Archive for November, 2011

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Planetary Album

November 29, 2011

Ever since the NDA was lifted for the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta, my guildies in the Republic Mercy Corps/Imperial Mercenary Corps have been trying to pool together our media and share them with each other. There was a wealth of screenies to go through, mostly because a few of my fellow RMCers have been in testing for almost a year! Some of the gorgeous images I saw gave me the inspiration for this post.

It’s so hard to really say which planet in SWTOR is my favorite. They all appeal to me for different reasons — I love the colors of Nar Shaddaa, I love the beauty of Ilum, I love the history of Taris, I like how BioWare has captured the atmosphere of Tatooine, etc. etc. etc. Thanks to my friend Maric for allowing me to use some of his screenshots here.

Edit: Mild spoilers about the planets, but no spoilers regarding any of the stories.

Coruscant

A Republic character’s first destination after they finish their respective starter planet. The first time I saw Coruscant, I was stunned. After years of playing mostly fantasy MMOs, it’s a nice change of pace to see the hustle and bustle of a sci-fi city.

Funny story: A lot of people I’ve talked to have admitted to “pulling an Anakin” on Coruscant, immediately or soon after they arrive. That is, jumping over a railing to free fall off the side to see what happens. Yeah, I confess, I tried it too. Sadly, no, you don’t get to land safely in the cabin of a hover car.

Dromund Kaas

The Empire city. It’s a little odd coming right off from reading the new SWTOR book Revan and reading about how this planet was shrouded in mystery and far off into the unknown regions of space. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t actually as creepy as everything made it sound. See the lush wilderness and pretty waterfalls!

Taris

Such a treat to land on Taris, to have all the memories from playing Knights of the Old Republic come rushing back…even though it looks nothing like it did before Malak’s orbital bombardment. I liked how there were plenty of opportunities for players to relive the planet’s history, though it feels like you spend forever here, if you’re Republic. Sith get to come here later, and get their own “instance” of the planet.

Nar Shaddaa

Nar Shaddaa has gone through many changes, and with each beta build it seemed to come back seedier and tackier. Huge gold statue of a Hutt in the middle of the Promenade, anyone? There are drunken NPCs playing in the yellow water of the fountain around it, for God’s sake. And all the holo-dancers (though, you would think people would prefer the real thing)!

Nar is still pretty cool though. The first planet where the Republic and Empire get to go head-to-head in the neutral areas, the RMC spent much effort cleaning up the Promenade of Imperial griefers/gankers during that one time almost everyone’s PvP toggle was stuck on permanent flag.

Tatooine

Let’s just put it this way: for me, the sight of the two suns on the horizon was enough to trigger a nerdgasm.

For a desert wasteland, there’s actually quite a lot to see and do on Tatooine. You get a wide stretch of open space for the first time, the Dune Sea being the perfect venue to hold our RMC/IMC Friday Night Fights and naked dance parties on the slow-floating balloon.

Funny story: many players make the pilgrimage out to the north Dune Sea to see the great Sarlacc. Maric and I encountered a level 16 who made it all the way out there, dodging elite mobs 10 levels above him just to hurl himself into the pit and sacrificing himself to his Sarlacc gods. After we rezzed him, the whacko went off in search of a Rancor. Good luck, crazy dude.

Alderaan

Everywhere you turn is another postcard moment on Alderaan, that is when some disgusting bug alien thing isn’t constantly stepping into your frame and ruining your picture. Oh, and you get to ride thranta between the taxi points. So sad, to know that this planet will be blown to smithereens in another few thousand years. Enjoy these alien-free shots:

Balmorra

Empire characters get to come here right after they leave Dromund Kaas, but Republic folks come here much later, and we get our own “instance” of the planet.

Quesh

Probably the smallest zone in the game, and you breeze through it in about a day even at this higher level. Can’t say I was too upset about that — though some parts of Quesh can be pretty, when you think about how it’s all the poisonous gases in the atmosphere, that’s pretty nasty. That, and I was itching to get to Hoth, so I was even more relieved when I found out there wasn’t a bonus quest series.

Hoth

I was dying to get to this planet, and I don’t know why. Maybe because I really wanted to see a wild tauntaun with my own eyes. Hoth is like Tatooine in that it’s huge with wide open spaces, except everything is covered in ice and snow. You get to do some really fun quests on this planet, even enter into some fragile alliances with the other faction, albeit grudgingly.

Funny story: everything’s so blue, I discovered that trying to find quest items or lore objects that are on the ground with the blue sheen on them is a nightmare on this planet!

Voss

There’s something very Trollshaws (if you play Lord of the Rings Online) or Azshara (if you play World of Warcraft) about this planet. It’s SWTOR’s own autumnal zone with the fall theme and fiery foliage. And the creatures on this planet tend to be vibrant shades of blue or violet, setting off the contrast. Very pretty. And the first time I met a Voss (the native humanoid species), it was wild.

Belsavis

Or the “moldy ball of cheese” planet as I like to call it, as that’s what it looks like from space. Not exactly an ice planet, Belsavis has got little pockets of jungle nestled amongst its glacial cliffs. There’s something very “Lost World” about this place, with all its strange plant life and creatures.

It’s also a prison planet, which makes it a pain in the ass to navigate unless you follow the roads, because everywhere you go is another huge wall or fence. Not to mention the transportation technology they use here. A very “beam me up, Scotty!” type of thing.

Corellia

The future birthplace of Han Solo was not what I expected at all. It’s pretty much a bombed-out craphole in SWTOR, but at least the trams are still working great! That is, when they weren’t bugging out and leaving me dead on the tracks, it’s like a fun rollercoaster ride through the city. Not much of a view though, sadly.

Ilum

I ditched Corellia and came here as soon as I reached level 50, and came to enjoy the ice-locked twilit landscape. The mobs seemed to hit harder here, and were more difficult to kill. I also stumbled upon a whole area to the west which was devoid of any hostiles or NPCs, and figured this might be a future zone for PvP.

It might have been a whole lot of nothing — at least when I went there — but I think out of all the planets in SWTOR, Ilum is the most beautiful.

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Read Lately – Star Wars: The Old Repubic: Revan

November 28, 2011

I wanted to like this book, I really did. A month ago when I was so eagerly anticipating the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, I didn’t expect I would be starting a review for it this way, and I really don’t like having to be negative, but what can you do.

Granted, it is possible that my high expectations may have clouded my judgment. For one thing, I’m a big fan of Drew Karpyshyn — he wrote the Star Wars Darth Bane trilogy and also the Mass Effect novels that I found I really enjoyed. But more importantly, I’m also a big fan of the character Revan, having been obsessed with and emotionally invested in his story from the Knights of the Old Republic games. Still, I have a feeling that even the most  casual of readers picking this up will find many problems with the writing and execution of this novel.

To be fair, I’ve been following Drew K’s blog for a while now, and on it he occasionally talks about the pressures of looming deadlines and the challenges of meeting them. His writing in Revan appears to be the latest victim of this restrictive time crunch, as it’s definitely not his best work. This is a shame for two reasons: 1) He’s usually capable of much better writing, and 2) I would have pegged him as the perfect author to tell Revan’s story, as he was intimately involved with the development and writing of the first KOTOR game.

Another reason why I think the book was a rush job is how well it started out in the first handful of chapters, versus how everything started unraveling and falling apart in the second half. I’d glimpsed some of the not-so-positive starred reviews prior to finishing the novel, and thought to myself, “Nah, this isn’t that bad.” But then I hit part II. And I began to understand.

First of all, in retrospect so much of the book felt like filler, lengthy exposition sequences and drawn-out descriptions. While I understand the need to bring readers up to speed with the events of KOTOR (for those who have never played the RPG or need a refresher — it’s been about 8 years since the game’s release, after all) I lamented the fact it came at the expense of scenes that actually required details and a more in-depth look. Instead, important action sequences and scenes that actually drove the plot forward or called for more emotion were completely glossed over.

Second, the book was so short. It’s not like there wasn’t enough to write about. Like I said, so much of the novel could have been fleshed out and made better. It just felt like the author needed it to be over and done with, fast.

Third, there was a very noticeable shift in focus by the end of the book. I thought I began by reading about Revan, but little by little, he started taking more of a background role, and by the final chapters it was clear the emphasis was more on the Sith character of the novel, Lord Scourge. I just found this odd, and I still don’t really understand the purpose.

Nonetheless, there is still plenty of Revan, which is one of the reasons why I couldn’t just toss this book aside. There will be answers to some big questions left behind by the ending of KOTOR and KOTOR II, and for this reason I don’t regret reading it at all. The Jedi Exile also plays a huge role, and it is in this book that she is finally identified and given a name — Meetra Surik.

However, speaking of characters, don’t expect many of the companions from the games to make an appearance. The three that get the honor are Canderous Ordo, T3-M4 and Bastila Shan. The rest like Mission Vao, Zaalbar or HK-47 are only mentioned in passing, or given some weak excuses why they couldn’t show up. Carth Onasi doesn’t even get a mention, and while admittedly he was one of my more whiny and annoying BioWare boyfriends, I couldn’t help but notice the snub. Ouch.

I don’t want to make it sound like Revan was all bad. I personally liked a lot of the dialogue, though I think I’m probably in the minority with regards to this. I definitely think dialogue-writing is Drew Karpyshyn’s forte, but while some lines might work well in a video game, I admit they don’t always translate well onto a page in a novel. Some plot points were predictable, but in general I enjoyed the story. And finally, like I said before, the book does manage to bring some form of closure. Sort of.

This does beg the question: Is closure — that is, a truly satisfying conclusion that emotionally invested KOTOR fans have been waiting almost a decade for — even possible for an epic story like Revan’s? Honestly, I believed the answer is yes. And I still do. Which is why I had such high hopes for Revan. Despite my biases, I still think it could have been the book to bring ultimate closure to the KOTOR series. If only Drew K had been given enough time.

So, to wrap this review up, you may find Revan interesting if you’re into Star Wars novels or game tie-ins in general. I say read this book if you’re fan of the character and the KOTOR games. You might end up disappointed, but you’ve come this far, so might as well finish up. Also read this book if you’re really into the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. There will be quite a few mentions of Revan and his adventures in the game, so knowing the character’s background might enhance the story behind those quests for you, but it’s definitely not required knowledge.

But if you don’t know much about the lore behind SWTOR and the Old Republic era and are thinking of picking Revan up to get pumped for it, I would rethink that decision. For that, you’d probably be better off playing KOTOR instead of reading this.

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NaNoWriMo Week 3: Almost There

November 23, 2011

Another quick update on my progress, before I retreat with my tablet and keyboard to a dark closet, in which I’ll stay locked until I write my word count quota for today. For various reasons, the 2000-3000 words a day average I’d been pulling at the beginning of this month has shrunk to 1000 or less per day this week.

How do you work when you’re under the wire? I personally like to create deadlines. I make mine midnight, so I can punch in my daily word count before I go to bed and see the stats on my page go up and up and up. In week 3, for more days than I’d like to admit, I would only sit down to write at 11pm and for that last hour I would pound out those words like my life depended on it. It’s like college all over again — bringing back to those days where I’m up ’til 4am in the morning with a 20-page term paper due in five hours.

My husband thinks I’m nuts, that I should just chill and write more the next day, and maybe he’s right. But there’s just something about that rush which gets my creative juices flowing. I know not everyone works this way, but for me, I seem to do my best work under pressure. And I need to have a semblance of routine in my life, I need to make myself — or force myself — to sit down to a writing session at least once in a 24-hour time period.

44120 words so far. I’m so close I can smell it. At this point it’s too late to quit. Factoring in Thanksgiving where I already know I won’t do anything but cook, clean, and eat, as long as I keep up with a thousand words a day, I should be able to do it. That’s not too bad, right?

It’s all Skyrim’s fault. Anytime I have free time, all I want to do is play it.

Oh, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The NDA had to drop too. Hard to believe, but I think I might have written more words for my SWTOR posts than for my NaNo novel last week. Actually, scratch that. After scrolling down my blog just now, I can believe it.

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Girls On Games (With Thanks To MP.net)

November 22, 2011

Time to take a break from the slew of SWTOR posts I’ve been tossing up on here lately. Today, I’d like to bring your attention to a great post by Steve “Slurms” Lichtsinn, blogger and podcast host for Multiplaying.net.

A couple weeks ago, I got an email from Slurms asking if I would like to answer a few questions for an article that he’d been planning on for quite some time. It was to be a feature about women and gaming, and he wanted to know if he could get some of my opinions on the topic.

I was happy to participate for a few reasons. First of all, I found many of his questions to be interesting and insightful. Second, I think it’s great that people are actually contemplating these matters and are willing to reach out to female gamers to find out more. It definitely takes a discerning mind a certain amount of guts to approach others with a delicate topic such as this, God know we ladies can be a little scary sometimes. And third, I ended up having a lot of fun answering his questions.

I’ve received the go-ahead to repost my own responses here, but I do encourage you to check out the original article on Multiplaying. Over there, Slurms has included the answers from four other lovely gaming ladies from the blogosphere/twitterverse: Stargrace, Arislyn, Maeve, and Doc Swarley. I have to say it was fascinating to be able to read their thoughts regarding women and their place in gaming, and realize many of us appear to be on the same page.

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Are you concerned with the current state in gaming in regards to how women are viewed? Is it too male dominated from an in game, lead character role, a developer role, or both?

Could there be more done in terms of how women are viewed in gaming? Always. But am I concerned? Currently, my honest answer has to be no. But then I’ve always been told I’m a glass-half-full kinda girl and you’d have to go out of your way to offend me, so take my answer with a grain of salt. I actually think women have come a long way in the industry, both in our games and in the gamer demographic. I wish I could give more insight into this question, but I’ve just never really sat down and contemplated this or encountered any reasons to despair for the future of women in gaming.

I do think gaming could benefit from being more a more welcoming and attractive hobby to female gamers, though. And yet, no matter what the industry does, I think our society still has a lot more to do with this. Gaming still isn’t considered as mainstream as I’d like, let alone be seen as a “girl” thing, and I still get weird looks sometimes when I tell people I game or that I write a game blog.

This is probably a stupid question, but would you like to see more female protagonists? Or at the very least, the option for one i.e. Mass Effect?

I don’t think it’s a stupid question. When there’s an option to play a female protagonist in a game, I ALWAYS choose it. It’s a personal choice, as it makes it easier for me to relate to the character, especially if it’s an RPG. I always appreciate developers for giving gamers more options.

And I love it when I see strong female protagonists, I wouldn’t mind seeing more. Be that as it may, it wouldn’t do to just insert them into a game for the sake of HAVING strong female characters either, or making that decision at the cost of game quality like story, etc. I notice a lot of voices currently appealing to developers for a stronger female presence in games, and while I agree and also admire their efforts, I personally prefer not to push the issue TOO much. I’d rather see a sincere effort than mere tokenism that would be a disservice.

I don’t mean to ask this in a negative way, but, do you feel that women are harder to please, thus making games for women a more difficult task?

Oh man, I am totally the wrong person to ask. Are women harder to please? Some are. Sometimes. Heck, I can be pretty high maintenance too about certain things (just ask my husband), but when it comes to my geeky interests and hobbies like games, movies, comics, etc. I gotta say I’m as easy going as they come. Forget the little details, just entertain me and give me fun, dammit! That’s all I ask, and if you deliver, then no complaints from me.

Ultimately, do you think that the core problem has more to do with the audience, or the creators? (i.e. do you believe that a game with a strong female lead isn’t being done much because of the people who buy the games, or is it a gold mine waiting to be cracked open by a studio who’s not scared to go for it?)

I don’t think it’s the former, because I believe historically games with strong female leads have generally been received quite well. With regards to your question about the audience or the creators, I may have already touched upon this in an earlier answer, but I think it’s a two-way street. Before creators can make any headway on the issue, there may be a few socio-cultural obstacles to overcome first, like the gamer image, and such.

If someone does create a “Triple A” title with a female lead, what would you suggest they do to keep the character likable by a majority of female gamers?

Keep her “real”. She can be drop-dead gorgeous, a super-heroine or whatever, just as long as there’s something about her that we can care about — whether it’s her hopes, dreams, ambitions, fears, etc. She’s got to be relatable to be likeable. Come to think of it, if you ask me, a lot of male leads in games these days can stand to be fleshed out like that too. Whether it’s games or books etc., I always love myself a good story, and they are always better when I can connect with the characters.

Do you hate the fact that people even talk about this? Part of why I’ve never written a post like this before is because I always figured women who are actually gamers (not the “GRL GAMER, look at my bewbs, oh btw I like Mario” type) are in some way disgusted when this stuff comes up and that I would come off like a jerk by even trying to include them in the conversation.

No, I don’t hate the fact people talk about this, even though I realize I rarely broach the topic myself. My blog name may be MMO Gamer Chick, but I’m aware I don’t often talk about female gamer issues. It’s not because I’m disgusted by or don’t like to talk about this stuff, but rather because my gaming life is more about the games, and I identify on the blog as a gamer first and foremost, the female thing being secondary.

Whether I agree with them or not, I’m always open to reading others’ thoughts and opinions on any topic, and maybe to offer my own. Actually, I think it’s quite awesome that people are aware of issues in gaming and are taking time to contemplate them and opening up to discourse. And I have to say it’s also kinda brave of you, as you’re touching upon a subject on which A LOT of people have A LOT of differing opinions, and I’ve seen sometimes that these discussions can get out of hand. The fact that you are even worrying and have to ask this question shows that it is controversial.

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SWTOR: Massively Yours

November 21, 2011

Gathering for a world boss.

Now that the gag order has lifted from the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta test, I want to get something off my chest. This is something I’ve wanted to talk about for the past few months, but every time the topic comes up I’ve had to hold my tongue because of the NDA. Well, no longer.

For a while now, it’s made me very uncomfortable whenever I go on Twitter, the forums, or other gaming community websites and see people apply the term “single-player MMO” to SWTOR in a deprecatory way. I’m sure we’ve all seen the type of comments. You know, the kind that imply SWTOR isn’t a real MMO, or that it’s just a single-player RPG pretending to be one, or something along those lines. It was so far-reaching at one point, that I began having my own reservations when I first got my invite to general testing, and wondered if SWTOR would not turn out to be the MMORPG I’ve been looking for.

Looking back now, I was crazy to have been worried. Even after just a week with The Old Republic, it was clear to me that this is a gen-u-wine, bonafide massively multiplayer online game, with all the delicious goodness that comes with a very large number of players interacting with one another within a persistent virtual world.

So I got to thinking, out of all the recent MMOs currently on the market and in development, why does SWTOR get singled out like this (pun intended) more than any of them? I mean, yes, it is possible in the game to level from the beginning to level cap solo, but if that’s the definition of a single-player MMO then a lot of current games would fall into that category as well. But I just don’t feel any game gets abused with the “single-player” label as much as SWTOR does.

I have a few theories, but I do believe the single most important factor that leads people to this misconception about SWTOR is the fact that it boasts story, companions, and a quest line unique to a player’s class. Well, if I’m correct, then this has proven to be a double-edged sword. Arguably, these features are the biggest draw about the game, but they may have also given some people the impression that SWTOR is merely a single-player experience disguised as an MMO.

Perhaps it is also BioWare’s reputation as a developer of AAA single-player RPGs. When people hear the name, no doubt their recent successes like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series spring immediately to mind. And yet, it is true that SWTOR is their first venture into the MMO space, so it’s only natural to to be curious whether or not BioWare can break from their long history of developing single-player games in order to make this monumental leap.

The thing is, it is highly likely that BioWare knew full well from the beginning that proving they can handle an MMO was going to be an uphill battle. I say this, because I’ve seen the way their game goes above and beyond to encourage interaction and socialization between players, as well as provide plenty of opportunities for group play:

  • Group Quests – Around half a dozen of these on each planet, intended to be completed with 2+ or 4+ players. The former are sometimes soloable, but the latter are definitely not. They mostly reward commendations or very nice blues.
  • Flashpoints – SWTOR’s version of instances, designed to be experienced by a full group of four players. In addition, some FPs have bonus objectives within them that require the involvement or cooperation of two or more people to complete.
  • PvP Warzones – Success in a SWTOR WZ often requires strategy and understanding of the rules and objectives, e.g. Huttball (dear lord, don’t even get me started on how many times I’ve seen a player who doesn’t know how to pass, or run a ball back to their own end zone). A group of random players will likely be at a marked disadvantage against a premade whose members are coordinated and knowledgeable
  • World Bosses – Most planets have one or two that I’ve seen. If the live game will be anything like testing, world bosses will also drop some very rare loot. For example, the boss droid on Alderaan has a chance of dropping a white crystal that as far as I know, you can’t get anywhere else in the game (at least in that build at the time). I’ve defeated world bosses with as few as four players, while others take more. The aforementioned Alderaan killer droid, for instance, took ten of us including a few high 40s to just barely take him down.
  • Crew Skills – Sometimes, crafting will require getting necessary materials from crew skills you may not have. While the Galactic Trade Network was still being tweaked in testing, many of us turned to direct trade with our friends and fellow players.
  • Datacrons – Here we get to the activities that are more specific to SWTOR. Datacrons are an optional element of the game, and are objects placed throughout the worlds for enthusiastic explorers to find. A few are easily stumbled upon, but most require some poking around the entire planet. Once you located them, however, the true challenge is figuring out how to get to them. I’ve encountered DCs that require everything from creative thinking, solving logic puzzles, finding unconventional paths, or yes, even grouping.
  • Social System – As I’ve mentioned before in an earlier post, I love this feature in SWTOR and it’s the only MMO I’ve ever played with something like this. It is completely optional once again, but it’s a nice perk. To gain social points, all you have to do is group up and participate in group conversations. Every time you win a convo-loot roll you gain the maximum number of points for that roll. Even if you lose the roll you gain points, just less. Racking up social points will help you gain social ranks (I, II, III, etc.) and each time you go up one you get a nifty little title. And the best part of all, rare cosmetic and vanity items from social vendors become available to you!
  • Bonus XP - Thanks to my guildies for helping me confirm this, but I believe that unlike most MMOs, experience is not as reduced per mob kill for group members who are at a similar level, so you’ll be progressing faster. In addition, there are ways to gain bonus XP in groups — completing a class quest with your buddy will reward you with some XP when he or she completes it even if you don’t have it in your log, for example. Doing “bonus” type quests with others will also reward you some extra XP if you complete it in a group. It is a HUGE incentive, making it in a player’s best interest to group up whenever possible.

Thinking about it now, throughout my journey from 1 to 50, if I had seized upon every single opportunity presented to me during my time testing in order to take advantage of the above, I would have easily spent 25-33% of my time grouped up. Maybe even more. So you’ll forgive me if I really don’t see SWTOR as a “single-player MMO”, or at least not any more “single-player” than the bulk of what’s out there.

Solo-oriented players need not fret though! You can still play the game and complete your entire class story by yourself — nothing in your personal storyline will require a group. And as you can see, much of what I listed above is completely optional, and the advantages you gain are extra perks but definitely not of the game-breaking variety. But SWTOR is a huge game, and your class story will only be a fraction of the content — I do urge everyone to participate in group activities once in a while. If you’re a hardcore solo-er you’ll still have a lot of fun without ever having to group up with another player, but be forewarned you may also be missing a lot of good stuff!

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SWTOR Beta Test: The Obligatory General Impressions Mega-Post

November 18, 2011

The time has finally come — you know, where I start assaulting you all, my poor readers, with my impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic from general testing over the last five months, now that the NDA for testing has been lifted.

I do have plans to expand upon much of the following in future posts (as if only one gargantuan wall-of-text won’t be enough, right?) But there are quite a few thoughts I do want to toss up on here first. I took a bunch of notes throughout my testing experience, which are a mess right now and which I should really try to consolidate into something coherent. While I love the game and had a lot of fun testing, much of this ended up being the basis for the “constructive criticism” I offered up during feedback, so hopefully this impression piece will come across fair and balanced. I aim to be completely honest.

Overall Thoughts

You’ll probably hear this a lot, but it’s true — the first thing that came to my mind when I first played SWTOR was “Knights of the Old Republic Online”. That is, if I was forced to reduce my description of the game to a diminutive label. I don’t like to, but if I must.

I get the feeling that BioWare determined their target audience early on, and that was how they approached the game. What I mean is, this is an extremely linear MMO and it is never going to be anything but a theme park, so if you are into sandbox type games, it is not for you. Likewise, if you loved KOTOR and came to this expecting to recapture exactly the same single-player experience, it also won’t be for you. Despite what you might hear, SWTOR is a massively multiplayer online game. You can play this solo, but if you want to get the most of it, at some point you’ll have to interact with other people.

I think too many people will expect this to be an revolution and the next step in how MMO games are made, but if so, you’ll be disappointed. SWTOR is simply another iteration of the MMO, taking many things that work and making them better, but it’s by no means a complete redesign of the MMO philosophy. BioWare set their sights on one thing and went about to do that one thing very well — and that’s story. The focus isn’t so much on gameplay, but on the interaction behind it.

Now, with all those caveats out of the way, I’ll say this — I’m a gamer of fairly flexible tastes, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I had with this game. Despite some nitpicky issues I had, in general my overall view of SWTOR is extremely positive.

Character Creation

I’m happy to say I found it adequate, though customization options are still not as robust as I would like. APB or Age of Conan this is definitely not, but there will still be plenty of choices available for you to fiddle around with to make the chance of you running into someone else looking exactly the same as you very, very slim. You can also have apostrophes and hyphens in your character name — a small, trivial detail, but it made me happy nonetheless.

UI

Not a big fan, personally. But then again, I was coming off from playing Rift (which came with a highly customizable and flexible UI right out of the box) and for a couple months this year, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (whose UI I modded up the wazoo). While I played, I yearned for more action bars and a way to move my modules around, and other little things like see-target-of-target. For now, it serves its purposes though, and I give it that it’s very neat and clean.

Advanced Classes

Each class branches off into two paths, and you choose one to follow once you reach level 10 or so. Your Advanced Class is a permanent choice that then determines your role for the rest of the game. I tested both ACs for the Trooper class, and I’m pleased to say the two paths offer up very different and varied styles of play. As a Vanguard, I also wasn’t only limited to defense and tanking; I could also choose to be more damage-oriented if I wanted. Same deal for the healing-capable Commando. It depends on how you allocate your skill points, and this part can easily be respecced.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been praising SWTOR for the flexibility in their class roles — that is, the astute and observant player can quickly access a situation — say, in a flashpoint — and offer whatever support is needed despite the role they’ve been invited to play. You can be the DPS Jedi Guardian but still be a halfway decent tank on the fly, if it was suddenly required of you. The “hybrid” ACs enjoy this perk. I find the two that lack this advantage, however, are the straight-DPS Gunslinger and Jedi Sentinel, and I hope in the future BioWare will give them more utility in group play.

Combat

If you’re an MMO veteran, I’m sad to say you probably won’t find combat during the first 10 or so levels very exciting at all. To be fair, BioWare no doubt calibrated difficulty and complexity to balance the experience for gamers of all backgrounds, and to be honest, I would rather them err on the side of caution than risk frustrating newcomers to the MMO genre. So the bad news is, combat doesn’t feel “heroic” right off the bat, and some might even find it boring.

The good news, however, is that as you level up, the combat gets a lot more interesting. By the mid 20s, I was really getting into it. And by 50, I was having a ton of fun. The XS Freighter Fly-Over FTW.

After you choose your Advanced Class, more abilities become available to you. A lot of them play off each other, and depending on the points you allocate to your skill trees, you can start to vary your strategy a little depending on the situation. Say, your tank’s health is low and your healer needs some time to catch up? My Gunslinger, even as a ranged DPS, never passed up the chance to run up to a mob just to kick him in the balls. It buys the group a few seconds, and while I was in melee range anyway, here’s a blaster whip and a cheap shot to the face too! A smuggler never wastes a good opportunity.

Crafting

It’s very…interesting. For better or worse, I can honestly say I’ve never experienced a crafting system like this. The great thing is, you can order your companions to do the grunt work for you, and so I can be happily questing to my heart’s desire while 3-4 crew skills are ticking away (at higher levels). Of course, this also means the process is less hands-on.

I’m generally not big on crafting in most MMOs, however, and in SWTOR I have to say I’m still not seeing a great incentive to do it, other than the fact I can keep working on it while I do my usual leveling. Plus, mission crew skills eat up your credits really, really quickly, so it’s something I still might want to save for later when I’m all leveled up.

Questing

Your class has a main story line, but there are also general planet quests that everyone else can get.

Class quests are the cream of the crop. These are integrated into your story, and this is where the innovation is, and what makes SWTOR so unique. Here, the choices you make will determine whether you are, say, praised by your commanding officer (in my Trooper’s case, this was General Garza), or get majorly chewed out by her (and boy, can she be a real nag). These quests are crafted to your class story, so they often turn out to be the more interesting, humorous, impactful ones.

Then there are the general planet quests, which I have to admit are similar to those in any other themepark MMO — but on steroids. Voiceover and cinematography makes these otherwise mundane quests so much more immersive. Unlike other MMOs where I have to read a wall of text, I never had to force myself to focus on a quest in SWTOR. It just happened effortlessly and naturally, because the objectives are always delivered with context and emotion. I actually cared about the reasons why I had to rescue 5 nexu pups from the dirty pirates, or salvage some poor refugees’ lost belongings. And at the end if I get to make a light side/dark side choice out of it, SCORE!

On top of these, there are also the “Bonus quests” which are almost always of your kill-ten-rats variety. They are scattered everywhere, and pop up around the same area where you are doing your quests. But they are labeled “bonus” and hence are completely optional. Often, you’ll find you are doing it and completing it while working on the main objective anyway. It’s extra experience, and no harm to you if you find you can’t stomach the grinding and decide to skip them. You’ll probably want to skip them anyway, if you find you are in danger of outleveling content.

Interesting thing I observed though — as much as you hear complaining about the tediousness of kill-ten-rats quests, every single group I’ve ever played with in beta always insisted on completing the bonus — even after the main objective was done. Never underestimate the desire for more XP, or how deeply the instinct is ingrained in us to be completionists, whether you hate KTR quests or not.

Dark Side/Light Side

Not all decisions are black and white, which I was surprised to see. Some definitely are — but it also greatly depends on whether or not you want to roleplay your character, and if so, what class you choose.

I will say one thing though — going full dark side is freaking tough. Nothing makes you feel more like a bag of crap than screwing over a group of orphans, so congratulations to you if you can find it in yourself to soldier on through the tears or berating you get from your quest giver afterward.

Planets

In a word, they are HUGE. So huge, you will be crying tears of joy by the time you get to buy your first speeder. Quest indicators on the map are almost a necessity; otherwise, the game is so big you’d never be able to figure out where to go.

They are also gorgeous. Even wastelands like Tatooine and Hoth are places of beauty, and BioWare has captured the atmosphere of these and other Star Wars planets very well. Other, lesser known planets like Belsavis and Voss are also given the same detailed treatment. Every planet from Nar Shaddaa to Corellia has its own unique charm. There’s plenty to explore, especially if you’re into hunting down datacrons. Most of them you won’t come across while playing, the majority will be off the beaten path and you really have to poke around the entire planet to find them. And that’s the easy part! Then you have to figure out how to get to them…

PvP

I admit, I didn’t do a lot of PvP, other than a warzone here and there. I did play on a PvE test server, however, and so that’s probably why my opportunities to engage in fighting other players were minimal.

Still, my beta guildmates who were involved in a lot more PvP had much to say, and one who has a lot of experience and enjoys PvP gameplay immensely thought it was lacking in SWTOR compared to most other MMOs. To quote him, “3 warzones and 2 open world PvP areas makes SWTOR PvP worse than Warhammer which was head and shoulders above SWTOR PvP.”

I’m no expert, but from the handful of times I’ve PvPed in SWTOR, I would also have to admit it’s nothing very special.

Space combat

Didn’t like it. Well, okay, maybe “didn’t like” is too strong a term. Let’s just say I didn’t “feel it”. I test it once every build, and never really go back to it. BioWare has made many changes and improvements to it over the past few months, but I came to the conclusion very quickly that it just wasn’t my thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great for what it is — a little side-game designed to be a fun distraction to the main game. While it’s on rails, it’s also fast-paced and quite challenging (but you can upgrade your ship to help with that). If you feel like varying your activities a little, you can always jump in, grab some space combat action, jump out. The problem is, I enjoyed my class story and the planet quests way too much, and often that was what I’d rather do. To be honest, this to me is a good thing — it’s what I call a “happy problem”.

Grouping

There were concerns that “story-mode” would make players feel like playing a single-player game, but I really didn’t get that feeling. On top of group quests and flashpoints, BioWare has added a lot of features that really encourage grouping. I just adore the social rank feature, for one. Being in a group conversation and involving yourself in “convo-loot” rolls will rack you up social points. Get enough social points, you gain social ranks. With social ranks, you buy social gear and goods. I came across a Jedi Consular one time decked in a full Leia gold-slave-bikini outfit, and it was awesome. Yep, social gear. So fans of vanity and cosmetic items will probably like this. Not to mention being in conversations with others is a lot more fun than expected.

Doing a CLASS quest with someone else can get a little tedious though. The most you get to be is a spectator, watching your friend go through their cutscenes. It’s almost like living their story vicariously through them, so if you don’t want spoilers, take this time to grab a drink or take a bio break.

Flashpoints

Most impressed I have ever been with an MMO’s instances. Still, not all FPs in SWTOR were designed equally, that’s my feeling, but I do have a few favorites — Esseles, Maelstrom, etc. It’s not so much the boss fights and the combat (though, as I’ve alluded to before, that can be quite interesting in a full group) than the execution and presentation. The FP isn’t just another instance you zone into and clear, it’s a self-contained story you become personally involved in. The ones I liked best were the ones that also gave you a ton of opportunities to make light side/dark side decisions.

Meanwhile, things are constantly happening around you, like exploding consoles or crashing ships. It’s an environment that’s hectic and alive, made even better by high production values — graphics, sound, cutscenes, cinematography, music, etc.

Another reason to do FPs — for the stories that are part of the game world. In your mid-30s, there’s a couple great FPs that shouldn’t be missed, and I won’t say anything more because it’s a big ginormous spoiler, but those who enjoy Old Republic lore will be very pleased.

Companions

They are a joy to have around! I was initially worried about seeing a ton of other Corso Riggs or Bowdaars running around the world ruining my immersion, but honestly, after a while that just fades into the background. It almost becomes like seeing someone else with the same combat pet, which is sort of what they are but also so much more.

You end up with five companions (not including your ship droid) by the end of your class story line, and classes don’t all receive them at the same point in the story/on the same planets. Each has different skills, and you are free to switch them in and out depending on what your situation calls for.

With most conversations you’ll have a chance to gain affection with your companions. I like how gaining it is easier than losing it, i.e. I often receive 15-20 points when I do something my companion approves of, but when I don’t I only lose 1 point (unless I really piss them off, in which case I can lose hundreds, but you see it coming a mile away). They each have their own history and personalities, and become a big part of your character’s life. You can please them or you can mess with their heads. In the case of Vette, my Sith Warrior kept the slave collar on her and generously zapped her with it all the way into the mid-20s. She never did warm up to me, as you can imagine.

Romances with your companions are also possible, and I heard from several of my buddies they even got to marry theirs at high levels (my husband wasn’t too pleased to hear that). Corso and I never got to that point, but we did become a “couple”.

Story

I saved the best for last. This is where BioWare’s forte is, and what they have accomplished here is phenomenal. And looking around, that seems to be the general consensus.

I was sucked into my class story right from the start, and it just gets better and better the deeper you get into the game. You’ll probably hear me say this again and again over the next week — but I can’t get over how well done my Smuggler’s class story was, from level 1 all the way to level 50. As in, I wished I knew the names of the writers for my Smuggler’s story, so I can send them each a personal thank you note telling them how much they have enriched my MMO experience. They made me laugh. They made me rage. They made me giggle with girlish glee, they made me gasp in surprise and ask out loud “Holy crap, did that actually happen?!”

You should have seen me freaking out to my guildies in guild chat when I was around the mid-40s, going, “OMG OMG OMG the best thing ever just happened to my Smuggler but dammit I can’t tell you because it will spoil!”

Much more on this topic in the future, but all I’ll say now is this: kudos BioWare, you have officially proven that story truly does matter.

Hope you enjoyed.

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SWTOR: Hammer Comes Down, NDA Goes Up

November 18, 2011

The Old Republic opens up.

There was an interesting tweet from Star Wars: The Old Republic community manager Stephen Reid yesterday, teasing an “interesting” Friday update. So when the “News and Announcements” forum was graced today with a preview of the Flashpoint “Bringing Down the Hammer“, I was a bit confused. Sure, a feature on a new FP is always nice, but this type of update isn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

But then 3pm came around and BOOM, we got this little doozy from Dr. Greg Zeschuk himself:

As of now, the non disclosure portion of our Game Testing Agreement is officially lifted.

Not sure if Mr. Reid was sort of hinting at this, but yeah, I guess it’s pretty big. Apparently, the NDA lift applies to anyone and everyone, including general testers. So for the next few days, I guess I’ll be preparing a bunch of posts. There’s…a lot I’d like to talk about.

Just some info on my time with the SWTOR beta:

  • Currently still testing, and have been in testing since June
  • Classes I had time to test extensively: Trooper and Smuggler
  • Classes I only dabbled in: Sith Inquisitor, Sith Warrior, Imperial Agent
  • Classes I didn’t touch at all: Either Jedi and the Bounty Hunter — the classes I did not want to spoil as I am most likely rolling them at launch
  • Farthest I’ve gotten: Level 50 (cap) with the Smuggler
  • All 17 planets minus Tython the Jedi starting area

I’ve had a blast testing, and it’s been almost half a year and I’m still not tired of it, so I guess that’s got to count for something!

Anyway, more info and updates coming to this blog soon. I’m sure lots of people will be talking about the game from now until launch, and yes, I’ll be doing my part adding to the deluge! If anyone has any questions about the game, especially the higher level content, I’ll be happy to answer or offer up commentary in a future post. More info and updates to the blog coming soon.

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