It took four years and three major story expansions for me to fully grasp the tragedy of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
It would be easy to look at “Knights of the Fallen Empire”, the latest of the expansions, and say this is what this game should have always been and just be happy about that. And I am happy about that. But I’m also frustrated because of what we had to go through to get here, as well as how my satisfaction is in no small part informed by how low my expectations were for this game because I lived through all of it.
Developer BioWare, the same studio behind things like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, always claimed SWTOR to be a true good-faith attempt at meaningful storytelling in this type of “massively multiplayer online” game, but the MMO stuff and the story stuff never lived in peace together (a common problem in the genre, which includes massive games like World of Warcraft). BioWare’s solution with “Knights of the Fallen Empire”, finally, seems to be that they said “Screw it, we’re just going to make this as much like a standard solo role-playing game as possible.”
The core story in “Fallen Empire”, which is told over nine chapters (with seven more still to come), is almost perfectly linear and for the most part a series of dungeon crawls without irrelevant side quests to distract you.
It has far and away the best and most involved cutscenes we’ve ever seen in SWTOR—whereas in the past much has been left to the imagination, now we have the same sort of complex dialogue and scenes that we would find in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. The result is better storytelling and a much more immediately exciting Star Wars experience than we’ve come to expect.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
The break from the SWTOR norm goes beyond just that broad structure. Though not literally a sequel to the game’s earlier events and previous expansions, “Knights of the “Fallen Empire” certainly functions as such.
"Fallen Empire” begins in a way that is going to be familiar to longtime SWTOR players: a dangerous third party interrupts the galaxy-wide war between the Republic and the Sith Empire (all of which is taking place a whopping 3,600 years prior to the movies), and you have to fight them. The twist is that instead of thwarting their plans, you get captured and frozen in carbonite for five years and wake up to find that the Eternal Empire of Zakuul is now the boss of everyone. You go on the run, slowly gathering a ragtag band of allies and eventually fomenting a full-scale revolution—though how that plays out will remain unknown.
What I thought coming into the expansion would be a bit of a tired retread instead works as a nice hard left turn because of the specifics: the Eternal Empire is a society that was completely separate from that which we’re most familiar with, and while they have many Force users who wield lightsabers they claim to have no concept of the light and dark sides of the Force. To them the Force is just a tool, nothing more. While it’s always jarring when something so far outside the Star Wars status quo enters the fray, that contrast, when done well, is also super interesting. Thus far, this is that.
"Fallen Empire” also introduces a wild card of sorts: the Sith Emperor, last seen apparently trying to genocide everyone in the galaxy in a bid for godhood, is responsible for the rise of this Eternal Empire. He claims that while his Sith minions were ravaging the known galaxy in a decades-long war with the Republic, his true focus was always on Zakuul. Throughout the "Fallen Empire” story, The Emperor follows you around (as a ghost), offering to share his immense power, and it comes off similar to Jesus’s 40-day stint in the desert, where the devil tried to tempt him. We don’t know what he’s really getting at here, but given all the horrific shit he’s done in the past it’s probably something very bad and we should not trust him.
Further emphasizing the left turn into sequelville is that while you’re in carbonite, your old pals have scattered to the wind (reminiscent of past BioWare game Mass Effect 2). In normal BioWare fashion, SWTOR gave each of the eight players characters a group of five crew members who would accompany you on your adventures, but that slate is wiped clean here in favor of a new selection, most of whom are at least familiar faces. And while your old companions may not be with you anymore, they are still around.
To fully cement the sequelization at play here, BioWare has made it so that players can make a new character that starts at level 60 and can begin the expansion story without having to swim through everything that came before—though as with any sequel that may not be advisable if you want a firmer grasp of what’s going on around you.
All of these shifts, plus a number of other quality-of-life enhancements that make the game generally less irritating, are great. It’s a meaningful refresh of a game that badly needed it. And it’s not as if this expansion is devoid of all the unfortunate tropes that come in most MMOs. "Fallen Empire” just compartmentalizes them in the interlude portion. After getting through the linear story, you’re dropped into a more open-ended multiplayer-focused section full of activities and group dungeons of the sort you’d normally expect from an MMO.
THE REAL TRAGEDY
Some people wanted a Star Wars MMO, absolutely. Some people also wanted just a new single-player BioWare Star Wars game, like Bioware’s own now-classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, to which SWTOR is a successor of sorts. What nobody really wanted was those two things to be the same game. But they were, and this is the wagon BioWare is hitched to.
“Knights of the Fallen Empire” may be the best way to do this within the constraints of SWTOR, but it’s still a salvage job that very clearly would be better outside those constraints. Being sequestered behind a subscription fee as well (only the original main game story content in SWTOR is free-to-play) only further illustrates that point.
Right now I feel like this is the first time, in my troubling four-year obsession with this game, I can sincerely recommend that my friends who just want to play a story-focused Star Wars game should try SWTOR. But as a person who has wallowed in that virtual world for so long, my perspective is skewed. “Knights of the Fallen Empire” and its accompanying 4.0 update make SWTOR far easier to consume, and it’s the best the game has ever been, but I still don’t know if that means it’s actually good now.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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