The Old Republic's shaky transition from subscription-based powerhouse to free-to-play option had players new and old weighing whether or not continuing to play would be viable. After a celebrated beginning and a questionable semi-collapse, the game's community was now open to anyone with the desire to pick up a lightsaber, cash-powered or not. For many, that fact alone was worrisome. Happily, the change has done little to hamper the experience and may have even bolstered it, if the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion is any indication. Though the last year might have proven rocky for BioWare, it's clear that this add-on is stalwart in its resolve to deliver multitiered narratives and trademark Star Wars action that time and time again prove more engaging than many of the alternatives on the market.
The designers behind Hutt Cartel have clearly been listening to feedback from the community, and that's apparent upon launching into the expansion. Still, despite the loving attention to detail and the valiant effort on BioWare's end to keep things grandiose and overarching, you can see some areas that have grown threadbare. For instance, each character class was previously assigned its own unique story, complete with fully voiced cutscenes and dialogue trees. Hutt Cartel offers only two stories: one for Empire loyalists who want nothing more than to acquire some of the precious isotope-5 after the Hutt Cartel rips through the planet Makeb to harvest it, and one for members of the Republic acting as nobly as they can in an attempt to keep the cartel from invading and stripping the planet of its resources.
The stories are certainly less of a spectacle than what you're used to, but they do the job nicely. The tale of isotope-5, whether you are Republic or Rebellion, is entertaining enough to hold your attention as heaping helpings of intergalactic melodrama unfold. If you've got higher-level characters on both sides of the fence as far as Star Wars politics go, the narratives make a fine reward for multiple playthroughs.
The Hutt Cartel missions become available via holocron for players at level 50, offering a broad selection of new powers, revamped ability trees, and changes to previously established classes. A previous game update brought with it noticeable changes to gameplay, depending on which class you play. The alacrity buff has been redesigned, reducing the activation time of all abilities, even instants, making it a powerful buff to have on your side. Passive and active abilities have been sprinkled in, whether you're a Sith marauder or a Jedi consular. Additionally, the level cap has been raised to 55, coaxing in players looking for additional glory, though it won't take long for a level 50 layer to reach the new cap.
Makeb is host to multiple missions that subscribe to all the traditional role-playing game tropes: rescuing villagers, falling in love, and eliminating the unsavory Hutts that dare usurp isotope-5 from its rightful owners. This new landscape is surprisingly meaty, and since it's the only new planet Hutt Cartel brings with it, it needed to be. Makeb is a massive, richly detailed world with gorgeous forests and sweeping mesas dotting the landscape. Countless mining facilities are connected by multiple flight paths that beckon to you with otherworldly beauty and mystique. It's like your first trip to Kashyyyk, only instead of Wookiees, slobbish Hutts are slithering around.
There are quite a few diversions to keep you busy between story-based quests. Gone are the nonlinear assignments you could complete on your way to the next story checkpoint, and in their place are daily challenges that may be completed several times over, as well as staged weekly challenges found at terminals scattered throughout the planet. These can be tackled only if you complete three missions from each stage and the bonus mission tacked on at the end. While some assignments are quick affairs, many can last from a half hour to a couple of hours, with all the might of a two- or three-man raid. Such daily and weekly challenges better prepare you for all the content geared toward level 55 characters, such as tougher Flashpoints and the Scum and Villainy Operation, which require top-tier toons. They're great for farming new achievements, some of which come packing a handful of cartel coins for your hard work.
Keep an eye out for the Seeker Droid and Macrobinocular quests, each buoyed by unique storylines and exciting reasons to hop from planet to planet, searching for data signals and assassin droids. Macrobinocular quests see you searching for encrypted communications being broadcast from particular planets, scanning for them as you would with probes in the Mass Effect world. Finding them is a feat in itself, but once you detect a signal and go after it, you may attract auditory provocation droids, enemies with some hilarious abilities you must see to believe.
Collecting all the signals unlocks environment-based puzzles to complete, which lead you all over planets you likely explored several hours ago on your journey to become a more proficient Sith or Jedi. Puzzles are a great reason to revisit locales previously explored, and one of the most interesting pieces of the expansion. The Seeker Droid missions are similar in that they also require you to travel all the way through the galaxy in search of special artifacts buried in specific scavenging areas. They are nowhere near as exhilarating as the Macrobinocular outings, but still well worth a try.
However, the constant companionship you might be used to as a result of the non-player characters that follow you throughout the main branch of The Old Republic is curiously absent. While your combat companions may make the errant remark here and there and aid you in battle, they are little more than glorified pets, offering only additional blows and assistance when things get hairy. For an expanse as large as Makeb (especially with solo players), things can start to feel awfully lonely.
The lack of interaction from companion NPCs is partially overcome by intriguing romance options for your character. Choosing from some rather fresh dialogue options eventually results in the exploration of new romance paths, complete with same-sex couples--admirable on the progressive BioWare's part. While romances offer an exciting new dynamic that smacks of classic KOTOR, they're nowhere near as saucy as those of Mass Effect or even Dragon Age. That said, flirting is not any less fun. It's just less naughty.
The same could be said of the entire expansion: not any less fun; just a bit less adventurous in some areas. Still, Rise of the Hutt Cartel is an exciting prospect for past players needing a reason to return to The Old Republic, or current players ready to expand their horizons. At $20 for new preferred status sign-ups ($10 for current players), the price is right, and so is the content. New skill trees, plot threads, and some shady business dealings courtesy of the Hutt Cartel open doors many players thought previously closed by the leap to free-to-play, and dual lightsaber throws are worth all of the hard times. It may not be a renaissance for The Old Republic, but there's a wealth of new content to freshen things up considerably.