SW:TOR F2P Impressions
by Tyler Edwards, October 27, 2013
Recently, I took a look at Rift to see how it had evolved after going free to play. Today, I'm doing the same for another MMO I tried in the past: Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I played a trial for SW:TOR shortly after its release. I wasn't terribly impressed, but it was a very short trial, and I didn't feel I had enough time to get a feel for it. I'd played a Jedi character for much of the trial and didn't enjoy that at all, but near the end, I switched to an Imperial agent and liked that much better.
I wanted to see if I'd like the game more by focusing on the agent, as well as it how it had evolved since I played. In particular, I was curious how free to play had changed the game.
I'll say upfront: I was very disappointed. This may be the first MMO I've played that's actually gotten significantly worse since launch.
Episode I: The Free to Play Menace
Normally, I'd talk about a game's mechanics, aesthetics, story, and such before going into their business model, but BioWare made sure to put money front and center of the SW:TOR experience, so that's what I'm going to discuss first.
A lot has already been written about SW:TOR's free to play model, and very little of it good. I'm sure I will only be repeating what's been said elsewhere, but it deserves to be repeated.
SW:TOR's monetization is appalling. I did my very best to come into this game with an open mind - I tend to be very tolerant of free to play monetization schemes - but it wore me down until playing felt more like masochism than an enjoyable gaming experience.
The only concession to sanity I saw was the fact that I could go back to playing my previous character, despite her belonging to a race that is now a paid option. If I want to make any more characters from that race, I need to cough up the dough, but I get to keep the character I already have. It was a nice piece of generosity, I felt.
Sadly, this will be the only time I used the words "generosity" and "SW:TOR" in the same sentence.
Absolutely everything has a price tag. Want to gain experience at the normal rate? Pay up. Want access to all possible quest rewards? Pay up. Want to be able to get loot from dungeons more than three times a week? Pay up. Want to equip the highest level of gear? Get out the ol' wallet!
By far the most painful restrictions for me were those on mobility. SW:TOR is a game with a great deal of travel time - it amazes me they didn't take advantage of the sci-fi setting and let people turn in quests via holo-communicator - and you need every extra bit of mobility you can get to keep it from getting tedious.
But free players are slapped with insanely long cooldowns on the quick travel ability, and you have to wait much longer to unlock sprint, which increases your movement speed out of combat, and the ability to use mounts.
Being made to wait for sprint, more than any of the other restrictions, made the game excruciating for me. I spent more time walking around than doing anything else, all the while being left in the dust by subscribers.
It gets especially painful in groups. While your group is already fighting the next trash pack, you're struggling to keep up like some asthmatic kid. "Huff, puff, wait up guys!"
The straw that broke the camel's back for me, though, came when I tried to take a nice screenshot of my character. I wanted to show her doing a /salute emote because I had been playing her as the consummate Imperial soldier.
I then discovered you need to be a subscriber to use most emotes.
At that point, they crossed the line from greedy and misguided to petty and asinine. I logged off in disgust and did not look back.
I genuinely don't understand why they do this. The free option doesn't even work as a trial. Who tries to win over new customers by showing them their product at its absolute worst? I'm sure it's a much better experience if you subscribe, but who wants to give their money to a company that treats people this poorly?
I assume this model must be working for them, or else they wouldn't be reporting such increases in profit, but I honestly can't imagine how anyone can be masochistic enough to put up with this kind of shameless, abusive monetization.
As a fan of the free to play model, SW:TOR offends me. Games like this reinforce all the negative stereotypes of free to play games, and they sully the reputation of other, better MMOs. Free to play doesn't need to suck like this.
Even so, despite all the horrible monetization, SW:TOR might still be worth playing if it was an exceptional game in other ways. But it isn't.
Episode II: Attack of the WoW Clone
In terms of game mechanics, SW:TOR is more or less in the same "World of Warcraft clone" genre we're all familiar with. As I've said elsewhere, this kind of design is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it's a solid and functional system that has been polished to perfection. On the other hand, it's generic, and it leaves a game with few unique features or mechanics. It gives one with motivation to play SW:TOR over any other game in this genre.
It does have a few nice twists on the old paradigm. The class mechanics are bit more interesting than average. My Imperial agent was one of the more unique and mechanically interesting MMO classes I've had the pleasure to play, incorporating shooter like cover mechanics and an eclectic mix of ranged and engineering skills. The ability to recruit NPC helpers is also an interesting twist, though it does make soloing overly easy.
The main feature of SW:TOR is its heavy emphasis on personal story, drawing inspiration from BioWare's single player games such as Mass Effect. This is the one area where SW:TOR really does shine, as the personal storylines are engaging and well written, featuring fantastic voice acting and rich characterizations.
Even here, though, there are issues. While the main storylines are good, the side quests are much more hit and miss. Some offer very gripping stories, but many are just standard "kill ten rats" fare over burdened with unnecessary dialogue. This makes the story pacing feel sluggish and scattered at times.
Furthermore, this style of storytelling completely breaks down in dungeons. A system of randomizing who gets to choose conversation options pretty much guarantees that someone's going to go away unhappy with the direction of the story, and there's always "that guy" nagging the group to skip all the dialogue.
Ultimately, the only truly unique feature SW:TOR brings to the table is the fact that it's Star Wars. The game does a lovely job of capturing the look, feel, and sound of the universe. I'm not much of a Star Wars fan, but even I couldn't resist the occasional nerdgasm over the sheer "pew pew, vwing vwing, GRAAWWWR" of it all.
It turns out the Star Wars universe is actually a pretty interesting place when it's written by someone other than George Lucas. When I wasn't struggling to resist the urge to slash my wrists over the travel time, I found myself quite immersed in the complex web of Sith politics and the murky moral ambiguity of trying to be an honorable person in an empire of evil.
There are a lot of nice touches to make you feel like you're playing your own movie, as well. For instance, every class story begins with a classic Star Wars scrolling text intro to set up your character's backstory.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sub
If you're a really hardcore Star Wars fan, it's probably worth playing SW:TOR. For all its other flaws, it does a good job of bringing the Star Wars universe to life. Make sure to subscribe, though. No one should play the free version, ever, for any reason.
I'm hard pressed to find any good reason for anyone other than ardent Star Wars fans to play, though. If you're really passionate about story in MMOs, The Secret World is a much better choice, and if you're looking for a good theme park game, World of Warcraft and Rift are both superior options.
Games like this frustrate me. There's potential in SW:TOR. With a better business model and a few less design stumbles, it could have been a good game. Not great, but good. Instead, we may have the first game in history that actually deserves all the rampant hate spewed at it by Internet trolls.