Release Date: October 27, 2015Platform: PCDeveloper: BioWarePublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: MMORPG (Expansion)
Star Wars: The Old Republic is one of those MMORPGs that has an extremely niche audience but still does rather well under that umbrella. The core MMORPG, released in December 2011, launched with a ton of hype because it was from BioWare, the studio behind the beloved Knights of the Old Republic,, and quickly fell into place as a niche home for Star Wars fans once the hype died down and players realized the reality of the game.
In short, nostalgic BioWare fans realized SWTOR wasn’t quite the 100% story-focused successor to KotOR they were looking for, while Star Wars-loving MMORPG fans realized the game wasn’t quite the “WoW in space” they were looking for. SWTOR’s always kind of claimed this bridged area, directly in between story-based and standard MMORPG, yet not claiming either side fully. The game’s niche audience may have been generally satisfied with this compromise, but the rest of us tended to shy away, diving back in now and then and eventually departing again for other games.
The good news is that with SWTOR’s latest expansion—Knights of the Fallen Empire—that bridge has partially deteriorated. BioWare finally chose a side—the story-based side. The one rich in single-player immersion. The one uniquely BioWare. How’s it play out? Let’s take a spoiler-free look.
A Star Wars Story Worth Diving Into
It’s hard not to be sucked in by Knights of the Fallen Empire‘s story content. We’re introduced to a new force to be reckoned with, all the while getting used to the fact that the Imperials and Republic are working together under one tension-filled banner. This strained atmosphere is the backdrop for the entire story arc, but it works much better as a fueling mechanism than the core game’s setting because we feel that the galaxy is somewhat in shambles.
The original SWTOR story often felt too organized and stoic, as if we, as players, were visiting a theme park and not necessarily participating in all of the action. Our class story missions were the best part about the game bar none due to the fact that these story arcs departed from the stoic, sterile feeling of running through endless huge buildings and facing wave after wave of bonus missions involving killing 10+ armored soldiers.
In KotFE’s new story arc, we’re given chapters to explore that contain everything you’d expect from a strong BioWare-told story: fully-fledged NPC companions with conflicting ideals, plot twists, decent choice repercussions, villains with backstories and conflicts of interest, immediate action that takes place away from the sterile buildings and ships that often make up the interiors of SWTOR’s game design, and even a chance to befriend a companion in a flirtatious way if one happens to strike your character’s fancy.
The plot is engaging, interesting, and full of just enough twists to make it iconic of something you’d expect in a Star Wars game. There are downsides to such a story-rich leveling experience, of course. The gameplay is extremely linear all the way through. There are no alternate paths, in fact, except if you count alternative dialogue options. The fights are also rather on the simple side due to how powerful companion scaling now seems to be.
Finally, while playing through the leveling story arc, one can’t help but notice how short the chapters are and how non-multiplayer the whole experience is. There is absolutely no reason to ever group up with another player until you reach level 65. You gain 5 levels running story missions and a few random bonus missions. That’s it. There’s not a single side mission during all of these levels nor a reason to explore the areas you’re in. Instead, you’re guided through an extremely linear—but interesting—storyline. Upon reaching level 65, you run out of new levels to gain and the game opens up again somewhat. Once you finish the current chapter, there’s a promise of additional future chapter releases.
While the overall leveling experience can be a bit jarring if you’re more accustomed to MMORPG expansions filled with leveling dungeons, quest mobs to fight over, and zergs of players running toward the next quest NPC, for a MMO that’s fully embracing a storytelling approach, the exclusion of side missions, player-contested mobs, and group content sort of makes sense. This lets players absorb the story at their own pace without having to worry about fighting over mobs, finding a dungeon group, or grinding out EXP to reach that next level. It’s as if BioWare decided to simply give players a good story, let them enjoy it, and made everything else that makes SWTOR an MMORPG wait until players had finished that story.
Frankly, this approach to leveling works well for SWTOR and the types of players who tend to enjoy BioWare games. It was a bold move, obviously, since designing such story-rich content inevitably caused other game features to slide to the wayside, but I’m a firm believer in the fact that risks often improve an MMORPG if implemented correctly.
Unraveling the Smoke and Mirrors of Endgame
Speaking of risks, there’s one facet of Knights of the Fallen Empire that I haven’t discussed in detail: Endgame. Endgame—even in a story-based MMO—is still the bread and butter of any MMORPG. Endgame is what makes us stick around and build a community. It’s how we create and plan goals for our characters and the progression of those characters, whether that progression takes the form of story progression, achievements/collectables, raid/dungeon progression, or gear progression. Endgame simply can’t be shoved aside.
In past expansions, it’s almost felt like BioWare depended on players having alts that they wished to experience endgame with to fuel the endgame experience and create a sense of progression and longevity. Alts are great and can be massively fun in an MMORPG, but they should never be part of the expected plan for extending longevity. Not all players enjoy alts, after all.
Knights of the Fallen Empire’s endgame is extremely weak. I’ll come out and say it. While progressing through the story arc in KotFE, I enjoyed myself immensely, and as mentioned earlier, I realized that BioWare had to reduce some parts of the game in order to accomplish such a well-told story. I assumed this reduction took place in the lack of side quests while leveling, the lack of leveling dungeons, the lack of leveling planets to truly explore, and the extreme linearity of the overall experience. Unfortunately, this reduction is seen all the way into endgame as well. As much of a fan I am of SWTOR embracing its story-based strengths, the balance is just too far skewed. The risk doesn’t quite pay off, I feel.
The idea behind KotFE’s endgame is at least partially appealing. You reach a point in the story where you can begin planning and working together with Imperial and Republic leaders to form an eventual attack against the Fallen Empire. You’re tasked with building an alliance—a base of sorts—created with the help of military, science, force-based, and tactical-based leaders. Each group leader represents a faction of sorts that you can do missions for and collect crates of supplies for to build their influence and see an expansion of sorts on base.
It’s not terribly different from Warlords of Draenor’s garrison system, unfortunately, but there’s an added twist since there are 6 flashpoints (SWTOR’s snazzy term for dungeons) that become explorable at this point. These flashpoints tie in with the supply crate-gathering and base-building processes in the form of weekly missions and side missions. Each flashpoint corresponds directly with one of the planets in SWTOR’s base game which is kind of cool, and you’ll even get a chance to mosey back to each planet to do a few heroic missions.
Here’s the kicker, though. Each of the 6 flashpoints is almost a direct copy-and-paste of each other. There are tiny differences in the form of bonus objectives, a different room here and there, and slightly different voice overs, but the interiors and enemies all look almost exactly alike. The obvious similarities make sense from a story-based standpoint (which I have to give BioWare some credit for… it’s a tiny bit clever), but frankly, it’s more than a little disappointing. Flashpoints should be vastly different from one another. Otherwise, they’re simply not fun to do more than once.
The other issue with these flashpoints is the fact that they only come in two different modes: solo and heroic 2+. Both are intended for solo players with the help of a friendly companion, but players can pair up for heroic mode if they choose (on a side note, players can also experience most of the leveling flashpoints in solo mode now). Heroic’s a decent challenge with some pretty nice rewards for players who prefer to progress at their own pace. Thanks to the new companion multi-role system and influence system (the latter took the place of affection essentially, plus makes companions stronger over time), any class can confidently take on heroic mode after tossing out a few companion gifts and utilizing some type of healing role/companion role.
This type of solo-based endgame system is certainly welcome in an MMORPG that boasts high levels of single-player immersion, but due to how repetitive the flashpoints are and how limited the game’s endgame options are, the unfortunate truth is that there’s little reason to stick around as a solo player once you’ve seen all the story. In January 2016, Chapter 10 of the main story will become unlocked and players will be able to see what comes next.
Releasing endgame story in chunks is a solid direction for the game, I feel, but the content in between those chunks still has to be decent to tide players over. There’s also a huge, looming issue with the fact that there’s no new planet to actually explore in KotFE—even at endgame. The new “planet” where your base is held is nothing more than a base to run around on. For now, anyway. All of the heroic missions take place on older planets. The old content is now level-synched which is cool, but coolness alone doesn’t quite make up for a lack of content.
For small groups and larger groups, the only real option is to dive back into older flashpoints (and their hard/tactical modes) and operations (SWTOR’s snazzy term for raids) for group challenges that scale to level 65 and even grant level-appropriate rewards in the form of drops and weekly/daily missions. Tactical mode flashpoints let players scale up or down without the necessity for a tank and healer. This is an interesting idea in theory, but may need some tweaks thanks to the randomness of the group finder tool. As you can probably gleam from the emphasis of older content, there are no new operations in KotFE just yet.
The level sync system (which also takes effect when traveling to older planets, by the way), is great for newer players who may not have played everything the full game has to offer. It seems obvious that BioWare was attempting for Knights of the Fallen Empire to be a big “come back y’all!” to veteran players and gamers who are feeling a wee bit of the Star Wars hype that seems to be, well, everywhere nowadays. It’s a smart move, but it’s also not quite enough.
The Final Verdict
The most disappointing part about writing this review had to be the fact that if it weren’t for how repetitive and lacking Knights of the Fallen Empire’s endgame content is, I would have enthusiastically recommended the expansion to anyone hungering for a bit of Star Wars action. The story-based experience is seriously one of the best I’ve seen in an MMORPG. Unfortunately, the way endgame is constructed and the lack of a new, explorable endgame area as well as multiple, different flashpoints (and new group content, period) hold back my final judgement considerably.
Hopefully the new story-based releases will add additional endgame areas to explore and content additions that actually increase the longevity of endgame. Until that point, I’d have to say that if story’s the only thing you want out of an MMORPG (along with cool lightsaber noises and the freedom to romance NPCs, etc.), Knights of the Fallen Empire is worth checking out. Otherwise… well, let’s just say that despite my initial hopes, it seems SWTOR’s niche status just got even more niche.
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.