Archive for November 18th, 2011

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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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