When Star Wars: The Old Republic was announced as a massively multiplayer online game, there were many people who were disappointed, fearing that the previously single-player Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) series would lose its role-playing focus in order to accommodate genre conventions. The heavy push BioWare made in its voice-acting for quests seemed to be just a nicety that would simply get in the way over time, and time spent in the beta revealed a game that came across as little more than a rough, unpolished version of World of Warcraft. But thankfully for everyone involved, the developer did in fact manage to translate the essence of the series into an online game; it's simply a matter of perspective and expectations.
What is perhaps most interesting about The Old Republic is that the focus really does end up on single-player, and with this game having a more diverse set of class-tailored storylines, it's quite possibly the most in-depth role-playing game BioWare has yet produced. In previous games within the series, the player was limited to a single class and story choice, and then personality decisions along the way would shape the game but still deal with the same characters and the same plotline. This is a fairly consistent framework across other offerings from the company, as even in games like Dragon Age the story divergences from picking other classes make up only a small fraction of the overall experience.
There is a completely separate story for every class.
However, here there is a completely separate story for every class, making for eight different story arcs that don't share any of the same companions, antagonists, love interests, and even conversation choices during the shared side quests. While the basic ideas and layout behind each quest remain fundamentally the same, the sheer amount of character-specific writing ensures that choosing a smuggler over a trooper is not just a largely superficial change with a couple of different abilities. It's more than just a refreshing change in the MMO genre - it's also a huge step forward for BioWare's single-player games.
The design of the quests is also handled in a beautifully understated way, merging the usual role-play-focused quests with the grinding nature of online RPGs in a way that leaves it up to player to handle things the way they'd like. Quests generally present a primary goal that can often be completed simply by talking to someone or collecting a couple of items, but is always something simple and fast. The less story-driven targets will appear as a bonus objective, fulfilling the standard MMO grind of "Go kill 25 deer to scare off the neighbors." Since they are bonus objectives, the need to complete a laundry list of killing or collecting is completely secondary and not needed in order to complete the quests and move on. They simply offer extra experience points if the player wishes to invest the time, and that's something that can be obtained from a variety of other sources.
If there is a large drawback to the quests, it's that the writing features the same level of offering and quality as other BioWare games. While this is still a good thing overall, it means that the choices offered tend to be very extreme black and white and offer little in the way of a gray area. It fits the traditional Star Wars stereotypes very well, but if you're looking to play a character that's fairly neutral it can be very difficult at times. If BioWare had hired Obsidian to do the writing while they continued to handle the engine, Star Wars: The Old Republic could have been the perfect merger of the previous two games. There is a huge amount of content and they can't please everyone, but it would be nice to have more variety beyond perfect angels and baby killers.
So by this point one might be wondering how multiplayer role-playing works, and the answer is fairly straightforward. When finishing a quest or doing a flashpoint - a group-based dungeon - all the participating players will pick their selections and the game will randomly choose which one is actually used. While effectively simple and representative of having to deal with other people's rash decisions if there's a conflict of interest, it would've been nice if choices could've been influenced by having multiple people pick the same answer so as to have a bit more control over party choices.
Simplicity is also the driving force behind the space combat sections, which are focused on single-player to the point of even keeping the chat window hidden. They are not expansive areas nor does the player have any real control, but are instead on-rails shooting sections very similar to StarFox. While it could be disappointing that the only hands-on use of the ships is in such a limiting fashion, taken on their own they are actually quite an enjoyable distraction. If nothing else, they're certainly leagues better than the vehicle side-quests in the previous KOTOR games and worth a decent amount of experience points.
As for character combat, it lays as a mix between the old KOTOR battle system and standard MMO systems, with heavy leaning towards the latter. As with previous games, there's no auto-attack, the most basic attack being either the catalyst for generating resources to perform more powerful actions or simply allowing for time to recharge. The talent trees and abilities are heavily reminiscent of World of Warcraft, giving a huge amount of options to the player that can grow to almost ridiculous proportions later in the game. Perhaps the most interesting of them are the smuggler and Imperial agent classes, as they introduce a unique cover system. Allowing the player to roll behind small walls, rocks, or deployable shields gives access to a second set of abilities and offers a delightful twist to the combat.
In the end, what one takes out of Star Wars: The Old Republic will line up with what one expects it to be. Those looking for in-depth and well-executed combat within an MMO environment will find it to be lacking compared to other games like World of Warcraft and Tera Online and more in line with Final Fantasy XIV. The amount of polish here is focused more on the lore, and things like the UI offering useful indications of proc abilities, macros of any kind, a combat log, and a non-clumsy way to heal other people are simply not to be found. However, as a primarily single-player experience that happens to allow for multiplayer interactions, it's easily among BioWare's most robust works and offers a staggering amount of story and character interactions. There's still a lot of planned content coming and many issues that need to be touched up and addressed, but what's here is still an amazing experience.