I thought it was interesting that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim got ‘game of the year’ award from so many commentators and yet I’ve found I enjoyed Star Wars: The Old Republic much more even before I got into any groups or anything that required online experience.
Skyrim has a sandbox approach to character development while SWTOR has you pick one from 8 classes of hybrid damage / heal / tank types, though much like Skyrim pretty much every option lets you do pretty much anything, just to varied degrees of ability.
Both games lean heavily on questing and NPC interaction but SWTOR has two big advantages: firstly it has a much better quest system with a full range of (mostly meaningful) chat options and secondly it brings ‘over shoulder’ camera angles to the quest conversation cut scenes where it includes your character’s voice. The conversation cut scenes don’t always work but in 95% of NPC interactions you get a real cinematic feel.
The voice acting is also better in SWTOR with more rational use of regional accents and some great acting. There are also many more quests in SWTOR which makes the high quality of the voice acting stand out even more.
Both games have companions but while you get lots of freedom to pick (and freedom to kill) companions in Skyrim, the SWTOR companions are more well developed. They don’t just go along with you after a single quest, they continue to develop affection for you depending on your actions towards them and towards others while they are about. There are 80 companions in SWTOR and only 45 in Skyrim, though you can only get 5 on any particular character in SWTOR, each class has access to 5 (plus a droid servitor who isn’t much use). Each one will open up quests and options as they develop affection for you (including romance and marriage in some situations).
Both games have gathering materials and crafting them into your equipment as options but again the SWTOR method is more involved and more interesting (though again it is limited per character class). In Skyrim you can gather anything and do any craft and get rewards for doing so. You can improve Skyrim skills with perk points but even so alchemy is the only craft of comparable complexity to those of SWTOR. In SWTOR you must pick two gathering and one craft skill per character, this allows you to get all the bits you need though sometimes at a cost. Crafting is done by your companions: the more they like you the better job they do. As skills develop, you can get critical results with some exceptional items produced.
The world is where Skyrim starts to pull things back. Although SWTOR is set in an Intellectual Property that we are all familiar with and has a big head start in terms of world building, the Skyrim world is fairly well established too. Also, as it is an MMO and not a single player game, SWTOR struggles with technology limits with respect to having things that players can interact with. This is not a small issue and much of the joy of Skyrim comes from picking up random stuff, throwing it about, dropping it and broadly having a bit of sandbox fun. There are a few things you can interact with, mostly for gathering crafting stuff in SWTOR, plus static ‘holocrons’ and ‘lore items’ that give exp and other bonuses.
There are a lot of loading screens in Skyrim: every building you enter has a loading screen. In contrast, SWTOR seems to take a long while to run round: it has some big maps and the fast travel options are limited, although when you get a speeder things improve, more so than with a horse in Skyrim.
The art decisions seem to have been similar with respect to environment but the technological limits differ: Skyrim because it is designed for console and SWTOR because it is an MMO. Both games develop the themes of their environment quite nicely with a lot of detail and some atmospheric environments. The minimum system requirements for SWTOR are lower than for Skyrim but graphically they are pretty even if you turn it all up to maximum, Skyrim has the edge there though with more textures, particle effects and many more ‘oooh’ moments. Skyrim’s set piece kill cut scenes are a nice touch too.
Skyrim is somewhat twitch-based but there are not a lot of combat options: it is designed for console so there are only really 4 buttons in use. My main problem with the Skyrim game play is that that any interesting fight requires you to drink potions and that means pausing the game to open the inventory – very much breaks up the excitement of the fight. The combats in SWTOR have (too) many more options and though it is not twitch-based it does have a number of reactive actions that require a bit of attention to be paid. Fights with several enemy of varied ability are common and make for an interesting mix of ability usage.
Skyrim has a lock-picking mini-game and SWTOR has a space combat mini-game. It’s no contest. As much as I like the lock-picking in Skyrim, it just doesn’t stack up against a mission based heroic space combat simulation with space ship modifications and so forth.
Both games suffer from slightly problematic user interfaces but these are easily overcome by letting people modify the UI which is starting to happen with Skyrim and has been promised for SWTOR. Most of the UI issues in SWTOR relate to the social aspect of the game which isn’t really the remit of this.
Skyrim is a good deal cheaper, with SWTOR costing about 50% more. If you only get to play a few hours per week you’ll wind up paying even more on SWTOR subscription to get to maximum level (or you’ll be at it for a year to play through all 8 class quests) so the masses of extra content do come at a premium but that premium is bundled up with PvP and co-op group play and guilds and raids and the like. A year’s subscription to SWTOR plus the cost of the game costs about four times as much as Skyrim and a year would give you time to experience pretty much all of the content. SWTOR probably offers a little more than 4 times the content (though they constantly release more free content, it is mainly for group play). In terms of value for money, the two games are prettyclose.
Just as a final note, SWTOR is also a good multi-player game: the flashpoints (instanced group quests) are great, the class roles work reasonably well with lots of overlap, the PvP is easy to get into and fun, group quests and ‘social’ rewards help develop the community.
So what are you waiting for?