Edited to Add: This article has been corrected. Thankfully Vette’s shock collar cannot be used to make her love your male character.
Bioware’s The Old Republic has been released to much fanfare and a blitz of publicity, becoming a surprisingly ubiquitous presence in bus shelters and subway adverts, promising the beginning of “Your Saga” on its release date. With a million subscriptions at this point, at least according to EA, The Old Republic is one of the most popular Western MMOs since the release of WoW.
Reviewing it, like reviewing any MMO, is an undertaking that is necessarily caveated; MMOs, in their very structure, are long games that are unending and built to evolve. MMOs are O. Henry’s New York: “it’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.” Reviews of such are thus works-in-eternal-progress as well. With this in mind, I have to say that I am both deeply enticed by this game, concerned about it, and somewhat hopeful for it. In terms of the game’s gender politics, there are a couple of glaring issues, and a lot of small ones– if there is a theme for the game’s gender problems it’s more a “death by a thousand cuts” situation rather than one that beats you over the head with rank misogyny. Gameplay is smooth, and the MMO presents a polished, even refined title whose cleanness is impressive in a game released just two weeks ago. Despite being a clear WoW clone, it also has several distinctions that go well beyond being mere gimmicks.
TOR is best understood as a game of contrasts, polarities as sharp as the Light/Dark side dyad that its narrative so rigidly adheres to.
Let’s begin with gender.
A Thousand Cuts
True to Knights of the Old Republic and Bioware fashion, women are shown here in a variety of roles: smugglers, senators, spies, assassins, soldiers, officers, police officers, Jedi, Sith, and so on. Satele Shan, descendant of Bastila (a favourite Jedi character of mine from the first KoTOR game) is not only a prominent figure, but is the Grandmaster of the Jedi Order. On the surface we find nominal equality; most of the outfits in the game are fairly gender-neutral and do not suddenly reveal lots of skin when worn on a woman (there are a small number of exceptions I’ve observed thusfar).
Character customisation is also fascinating- you can actually select your body type. From waif, to curvy, to tall and huskily built with muscles, women are given a wider range of body types to choose from than we normally find in such games. Men, similarly, can be skinnier and lither than I’ve often seen them in any video game, another applaudable first for players of male characters who prefer to not be built like a house.
But it is here where the downsides begin, as well. “Curvy” is as far as the slider allows you to go as a woman, while men can cultivate more prodigious girth. Beyond this, we find a range of problems in portrayal of a small sort that begin to add up. As an Imperial Agent you encounter a man who threatens to blow your cover. There are a few ways you can deal with him but one is distinctly gendered- a man Agent can threaten or intimidate him, but if you’re a woman Agent that option is replaced by flirtation/sleeping with him. Meanwhile, Sith Warriors get a companion, Vette, a former slave who comes complete with a shock collar. You can actually use the shock collar to break her. (In a prior version of this article I had said that you could actually shock her into “loving” your character; mercifully this turned out to be untrue and I have since corrected the matter.) To my knowledge this is not possible with male companions- although male slaves do abound in the game as well. The treatment of Twi’lek women- who are most visible in TOR as scantily clad dancers and titillating holograms or neon ads- in Star Wars is a rather interesting topic for another time.
In my article “The Twenty Millennia Decade” I discussed Star Wars’ unnerving tendency to default to inexplicable patriarchy. TOR persists in this. As a woman Republic Trooper you find people stunned to find a woman in such a position; you can tell them off quite successfully but the fact that this is even positioned as remarkable is very questionable. Yet again we’re talking about a high civilisation, cosmopolitan in the extreme, with many millennia of history. But it’s still exceptional for a woman to be a soldier?
What Bioware actually excels in is presenting a very proto-feminist vision of women’s participation in society where we are shown to be potentially competent at everything but still somewhat tokenised, still just so happening to be fewer in number than our male counterparts. Bioware is good at providing a few feel-good storylines where your woman character or some NPCs overcome misogyny. Wonderful,yes, and I approve of that. But there is a greater issue beyond this: why is the first principle of presumptive patriarchy itself never questioned?
On a related note, this was the game, one should recall, that a Bioware representative once infamously remarked “had no gays.” This remains borne out. Just as you see in Skyrim, where heterosexuality is completely universal, TOR presents not even one queer relationship, implied or otherwise. For the player, queer relationships have been promised in a future patch, via new companions, but this again feels tokenising. There is no reason the existing companions cannot be queer. Bioware is often lauded, with some justice, as a progressive developer. But this is as much a function of how terrible other developers are as it is a function of Bioware’s own innate liberalism.
People of colour are portrayed well enough, and visibly, and women of colour are included in this- as companions as well as other NPCs. Further, I would even go so far as to say that sex work is portrayed in a somewhat more realistic way here. One quest on Coruscant has you helping a woman who chose to do sex work escape a jealous and abusive boyfriend. But again, presumed patriarchy, etc. etc. The portrayal of women in this game is, overall, reasonably positive if undermined by periodic nonsense that can- depending on how you feel about these things- add up over time. Woman is a way of being human here, except they are straining against an unmarked patriarchy.
Attack of the Clone
Right down to Force spells, rotations, and general feel, this game is a clear analogue of WoW, more than any other MMO I’ve played– which is saying a fair bit as most tend to hew close to the market leader’s form these days. This is not necessarily a demerit, however. WoW’s structure is, in some ways, worth emulating and building on. I have, for now, found it to be a familiar and welcoming style of gameplay that- at last- gives me access to a KotOR with real time combat. I love the play style of my Jedi Consular, the lore that surrounds the class, and the specialisation system that gives each class a wide array of play styles.
If the class abilities and general rhythm of the game (go out, quest, loot, turn in quests, sell swag on the auction house and do crafting) mirror WoW to a T, what TOR is proving to excel at is building on this structure in a few interesting ways. In addition to pantomiming WoW’s successes, it also borrows something brilliant from Lord of the Rings Online: a main quest storyline. Unlike LoTRO, however, the main quest is different for each class. Divided into “Acts,” this storyline system deepens LotRO’s innovation and gives each class a truly unique feel that, in my mind at least, provides a springboard for roleplaying.
Class quests are a double edged sword in this regard. For RP purposes it can be hard to sustain the self-aggrandising plot points in each quest. My Jedi Consular is the only Jedi in the galaxy with a certain power- well, her and every other Consular. On the other hand, used creatively the quests can still lend structure to a dedicated RPer’s character, and can also help situate them in the Old Republic world.
Others have commented that TOR is WoW-meets-Knights of the Old Republic. A WoW-like questing/levelling structure with a KoTOR-like dialogue and morality system. This is, so far as I have seen, very true. On a personal level, I like it. It provides depth, and in borrowing from Bioware’s own pioneering Mass Effect dialogue system, it gives a voice to your character. But it also gives a voice to the game itself, a distinct vibe that takes it past its predecessors and comprises the best example of Bioware’s unique imprint.
Furthermore, companions- in addition to being fleshed out characters- are the nexus of crafting, in a wonderfully innovative system that lends much needed texture and granularity to that WoW-rhythm. While I’m doing game-related chores, I can send my companion off on some mission for a small sum of credits that fetches crafting materials of some kind and raises my crafting skills. The crafts themselves- riotously diverse, from Archaeology to Diplomacy to Underworld Trading- provide players with amusing little diversions and multiple paths to crafted goods. Each player also gets their own spaceship, and I credit the developers with giving each (they are apportioned by class, again) a unique and creative feel.
In the spirit of the game’s contradictions, it is a painfully obvious clone of WoW, but one that then distinguishes itself: not just from WoW, but from every other MMO I’ve seen thusfar. The spaceship, related space combat quests, companion system, and even ‘small’ details like the beauty of the Galaxy Map aboard your ship set to a lovely orchestral theme, the dialogue system, all serve to not only distinguish TOR from its competitors but positively create an atmosphere that can be said to be distinctly TOR. The game has a lot of potential to make its own unique je ne sais quois, an issue many MMOs struggle with. When I did my first space mission, adapting to admittedly loose controls, I felt I’d finally found where The Old Republic truly stands. It touches that precious commodity of uniqueness and holds tight here.
But there is one area where I wish TOR had imitated WoW more assiduously: space. World of Warcraft presents a contiguous world where not every square inch of space is given over to questing and combat. There are lovely little areas that seem almost made for roleplay, that are designed purely for the beauty of it, to lend verisimilitude and breathing space to the world. TOR, thusfar, lacks these. It continues the tradition of making city-worlds like Coruscant feel maddeningly small. TOR is highly utilitarian when it comes to space, providing a small staging area that foregrounds a field of enemies overpopulating space where other kinds of social interaction could occur.
I should emphasise, however, that it is nowhere near as bad as Warhammer was in this respect, with practically the only settlements worth speaking of being the capitals of each faction. TOR does at least have some places to sit down, as it were, and your spaceship itself could be the setting of any number of personally-driven adventures.
It will be interesting to observe, over time, what players will make of their space here in the Star Wars galaxy. Haunts appear to be emerging on the Republic/Imperial fleets- beautifully designed midway points on your intergalactic travel- where there seems to be more room for social space. The spaceports are also breathtaking: it’s hard not to imagine Taris’s eventually hosting more than one guild event.
On the question of beauty, the game can often be breathtaking. It’s just a pity more of it isn’t given to the players’ whims- roleplay and otherwise. But can the game, nevertheless, do a better job of encouraging RP than World of Warcraft or Warhammer? It has that potential, not least in regards to the fact that the class quests provide an excellent skeleton from which you can build a character and a backstory. This marks an intriguing trend in MMOs that I will be discussing more thoroughly in regards to Guild Wars 2: giving your character an actual character via the game design itself. This development heralds, I think, the desire to take the “RP” in MMORPG more seriously than we’ve yet seen. I can hardly say I disapprove.
If nothing else, it provides that much more opportunity for me to be the character I want to see in games like this. Can these new innovations in class-based storylines provide players with more avenues of RP-based resistance? I’m excited to try and find out.
This is, if nothing else, a well oiled, well-functioning game that betrays stunningly few bugs and technical flaws. A remarkable achievement so soon out the gate. The gameplay can become grindy and repetitive, and too much space is lent to level-appropriate combat zones. But the game retains the promise contained in all KotOR games: capturing the spirit of Star Wars in a way George Lucas no longer seems able to. TOR provides, from the start, a fun experience that- so long as one does not completely hate the WoW/EQ structure- should provide at least some worthy diversion. Does it have staying power? It’s too early to say. It may yet degenerate into an overly-expanded raiding game, but for now at least the game seems to have a bright future.
What continues to bother me the most in this polished behemoth is the way gender is portrayed in various, small ways. They come close to realising a post-patriarchal gender order, but ultimately seem to opt for a cliched pantomime of our own world. It’s rather unbecoming of a game like The Old Republic, the sweep of whose ambition is as vast as the galaxy it’s set in. Indeed, TOR represents one of the most significant contenders in the MMO-scape to date, and knowing that such games are built to grow it makes TOR’s present, fairly well polished state all the more impressive. It is my hope that it only becomes moreso, and that it takes women and queer people onwards and upwards with it.