So, here we are: it's now officially 2012, Star Wars: The Old Republic has now officially launched, and early reports suggest that EA's last-ditch attempt at a blockbuster MMO is off to a solid start. Of course, whether 1 million registered players is enough to justify the unspecified but obviously vast amount of money invested in its creation is open to question, and we don't expect a definitive answer in the near future.
Right now, the only thing that can be definitively said about The Old Republic is that the critics seem to be enjoying the experience, though not quite in the way they expected. After several years of slow-burning hype around what Bioware's RPG experience could bring to the stagnating MMO formula, it seems that The Old Republic is far more traditional than many had hoped.
The character classes, combat gameplay and mission design will be familiar to anyone with first-hand experience of World of Warcraft, and Bioware has included all of the game-types and play-styles expected of a modern MMO. The execution is solid throughout, if unremarkable in places, though the specific areas The Old Republic excels and falls short varies from critic to critic.
The point is that this is a huge game even by MMO standards. The Old Republic's dozens of constituent parts offer enough variety to satisfy and frustrate gamers of all tastes, but no more or less than in WoW or other, less successful competitors. Ultimately, The Old Republic's unique strengths lie with the pedigree of its developer and the strength of its license, and in these areas a consensus opinion is easier to define.
The Guardian's Mike Anderiesz is full of praise for how well The Old Republic captures the look, feel and general atmosphere of Star Wars, therefore satisfying a significant number of its early subscribers.
Being the centre of the universe in a personalized, branching narrative weaves a strong sense of meaning and purpose into everything you do in the game
Josh Augustine, PC Gamer
"If it's Star Wars that brought you here (and that surely accounts for a hefty chunk of SWTOR's initial audience) then you'll be mightily pleased with your destination," he writes in his 4 star review. "Bioware is clearly committed to ensuring that this is Star Wars in cyberspace - from the glossy production values to the enormous cast of characters, cultures and technologies to the pretentious but excellently delivered dialogue."
"The graphics are occasionally stunning - with long draw distances rendering outdoor and space locations particularly effective and, so far, relatively lag and glitch free - an achievement in itself for most MMOs."
Key to this is the widely discussed solo storyline, in which Bioware brings its skill with single-player RPGs to bear on the MMO. The story quests are bracketed by fully animated and voiced cut-scenes, complete with a conversation wheel and branching dialogue. The sheer volume of content across the eight storylines - one for each character class - is so great that the quality of the cut-scenes and dialogue is variable, but given that The Old Republic is the only MMO to approach its narrative in this way, even the lows are at least unique.
PC Gamer's Josh Augustine, who awards the game 93 per cent, highlights a pair of subtle knock-on effects of introducing the Bioware story formula. First, the persistence of the world takes away the option of reloading old saves, so in The Old Republic you're forced to live with your mistakes and the consequences of poor choices.
"It's an unexpected tool that Bioware uses to leverage player emotion and create some of the most engaging, moving story moments I've ever played in an RPG - moments that are light-years beyond what we've seen in MMOs so far."
The other unexpected facet of The Old Republic's more developed story is the focus of the quests. Instead of quests starting and resolving purely based on the problems and desires of NPCs, here there is a greater sense that your character is driving the experience forward.
"You have a story in The Old Republic and all of your adventures revolve around it: you go places because you have business to take care of there. It may seem like a modest difference, but being the centre of the universe in a personalized, branching narrative weaves a strong sense of meaning and purpose into everything you do in the game."
Augustine also praises Bioware for making sure that it's simple and satisfying to play with friends - particularly the "mind-blowing" holo-call function, which lets you drop into your group's conversations from anywhere on a given planet, allowing you to explore different parts of the map while constantly remaining connected.
However, one of the key strengths of The Old Republic is that you don't have to play with other people. Instead, Bioware has created a wide selection of companion characters that add a new aspect to both the story and combat: you can win favour with each companion based on your actions, your conversations with them, and by giving gifts; in battle, a companion character allows you to add new skills and weapons to your armoury without the need to commit your character in a new direction.
"This may not be new for Bioware RPGs," Augustine writes, "but it's one of the most innovative and successful elements of The Old Republic as an MMO, providing you with an ever-present audience that reacts to and reflects your choices, via dialog and affection/romance options."
"Each class recruits different companions, each with their own unique quirk and backstory. As a level 35 Imperial Agent, I've gathered a violent anarchist, a grovelling robot, a diplomat who's merged with the hive mind of an insectoid species, and a doctor who can transform into a space werewolf at will."
Eurogamer's Oli Welsh is markedly less impressed by the addition of companions. In his 8 out of 10 review, Welsh describes them as "immersion-breaking" for an online game, and emblematic of a lack of understanding of the social aspect vital to any good MMO.
"I don't like seeing other players of my class running around with the same companion, and I feel these dogged animatronic servants devalue the presence of real friends and strangers in the world. Being with someone else isn't as special if you're never alone, and no amount of Social Points is going to make up for that."
The writing is flat, the staging and animation of the lengthy conversations is very basic and the subject matter is often dry, adult, cynical or plain boring
Oli Welsh, Eurogamer
Welsh acknowledges that this is a "philosophical objection" (a.k.a., a matter of opinion), but he isn't short of other problems. Indeed, his disappointment with the addition of Bioware's storytelling techniques and moral choices - the one area he sees The Old Republic departing significantly from World of Warcraft's template - is notably mixed.
"A single-player Bioware RPG has been bolted on to this stolid MMO template, with a typical focus on stories led by players' conversation choices. It's incongruous and clumsy, but not entirely unsuccessful."
"Unfortunately, the sheer volume of content Bioware has had to produce to tell these eight stories takes its toll, along with the studio's mechanical approach to human interaction. The writing is flat, the staging and animation of the lengthy conversations is very basic and the subject matter is often dry, adult, cynical or plain boring - all of which feel more appropriate to the sterile politics of one of Bioware's own universes than the high adventure of Star Wars."
"The game's light side/dark side morality is reductive and poorly handled, too. Interesting dilemmas are far outweighed by spoon-fed posturing that has no impact, and because rewards are unlocked for consistent light or dark side play, you're encouraged to game the system rather than go with your gut."
Eurogamer's review offers the impression of an MMO that easily passes muster in every way you'd expect, and falls short in the areas that make it distinct. Was EA expecting perfect 10s across the board? Perhaps not, and very few critics have seen fit to award one, but it was certainly hoping for more than damnation through the faintest of praise.
"Star Wars: The Old Republic is overwhelmingly competent [as an MMO]," Welsh concludes. "A studious and careful piece of work that rarely puts a foot wrong in imitating the best of the rest, and that just about manages to smooth the join between its ostensibly mismatched solo and multiplayer components. It offers a deep well of content, a spread of fun activities and a reliable service for as long as you want to explore its multiple storylines."
Yet Eurogamer asks the most relevant question of all. Regardless of the differences between critic A and critic B's opinions of its matchmaking features, The Old Republic is very much of a piece with what MMOs currently are, and therefore what they have been for the last decade or more. Does the fact that WoW's subscriber numbers are falling indicate a growing sense of fatigue for that formula? It seems that EA has bet big in the hope that it doesn't.
"Under the surface and behind all that talk, The Old Republic is just that, old: a deeply traditional framework for an online game that is in dire need of a refresh and is currently struggling to sustain WOW. It's well placed for success right now, but it might not be long before The Old Republic finds itself just as vulnerable as its inspiration to a hungry breed of more innovative games."