It's safe to say 2011 is shaping up to be the year MMORPGs finally take a break from kneeling at WoW's altar, with studios making games that actually shy away from comparisons to Blizzard's big one. After seven years of trying to recreate World of Warcraft's secret sauce it's heartening to see a number of MMOs learning that the answer to developing a niche in the market isn't in trying to topple WoW by releasing a game that operates on exactly the same ideas.
Rift's advertising campaign earlier in the year has been one of the most obvious attempts at unWoWing the market with its "you're not in Azeroth anymore" tagline. Accurate or not it at least shows how much the playing field has changed since mid-2000 when developers were chasing Blizzard's demographic like petulant teenagers following a touring band. Now we're beginning to see more games setting their sights on attacking the genre from some of the less common angles.
BioWare's prominence in single-player RPGs is to thank for its stance on MMOs. They've professed their disappointment with the state of storylines in Massively Multiplayer games, whose epic plotlines tend to get demoted to quest-line duty or at best become padded out in a game's typically-ignored lore. Its aim is to approach the genre from the relatively untapped RPG perspective. Imagine an MMO for the standard BioWare player's palate and you start to get a slightly clearer impression of the kind of game Star Wars: The Old Republic is.
And SWTOR is given exactly what you would imagine standard BioWare treatment to be. The static characters and storylines that populate persistent worlds are replaced by fully voice-acted avatars who can change their moral alignment, cutscenes, and a plotline that can be affected by clambering through dialogue trees - something that is bound to single-handedly fuel the Mass Effect comparisons. SWTOR approaches the issue of MMOs-as-levelling-treadmills by double-dunking the game in a single-player storyline that infuses the traditional grind with some sense of purpose.
So while the standard fetch quests and "Collect 10 X" objectives provide basic XP the main storyline unfolds through particular story-centric quest lines as you level. Story-based quests aren't a major revelation for MMOs. The difference, however, is that SWTOR lets you affect the outcome of that quest.