cooldowns, and won't be getting speeders until far too late in the game. In some MMOs that doesn't matter - here, covering ground is an absolute chore, made worse by having to run around to speak to NPCs despite having a damn mobile phone throughout. The biggest restriction though is that while subscribers can revive in the field at will, with just an increased time-out each time, non-subscribers only get five freebies and have to buy further field-revives in the Store. The scale of the maps makes this a major disadvantage, especially since killed enemies will respawn.

Non-subscribers also get a reduced rate of experience, though with the changes, that matters less than it used to - the boost from the main missions and being regularly thrown free XP boosters as quest rewards means that there's plenty to go around. Overall though, with all the cuts and nicks, if you're serious about playing the stories, you're looking at paying up a sub for at least a month to not be regularly irked. On the plus side, that sub includes absolutely everything in the game, including the expansions so far, and access to the first chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire (the others are coming soon, though still insist on an active subscription to keep playing them.)

BioWare hasn't just streamlined the levelling though. Companions now just have set stats regardless of what they wear, giving you the option to dress them up without having to keep chopping and changing their gear as well as your own - something that sounds limited, but in practice doesn't remove much choice from the game. They can also be set to a combat role, defaulting to Heal. At the moment, they're hilariously good at it, to the point that it's almost impossible to die unless you actively ask for it. I regularly pulled whole clouds of enemies several levels above my pay-grade, with 'fair' boss fights an absolute foregone conclusion. It helped role-playing as a cocky Smuggler, able to say whatever the hell I wanted without the slightest concern. It doesn't work as well though if you're meant to be even slightly intimidated.

Other changes include Level Sync, which lowers your effective level while on earlier planets while still providing appropriate rewards for your actual level, several stats have now been combined into one called simply Mastery, and some of the group content has been updated and given extra modes, though I was looking at the core story and basically ignoring other players entirely. It's also worth noting that if you played The Old Republic at launch and then moved away, it bolstered its boring rail space combat back in 2014 for something that's at least worth firing up for a quick look.

Rock beats scissors, paper beats rock, but a Companion with this much healing helps you beat literally everything.

What hasn't changed, not surprisingly but still unfortunately for the sake of recommending The Old Republic now, is that it's still often an amazingly fiddly experience. Finding the thing it wants you to click, controlling the camera, having to go far out of your way to get over an obstacle - it's nothing you can't get used to, but it's jarring. The worst part though is the hotbar combat, not because it's hotbars specifically, but because The Old Republic throws out so many skills and options that after a while even trying to be judicious about things leaves you with a screen that looks like a nuclear submarine's control panel and incredibly fiddly attacks that aren't half as fun as all the swooping lightsabers and explosions and swelling music all screams they should be.

As an MMO, these things made The Old Republic felt outdated back when it came out, and that's only gotten worse. And to cut off question of why Warcraft doesn't get the same complaints, that's because World of Warcraft came out way, way back in 2004. And even with that, its combat and options feel better - more sense of power, more choices, a better feeling of flow between attacks during rotations, more utility skills, just generally better design and implementation all round. The Old Republic never truly conveys the oomph of hurling thermal detonators or swinging a lightsaber around, which is a problem for a game that relies so much on combat, and right now, offers no challenge. In the single-player content, at least. Maybe the endgame fights back a bit.

What nothing else really offers though is its story, with the exception of The Secret World - which incidentally had its own rebalancing like this earlier in the year, and also became endlessly closer to the game it should have been at launch - no other MMO comes close. Not all of the plots can be up to the same standard of Imperial Agent and Smuggler, but the joy of The Old Republic is that it's a chance to experience to the Star Wars universe from the perspectives of characters who were never going to get their own game - even if this one proves they could absolutely carry one.

With the new levelling curve and acceptance that it's better to have a player enjoy their stay than feel pot-committed to completing it, The Old Republic is in a far stronger place. I haven't played the content that came out after the end of the class stories, but Knights of the Fallen Empire was a great continuation that resparked my interest in a game I'd written off as something I was never going to really think about again, never mind reinstall. I still don't particularly care about the MMO side. I'd trade every last frame of The Old Republic for an actual Knights of The Old Republic 3. But, with these changes, I'm more inclined to see how my character's future adventures might play out, and at the very, very least, walked away with more good memories than bubbling frustrations.

If you're in a similar position, I can't outright say that finally, this is The Old Republic triumphant, striking back and redeeming all the missteps it's made over the years. But I can say that if you tried it and reluctantly bounced off it back in the day, it's well worth the download to give it a second chance, to finish off any stories you left in abeyance, and perhaps to try some of the classes you were tempted by last time. I know I always felt a bit bad about leaving my Sith Inquisitor standing around in a cave. After finishing my smuggling business, I really should check in on her.

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