The Old Republic’s free to play option isn’t worth your time, let alone money

The Old Republic’s free to play option isn’t worth your time, let alone money

If you tried to log onto Star Wars: The Old Republic yesterday to check out the game’s new life as a free-to-play title, odds are you were met with a downed server notice. The team at BioWare issued a notice that said maintenance would take approximately 12 hours, as they applied update 1.5. The 12-hour mark came and went, but no starship engines revved up, no lightsabers hummed, and the server downtime was extended indefinitely. Not the best foot to start off on, and unfortunately, its next steps haven’t been much of an improvement.

Update 1.5 is now live, and the game is officially free-to-play, with some important caveats. BioWare and EA needed to strike a balance between offering up enough of the game that players who wanted to experience The Old Republic for free could still have fun, while creating – or gating – enough content to entice buyers to either subscribe or purchase items through the in-game store. Unfortunately, that’s a balance they still need to find.

Jabba no wunga

There are three tiers to The Old Republic now: base, preferred, and subscriber. The base player is someone who is fresh to the game and/or never had a subscription. The preferred tier comes as soon as you purchase any amount of Cartel Coins – the game’s currency for purchasing items – or game time, or if you were a former subscriber. The subscriber is the highest tier with the most rewards, including unlimited access to Operations, the game’s versions of raids, and the ability to lead a guild.

Those aren’t the only distinctions mind you, and you can see the full list of what makes each tier stand apart on The Old Republic‘s website. What might be confusing is how you go from one tier to another, or how you take advantage of what your tier can offer.

Although it seems simple and logical that paying more money gets you more things, there’s a slight wrinkle in that scheme: the rewards program. The rewards program gives players a certain number of Cartel Coins based on their commitment to the game; you bought the Collector’s Edition? One thousand Coins for you. You had two months of subscription before the game went free-to-play? Three hundred Coins, one hundred and fifty per month. Players can opt into this rewards program, which runs until the game’s 1-year anniversary, December 20th, by purchasing game time and thus reactivating their subscription.

This is where, if you’re a former subscriber like me, you’ll have to do some budgeting as you look over the options available. You could choose not to reactivate and simply purchase Cartel Coins a la carte, but you want to make sure that’s the most economical route. Here’s how I did it:

I could have purchased 2400 Coins for $19.99. That amount was higher than I had through all of my previous months and Collector’s Edition bonuses combined, which was 2050 Coins. However, reactivating a 30-day subscription cost me $5 less, and I could purchase 450 Coins for $4.99, which brought me up to a net gain of 100 Coins by reactivating. I immediately cancelled that reactivation, which gives me 30 days of full subscriber status benefits and a shift to preferred status once that time ends.

Keep in mind the only reason my price comparison was even close was due to my original purchase of the Collector’s Edition, so most players will find it more cost-effective to simply purchase Coins and opt out of the rewards program altogether. Either way, you’ll be moved to preferred status when all is said and done. Provided you have enough Coins to buy the items and unlocks you want, that’s not a bad place to be. The real people losing out are the ones EA and BioWare are courting, the base tier users.

Freedom isn’t free

The list for options available to the newcomer, free-to-play user is pathetic. They get two character slots, three races – human, zabrak, and cyborg – and can’t send in-game mail. They can’t even choose to hide their helmet, a purely aesthetic option that costs 350 Coins to unlock. If you think the helmet you looted looks dumb, tough tauntauns. The option to take it off without losing the stat bonuses is supposedly worth $4 alone.

If aesthetic items were the only item locked behind the Cartel Market’s gates, the complaints would end there. But playing The Old Republic as a base tier user feels more like an extended trial than a game. In later levels, it’s practically required that you spend Coins on unlocking extra bars for your abilities. Base users start with two action bars, and that’s fine for awhile, but past level 30 you might need three or four.

Remember, this isn’t Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World, where you only worry about a handful of abilities. The Old Republic is structured very similar to World of Warcraft, where you have an abundance of spells and abilities to use. Also, unlike games like Guild Wars 2 or League of Legends, there’s no alternative to buying Cartel Coins. You cannot, no matter how good you are or how much time you dedicate, earn the items from the Cartel Market. You have to buy them.

The biggest thing The Old Republic has going for it is the same thing it always had: the story, which is now open to all, free of charge. There’s hours upon hours of wonderful plot-related content, supported by some awesome world design and art direction. If that’s all you want from your BioWare Star Wars game, you’ll be happy.

But sooner or later, you’re going to defeat that monster at the end of the dungeon. You’ll slice apart that Sith Lord or Jedi Knight. You’ll feel so proud of your accomplishment, so happy that you’ve completed the task set before you. You’ll click on the enemy’s body, ready to retrieve your winnings, and then you’ll see it: the notification that you can’t wear that armor, can’t equip that lightsaber, until you unlock the ability to do so using Cartel Coins. Would you like to purchase Cartel Coins?

No. No thanks.