Editorial | 12/19/2016 at 8:00 AM

MMO Co-Opportunities Volume LXXII: A Return to the Old Republic, Part I

A look at SWTOR's first two expansions from a returning player

It’s a pretty big month if you’re a Star Wars fan. Rogue One just hit the theaters and if you’re a player of Star Wars: the Old Republic (henceforth SWTOR), the beginning of this month brought you a whole new expansion: Knights of the Eternal Throne.

Over the years, I’ve kept tabs on the continued development of SWTOR, I game I greatly enjoyed from beta until a couple of months before the release of the first expansion. As I think was the case with a lot of players, I simply ran out of things to do. My friends had gradually stopped playing, and short of completing the latest raid, I’d seen all the game had to offer at that time. So with some reluctance, I hung up my blaster and moved on to other games. With the release of each new expansion, I was tempted to go back and see the new content; however, since I’ve always found it difficult to return to an MMO from a long time away, I held off. That was until a couple of months back when I saw the CGI trailer for the then just announced expansion, Knights of the Eternal Throne. I was blown away. It completely rekindled my interest in the game and I was excited to see what this new story-driven experience was like.

Being me, however, I couldn’t just jump into the new Outlander content (i.e. the content of the newest two expansions). Oh, I had the means through tokens that come with the two latest expansions (they let you create a character at level 60 and 65), but I had to know what had happened in my character’s personal story since I left. Thus, why this is Part I of a Return to the Old Republic. In it I’ll be discussing the first two expansions (Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan) as well as changes Bioware has made to game outside of content. Since this MMO Co-Opportunities, I’ll of course be emphasizing how the content and system changes have improved or hindered cooperating and grouping with other players.

Let’s do a quick run-down of what Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan added to the base game. Together, they increase the player level cap from 50 to 60, add three new locations (Makeb, Rishi, and Yavin 4), and introduce several Hard More versions of existing Flash Points as well as some brand new Operations. In my time back so far, I’ve mostly been exploring the personal story content and playing around with the overhauled game mechanics.

To avoid story spoilers, I won’t go into any specifics regarding the personal story plots contained in these two expansions. Like the personal story missions in the base game, they have you running around to various locations that are usually instanced. Also akin to the missions I experienced before, they allow you to bring friends along to participate in cut-scene conversations while simultaneously receiving progression credit in their own personal story. While this format has been familiar, I have noticed several small quality-of-life and convenience improvements Bioware has made to the personal story experience. Most of the time when you’re given a new step of your personal story and it’s located on another planet, you’ll be able to teleport directly to that planet. Previously, this usually involved up to 5 minutes of travel while you ran back to your ship and “flew” to the other planet. Also, many of the missions provide a personal droid that has limited tanking, healing, and dps capabilities to help speed up the process. On top of that, the boss fights have little med stations nearby to provide a large healing boost. Changes like this have certainly improved a player’s ability to solo story missions.

One aspect of the personal stories in these expansions that I must admit I’m a little disappointed about, however, is the lack of variability between classes. I knew a long time ago Bioware was moving away from class-specific personal stories in order to provide an experience that focused on depth instead of breadth, and I completely understand why they chose to do that. Still, I miss the feeling of having a specific identity in my personal story. As an Imperial Agent, I gleefully undertook missions of espionage in the base game personal story. With these expansion personal stories, however, I’m pretty much just a standard “protagonist” type. It’s a small thing, but something I wanted to point out.

Moving on to general changes and upgrades, the two biggest game-wide system changes since I last played are the Discipline system and the Companion overhaul. Previously, after players picked their Advanced Class for their character at level 10, they gained access to three talent trees specific to their Advanced Class. They would distribute their talent points across their trees, unlocking further skills or passive abilities. As the years have gone on, many MMOs have moved away from this type of system and SWTOR is no exception. Talent trees have been replaced with Disciplines. Each Advanced Class has three Disciplines to choose from (which seem to very roughly correlate to the three talent trees in the previous iteration of the specialization system). Rather than distributing talent points, Discipline-specific skills and passives are unlocked at certain level milestones. You can change your Discipline at your faction’s Fleet if you find you don’t like the one you chose.

Even though a given Discipline will be the same for every character of the same Advanced Class, you can still tweak your build using Utility Points. You’ll get a total of 7 Utility Points over the course of leveling to the current max level (65) and they are divided across three tiers: Skillful, Masterful, and Heroic. These Utility skills will passively buff your character (e.g. flat percentage damage reduction) or specific abilities, (e.g. decreasing cooldowns, adding additional effects). You can reset your Utility Skills in the menu where you distribute them.

While I personally enjoy theory-crafting and tinkering around with builds, I think the Discipline system is sleek and more approachable to many players. It’s certainly easier to balance and add on to as the level cap continues to grow, as well. I also think that it indirectly helps with grouping with friends. If someone decides it might be best for their to take on another role when playing with their friends, they can just go and change Disciplines without having to worry about figuring out a specific talent build. There’s still a cost with changing Disciplines, so people won’t want to do it all the time, but I feel like it severely lowers the mental barrier to changing roles on a given characters.

The Companion system changes now allow players to utilize whatever companion they wish without having to worry about what’s mechanically ideal. Previously, each companion character had specific roles (Tank, Healer, or DPS). The fact that you also generally equipped the same gear on companions used by player characters compounded upon this, and as a result, each player character usually preferred one or two specific companions due to the role he or she provided. All of this has changed, however. Now, each companion can be toggled between a Tank, DPS, and Healer role and their gear is purely cosmetic, not functional. Instead, their stats are level dependent and Influence dependent. Influence has replaced Affection (the system found in most Bioware games) and Influence will now directly boost both combat effectiveness as well as Crew Skill (gathering and crafting) efficiency and crit chance.

I found the Companion changes to be improvements pretty much across the board. I found gearing my companions to be a bit of a hassle, so I’m glad I no longer have to worry about that. I also like being able to bring whatever companion I want into combat since I can change his or her role to whatever I feel I need. It always felt slightly immersion-breaking when I felt like I was saddled with bringing a certain character into combat, despite how my own character felt about him or her. Now that’s no longer an issue.

Overall, I found that all the changes and additions to the game have gone in the direction of making the SWTOR experience more mechanically accessible to players while giving them more choices in the flavor/lore department. I think much of this has to do with a large percentage of the community being lore and story nuts rather than hardcore “server first” raiders. Honestly, I’m glad that SWTOR has gone in this direction and embraced its strengths. I look forward to seeing how this continued to progress in the next two expansions.