I really enjoy not playing with anyone else in Star Wars: The Old Republic, which seems like a horrible thing to say given it’s a massively-multiplayer online game, but it’s what I’ve always done. It’s not that I hate other people, or that I’m zealously role-playing a Sith Lord who hates people (though I am a Sith Lord who hates people), it’s just I want to be the only hero in my Star Wars story, thank you. Everyone else can chuff off, and I love that Star Wars: The Old Republic gets that.
SWTOR has always understood a good chunk of people want to play it because they want a Knights of the Old Republic experience, not because they’re mad keen on grouping up with a load of strangers. That is why SWTOR has always included long, winding storylines for each character class right from the beginning of the game. Single-player story experiences within a massively multiplayer world – a kind of dual-aspect game. And these single-player segments are voiced, have cutscenes and dialogue choices, companions and romances. They were impressive at launch in 2011 and are even more so now.
They really took off in recent expansions Knights of the Fallen Empire (2015) and Knights of the Eternal Throne (2016). They told a combined story of an immortal Sith Lord called Valkorion, and his lackeys, who inevitably needed stopping. Valkorion remains one of the best Star Wars baddies I’ve come across and I’m saying this as someone who’s plunged into a few of the books as well as the games and films. He’s nuanced, incredibly powerful and he takes the story to places much deeper than simply evil you need to cauterise with your lightsaber. I wrote more about both Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne when they came out. In some respects they’re really good, a lot like playing independent games in their own right.
Nevertheless, those expansions were four years ago and I haven’t played since. Then I saw the game finally appear on Steam last week and got excited and reinstalled. In practice all Steam does is download the launcher for you and allow you to play through it. You still need a separate (and free) SWTOR account to log in. Doesn’t that mean it adds a layer of fuss rather than take one away? Regardless, it was a moment and I thought I’d capitalise on it.
I was dreading it a little bit, to be honest, because when I logged back into World of Warcraft after a long time away, I had an uphill battle trying to relearn what felt like a very different game. The same wasn’t true of SWTOR. To my delight, I was off on a new single-player story within moments of firing up the game. I just pressed ‘launch’ in the journal and I picked up seamlessly where I left off, as the person in charge of the Eternal Throne and its armada, a faction leader brokering alliances with the Imperial Empire and the Republic, not some rookie trying to rise within the ranks of them.
Everything I needed to remember about how to play came back to me on the job. I didn’t need to refamiliarise before heading out because the companions the SWTOR story gives you heal so powerfully it’s almost impossible to die. It was like this in the previous expansions. In story mode, SWTOR is a breeze. You can saunter through a grandiose story for hours without ever bumping into another player, only ever setting foot in a public area to run through it, to the green-hued barrier signalling the entrance to your own instanced personal world, your own Star Wars. In reality you might be a newcomer in a wider community but the most you’ll ever see of it is when stopping to inspect people as you trot through, like dogs in a park.
I love how agreeable SWTOR is about me playing like this, and how easy it is to pick up again and play. It makes me wonder why EA and BioWare haven’t seriously considered taking it to consoles. They once said SWTOR represented KOTOR 3, 4, 5 and beyond because it had so much story in it, a marketing line no one ever swallowed, but now I look at it and the depth some of the story goes to, I think maybe they were onto something. I’d love to experience that from the comfort of my sofa, breezing through another character class’ story from start to finish, maybe a goodie this time, although I feel a bit sick even considering it. If people can modify World of Warcraft to look like a surprisingly appealing controller experience, I bet someone can do something similar for SWTOR. Maybe it would even go some way towards scratching the itch for a new KOTOR game we will probably never get (come on EA, make my wish come true!).
But as convincing as it can be as a single-player experience, SWTOR will still never be one, not fully, because mechanically and philosophically it is multiplayer, and the big creaky persistent world it lives in is what holds it back. The hotbar combat is generally dull and so are the encounters you’ll face. There’s only so many ways BioWare can dress it up to look more interesting than it really is. But it’s not bad, not bad at all. And as much as I see the flaws while I play, I can’t seem to stop playing either. SWTOR feels like Star Wars and sounds like Star Wars, and I’m the pantomime villain in my own personal Star Wars story, earning Dark Side points with every ridiculously overtly evil suggestion I make. Squint and it’s KOTOR, and I think it’s about time to admit I like it.