Star Wars: The Old Republic has never been exactly what we want it to be. Though some of us have stuck with it since its launch in December 2011, we know it's still not ideal in 2014. And so does BioWare.
"We used to talk about this as KOTORs 3-through-10," the game's executive producer, Jeff Hickman, told me in November. "And I don't think that we met that promise."
The big issue is that SWTOR is the one and only successor to the Knights of the Old Republic duology from a decade ago. But those were singleplayer RPGs, and SWTOR is an MMO -- with all the baggage that comes with that.
This month we got SWTOR's second paid expansion, Shadow of Revan. This is an exciting time, in theory. The hero of KOTOR's 300-year-long story arc is coming to a close, and BioWare claims to be "doubling down on cinematic BioWare storytelling" moving forward, starting with this expansion. But when we look at the State of SWTOR in 2014, figuring out if BioWare is finally delivering on that "promise of SWTOR" is a complicated thing. We have to go back to the beginning.
Vanilla SWTOR tried to be the best of both worlds, combining an MMO level grind with eight separate class-specific stories told over the course of that grind, but you know what Jesus said about serving two masters. "Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other."
That's just about how most players felt about SWTOR -- folks who played for the story resented the MMOness of the game, whereas the hardcore MMO fans felt the game was hampered by its focus on story. I came at it for the story, and I just learned to deal with all that MMO stuff I didn't like. It wasn't what I wanted it to be, but it was all we had.
But the stories SWTOR told were good! The game dropped us into the midst of a Cold War between the Sith Empire and Galactic Republic, the stalemate having lasted for 10 years in the wake of 30 years of conflict before that. As the war begins to reignite, you can be a Sith trying to thwart conspiracies from within, or a bounty hunter out for glory who gets caught under the boot of a Sith Lord, or a Republic soldier hunting down defectors, or a Jedi on a quest to confront the Sith Emperor himself, and so on.
A few of the class stories had lulls, but they were all solid overall (at worst) or brilliant (at best). And some of the planets you'd visit over the course of the game had their own separate faction story arcs that were also usually very good.
The MMO scope of the game did have some storytelling advantages over a solo game with a single plot. Namely, it made the world feel surprisingly expansive and lived-in. Having eight parallel narratives was a refreshing departure from the typical "you personally will make or break the universe" plots of Star Wars titles. This is a game about a 40-year galactic war between a Sith Empire and the Republic, and so it really shouldn't be all on one person's shoulders.
After a big launch, SWTOR settled into a now-typical MMO cycle: subscriber numbers dropped, the game went free-to-play, the player base jumped with an expansion and level cap increase. SWTOR was thought of as the most expensive game production ever at launch, but those expenditures were unsustainable as BioWare continued to maintain the game. Staff were laid off, corners were cut -- the biggest being the removal of the class-specific stories in SWTOR's expansions.
For the past two years, the new status quo has felt like "find out what people on the forums are asking about most, and make that." That's resulted in free expansions like Galactic Starfighter, which introduced PVP fighter combat, and Galactic Strongholds, which introduced player housing, along with smaller content updates that gave us new and easy role-neutral dungeons. The two free expansions were not quite what people wanted; Starfighter combat is esoteric and difficult to grasp; the player housing is not freeform in any meaningful way and instead mostly just serves as very large trophy cases.
The role-neutral dungeons were good for accessibility. Not having to adhere to the Holy Trinity in groupfinder queues meant it didn't take long to get into one, and players who lean casual didn't get yelled at for not reading about the fights before playing them the first time. Bioware did produce tougher versions of those dungeons for the serious gear grinders.
Sandwiching those free updates, big and small, are a pair of paid expansions that raised the level cap and reset the endgame gear grind. The first was Rise of the Hutt Cartel, released early last year. ROTHC continued the story of the war between Empire and Republic but with the focus on an interloper. The Hutts seized control of the planet Makeb in order to mine a rare energy source called Isotope-5, which they planned to use to carve out an empire of their own.
Rise of the Hutt Cartel was disconcerting at first; instead of featuring class-specific stories it had a single quest line for each faction. These stories were good and focused, without piles of distracting requests. You needed to play both sides to have a real understanding of what happened on Makeb. But at the same time, it felt strange that the personal stories for each class that drove us through vanilla SWTOR were left out of the expansion. We'd gone from being a unique hero to a Generic Republic/Empire Hero.
Shadow of Revan, the second paid expansion, was released this month and it definitely fits the mould of "what are forum people asking for" content. Revan had always been a sideshow in SWTOR as the subject of a pair of mid-level dungeons, one for each faction. But his fate had been ambiguous. Revan has long been beloved as the hero of Knights of the Old Republic and had been the subject of a Drew Karpyshyn novel that bridged the gap between KOTOR and SWTOR. So Revan had to be be dealt with.
Shadow of Revan regressed even further from the status quo of vanilla SWTOR. It features a single questline for everyone, regardless of faction -- though dialogue scenes will vary depending on which side you're on, and there is a single short quest in the middle unique to each class. (Sadly, the two I've played thus far feel more like postscripts to the now-defunct class stories than a meaningful continuation of them.)
The story of Revan ends up feeling like a prologue rather than its own self-contained thing. This bit of plot seems intended to draw us back into the main thrust of the war. That's interesting, because players who had reached level 50 in the game have been dealing with one tangent after another such as the Hutts or rogue Sith such as the Dread Masters, who had been part of the endgame raid progression prior to Shadow of Revan. This expansion serves to reset the board, but in such a way that once it was over felt as if we had played a very long teaser for whatever Bioware has coming next.
Shadow of Revan is not really about Revan at all in the latter half of the expansion, but rather the imminent return of the SWTOR's main villain, the Sith Emperor. The Emperor had been out of the picture in all content past level 50, and it's a huge deal that he's coming back. It's a much bigger deal in the present than Revan's saga is, certainly, leaving me with the vibe that I had played a stopgap, with the true continuation of SWTOR coming later.
Shadow of Revan is so laser-focused that the sense of scope that characterised SWTOR in the beginning is gone completely. Hutt Cartel had a reduction in scope but it worked because its story was minor and the separate faction quests provided a satisfactory amount of scale. Shadow of Revan instead features a plot with the largest possible scale, but you never get much of a handle on it with a single small-scope quest line. That it's also littered with irrelevant sidequests certainly detracts from one's ability to grasp the big picture.
BioWare did pepper in some group dungeons to make this feel more like proper levelling content, and this time the four-player dungeons were even playable solo (with the help of an NPC droid). Two endgame raids come with it as well. In terms of "content" Shadow of Revan is arguably more complete than Hutt Cartel was.
What all this ultimately means is that SWTOR in 2014 has the same internal conflict that SWTOR in 2011 had, that of being an MMO vs being a BioWare game. The difference today is that they don't have the limitless resources they once had. Whereas the Hutt Cartel expansion felt like an attempt to find a new paradigm without those resources, Shadow of Revan feels more like a cut down version of what SWTOR used to be. It's the status quo reestablished, but not as good this time.
That it uses the most iconic character in Star Wars gaming as a tease for the Real Story (Coming Soon) is just icing on this lacklustre cake.
Shadow of Revan's story does not provide a good reason for former players to return or new players to give it a try for the first time, but this expansion is the pinnacle (so far) of three years of streamlining. The experience of actually playing SWTOR is much better now, and less of a pain for folks who aren't in it for the MMO stuff.
If you couldn't be convinced to give SWTOR a serious shot before, I don't see much here to warrant going for it now. SWTOR may still be evolving into what we all want it to be, but this newest expansion, Shadow of Revan, doesn't get it there.