Impressions: Star Wars: The Old Republic – Knights of the Fallen Empire

Star Wars: The Old Republic [official site] feels like it has lived in the shadows of its ancestors, Star Wars Galaxies and Knights of the Old Republic, doomed to be eclipsed by their legacy. But after a night of playing, when what was meant to be a quick dip into the new expansion turned into a full-blown binge until little rays of dawn peeked through the curtains, I reckon The Old Republic is close to stepping out of that shadow.

Knights of the Fallen Empire doesn’t just feel like another expansion pack but rather like a tactical pivot meant to align the game towards something new. The new story is intent on distracting you from realizing that—god forbid—you’re playing an actual MMORPG, which makes it a little awkward when the two aspects are forced to shake hands and play nice from time to time. I can’t say I really mind the haphazard way the expansion is bolted on to the rest of the game, however. I’m too busy itching to find out what happens next in the story.

And what a story it is. Despite my best attempts to get one of my characters to level 60 in time to experience the new expansion, I decided to make use of the ability to create a new level 60 character given as a reward for subscribing. Given how inextricably linked the new story is with the previous one, plopping myself right into the shoes of my surly new bounty hunter was confusing despite the game’s attempts to bring me up to speed. While I typically see the ability to boost to a relevant level as a good thing in most MMOs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that skipping all the story to this point was a big sacrifice.

Once the new story really gets going, I didn’t care as much as I feared I would. While initial interactions with old allies made me feel a tad clueless, Knights of Fallen Empire scarcely let me catch my breath long enough to dwell on it. The story has always been the strongest point of The Old Republic, and Knights of the Fallen Empire raises the bar. Sadly, the actual game tends to suffer for it.

Though I’ve yet to finish off the last chapter, your companions are endearing and sympathetic, and their interpersonal drama can make for some tough decisions. Koth Vortena, an Immortal Empire deserter, and Senya Tirall, the Empire knight who hunted Koth for years, are particularly memorable companions as their history boils to the surface at the worst of times. In true Bioware fashion, you’re often forced to weigh in on their situation, a task that becomes harder the more their story and motives are revealed. Even between the villains, your relationship with other characters shifts and flexes as the story continues, leaving things unspoken and tensions unrelieved. Twists and wrinkles in the story are constant enough to be interesting, like revealing unforeseen familial ties that changes your perception of your mission, but sparse enough to feel affecting.

The Fallen Empire and its utopian society is a great setting to explore the force in a more nuanced fashion that its binary light and dark affiliations. Existing outside the schemes of Sith and Jedi, the force isn’t painted through any specific moral lens, allowing a more thoughtful interpretation of its influence.

Valkorion, the Immortal Emperor, has a personal attachment to your character that, as the story progresses, casts the Emperor in increasing shades of grey. Though he might seem like a typical power hungry egomaniac—and he certainly can be—after the first few chapters I felt a little disturbed by just how much I began to see his point. The story revolving around the tension brewing between his family is intimate, humanizing Valkorion in a way similar to other evil dads that Star Wars is known for but without all the melodrama.

Sadly, his children aren’t as well realized. Though Prince Arcann is one of The Old Republic’s more threatening villains—especially in appearance, the emotional betrayal of his brother seen in the opening cinematic lacks consequence within the actual story. His sister, Vaylin, fares slightly better thanks to being a more immediate threat to your survival in the first chapter. There are scenes that glimpse an almost tender depth to their character, but for now they seem like more distant threats.

It’s a bit of a shame that, as great as the story can be, the drama it weaves clashes with The Old Republic’s MMORPG conventions. Cutscenes are exciting but the combat sequences between them is anything but. Waves of enemies will crumble beneath you without so much as a sneeze and boss battles are too long and too simple. I get the sense that this was done intentionally for those who, like me, jumped to level 60 to experience the new story and aren’t as familiar with the combat. But Bioware’s attempts to slim down the MMORPG so that it better fits within the tight confines of the story doesn’t complement either aspect very well. I almost wish I could skip the tedious fetch quests and combat altogether and just watch the story scene to scene.

It’s also strange how intent Knights of the Fallen Empire is on distracting you from the fact that you’re actually playing online. Most of the story is instanced so that you never see another player. While you’re free to invite friends to join in on your missions, there is no incentive to do so. Several times I had completely forgotten I was even playing online until someone in the general chat kicked off another round of Jawa puns and I remembered I wasn’t alone in the universe.

This, coupled with the fact that Knights of the Fallen Empire also doesn’t include anything in the way of new dungeons or content beyond the story, has me a bit worried that once the nine chapters are completed, players will return to the less captivating reality of the endgame grind, left to count the days until the next morsel of story releases. It leaves Knights of the Fallen Empire at an odd tension between its narrative aspirations and the reality that this is an online game that people expect to be able to play on a semi-regular basis.

For newer or more casual players who just want to experience the story, Knights of the Fallen Empire is great. Though the content is locked off for subscribers or those who purchase it, its launch also coincides with the new 4.0 patch that brings a huge list of changes to the game. Going through them all, the underlying theme is making the journey to level 65 as seamless and enjoyable as possible, focusing on the best aspects (the story and characters) while doing away with the lesser ones (the tedious grind). You’ll still be treated as a second class citizen if you want to play for free, but even buying a tiny sum of currency will get you preferred status and eliminate a few of the predatory restrictions.

Despite my problems, I have really enjoyed Knights of the Fallen Empire so far. The story and characters are, fortunately, strong enough to carry the whole experience. It’s just a shame that it needs to come at the expense of the actual game. Like the force, The Old Republic feels torn between the duality of telling a good story and delivering a great online experience. Sadly, Knights of the Fallen Empire accomplishes what it does by largely ignoring the latter. It’s a shame that Bioware can’t seem to better reconcile these two halves because, if this new story is any indication, The Old Republic has plenty of exciting frontiers to explore. I just hope that the game itself doesn’t become a mere vessel to allow for that exploration.

45 Comments

  1. Awesomeclaw says:

    I’ve recently come back to SWTOR and I’m really enjoying it. I’m trying to make my way through my current character’s class story so I probably won’t see the new content for a while but the new tweaks to the main game content make it much more playable – most of the grindy side quests have been grouped together and have much higher XP rewards, so you usually only have to play a couple of the (fairly well fleshed out and fully voice acted) side quests to keep up with the level requirements of the area you’re in.

    I’d agree that the main quests do feel kind of easy. The actual multiplayer content (‘heroic’ missions, dungeons, etc) can still be challenging if you’re playing it at the level it’s designed for, and there’s certainly a decent amount of it.

    I’m currently playing on The Red Eclipse, if anyone wants to group up!

  2. elminister says:

    Your conclusion is pretty spot on. Sadly, there is no new group content at all in this expansion (last time pvp got something new was almost 2 years ago, raids ~ 1 year and gsf?). Yea… I’m super suprised they are leaning towards sub model again. Do they really think that 45-60min chapters will keep people subbed? I for example will pay in June for all chapters (beyond 9). Maybe I’m wrong but I just don’t think one story will keep people entertained for long. Solid repeatable content on(?) stable cadence is what this game always lacked. Shame you didn’t finish chapter 9 – Alliance and companion stuff is grindy af.

  3. Malarious says:

    Every time I’ve tried to play TOR, I’ve found myself just really hating the MMO bits but loving the actual story. Unfortunately there’s hours of pointless, utterly boring combat between interesting story beats, so I never stuck with it.

    I genuinely believe TOR would be a much “better” game without any of the combat. If Bioware had just made a Telltale-style game set in the Star Wars universe…

    Otherwise, I’d be happy if they just cut out most of the combat and rolled it back to KOTOR 1/2 levels, where 20+ minutes without dialogue were the exception.

    • The Godzilla Hunter says:

      Yeah, same here. I played through the first few chapters of a Light Side Imperial Agent, and it was a total blast. It was really great playing as a character that was loyal to the Empire, but not necessarily to the Sith. Plus it managed to totally nail the pop spy fiction ‘feel’.

      Unfortunately, as the game went on, having to spend 1-3 hours of (to my tastes) super boring MMO questing for every 20 minutes of excellent Bioware story-time became too much.

      • Rizlar says:

        Hopefully the new patch to improve levelling has drastically reduced the grind. Got as far as Nar Shadda on an increasingly volatile imperial agent, was fun when not tedious.

    • Danarchist says:

      I have a couple friends that jump back in after every expansion. Myself I have gotten a number of characters to exactly level 45…then the leveling hits the point where you have to run repetitive missions and stand around shooting the same sets of bad guys. It just peters out at that point every time.
      I will have to give it another go eventually

      • garythehobo says:

        That was exactly what put me off when I first tried to get in, but the latest patch has really improved the levelling. I managed to get all the way to level 50 without doing anything other than the story missions, much faster and less frustrating than before.

    • Caelinus says:

      That in my opinion is the strongest part of this expansion. The speed at which you level now means that you can skip large portions of the boring, grindy quests and just stick to the story ones. While the combat is still pretty boring, it means that the amount of time you spend doing non story stuff is quite minimal.

      In one day and night of playing, I have gotten farther in my story than I did in 3 weeks at launch.

      • LexW1 says:

        Is that true for non-subscribers, or is that a subscriber-only thing?

        • USER47 says:

          XP changes are for all. Subs still get a bit more XP, so f2p might have to do some sidequest here and there, but still a big change from previous versions.

    • Jenks says:

      I always find myself really hating the MMO bits and also really hating the story.

  4. James says:

    I’ve always liked SWTOR, and it’s amazing how all the hate it seems to get melts when, as you’ve said, a quick dip into the story turns into a 4 hour binge.

    It’s interesting to not that the chief creative thing-doer, Jesse Sky, joined Bioware because of KOTOR and wanted to make KOTOR 3 – but was told to make an MMO. This seems to be his solution now that he seems to have acquired a bit more creative freedom. In a blog post on SWTOR’s website he described the MMO elements as a ‘pollutant’ to the story – which explains why it tries hard to make you forget you are playing online. Just fyi.

    • anHorse says:

      Almost all of TOR’s hate came from the rubbish business practices, as a game it’s pretty solid.

      Despite the complaints here it does the MMO side of story based MMO much better than The Secret World which is the other big candidate for “should’ve been singleplayer”

      • Jekadu says:

        The Secret World excels at story. The Old Republic excels at storytelling.

        Well, until now. The story is damn good here.

      • Premium User Badge

        Nathan says:

        Which rubbish business practices? There was plenty of hate before it went F2P.

        • Awesomeclaw says:

          I think the hate before it went F2P was because it was an MMORPG and people really wanted something more like a KOTOR3. The hate after it went F2P was mainly because they crippled the free experience (limited movement speed until level 10, reduced XP, can’t equip some gear, limited social options, limits to accessing dungeons and other multiplayer content, and lots more). Playing SWTOR as a free player is still a bad experience, but it’s not quite as bad as it used to be.

      • Jenks says:

        “Almost all of TOR’s hate came from the rubbish business practices, as a game it’s pretty solid.”

        Couldn’t possibly be further from reality

  5. Exxar says:

    What this article completely failed to mention is that the entirety of the old content has been made relevant again with the introduction of GW2-style planetary level scaling and making all instances available in the group finder from level 50.

    As someone who always hated it when old content was made completely obsolete upon the introduction of new, I couldn’t be more pleased with the expansion even without setting foot into the new story. While technically there’s still nothing else to do PvE-wise at level cap except the grind, the sheer amount of available content makes it much more interesting and fun.

  6. Xzi says:

    So…wait until someone releases all the cutscenes back-to-back on Youtube?

  7. Jekadu says:

    It’s rare for a piece to sum up my feelings about a game like this. Knights of the Fallen Empire is a brilliant story and I’ve found myself sucked into the game in a way I haven’t been for years, but it meshes poorly with the MMO foundations it’s built on.

    This seems to have been a carefully timed gamble by Bioware — invest tons of money into a major expansion that focuses on episodic storytelling just in time for the next Star Wars movie. I’m hoping it will pay off for them, because we have the foundations for true greatness here.

    Random thought about story so far: the biggest gut-punch for me as of chapter four is the letter that Mako sends you. NPCs send letters to me all the time after I complete missions, but her letter capped off years of story content in a very personal way. Damn it. All this pain and bitterness happened because I clicked the button to start the expansion content.

  8. teppic says:

    I’ve never played the game much but decided to start a new character the other day. I noticed that the quests have been streamlined a bit (fewer ‘kill 10 rats’ quests) and levelling is faster. While I’m not normally a fan of making games easier, it does mean that it concentrates more on the story, which after all is what the game is best known for.

    One thing that is off putting for me is how dated the engine is. Although the slight cartoon-style of the graphics help make it look ok, it’s all very clunky compared to some other MMOs.

  9. Myrdinn says:

    It’s such a shame this is a MMO, I loved the KotOR games and have recently replayed them both. But I reaaaally don’t like the basic gameplay formula’s of MMO’s… is there are a chance I might still dig this?

    • satan says:

      If you use a combination of xp boosts and bonus xp weekends you can get all the story with none of the grind… but yeah without them the neverending ‘kill 15 dudes’ quests can really wear you down.

      • satan says:

        Oh and rested/bonus xp, I used to have all the stories going on a rotation so that I’d always be playing a character in a rested state.

      • USER47 says:

        The 4.0 patch brought a big change into this actually. You can now level just by doing the class story and main planetary arcs, they reward you with enough XP to carry you through the leveling. The sidequests are now completely optional.

      • Zallgrin says:

        I really just need to stress that the grind has greatly lessened now and it’s far more pleasureable to level up new characters. I remember how painful and tedious my experience was before the patch, but now I’m sorta breezing through the levels and don’t run into the danger of getting underleveled. Thank god for that

        • satan says:

          Glad to hear about those changes, might have to check them out myself.

    • USER47 says:

      Don’t be afraid to give it a shot. It’s still MMO with all the weird stuff like enemies standing around in packs and not engaging you until you are few metres from them and so on, but it is a decent game, packing some good stories and once you get used to it, good gameplay systems as well.

  10. Golden Pantaloons says:

    I feel like they should have just made a new KOTOR game instead. I really don’t want to play a story-heavy videogame only to have a bunch of people with silly names stomp past me on some godawful epic store-bought mount while I’m trying to have a conversation with an NPC. I honestly can’t imagine anything more immersion-breaking.

    • USER47 says:

      I am pretty sure you don’t see other players during conversations with NPCs.

      • anHorse says:

        Yeah conversations are effectively triggered cutscenes.
        The NPCs work like normal mmo npcs outside of them, just standing there or doing a little walk

      • Caelinus says:

        And much of the important story happens in private instances anyway.

  11. Wulfram says:

    Why does the story not count as “the actual game”?

  12. Munin says:

    I love that TOR is still being worked on and that it is still alive. I really enjoyed the time I had in the game when I played around launch and a bit after. That was mostly due to some really solid story and RPG bits.

    That said it will be really sad that when the servers ultimately shut down all this really solid story and in many way coop at most rather than properly MMO content is going to die a death.

  13. bill says:

    The cinematic trailer for this was really rather good.
    Not gonna play an MMO though…

  14. Premium User Badge

    Kyrne says:

    I got as far as finishing the base Imperial Agent story, which i really enjoyed but haven’t played since then as i lost the authenticator tied to my account, and at the time i couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

    I have heard that the story elements in some of the expansions is actually quite good, so i might see if i can get back into my account (hopefully they don’t make it too difficult) and try this out.

  15. Hitchslapped says:

    This article made me take another look at this game and I was rather surprised and disappointed to see that there still isn’t a single additional class in this game.
    It’s been on the market for quite some time now and having 8 classes (or actually 4 classes mirrored for both sides) really isn’t that much.

    • Wulfram says:

      Given how much work there is in each class story, it’d be a lot of work to add a new one. Unless they made it more of a subclass, or had them start at 60 I guess.

      • Hitchslapped says:

        Well, I expect a little work for a game that still offers a subscription

        • USER47 says:

          It wouldn’t be a little work, adding another class story + class mechanick + balancing etc. would be massive undertaking.

          Also, they would probably need to do it twice, once for pub side, once for imp side to keep the faction balance.

        • USER47 says:

          Also, how expensive would be redoing all the voice acting for all the current quests? And it wouldn’t be just player character, even NPCs would need new lines since even most sidequest givers have lines tied to current classes – like “greetings, jedi”, “hello captain”, “ah, nice to see havoc squad” etc. All of these would need to create another set of lines. The cost of base game was already enormous because of these things, and adding another classes (or 2) in a similar style to those 4 (8) original would be extremely expensive.

          • Hitchslapped says:

            That’s why you think about stuff like that during the original development phase and have the voice actors record another line or two for possible classes.

          • Caelinus says:

            I do not think they are usually in the business in spending a ton of money on content that may or may not ever be used.

            I could see them adding new subclasses, (So like Consulers can become Shadows, Sages and ???) But the amount of work to create a brand new story thread would be prohibitive. They already have 8 different stories they need to maintain and update. Adding more now also adds more work in the future.

  16. Philopoemen says:

    I got the early-access on Wednesday, and in a day leveled my old toon to 65 without nary a thought. But I like the way that your decisions are brought about. Playing as LS character I made a decidedly DS choice, and NPCs kept telling me they expected me to do something else.

    But once you reach the end of Chapter IX, and you start the Alliance building quests…thats when all the MMO chicanery starts raising it’s ugly head…including PvP to unlock characters, “trophy” hunts to unlock characters etc etc. It’s not excessive, but it’s the sneaky way they’re going to suck all these new people in.

    The main issue is the engine though – it was old when TOR started, and they just keep bootstrapping more onto it. There’s licensing and such involved though, so the hands may be tied.

  17. vahnn says:

    When you say their personal stuff comes up at the worst times, does that mean in the standard swtor way where you get a quest and can come back to it whenever you feel like it? Or is there some new feature wherein you have to choose between helping them out with their thing or completing stuff critical to the story?