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Star Wars: The Old Republic deserves a second chance

BioWare's MMO has received some major upgrades in recent months

My love affair with Star Wars: The Old Republic was strong but short-lived. When it launched in late 2011, I thought this was it: the replacement for World of Warcraft that I'd been waiting for.

The Old Republic had the social gameplay and challenging, puzzle-like combat I'd come to love from MMOs, mixed with the strong, player choice-driven writing of BioWare. On top of it all was the Star Wars universe, a huge draw. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. The Old Republic was a solid game at launch, but one whose multiple goals clashed with each other. It couldn't decide whether it was more important to be an MMO, with all the grouping and grinding that implied, or a narrative-heavy RPG where getting to the next cutscene was your main goal. The result was that neither aspect of the game was satisfying.

I stopped playing after a couple of months, leaving my Imperial Agent stranded on Alderaan at level 30, and until this week I had only been back once to check in.

Oh, the changes I have discovered.

The latest expansion

This is old news if you've kept up with the game, but if you're like me you'll find a very pleasant surprise: The Old Republic has changed drastically, and it's really, really good right now.

Many of these changes have come as a result of evidence that the game wasn't doing as well as publisher Electronic Arts had hoped. The Old Republic had shifted from a traditional purchase-and-play, subscription-based MMO model to a limited free-to-play version less than a year after its release. While this opened the game to a wider audience, it also opened it to criticism of the often restrictive free-to-play system, where even new ability bars had to be unlocked with real-money microtransactions. Once again, the game felt like it was juggling the worst of two worlds.

While The Old Republic's initial brush with free-to-play pushed many players away, it has remained successful, and BioWare has continued tweaking things. The biggest changes have come as of last October, with the game's fifth expansion-sized update, Knights of the Fallen Empire.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first: Yes, Knights of the Fallen Empire does everything you'd expect from an MMO expansion. It raises the level cap five more levels to 65. It adds a bunch of new locations and quests. And, in true Old Republic fashion, it builds on the game's fantastic cinematic storytelling.

But what's especially notable for folks who have been away from the game, like myself, is the huge Game Update 4.0 that hit when Knights of the Fallen Empire launched in October of last year. See, when The Old Republic was announced, lead designer James Ohlen hyped it up as better than a potential Knights of the Old Republic 3, by saying:

"What we're really doing is Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12-plus."

It's only in this most recent update that The Old Republic has finally realized that tantalizing promise.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Embracing the single-player

The biggest improvement to The Old Republic with Game Update 4.0 is the fact you can now play solo from level one to level 60 by completing your main story missions and a string of planetary story arc.

I cannot overstate how smart this choice is. BioWare looked at how confused the game was between being an MMO and a single-player RPG and made a shocking call: It essentially split the game into two separate experiences. You can play it up to the cap as a single-player game, grouping only when you absolutely feel like it. And once you hit the cap, that is where you start getting into the real MMO stuff of raiding, hardcore dungeons, gear grinds and more.

Not interested in the latter? Just play through the story stuff and then quit. Not interested in the former? Knights of the Fallen Empire lets you create a character from level 60 so that you can get right to the MMO stuff you care about faster. BioWare is, against all odds, successfully catering to both of the game's audiences.

You can now take any of The Old Republic's NPC companions and assign them as a healer, damage dealer or tank at will. No more teaming up with a character you don't like just because you need a healer; this is now a game about doing the stuff you actually care about, in the form you want. You're even allowed to play new solo-friendly versions of what were once group-only "dungeons."

Bothered by the endless running across vast open spaces that MMOs entail? The Old Republic now features a much less restrictive fast travel system, and the planetary taxi systems are unlocked from the moment you visit a new area, without needing to journey on foot to each new quest hub. If you play it right, there's very little downtime between quests.

Hey, guess what! Those sequels to the Knights of the Old Republic games? Here you go. They're waiting on you right now.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

It's not all blue milk and roses

That's not to say everything is perfect. Between the increased experience gain, the flexibility of companions and general balance changes in favor of making solo content easier, much of The Old Republic feels trivialized. It's not a challenging game for the first 60 levels.

But at the same time, challenge was never the draw, nor what BioWare has done best at.

Likewise, I'm not sure how good The Old Republic's endgame is or how it compares to that of other MMOs. I haven't gotten that far yet, and I'm honestly not sure that's a part of the game I care about at this point. I respect how BioWare is trying to appeal to gamers across multiple play styles, but I'm not sure how the studio will manage to pull many hardcore raiders from games like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy 14.

I love where The Old Republic has found itself

Maybe BioWare doesn't have to, though. Maybe offering a relaxed, narrative-focused experience that you can enjoy while chatting with buddies in a guild is enough. And maybe building on that experience with a new expansion once every year or two is good enough to keep players coming back, checking in every once in a while to see what's new and drop a little cash.

I hope that is enough, because for my part, I love where The Old Republic has found itself. It's the perfect break from more stressful MMOs, but without totally losing the social aspect of hanging out with my friends in guild chat. And BioWare's writing is strong enough that I want to keep coming back to see what the developers can do, especially in this great universe.

If you played Star Wars: The Old Republic at launch and gave up, you owe it to yourself to give it another try. If you ever find yourself on the Empire side of the Harbinger server, come join my guild. We call ourselves Kylo Friends, and we're just playing through the story content and having a good time.

That's not the ideal great time I would have expected when this game launched, but I'm enjoying the hell out of it now.