Back when BioWare first published their massive MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic in December of 2011, there were plenty of mixed reviews to go around. While most players praised the storytelling on one end, there were just as many players who were more than happy to rip the game to shreds by comparing it to other games on the market of the same genre. There was also a big resentment that this game was the reason why the sandbox MMO, Star Wars Galaxies, had been shut down. With a franchise as large as it is diverse, the bar was set just high enough for it to come crashing down over what this game did right and what went terribly wrong. Over the past year and some months, those of us who rode it out have seen a lot of changes to the title that would normally take a game of this nature both several years and several expansions to come about. Still, despite the conversion to a nearly free-to-play model and putting most of the original servers on the chopping block, the game still manages to maintain strong numbers and a stable player base.

When it comes to the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which was formally released early Sunday morning to those who did not pre-order and gain early access, the plot is both simple and straightforward. The original story information has been fed to us by the BioWare staff dating at least as far back as E3 2012. The Hutt Cartel is looking to spread its green, meaty wings once again and has taken an interest in the tourist planet of Makeb. Here, both the Empire and the Republic are trying to gain allies against their common enemy as both sides attempt to figure out what exactly the Hutts are up to. Since this is a continuation, the events of the previous story arcs are addressed by each of the eight playable classes in their own way. While your initial reasons to go to Makeb may be addressed differently at first, the goal is ultimately the same.

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All players start off by being rudely interrupted with a holo-call from your faction’s representative while minding your own business on your ship. After being told by your leaders to go to Makeb without the chance to turn them down, you must then participate in several cinematic scenes in order to figure out what has happened that is so important to this planet recently that has forced your leaders to drag you out of space to deal with the giant, slimy worms known as the Hutts. While the title of the expansion may be a bit misleading as to exactly how many Hutts you’ll be dealing with exactly, lore indicates that the Hutts themselves don’t exactly like getting their hands dirty. They are, however, more than willing to pay other people to do the work for them. Also, they run very slowly which makes for some hilarious cutscenes later on. Many players who were able to experience the end-game content at level 50 may have also dealt with the greed of the Hutts back in the Karagga’s Palace group operation already, so it should come as no surprise at how surreptitious they are this time around.

While I was disappointed at the utter lack of voiced companion opinions that can be found in earlier quests, the voice acting of the main characters is still top notch. In fact, I found myself impressed by the particular range of the male Jedi Consular voiced by Nolan North. While we both hoped that the Jedi class would gain a little more emotional range in the expansions, I am happy to report that my wish for a more believable Dark Side character came true. My Jedi actually sounded irritated at certain points, which was a far cry from the usual monotone voice that many players have openly stated their displeasure of.

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After the initial push of either saving the world or attempting to conquer it, players will find themselves deep in doing a lot of new quests for both new storyline and eventually for the new daily runs. Doing these are basically a requirement in order to grind out the credits needed to pay the new overpriced repair bills and to gain new commendations for the next tier sets of gear that start at level 53. Crafting has also been upgraded, allowing you to craft the same ranked mods that are in the level 53 gear, but this will still leave you in need of doing random dungeons, PVP, and/or the new Scum and Villainy operation if you want to get to the best pieces available.

To call Rise of the Hutt Cartel a full expansion might be overstating what this actually includes and adds to the current game. Yes, it is a paid expansion; however the price is not in the usual $40 and up range as you may be used to with other MMORPG’s. Instead, the price starts off at $9.99 for current subscribers and caps at $19.99 for free-to-play members. This may sound like a great bargain, especially as a paying subscriber, but also keep in mind that you get what you pay for. For a price that is comparable to buying a map pack or DLC content in any other game, you wouldn’t be far off by calling this expansion just that.

RotHC includes a five level increase cap from 50 to 55, a new planet to explore, harder remakes of current dungeons, new daily quests, and a continuation of the storyline. Even if you decide not to purchase the content, you will still get access the 2.0 patch that drastically changes the gameplay by reorganizing commendations and skill trees for every class. This alone has been a major factor in the return of a large number of former players. Combat has been streamlined for most of the classes to be more manageable since the title still does not have any sort of add-on support. The gear grind has also been condensed by rounding up commendations into simpler categories instead of having a different set of tokens for every single planet.

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Since this was a major issue before launch, I believe it’s fair game to address the issue that involved some buzzing as many news outlets began to refer Makeb as ‘The Gay Planet’. Many claimed that the same-sex romance arcs were ‘ghetto’ and ‘segregated’. While not to give out any spoilers, I will say that the new romance options are extremely limited to only a very limited few of new NPC’s that are native to this expansion, which is honestly not that different than any of the other quests where there is a flirt option based on the location, class, and gender of the character being played. Also, companion quest lines have not been added upon nor changed to expand into any new romance options at all. Overall, if you were expecting a full-blown expansion complete with new races, a barber shop, multiple planets, and continuing you and your companions’ story in the typical BioWare fashion, you should stop while you’re ahead. In fact, just throw that idea out entirely before you consider purchasing this or else you’ll be sorely disappointed.

On the positive side, the changes to the combat and skills have greatly increased the pleasure of the entire game. Combat is fast-paced and is currently optimized regardless of specialization. Skills have been added where they were lacking and removed or condensed when considered no longer necessary. There have also been changes and updates made to the armor modifications in order to prepare players for the next level of end-game content. The story, although somewhat short, is still enjoyable, but like in nearly any other MMO out there, if you’ve got a handful of max level characters waiting already, there’s a safe bet that you’re going to end up skipping through the scenes and stop reading the texts after the first couple of times. There is also a rather nasty learning curve that is able to bring previously fast-paced end-game raiders to a grinding halt when trying to master the new level 55 hard-mode dungeons with now outdated gear. Reaching the new max level may not be that difficult to accomplish with rested experience, the new guild experience bonus, and the  one-time use experience increase  items, but hitting the new max level does not automatically mean that you’re ready to dive right into the new, somewhat overtuned, sets of hard-mode dungeons. In fact, unless you’re going with some pretty well-coordinated guild members, you’ll probably going to have a bad time until other players are able catch up in both skill and item level.

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Keep in mind that this expansion is not a must-have for new players or those who are returning without having any characters that are ready to move towards the next step of end-game content. Try to see this as you would any other DLC that adds to your game, but unless you’re already at that point and want to keep going, you don’t necessarily have to it buy right away. Having completed the storyline of Makeb on both factions multiple times, I would definitely recommend it to long-term players and to those who have come back with characters sitting at level 50 with nothing else to do. You’ll enjoy the story enough to keep going until the end, but may find the ending to be just another cliffhanger as we wait for yet another large patch to come around eventually.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ This is a great mini expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic that sets the scene for future events.
+ Combat has improved drastically since launch with the 2.0 patch that you actually don’t need to purchase the expansion to see the changes with.
+ Voice acting of the major playable characters is still superb, even better for some characters than what it was at launch.
+ BioWare makes an effort to push equal rights of same-sex romance options into the game…
- …but then fail to do it any sort of justice.
- Many of the features talked about for the ‘big’ expansion are not actually included such as the Cathar race option, paid server transfers, and a barber shop.
-Companions stories are not expanded upon nor do they even converse in your major quest lines.

8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Star Wars: The Old Republic-Rise of the Hutt Cartel Expansion was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts. It was released on April 14, 2013.