Note: This review has been written after playing through all of the currently available chapters (I-IX) and several hours with the Alliance end-game content. It’s intended as a review of the state of Star Wars the Old Republic’s Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion at launch. As I’ll still be playing the game over the next few weeks, exploring the story on different characters and playing every bit of end-game content, I’ll pop back here and update the review if anything changes my opinion in any way.
Promised as an ambitious new beginning for Star Wars the Old Republic, Knights of the Fallen Empire is the follow-up to last year’s Shadow of Revan expansion pack for the now 4-year-old story-driven Star Wars MMO, and Knights of the Old Republic sequel.
Yes, that was a lot of game titles for an opening sentence, but it’s important to note all of them as Fallen Empire is best understood as an evolution of what’s come before it, not just in SWTOR itself, but of Bioware’s other games too. Pulling from years of experience Bioware have crafted a game that attempts to put all of their successes into a Star Wars shaped package.
Last year’s Shadow of Revan told a single storyline for both the game’s factions, Sith Empire and Republic, offering only a single primary storyline. This was something SWTOR hadn’t done before and something the first expansion pack, Rise of the Hutt Cartel avoided. It might sound like a cop-out at first, but as I said last year, it actually worked out for the better. Offering a more focused storyline, and a generous amount of content for the entry price, it felt like a new beginning for SWTOR.
Fallen Empire takes the idea of a single unified storyline and cranks everything up to 11. With a planned storyline spread across even more upcoming chapters, at launch Fallen Empire contains the first 9. All for the low, low price of nothing. Well, as long as you’re a subscriber anyway. Free-to-play players cannot access the new chapters, but they can benefit from a lot of the global changes made to the game without spending a penny.
Are the new chapters worth the price? Well, it was minutes into chapter 1 that I realised this was going to be something special.
“Darth Marr awaits you on the bridge, I trust you remember the way…”
Fallen Empire begins as Darth Marr, de-facto leader of the Sith Empire and a character whose importance has been increased with each expansion, is leading a joint Imperial-Republic mission to find and eliminate the missing Sith Emperor. This is following up to the events of Ziost, a free epilogue released for Shadow of Revan where the former Sith Emperor demonstrated devastating power before escaping.
Knowing you’re a powerful and trustworthy person, Marr has personally invited your character to join his mission. As you arrive you’re greeted by a procession of soldiers and told Marr is waiting for you on the bridge. While SWTOR‘s class stories begin with you at the bottom of the ladder, Fallen Empire acknowledges that by now you’re kind of a big deal.
I’m not going to spoil the story here, but I will say that before long, after an absolutely thrilling opening hour, you’re inadvertently building a new reputation for yourself as “The Outlander” which also earns you new allies and deadly enemies. You no longer feel like a hero in the galaxy, you are the hero, and this is your story to mould.
As the story progresses Bioware make some increasingly bold moves, showing you that they’re not playing it safe this time. Some daring decisions really shake up the status quo with twists and turns that rival the best moments across all of SWTOR’s lengthy class storylines. Simultaneously it’s impossible not to see some specific influences at times. It’s still an original story, don’t get me wrong. But certain beats are pulled right from Mass Effect 2, making you a famous figure in a galaxy where your allies are scattered and the odds are heavily stacked against you. While the pacing feels deliberately reminiscent of KOTOR, with some very similar moments thematically. For better or worse you’ll never forget you’re playing a Bioware game.
Regarding continuity, I played through the expansion with my Sith Warrior and the story felt like a natural expansion of her tale, building out of Shadow of Revan, which itself built off of the original game so well. Familiar faces pop up and your character is treated with the prestige you’d expect from someone who’s witnessed so much.
I later played through the opening chapters as a Jedi Consular, after reaching the end with my Sith, and as expected things don’t differ that much, but you do see some changes in dialogue here as characters acknowledge your identity.
“With friends like these, we don’t need enemies!”
SWTOR fans will be well used to the dialogue system by now, a variant of the one seen in other Bioware games. It offers a selection of 3 different fully voiced responses in conversations and an occasional binary choice for making two opposing decisions. Years after launch it’s an impressive feat to hear the original set of voice actors, two for each class, delivering lines and slipping into character without missing a beat. It goes without saying but the voice work is as fantastic as always with many familiar video game mainstays lending their talent to the cast. Playing the opening minutes it was clear production values were as high as ever and the quality never dips as the chapters go by.
Speaking of the dialogue system, I was surprised the first time I got a small notification telling me a character would remember my recently chosen action. Pulling influence from Telltale’s adventure games, Fallen Empire has not only revamped reputation for your allies, but ensured they won’t forget significant actions either. After clashing with one character too many times they marched out of a conversation explaining that they didn’t like the way my character had been acting. This is something that we never saw in the original SWTOR, where every companion you found would be a compulsory and compliant member of your crew for the entire story. Now things are different, companions have conflicting agendas to one another and keeping everyone happy is just about impossible. This change brings heaps of potential for dramatic character interactions and a more immersive experience, as your choices can create or shatter your good reputation with a favoured character.
Furthermore companion affection has been converted into a new measurement called influence. The difference being, unlike affection, clashing with a character’s ideals doesn’t lose you influence. The idea is that influence measures how strong that character’s emotions are for you, good or bad. In terms of gameplay this makes a very subtle but important shift: you no longer have to bend over backwards to please your companions. You can say something that’s true to your character’s personality, annoy your companion, but still gain some influence with them. Significant actions are what they’ll remember and use to judge you, not how often you complimented them.
Along with this upgrade to a more complex relationship with your allies, overall presentation has been improved too. There’s a greater use of facial expressions during dialogue, letting a little more personality out of the cast. Meanwhile the camera work is much less static this time. Camera angles are now used in far more natural and imaginative ways.
Also for the first time cutscenes contain cutaways, showing you a glimpse of what other characters are up to. These moments especially elevate the story, as tense interactions give you a teasing taste into the mind of your enemies, and sometimes even your allies. SWTOR was always an incredibly cinematic game but it is now even more so.
If there’s a negative to the new presentation, it’s only that the animations are starting to look overplayed. Anyone who has spent significant time with SWTOR will recognise characters performing the same few steps and hand motions in cut scenes. It’s a small complaint but it can take you out of the immersion a little when you recognise the same limited hand gestures from the original game’s launch.
“Not a very big crew…”
Once you’re into the meat of the expansion one thing becomes glaring clear by its omission: other players. SWTOR normally has you exploring public areas populated with other players, before you slip into smaller phased areas to continue your story in a more personal manner. Fallen Empire reverses this setup with almost the entirety of the expansion taking place in phased areas. I was stunned by how little I saw of other players across the 9 chapters.
Yet I have a hard time criticising this choice because it dramatically increases the storytelling potential and honestly leads to a better gameplay experience. While playing a chapter you’re no longer constrained by being in an MMO, if you want to return to the public hubs then you’re going to have to quit out of the episode altogether. The vast majority of these chapters take place in their own bubbles where anything can happen and it’s very rare you’ll be backtracking, instead you’re always pushing forward from one action set-piece to the next. Altogether it means at times you feel a lot more isolated than ever before, which is actually a good thing thematically because it suits the tone of the story perfectly. Knowing you’re now heavily discouraged from casually popping back to the fleet to buy a new pair of pants, while everything around you is exploding into flames, ups the tension considerably.
The drawback to this is that it does mean that if you’re someone who likes playing the game as a small group or even just a duo (like me, usually), there is no point trying to do so in Fallen Empire. You will see your teammates so little across hours of gameplay it’s basically pointless. I mention this as something that I see as a necessary loss, but something that is highlighted by the inclusion of those rare un-phased zones. However, there are opportunities to team up again once you hit the end-game content, but more on that later.
I do wonder if Bioware struggled with the decision to pull the trigger and make so much content phased, perhaps explaining why they dropped those rare public zones in where they could. Incredously I actually found myself a little irritated when I ran into other players here (remember this is an MMO!) because all of a sudden my immersion was shattered as I saw my companions hanging around with other players. Of course after years of playing SWTOR I’m well used to this feeling, but I’d spent so much time in the wide, albeit linear, exciting opening hours of the game that running into other players was an unwelcome surprise.
Overall this has caused me to question the changing nature of SWTOR, but discussing this with others I’ve found we agree: it’s a worthwhile sacrifice. Losing the social content, for now, in these new chapters is a worthy price to pay for the exciting improvements in storytelling.
“We still have quite a ways to go. Gear up.”
Ironically by taking out the MMO elements from the chapters, the group quests, the freedom to go anywhere at any time, it’s freed Bioware to tell a much, much more focused storyline. I think they made an incredibly smart move to keep the story inside SWTOR. It must have been at least vaguely tempting to sell this as an episodic KOTOR 3, but by building it inside SWTOR you’ve still got the support of hundreds of hours of old content, which can be played alone or with a group. Meanwhile there’s the PvP warzones, the player driven economy, the ship battles, etc. none of it has gone. However, even if you’re not touching the new chapters, Fallen Empire’s release has made some big improvements to these older game areas.
SWTOR was always good about letting you level up the way you wanted, but you still had to do a lot of side quests, that’s not the case anymore with Fallen Empire, you can level all the way through by only doing your class story and the planet storylines. The experience rewards have been adjusted to not require anything else. These are the best written pieces of content in the game and often loosely tie-into each other anyway, making levelling up a much smoother experience.
Early on SWTOR clearly wanted to be the best of both worlds: a Bioware game with a rich personal story and an MMO with raiding, PvP, crafting etc. like World of Warcraft, which was in its prime during the game’s development. Here SWTOR has stopped trying to be something it’s not and instead embraced its own strengths. By setting its raiding content to the side (it’s still accessible at the level cap for those that went to play it and gear up) and going full throttle on the story, the game has bloomed to its full potential as a story-driven immersive Bioware game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect.
Another gameplay addition that is arguably long overdue is the simplification of companions in combat. No longer do companions have a set role, everyone now has a stance for healing, damage and tanking. This means you can bring your favourite character with you and not worry about them clashing with your own character’s role.
Prior to Fallen Empire I found myself often bringing Treek with me, the feisty Ewok companion who could swap between tank and healer, just because she was so versatile and so useful. But that meant all of the wonderfully written companion characters I could have chose from often got ignored because they just weren’t useful enough a lot of the time. Now you can bring whoever you like and know you’re not suffering gameplay restrictions because of your preference. Furthermore, companions no longer gain stats from their gear, you can dress them up to your heart’s content but they’ll always stay the same power level. Couple this with the outfit designer SWTOR now has and you can ensure you and your companions look as suitably badass or silly as you want them to look.
Adapting to the new lack of social content in Fallen Empire, Bioware have made a small but vital change to earlier planets too: each time you land on one of the older planets that you’ve levelled beyond, your level will be matched to that of the planet. It won’t take away your gear or your abilities, but your power will be suppressed down to make it challenge. I could see this sounding like an irritating change to make, you are being forcibly de-powered after all, but in actuality what it means is that you can grab some friends and go complete earlier content without any of you being over-levelled.
This change blows the doors open on available content. I’d wager there are people who don’t even know about the existence of some of the game’s storylines, such as the surprising amount of “Bonus Series” quest lines which often act as mini-sequels to planet storylines. It’s all fully voiced content, ready to be played in a group, but it’s so often overlooked because you simply don’t come across it and don’t have to play it to continue your journey. Now once you’ve hit the level cap if you’re hungry for more story you can go back and play these plotlines without worrying about blitzing through them, or receiving substandard rewards. Your level no longer locks you out of content you missed out on the way up.
Now, it’d be irresponsible of me to not take a moment to address a problem with this new focus, the fact that it will leave some people feeling left out. I’ve been playing SWTOR since the beta test, so I’ve seen the game go through some changes and some awkward growing pains, and personally I think these current changes are for the best. But I understand that some players are clamouring for something they’re not going to get in Fallen Empire and that’s new PvP content.
At launch Ilum was intended to host an outdoor PvP zone but in actuality that did not turn out as smooth as intended and the content was pulled. I’ve been waiting for some sort of replacement to hit the game and unfortunately there’s still nothing like it. Meaning if you want PvP, you’ll have to head to the warzones. As a big PvP fan myself, I am disappointed, but I’ve just come to accept the fact that SWTOR has chosen story as its focus and as its best selling point it’s an understandable choice. Nobody does story in MMOs better than Bioware. If you previously enjoyed SWTOR for its raids and PvP content over its story, then I’m afraid this expansion might not be for you. But for everyone else, or for those on the sidelines who are fans of other Bioware games, then you’re in for a treat.
“You’re our last hope…”
Now let’s talk about end-game a bit. I’m going to have to dodge some spoilers and unfortunately drop some light hints about where things go overall here, if you are concerned about spoilers then just skip this section and hop down to the conclusion.
So end-game is now handled very differently in SWTOR. Last year in Shadow of Revan not much changed from the original game, in the sense that you were given a small set of daily quests and that was about it in terms of things to do outside of raiding and Flashpoints (instanced dungeons, for those not up to date on the lingo). Fallen Empire is completely different. When you finish the ninth chapter, the game opens up giving you a list of bonus quests which allow you to recruit new allies to your cause. This is the new Alliance system that Bioware have hinted at. There are shades of their own Dragon Age: Inquisition here as you’re tasked with putting together your own motley crew. As with most of Fallen Empire, it feels like a culmination of all of Bioware’s experience, taking what has worked before and carefully placing it into SWTOR.
What makes this Alliance portion of the game extra enticing is that the allies you’re recruiting are pulled from previous companions in the game. I’m not going to ruin who you can recruit currently, but as someone who has seen all of the class stories I was very excited at the opportunity to have formally Republic companion characters join up with my Sith.
Bioware really put their money where their mouth is with Alliance recruitment missions, allowing you to refuse or even outright kill potential companions. Unlike the original class stories, none of these companions are forced into your party and if someone doesn’t suit your style then you can leave them by the road, or even sometimes push a lightsaber through their chest.
But it’s not all good. There is an absolutely perplexing choice made with these Alliance quests that muddies an otherwise fantastic new addition: Alliance conversations use an un-voiced KOTOR style dialogue system for your character. I am baffled why this was made as a design decision. Everyone in the Alliance conversations is voiced, apart from your own character. Bioware claim this is to give greater creative control to you over what you choose to do on these missions, but I frankly don’t think it’s worth it. It’s weirdly jarring to have black bars suddenly letterbox the screen and be given a list of dialogue options, after spending potentially hundreds of hours with the fully voiced system. I do suspect the real reason might be to allow Bioware to add new Alliance missions easier and cut down on the voice work needed, but that’s purely speculation on my part. I would love to say it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the Alliance missions but that would be a lie, it did indeed damper my enthusiasm somewhat and felt like a step backwards.
Thankfully there is a lot of Alliance content to get through, and not every companion can simply be talked into joining you. In the search for new recruits you’ll be traveling the galaxy and popping to plenty of old planets with a diverse level range and performing various little tasks to convince them to sign up. All of this is optional if you’d simply rather wait for the next story chapter to release. But Bioware have said the Alliance system will see new missions in future, so for those who’ve got to capture ‘em all, you can look forward to more companions to hunt down as the months go by.
As well as these Alliance quests there’s also a new repeatable Flashpoint, the story actually accommodates it being repeatable and its introduction is worked nicely into the plot. Meanwhile, old group content is also incorporated into this new Alliance system, with old Flashpoints, heroic 2-person quests and even raids offering relevant rewards.
So far I’m really enjoying the Alliance system, weird dialogue issues aside, as it means that end-game content becomes about more than just getting gear, it feels relevant to the plot. Allegedly, according to the game itself, your Alliance will determine storyline opportunities. This implies that perhaps it will unlock more options in future chapters, giving an extra incentive to work through these tasks, beyond just filling up progress bars and having a bit of fun. What these extra endgame activities also mean is that you have something to work at between chapters. It seems there’s plenty of things to get up to while you’re waiting for the next set of story content to drop.
Altogether Fallen Empire is an exceptional expansion pack. The changes it makes to the core game are thoughtful tweaks that vastly improve the quality of the game, while the actual Fallen Empire chapters are phenomenal and some of the best writing in the entire game.
If you’re a fan of KOTOR who couldn’t quite get into SWTOR at launch, I implore you to come back and take a look at these new chapters. Meanwhile old and new SWTOR players will get a kick out of all the new content. If you’re someone who has never played SWTOR then there has never been a better time than now, the levelling experience has been smoothed out to be as frustration-free as possible and the wealth of content the game now has is overwhelming.
To think that SWTOR was struggling a year after launch is now comical, Fallen Empire shows that SWTOR is stronger than ever, with a clear vision of exactly what it wants to be. That thing is a hell of a game and an immersive Star Wars experience unlike any other. It absolutely deserves your time.