Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Star Wars: The Old Republic – News from the Sith Empire
There are few things more frustrating than struggling to find a topic engaging enough to write about with limited free time, while something you'd really like to be able to review is restricted by a Non-Disclosure Agreement. I got into the SW:TOR Beta, but couldn't really talk about it until now that the NDA is lifted. For those who always skip to the end of this sort of article to get the verdict, I'll give your mouse wheel a break - Star Wars: The Old Republic is a very good game that successfully incorporates the Bioware RPG formula into a WoW-like MMORPG. I intend to purchase it several weeks after launch, and I'll certainly play, but I won't raid in it and certainly won't be quitting World of Warcraft in favor of it. My preferred way to play this game is to turn off most of the things that remind me I'm playing with other people until I want to play with those people, and enjoy the story as a single-player experience on a massive scale. When friends are on, doing an instanced encounter with them or trading items is cool, but I don't intend to randomly group with JEDIDOOD just because I can.
I played through the starting areas for two classes, both in the Sith Empire faction. Let me start by explaining something that I thought was fairly common knowledge, but I continue to surprise people with. "Republic" doesn't automatically mean "good guy" and "Sith" doesn't automatically mean "villain." Moral and ethical choices like those found in Mass Effect and Dragon Age will touch on every character's personal story and the starting areas are very reminiscent in some ways of the Origin chapters in the first Dragon Age. I played a Bounty Hunter who gained both Light and Dark Side points as a mercenary who adheres to the terms of his contract regardless of new information, and a Sith Warrior who is lost to the Dark Side. The two starting planets are split between pairs of classes with Hutta given to the Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter and Korriban for the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior.
Combat options and gear choices are rolled out with completed quests much as they are in any MMORPG, but the quests are anything but typical. First, no quest text. Everything is fully voiced, including your character and every one-off NPC. Second, many quests immediately draw you into some sort of interesting story, and even the "kill 10 blargs and college their whatzits" quests frequently have a twist, where you may find that turning the quest in to the original quest NPC may have consequences you'd prefer to avoid. From the Sith training grounds on Korriban to the streets of Hutta torn apart by a struggle between powerful underworld bosses for control, the environments are gorgeous and logically laid out with "rest/town" areas placed naturally, without seeming like they were spaced out at particular intervals because players need a new quest hub about here. Each classes' abilities are used when trained in different situations, with status conditions like knockdown sometimes being important, or area of effect damage, or a hard, sustained "channeled" attack depending on the foes encountered.
I was surprised to find that the effect your decisions have on NPC party members is retained in the MMO, with every class having an NPC companion with their own outlook and motivations. These characters act like combat pets, and the AI is surprisingly decent on them, with them acting about how you'd hope they would in fights. Conversations have the familiar Bioware "wheel of options" and choosing one over another may affect your companion's opinion of you as well as your personal Light Side/Dark Side points and storyline. I delighted in my evil Sith Warrior's tormenting of his companion, administering painful shocks when she forgot her place or spoke out of turn. People began to react to my tendencies to adhere to a peculiar form of arrogant honor that does not preclude killing those who annoy me with weakness or trivialities. Very quickly, I got to know who my characters were as individuals, which added something to the experience that WoW will never have.
I was less impressed with the stability and capacity on the technical side of things, with login errors, extremely long queues with no way to tell how long a wait for a server was, and no way to back out of a choice poorly made tarnishing the experience. I also found a series of graphical glitches and missing art and animation in some spots that I hope get some additional polish before launch. Aside from the bugs and technical difficulties, I found that the community of players I had access to in the beta detracted most significantly from the experience. Within minutes, I'd turned off the ability to see chat channels and hid the names floating above other players' heads. I suspect that this is a game I will mostly be playing solo or in small groups of friends, trying to interact with the server at large as little as possible. I enjoy the typical MMO experience, but I like my Star Wars gaming to maintain a certain mood, and that doesn't include racism, homophobia or Chuck Norris jokes.
By the end of my last beta weekend, I'd decided to pursue the Sith Warrior class story past the starting areas and I got my first taste of a major faction city as well as the wider world at my disposal. I chose that class because I intend to actually play as a Bounty Hunter come launch, and I'd like to have the rest of that class experience when the full game is released, rather than losing all of what I'd earned after a post-beta wipe. As the feared right hand of a Dark Lord of the Sith, I got into the opening stages of Empire Politics, and I can see the consequences of decisions made earlier already getting ready to come back to haunt me. I look forward to my next upcoming beta weekend, so I can try out the small-group instances and continue my reign of terror. I wield fear as well as a lightsaber in service to the Code: Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through Victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.Blog Gadgets