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Initial Thoughts

November 24, 2011

Thoughts from the last SW:TOR beta before the upcoming open beta hits:

The character customisation is quite decent, if lacking the free-form goodness of EVE or Rift. Some races are less interesting to customise than others. The requisite five hours of contemplating the right beard (ultimately going with none) were invested.

The Knight is a padawan with a particular talent for swordplay, quickly rising above his peers (to say nothing of rescuing them from trouble) and impressing a crusty old master into completing his training. Without dwelling on the particulars of the earliest storyline, it certainly manages to establish the correct ‘feel’ for the character class. The Jedi is expected to slash his way through enemy pack after enemy pack, feeling very kinetic even with his training sabre. Contrast this with, say, the Imperial Agent introduction, which involves rather less combat but a lot of very logical NPC interaction to establish his cover on Nal Hutta. One of my favourite moments was sweeping for bugs in the apartment given to my IA by the Hutt; the game entirely anticipated my thoughts, which is rare. But I digress. The game wisely promotes you to a Knight quickly, giving you a feeling of autonomy and personal responsibility. The famous lightsaber assembly moment feels quite special. Enough has been said about the quality of voice acting and the writing, (two words: black bisector) so I don’t need to fanboi all over that subject. Moral choices abound, though the designers aren’t always as bold with this as they could be. As a small example, I should be permitted to reject a companion (*cough* Kira) entirely if I wish never to travel with them. I don’t care how many panicked dialogs flash at me, warning about how thoroughly I’ll gimp myself in future crafting, and how my liver will turn cirrhotic. Let me do it. Similarly, a lot of dialog choices seem cosmetic rather than consequential. If I’m snarky with an NPC while grudgingly accepting their quest, it’d be nice if at one point they told me to take my attitude and shove it; one of the five-hundred other padawans milling about behind me will gladly and gratefully kill ten womp-rats if I think I’m above honest work. Oh, and no takesies-backsies. You say no to a quest, tough luck. Not getting it again with the opportunity to amend your choices. Unless it’s a super-important class storyline quest, or something. Right? Alas, none of that; SW:TOR is very forgiving.

There is a good sense of reward for effort; random green drops are competitive with quest rewards and experience awarded for killing mobs tougher than the character seems to increase in a linear way, unlike in WoW, where slaughtering ‘red’ mobs is penalised in relative terms. One of my little quality tests for a theme-park MMO like this one is the extent to which it allows you to mess around outside of the questing ‘rails’. The early TOR is not bad in that respect, though there are heavy storyline gates, such as getting off the initial planet and subsequently getting your own ship. Once through those, one can squeeze a little more sandbox out of this very story-driven game with crafting, PvP and elements like the lolworthy space combat. I’ll admit to being a fan of the game’s Codex exploration/info-gathering sidegame. Like the similar scheme in DC Universe Online, it provides an engaging way for non SW-fans to learn things about the world, and something for the obsessive-compulsives among us to collect around the galaxy. It’s a personal thing, but I much prefer collecting information to collecting wannabe Pokemon pets.

Phasing is done fairly well. It manages to be both explicit (which is necessary if you’re questing in a group and need to know that you might not be able to proceed together) and seamless, with practically no loading times between the solo instance segment and the multiplayer world. Taxi system is fairly standard, the thirty-minute shuttle is a standard hearthstone/porticulum device, albeit permitting choice of destination. A mount at 25, better mount at 50. The game’s logistics are nothing to write home about, with one regrettable exception: as of this last beta, it was impossible to reconcile world-phases without the use of quick transport (the shuttle). Which meant, in practice, when some new acquaintances who’d been pleased with my company in a flashpoint invited me to join them for another the following day, it turned out that they were operating on ‘Coruscant 1’, whereas I was on ‘Coruscant 2’, and ne’er the twain shall meet if my shuttle is on cooldown. Somewhat game-breaking, and doubly so in a game which I believe ought to go out of its way to avoid the ‘single-player MMO’ stigma and force people together instead of throwing up technical obstacles to socialisation. But it was a beta, and that sort of thing isn’t hard to fix.

More information on everything would have helped. I like knowing exactly why my abilities yield the numbers they do, even at the low levels of play. I enjoy tweaking and experimenting with systems rather than simply picking the item with the most strength In general, low-level gameplay was quite easy, which I suppose is standard for MMOs these days. I sought a little challenge by grinding tougher mobs, with good results. In fact, my only solo death (not counting warfronts and flashpoints, of course, and allowing that I was playing a sturdy class) was merrily leaping out across a balcony guardrail into the vastness of Coruscant.

The first tanking abilities come at level 14, which I think is a mistake. They ought to be given as soon as one is ready to tackle the first flashpoint, but such is life, and SW:TOR isn’t the only game with odd ability progression. On that note, many people have commented on the comically casual way in which the character is made to select their permanent life path. In a game where ruthlessly butchering a bunny could prove a momentous, cinematic decision sending you down the path to the dark side, you commit to your class specialisation in front of a random bum at a bus station, as your fellow travellers hustle along and jostle you with their travelling bags. I told the bum I wish to be some kind of protector and defender, not a two-sabre slash-artist, and shouted the poor bugger a coffee. No cutscene, no nuthin’.

It was not difficult, on the whole, to cobble together a reasonable rotation from the focus-generators and focus-dumps I was given as a Knight. Talents are very WoW-like, specifically WoW before the most recent talent reformation which slimmed down the trees significantly. If there is an area where SW:TOR is entirely open to the WoW-clone charge, it is this. It does not necessarily translate into precisely WoW-like gameplay, however. The Knight’s focus system evoked echoes of Lotro’s hunter, of all things, but never mind. There is a global cooldown, and that global cooldown actually feels much more pronounced and tiresome in a game without autoattack, since literally nothing can go on until it finishes. My first flashpoints were about as chaotic as those sorts of things could be expected to be in a beta, but not facerollable, which was a refreshing surprise. We had to be on the ball, figure out boss abilities quickly (I’m looking at you here, ISS-944 of Esseles) and pull our weight. Very nice. The warfronts were less exciting, a little beta-glitchy and not terribly well thought out, generally culminating in great brawls near the objective. Knights are bursty, and I foresee that they will be difficult to balance, as WoW’s cooldown-heavy retribution paladins tend to be. It was amusing to pool focus (Soresu form’s focus-gained-through-being-hit worked well for this, despite the 6s internal cooldown) and plow it all into some poor bugger. We will see how it goes post-release.

Oh, and the space combat minigames are best left unmentioned. It’s essentially Star Wars themed 3D space invaders, with no multiplayer element that I could discern. I dearly hope they do more with it.

 I’ll obviously play the damned thing, and I’m already eagerly anticipating the open-beta this weekend. It’s not perfect, certainly, but it doesn’t suck, so far. Its potential is considerable.

Categories: Beta, Mechanics, Mentality