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Plugged In

Critics: Despite technical issues, the Force is with “The Old Republic”

Plugged In

For Star Wars fans, Christmas is coming a few days early this year.

Click to check out more screenshots!

Heavily-anticipated online game 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' has arrived, and even in the season of eggnog, fruit-cake, and gingerbread, it's boasting a heady recipe: the experience of legendary role-playing game studio Bioware, the massively-multiplayer gameplay of hits like 'World of Warcraft', and a Death Star-scale brand to back it all up.

But this sort of game is a new direction for Bioware, and not one without risks -- online RPGs are difficult to get right, and players are notoriously nit-picky. According to analyst reports, production costs for 'The Old Republic' were in the region of $100 million. That's enough to scare a Hutt.

If developing a game of this magnitude is a Herculean task, providing a critical assessment of it is just as daunting. Consequently, most writers are delaying their reviews until they (and the public) have had a chance to really sink their fangs, Rancor-like, into the meat of the game. Even so, one or two have bitten off enough to pass on their early thoughts -- and the word, so far, is encouraging.

Kotaku's Michael Fahey sums up the game's appeal in words that'll make many eyes light up with glee, calling it "eight different single-player Bioware Star Wars stories rolled up into one."

And he's clearly well invested in his particular tale.

"My Smuggler," he writes, "has developed an intense rivalry with a rival operator. I hate this bastard, and can't wait to see how he gets his final comeuppance at the end of the storyline. Consider me emotionally engaged."

Although Kotaku's full review will take another month or so, and Fahey notes some problems with polish and balance, he's still prepared to recommend fans sign on...at least for the game's fee-free trial period.

He's not the only one who's pleased with the game. Dubbing it "impressive," "easy to play," and "the most promising new MMORPG since World of Warcraft," Venturebeat's Heinrich Lenhardt is also thrilled with the way Bioware has applied its decades of tale-spinning expertise to the online genre. But he's a little more lukewarm on the game's combat system and character progression, which stick close to market leader 'World of Warcraft'; they're "conservative almost to a fault," he says.

Not surprising, considering the fate of the last Star Wars MMO, 'Galaxies', which boasted a bolder design but ended up one of the first major online worlds to crash and burn. Lenhardt's verdict after about 40 hours of play is an 89/100, although it comes with the proviso that EA needs to keep new content flowing to justify the game's $15 monthly fee.

Convinced? If you'll forgive us getting all Obi-Wan for a moment, here's a word of caution for would-be padawans: if you're planning on putting in some serious hours over the next week or two, work on your Jedi mind-calming techniques. Players with early access reported frustrating wait times and heavily congested servers, among other problems, and with this week's massive influx of new players it's likely to get worse before it gets better.

Will that matter once you're safely logged on and roaming the galaxy in your own starship, lightsaber at your side? It didn't matter for 'World of Warcraft', which shook off months of server issues to become by far the most successful online world ever made. As to whether the Force is that strong with 'The Old Republic', only time will tell.

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