What happened? The watercooler effect. This is one of those rare games that has a large portion of my friends and colleagues - even those who aren't gamers - talking about it and playing it. This happened with World of Warcraft (though I was too heavily into Final Fantasy XI to get it into it at launch). It also happened when the Wii was launched. It singularly failed to happen for other gaming "events", such as the launch of the PS3 and the 3DS. At any rate, the buzz was great enough - as was everybody's expectation that OF COURSE I would play it - that I ended up giving in.
As I'm only level 29 (with a cap of 50), I've obviously seen next to nothing of the game. There's an expectation these days that MMOs are largely about the end-game and, of course, I haven't even had the faintest whiff of that yet. However, I've seen enough of how questing, levelling and general mechanics work that I feel like I can offer some thoughts.
First things first; World of Warcraft comparisons are, to some extent, unfair. While the basic UI design is lifted straight from WoW (as it was in Bioware's earlier Dragon Age), this conceals a number of often very striking differences from the venerable genre juggernaut. I'm not saying that WoW wasn't a crucial influence on ToR's development, but it is clear that there are a lot of other elements in the game's DNA. I've certainly picked up stuff that feels much more FFXI than WoW in places. There's also quite a bit of stuff - particularly around what you might call the "singleplayer" elements of the game - that hasn't been tried at all before in an MMO. If you've been putting off trying this because - like me - you felt you'd seen all that WoW had to offer, then you may want to reconsider.
The most immediately apparent differences lie in the questing and story structures. In WoW, story has always been a fairly perfunctory thing. For most quests, you get a page of text (that nobody ever reads) and wander off to wherever Questhelper is telling you to go to kill your 12 mobs or collect your 6 mob-spleens or whatever. In ToR, every quest is introduced by a fully voiced cutscene. There's even slightly less use of that old Knights of the Old Republic cheaty get-out of having lots of alien speech which just cycles every so often (though it's not vanished entirely). What this means is that individual quests tend to be longer, more intricate and - in general - more interesting than the WoW equivalents. There are moral choices to make (sometimes with consequences later), companions to woo and even a few major twists. What this means is that while my WoW character was never more than my mute avatar in Azeroth, I actually think about my ToR character as something distinct from myself and find myself role-playing conversation choices in a way that I might in a Dragon Age or a Skyrim, but would never have imagined doing so in an MMO. While WoW had lore, only a small percentage of the players ever really cared about it. For everybody else, it was "those enemies are bad, go smack them". In ToR, I'm always conscious of where I am, what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.
Another big difference between WoW and ToR lies in the difficulty curve. Questing in WoW was trivially easy. Unless you did something stupid, you'd never find anything challenging and you didn't have to know much about your class. So come the level cap, you had lots of newly dinged players only just starting to learn how to play the game. ToR doesn't let you do that. Plenty of quests, including your class's main plot quests, include fights which are actually challenging. Past about level 20, if you don't know how to use your class's abilities to maximise the benefit of their interactions, you won't get very far. Instance bosses actually need tactics - indeed, the second boss in the first Republic instance is a huge block for many players. It's a risky move; WoW's popularity stemmed at least in part from how hard it was to get into. ToR is a much harsher mistress; MMO newbies may find their patience stretched to breaking point, particularly if they step into the group content. Personally, I like it - it makes levelling more interesting and it should reduce the difficulty that players new to the genre have in transitioning from levelling to end-game content. But combined with the fact that levelling is generally a good bit slower than in WoW (particularly than in modern-WoW, after the various nerfs), it makes it clear that ToR is much less willing to serve up instant gratification.
I've seen a bit of the group content. Obviously, I have the benefit of having a good few people I know in real life on the same server as me, though due to varying work, family and social committments, our levels are fairly diverse. For once, I'm at the back of the pack (having been to visit parents over Christmas, and then working between Christmas and New Year). I've also met a few other ex-WoW players in-game. These are identifiable because they actually know what they're doing. However - and I suppose quite impressively - they are in a minority. The game has clearly succeeded in drawing in a lot of people new to the genre, rather than just cannibalising WoW players for a short time (which is what the MMO versions of Lord of the Rings, Conan and Warhammer all did). For the moment, this means an awful lot of clueless newbies - I've had to explain the fundamentals of concepts such as "threat", "crowd control" and "need or greed" quite a few times. But in the long term, I see this as a healthy thing for the game and the genre.
The group quests themselves are generally well designed. The fall, broadly speaking, into two categories. First there are the "heroic" quests. These work more or less like normal quests, but they involve higher level enemies that require 2-4 players to beat them safely (though I've managed to solo a couple of the 2-man quests through very cautious play). These are a lot like the old heroic-outdoor areas that used to be in WoW, until they were patched out somewhere towards the end of the Burning Crusade era. They're fine for what they are - an opportunity to group together with other players, socialise a bit and work to a common objective. But they don't give you anything exciting or different. They're also completely optional - none of them are critical to any of the major quest chains. In a clever twist, they're also repeatable (once per day) - so there's an incentive to repeat them for additional rewards, making it easier to get groups for them.
More interesting, however, are the "Flashpoints". These align broadly with WoW's 5-man instances, though in this case the party size is capped at 4. They vary wildly in size, though on average, they are a bit larger than the standard 5 man instance size that WoW had settled on by the time of Burning Crusade's release. That said, there's nothing on the scale of the old Blackrock Depths. What sets these aside from WoW's instances is that they're heavily story based. There are conversations and decisions to be made during them, granting both social points (ToC's equivalent of faction reputation) and light/darkside points. When a conversation choice comes up, all players in the group pick their preferred option and the game rolls - the winning roll determines the choice. So far, the system has worked extremely well. The flashpoints feel like classic, tightly-focussed small-world co-op activities, rather than the slightly soul-less grinds from WoW. However, while lengthy dialogue is fine for levelling dungeons that will only be done once or twice by most players, I do worry about how it might play in level 50 dungeons that are done far more often. I can imagine that getting old real fast. Flashpoints tend to be trickier than "standard" WoW dungeons, though I do remember Gnomeregan and a few others being fairly tricky back in the early days of WoW.
The crafting side of the game is not that different from WoW. You are limited to one "production" trade and one "gathering" trade. Those work more or less as expected and are functional, if uninspired. What I'm less convinced about is the third profession you are expected to take; the companion quest profession. This allows you - for a fee - to dispatch your companion on a quest to gather more trade materials for you - and this is compulsory if you want to get serious about crafting. Unfortunately, the system is extremely boring. You choose a companion, choose an interesting sounding mission for them from a list... and they vanish. Then they reappear a few minutes later with your rewards. It doesn't help that the text descriptions of the missions often sound more interesting than the actual missions themselves. If you're fighting wamp rats on Tatooine and sending your companion off to negotiate a trade with the Hutts, it can feel very much like you have the raw end of that particular deal.
In fact, now we come to some of the more pronounced weaknesses of ToR. While I do, so far, like this game a lot, it cannot be denied that there is a lot wrong with it. The Auction House is awful. It's horribly crippled compared to WoW's, with what feels like pointless restrictions on functionality. There's also no matchmaking tool to find groups for quests and instances. I know that WoW didn't add one of these until mid-way through the Lich King era, but having played a game with one, it's very hard to get used to having that particular toy taken away. The datacron sidequests are also infuriating. These are hidden items that give the player a permanent boost to stats with no downside - except finding the item. Finding them involves what I can only describe as precision platforming. Now that would be ok if this were a Mario or a Ratchet & Clank - a game with controls designed for precision platforming. It would be ok if it was an Uncharted, with scripting to rescue the player when he makes a minor mistake. But it isn't. This game has WoW controls and WoW movement controls are not precise enough for this stuff. Result: frustration.
To sum up for now, this is a much more polished game than WoW was at launch. It's a less polished game than what WoW has become and that is a problem for it. However, set against this, it offers a lot of interesting stuff that just wasn't in WoW at all. The game seems to have had a good launch - certainly the most successful MMO launch since WoW. The key factor is whether Bioware have the energy, budget and resources to continue to develop it properly.