Price: £44.99 (plus monthly subscription at £8.99)
Format: PC
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: EA

SWTOR (that’s short hand for Star Wars: The Old Republic for those out of touch) has been the subject of much debate of late. It might not be the first PC exclusive, online-only RPG to release, but it’s arguably the most hyped. Not least due to the fact that it’s created by BioWare – experts in the field – but published by the giant that is EA and of course carries that logo: Star Wars, which, like the proverbial double-edged sword, can prove as debilitating a license as it can a boon. Just watch the latter day trilogy of films as proof of that.

BioWare have two big tricks up their sleeves however, for not only have they dabbled in the force before, so creating the brilliant Knights of the Old Republic, they have also seen fit to set this game in the Old Republic, a galaxy just as far away, but in a time even longer ago than any of the movies. This decision instantly freeing them of the many constraints that they’d have been caught in should SWTOR have been set in the time of Luke, Han, Leia, etc.

Sure, the biggest fans out there will still debate Old Republic’s authenticity but for most it’s enough to know that lightsabers make the right ‘schzum, schzum’ noise, hyperdrive makes the stars do that blur effect thing and droids beep in that oh so Star Wars way.

All well and good then but, to rapidly shepherd this rambling piece back on subject, the game is, from a purely selfish point of view, a reviewers nightmare; a release which resists quantification at every turn.

Not only is it too large to truly be explored by one reviewer in a lifetime, featuring as it does eight differing classes, each with a diverging storyline, but because the enjoyment you’ll glean largely depends on what the user puts into it. Then there’s the fact that it’s an experience liable to change as patches are applied.

A similar argument could be applied to the likes of Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 whose own multiplayer aspects dwarf their solo experiences but, and here’s the thing, they do at least have solo experiences to compare. Not so SWTOR.

This presents two options, the first to stretch out the truth and attempt to suggest our time with the game is enough to say ‘we did it all’, or, the second (and one we’ll go with), to summarise if it works, to say if there’s fun to be had, to suggest what we’d like to see in future updates and to promise we’ll drop in and out of the universe to report as changes are brought in.

First and foremost, I have to say that there’s a whole heap of fun to be had in The Old Republic. For the sake of total transparency I took a Sith Marauder through his paces, learning the dark side of the force and crushing all who stood in my way – a reverse morality tale if you will.

SWTOR introduced itself in the most cordial of ways, enveloping my initial foray in a structured storyline, so limiting the number of ongoing quests by simply not offering up more than four or five at once. Indeed there’s little to suggest that you’re within a galaxy populated by thousands of fellow gamers at first, so long do the preliminary engagements last.

Take my trainee darkside wielder for example, starting out on the Sith home world of Korriban and soon embroiled in a twisted battle for supremacy between fellow acolytes, all AI driven. Sure, there were a great many ‘real’ people dealing with their own missions but, the odd request for help aside, much was as it would be in a single-player RPG.

In fact it wasn’t until the inevitable swapping of Korriban for the Imperial fleet that the necessity of contacting fellow Sith player dawned, as the first flashpoint was negotiated with a team of three other warriors at my side. Flashpoints being one-off missions which are especially setup to encourage players to group together – another nod towards BioWare gently nudging you in the right direction.

It was during this first group outing that the wildly different approaches of the various classes became apparent too. My Sith Marauder charging wrathfully into the fray while bounty hunters and agents held back, content to pepper enemy soldiers and droids with blaster fire and cause wholesale damage with thermal detonators – enough to make my lightsaber seem as threatening as a toothpick.

It’s in this multi-stranded approach that the reasons for a real and tangible review become apparent, for said bounty hunters, agents and indeed different types of light sabre wielding Sith all have their own bespoke campaigns and the same can be true of the lightside-sitting Jedi and their own agents – you would need a team of 8 minimum to truly review SWTOR and, really, a team of 16 so that multiple morality choices could be explored for each.

So far, so impressive then. Bewildering choice? Check. Interesting storyline? Check. Decent visuals, faithful sounds, scope for all kinds of multiplayer mayhem? Check, check and check. And, you know what? Considering it’s a MMORPG (if you don’t know, Google it) based on Star Wars, I don’t even feel that geeky playing it, though perhaps her in doors would beg to differ.

Now the dark side of the review, SWTOR doesn’t break any particularly new ground, indeed veterans of practically any other MMORPG will feel instant déjà vu, so familiar are the go there, kill those, get double-crossed, kill the traitors setup of most missions. The much vaunted space-based dogfighting misses too – this is a franchise from which Tie Fighter was born so why fob us off with something inferior?

There are further issues too: getting stuck, instant deaths, broken sections… A venture on to the official forum is enough to make you wince. That said a project of such scope is bound to have teething troubles so I can forgive on the understanding much will be patched later.

Further forgiveness is granted because the game is a blast to play. I haven’t even touched on the cool powers which trainers will teach your character, the AI driven companion characters who actually help instead of hinder, the genuinely interesting cutscenes, the manner in which early choices can come back to haunt you and the various PvP arenas – in fact I’d go as far as to say you’re best discovering all that for yourself.

I’m not even going to give the game a grade, I’m simply going to give it the thumbs up and say ‘give it a go’, it’s well worth the scant outlay, particularly if you happen to have hundreds of hours to burn.