10 Dec Star Wars the Old Republic – Personal Impressions
So as many of you know, I am an avid gamer, and I tend to jump from game to game, sampling the latest and greatest our saturated industry has to offer. MMO’s are a particular favourite of mine, however, not so much from a hardcore perspective. To clarify, hardcore MMO gaming brings to mind imagery whereby I become obligated to spend all of my waking hours grinding, raiding, and organizing scores of virtual buddies into organized teams to go dungeon plundering until the birds chirp at sunrise. Why am I not hardcore? It’s been suggested I have a less than stellar attention span, and I enjoy my freedom to experience as many different games as I have time for. Furthermore, as much of a “geek” I am, I’m always sure to allow conference with the sun and REAL friends at least 60% of my free time. Anyway, I digress.. What was our topic again? Oh yes, my impressions on Star Wars the Old Republic.
Star Wars the Old Republic, for those of you who don’t already know, is a continuation of Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic universe. A precursor to everything we know about Star Wars, as the game takes place 3000 years before the events of the movies. If you haven’t seen the cinematic yet, I strongly suggest you do, it’s truly everything a George Lucas prequel should of been. It’s shameful really, how much more exciting and thrilling they are compared to the movies. I can only hope that one day a team like Bioware can get the proper rights and licensing to make a full 2 hour feature of what I witnessed in all 3 of the cinematics.
The story follows the clashes and tension between the Galactic Republic who observe order and justice and all that is good in the universe, versus the evil Imperials who are mostly run by the Sith but also allow Bounty Hunters lowlifes to be part of their ranks. The game universe and lore is strong and well fleshed out. I’m willing to look beyond the weird fact that tech and culture hasn’t changed much in 3000 years as most of the technology, feel and artwork from the movies is somewhat mirrored in the Old Republic. The Old Republic time period is set apart, however, by clever art direction in which all of the ships, city environments, and clothing seem to have a sort of art deco antiquity to them that really makes them feel kind of old and ancient, as if you really are playing a different era of the same universe. Kind of like the difference between watching a movie set in modern time versus a movie set in the 1930’s, only, a 1930’s movie where everyone uses cellphones and MP3 players.
Now I must preface the rest of this post, by saying that Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR) is not available in stores at the time I am writing this article. That is to say that it is, to many a Star Wars Geeks dismay, still in Beta. However, a release is just around the corner (next week in fact), and I was allowed to sample the many delights of it’s virtual universe via two separate beta invites. These two invites allowed to play to my hearts content for a full 72 hours. The invites were issued to me as a part of their “Beta Testing Weekend” program, about a month apart. To keep myself sane, I obviously didn’t play a full 72 hours each session, but, I got enough play time in to sample most of what the game has to offer, and I will divulge my personal thoughts on the matter during the course of this blog article. I created a character of each class, and I took at least ONE of them to about level 20. I had a chance to try space combat, I got my first ship, I did at least 2 or 3 Flashpoints, and I visited several, if not all of the planets via my ship.
So my impressions? First off I found the game really buggy.. Slow loading textures, weird bugs such as characters mouths not moving as they talked, some textures wouldn’t load at all, falling through floors, etc. Oddly enough I never found the common “stuck” bug, where the player’s character would get stuck in walls or certain spots on the “floor”. I even had some weird paradoxical bugs, such as one point in the game where I was on a Republic ship being attacked by a larger imperial ship, which you could view out of the windows of the ship’s bridge. The captain flipped the switch to light speed to escape the ship, but after coming out of the warp effect we could still view the imperial ship out the view port as the captain and crew celebrated escape. Kind of funny…
So lets give Bioware the benefit of the doubt. This is their first large scale MMO, my testing periods were set a month or two before release, there will be hundreds of updates and fixes patched after release, and so most of these issues will eventually be cleared up.. Maybe not before release, but certainly after. Lets get into the meat of the game..
STWOR’s killer feature is it’s attention to story. Bioware has put many many hours and poured megatons of cash into believable voice acting for almost every line of dialogue in the game. This is an incredible feat by any means if you consider the sheer amount of story based content in the game. There are thousands of NPCs in the game, and thousands of storylines that branch out as you move through the game taking quests and shaping their outcome via dialogue choices that can drastically alter the outcome of the story you’re engaged in. You can play them the “dark” evil way, or the “light” virtuous way depending on what kind of character you want to play. Although the game gives you clear cut “light” Republic characters and “dark” Imperial characters to choose from during character creation, you can still choose to play the opposite of what you chose if you’d like. For an example, a dark Jedi, or a Sith on the verge of turning back to the light side by being a super sweetheart of a dude, etc. So this story stuff is pretty powerful in the context of an MMO. Bioware is onto something, but, it will stand to see how many of their competitors will take to this new style of MMO storytelling as it is extremely resource consuming from a business standpoint. There are few studios with enough cash and resources to pull a feat like this off, at least at this point in time.
So how is the story? It’s pretty awesome actually. I found that the sheer amount of voice acting required in the game caused for moments where the writing and dialogue was strong and exciting and very very heavy in character and depth, and other times kind of shallow and less interesting. It’s incredible to see the main storyline unfold before your eyes with full conversations and exciting twists and turns, but when you start doing quests that are less significant, such as “Hi I need you to collect some animal hides so I can power my broken speeder and get home in time for dinner.” things get a little dry, and often I find myself wanting to just quickly skip through the dialogue to get back to the grind. The sheer amount of dialogue sprinkled cut scenes that occur every time you engage an NPC for a quest, or to complete a quest, causes for a game that is one part action and one part sitting back and enjoying story. Some people will like this, some people who are more action prone will despise this. Luckily a few taps of the spacebar will rush you through most dialogue sequences with ease, but you may miss out on some important story elements. So in short, this new style of storytelling is exciting and interesting, but we will have to wait and see how it catches on in the long run. Something tells me that it won’t be so awesome when people start re-rolling the same class a second time, as most of the key story has already been experienced.
One problem with this extreme focus on dialogue and story is that the animations and character models take a back seat. It’s clear that Bioware needed to create a system whereby character models and animations could quickly and easily be assembled in a generic fashion to match any type of dialogue they could throw at the player. As a result the uncanny valley is very uncanny. Animations are repetitive and stiff during dialogue, there are awkward pauses as the game server tries to catch up and synchronize all of the players and action, the models themselves all look the same and honestly look a lot like marionettes. Even the human looking races in the game all look very similar.. Just the same bodies and faces painted with different colours, tentacles added here and there, and voila a new NPC! It sometimes breaks the immersion, but for the most part the voice acting has enough character and personality in it to distract you from the uncanny er.. uncanniness of it all.
On the other hand, the rest of the game is just gorgeous to say the least. The starter worlds will wow you as they are extremely attractive and colourful environments, but the secondary and third worlds will floor you. I thought that Tython and Hutta were beautiful and well fleshed out worlds, but once I got to Coruscant, Taris, and Dromund Kaas my jaw dropped. The art teams really put a lot of effort into making these worlds a sight to behold. Coruscant with it’s bustling airborne highways, Taris with it’s post apocalyptic crumbling towers of a civilization lost, and Dromund Kaas with it’s sinister and breathtaking imperial capital city of dark glittering skyscrapers and lightening slashed skies, dark purple, and brooding. Even Korriban, as a starter world, was breathtaking to me with it’s orange red sand scorched rock valleys, it’s sinister creepy crawly wildlife, and the awesome finishing touches, such as an imperial capital ship orbiting off in the distant sky. The use of contrast and rich colour is something I noticed early on, and a boon to the visual experience.
I also love the music choice. It sounded very Star Wars, but different enough to set the universe apart from the films. The sound effects and ability effects are likewise awesome. The glow and hum of the light sabers are just right, the alien lifeforms are animated and modeled as marvelous as you’d expect them to look, the skills such as force lightening cackle and spark like you’d hope, and the blasters all have that Star Wars blasting sound to them. Bioware has really carved out a gorgeous and realized universe to play in. The game maps and environments make sense too, they lead you from one area to the next via quest chains, and progressively get more difficult and more interesting as you move forward. No complaints!
If we set the story and presentation aside, that leaves what? Well that leaves the game of course! Well the game itself is, well, an MMO. It handles and plays like mostly every other MMO you’ve ever played. There are a few minor differences here and there that set it apart. For an example in STWOR I found that most of the mobs I fought were clustered in packs of 3 or 4, so that when you fight them you’re not so much doing a “one on one” you’re literally juggling around 3 or 4 weaker opponents at a time. This adds some more interesting complexity to combat as you need to sort of think on your feet and use all your skills to the fullest, especially crowd control, to bring them all down without problem. There is no auto-attack in STWOR so you’re never sitting back in your seat, you’re always making quick decisions and informed decisions about which skills to use next and when. So combat is not bad..
Companions are a huge part of the game which you get later on around level 7 or 8 I think.. They’re basically like any other Bioware companion you’ve had.. They follow you around loyally, they drop humorous and character driven, and often opinionated, dialogue while you adventure, and they act as a sort of makeshift sidekick during combat.
At times where it’s difficult to find other human characters to group up with, it’s very very nice to have an NPC companion who can hold their own. And that they do! I played mostly Jedi Consular, and my companion, a melee heavy trandoshan named Qyzen Fess, was a perfect complement to my wizard-like skillset, often mowing down my problematic mobs with ease as I tossed debris from afar. So they’re definitely a welcome feature, they add to the story, and make you feel a little less “alone” in the universe, so to speak. They also provide some extra functionality to your player such as going away on missions for you that can score extra rewards such as crafting materials or items. They can also run off for a short time and sell your grey items for you.. Something that most MMO players will simply love about this game.
Alone is not really the best word to describe my feelings in an MMO, since even in beta, the servers were well populated. However I felt like the UI in particular needed some extra attention, especially in the most important feature of FINDING OTHER PEOPLE TO PLAY WITH. I put emphasis because, although I was able to quickly join up with people by running into them by chance, or spamming the general chat window, the “looking for group” panel that should of been prominent seemed sorely lacking and missing. It was also strange to me that the Flashpoint dungeon runs had no “summoning” feature to quickly bring players together. This seemed like a no-brainer to me and is something that mostly all modern MMOs have. Often we’d have to sit and wait for player X to travel 10 minutes to the entrance of the Flashpoint. I also found the tool tips super annoying as they kept popping up and I couldn’t find an efficient way to get rid of all of them. Many of the tips were not even that helpful. Tips such as “move forward to go forward” would irk me as I adventured. Now that wasn’t a real tip from the game tutorial, I made that up, but often I felt like that’s how trivial some of them were.
I also found that some of the crafting panels, and crafting station NPCs, and overall explanation and introduction to some of the secondary game activities such as crafting or companion quests, seemed kind of lacking. I felt like I hadn’t been properly introduced to some of these features and was kind of figuring it out as I went. Something I had sort of “stumbled upon”.. These features were really neat and fun, but I didn’t make much use of them as I both didn’t have the time (due to my short testing period) and didn’t have the patience to focus in and learn about exactly how they worked. I did send my companion on some diplomatic missions and such, and they were kind of neat. Like mini missions you don’t really need to do anything for. You just get some quest text and click and off the companion goes to “handle” the situation for you. The downside is you lose your companion for a short time, upside is they come back with riches! Give and take.
So there are some other things I tried briefly but didn’t spend a lot of time on. I’ll briefly touch upon these now. Space combat is one of them, accessed through your ship. Your ship, by the way, is something you get around level 15 I believe.. The ships are awesome, and give you a feeling of freedom as they act as a central hub between all of the planets and game worlds you can travel to. They’re a place where you can sit back and relax and chat with your companion NPCs. Space combat is accessed from the cockpit section of your ship, and it’s pretty cool I suppose. It seemed a little shallow, like something “tacked on” as an afterthought. But in a Star Wars universe, any kind of space combat is welcome I guess, mini-game or not. It’s basically like Star Fox in the Star Wars Universe. You’re lead through a linear part of space shooting enemies like moving targets. It’s simple, but mostly fun. The visuals are nice.. I have no real complaints about it.. It was cool beans.
Lastly I tried some PVP. PVP was actually very fun. I never play a lot of PVP in MMOs so I tried this mostly just out of curiosity. And there is something to be said about watching Jedi and Sith players clash sabers in an all out epic battle. It really brings out the Star Wars geek in you, and helps flesh out some of the drama between Jedi and Sith. I found that players really take their character’s roles seriously as well. When I played a flashpoint as a Jedi my Jedi player companions were very righteous and virtuous, opting to save lives and make a difference. However when I played a Sith flashpoint as a Bounty Hunter and decided to spare the life of pathetic imperial captain I was bombarded with complaints from my fellow Sith layers. “We got a pacifist over here!” one of them said. “Pussy!” I was called by another. Similarly I was on a quest as my Jedi Consular character with someone playing as a Smuggler. We got to a dialogue point together in which the NPC asked if we would like a reward. As a Jedi Consular I felt like I had done justice and that was enough of a reward for a Jedi and so I politely declined, however my smuggler buddy wasn’t so keen on that. “WHAT? Damn Jedi!” he protested. Situations like this make me feel like Bioware has already succeeded in their mission to bring story and real characters to the MMO realm. It’s something you simply don’t experience in any other MMO.
I could go on forever about the differences between classes. This is really the only thing I haven’t talked about in length. What I will say is that each of the classes hold their own, each of them have their niche, and each of them seem to have a counterpart in the opposing faction that effectively matches the function of that character and his/her skills while still being different enough to have their own unique story and feel. For an example, the Sith warrior has a very similar feel to the Jedi knight, but they are both very different from a story standpoint, and they both have skills and abilities that are foreign to each other but also hold a kind of resemblance. Some of my favourite things so far from each class: Firing missiles and using a flamethrower as a Bounty Hunter, leaping 20 feet across a room in epic lightsaber rage as a Sith warrior, force lightening the shit out of everything as a Sith Inquisitor, running and gunning and diving for cover as a Smuggler, tossing debris with sophisticated class as a Jedi Consular, and being a James Bondesque sniping badass as the Imperial Agent.. As you can see each class had an impression on me, and each class had it’s own excitement and interesting twist and turns as part of their main quest line.
Honestly I haven’t even scratched the surface with most of them. The only real progress I made was with the Jedi Consular, and one thing I can say is that the game doesn’t truly get exciting and addictive until you fully come into your own around level 20 complete with companions, a ship, your lightsaber (if you’re a force user), and main quest line in full swing. If you spend most of your time just grinding at the low levels you will probably not enjoy this game as much until you truly get past the boring stuff.
Would I recommend this game? Yes, absolutely. It has it’s flaws, and it’s bugs, but I believe these exist because of the truly daunting mission that Bioware set itself on. To create a dialogue, voice acting heavy MMO in itself is an accomplishment in this day and age. To make it interesting and fun is another. To create a balanced game with exciting classes, choices, and environments is, again, thrice, a whole other. They’ve mostly succeeded on these fronts. I expect the bugs to be taken care of in time, the UI will likely be added to and refined. So in short the game is great and will only get better with age. Even the already gorgeous visuals (besides the dead looking character models) have gotten better during beta with new lighting effects and other nice polish added over the final days. During my playtime I spent most of my time rushing around trying to pack as much fun into 3 days as possible, I truly look forward to having the luxury of time with this one, where I can really take in the full experience without feeling like I’m rushed, and without worry of losing my character due to beta wipes. I’ll be playing this one day one! See you all in game! 🙂