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.