SWTOR: Rise of the Hutt Cartel Review in Progress
I finished up the main storyline of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion early Sunday morning, and while no credits rolled at the crucial moment, I was treated to a decent cinematic explaining how my Jedi was the most amazing dude in the galaxy. I’d beaten all the bad guys. I’d saved millions of lives. And yet I was still only level 53.
In other words, I still had a level and a half left to go. So much for closure. Such a wide gap between the story content and the level cap is rare in an MMORPG storyline, and you can’t say that I haven’t put my heart into the existing content. I’ve finished every main story quest on the new planet of Makeb, I’ve completed the first major sections of the off-world stories involving the new seeker droids and macrobinoculars, and I’ve finished daily quests as I’d encountered them. And yet, after all that, it seems I’ll either have to grind dailies or PvP battlegrounds to finish up to drive to 55.
And to think, that gap could have been far wider. I’d jumped into the expansion as a “Preferred” player – a status bestowed upon you just for ordering the expansion – and I thus dusted off my Jedi Guardian with the noble intention of attempting to play and review RotHC without a subscription. I lasted halfway through level 50. It only took that long before the restricted UI began to gnaw at me, and the almost imperceptible movements of my experience bar in the utter absence of rested XP bonuses were intolerable. And so I caved and bought a $15 one-month subscription. Sorry, team – trust me, it’s just better that way. Indeed, the pacing seems designed to reward players who’ve maintained a subscription for at least the last month, as I’ve heard from several devoted subscribers that their stockpile of rested XP allowed the story content to take them all the way to 55.
The experience reminded me of the limitations of SWTOR’s cash shop. I’d already used to it to buy items that boosted my experience gains by 25% for three hours, but most other conveniences aside from travel remained locked behind the subscription wall. The comparatively limited selection reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed the model used in Lord of the Rings Online during my Riders of Rohan playthrough, where I was able to buy rested experience with the premium currency when I ran out of it. And importantly, I did. BioWare seems to underestimate just how much people will spend on cash shop leveling boosts, even if it’s ultimately impractical when compared to a subscription.
I suspect this wide gap between the story content and the level cap will vanish as BioWare releases new patches in the coming weeks and months. Even so, I can’t help but feel that I could make a stab at writing a full review right now and I wouldn’t be missing much. All that really remains to be explored is the new Legions of Scum and Villainy raid(or, in SWTOR parlance, an operation), and considering that my guild took the escape pods from the game long ago, I suspect my experience with it may be limited to the easier story difficulty. New hard modes for existing flashpoints (aka dungeons) add replayability to the package, but I still frown upon BioWare’s release of Rise of the Hutt Cartel without a completely new flashpoint.
All that said, I’ve had a good time so far, although that fun had much less to do with the social objectives that should lie at the heart of any MMORPG and more with the exploration and storytelling you’d expect from a single player game. Makeb, for one, is a stunningly beautiful world, composed of sprawling verdant “mesas” that sprout from an unseen surface far below the action, and the outcroppings and twisty paths allow for greater moments of discovery than a more open world would have provided. It’s a strong candidate for the game’s single best planet for aesthetics alone, and the textures and architecture reveal clear attention given to player complaints that the classic game looked out of date. It’s huge, too, with a total area that makes Hoth feel like a cramped Manhattan apartment, but it also reveals that BioWare’s learned how to handle that space. Here, quests flow smartly from one to another and Makeb’s content-packed landscapes avoid the core game’s pointless stretches of nothingness.
It also helps that none of its zones are particularly large, but there are a whopping 17 flightpaths for the Republic side alone that each roughly correspond to a separate zone. Even if it’s smoke and mirrors, the act of shuttling from mesa to mesa at least gives the impression that we’re exploring an entire world rather than an isolated chunk. If it fails, it’s only in that – for all Makeb’s beauty – each new area feels similar to the last. You won’t find the colossal thematic shifts between zones here that you find in, say, the transition from the Jade Forest to Kun-Lai Summit in World of Warcraft’s latest expansion. Indeed, the planetary framework leaves the whole expansion feeling like just another stop on the leveling process, rather than the first new steps into a bold new adventure that’s unlike any we’ve seen so far.
But that’s enough for now. Our review proper will be up in a couple of days, where I’ll talk about my experiences with the flashpoints and operations as well as the all-important storyline.
Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in MMORPGs and real-world archery. Follow him on Twitter at @leifjohnson.
By Leif Johnson