Star Wars: The Old Republic
The NDA is down. Let the vomiting of details commence!
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I need to say that I started my SWTOR experience after coming off a few hours of Skyrim. That’s a tough act to follow for any game, especially if that game is A) another RPG, and B) and MMO which has been often criticized for it’s safe design decisions. I admit that my initial impression was colored by Skyrim, which is both fair and unfair. Fair, because Skyrim sets a high bar for all games, but unfair because one’s a single player game which can have the room to breath, and the other is an MMO which really does have to cater to a wide audience. The Star Wars IP really doesn’t do it for me; I’m a casual fan, but could take it or leave it beyond eps IV, V and VI.
I have also been on an anti-MMO bender lately, as previous posts can attest to. I was going in with several strikes against SWTOR already, and the only real reason I hadn’t cancelled my pre-order at that point was because I know my friends are planning on playing.
In A Galaxy Far, Far Away (And Packed To The Gills With Testers)
My first misguided decision was to create the class I wanted to play: Jedi Consular. I don’t care for the “Jedi” part; I’ve taken an unusual shine to the healer class since Rift, so I decided this was to be my class in release. But I wasn’t feeling it, for the reasons stated above. I also realized that I shouldn’t play the class now that I want to play later, so I quit out and created an Imperial Agent. I consider this to have been a Good Move ™.
The Agent was fun. The cover mechanic worked pretty well, although it’s kind of gimmicky. Normally you’d just stand there and shoot like a total dork, but at least with cover, you get the feeling that the usual MMO unwillingness to, you know, avoid getting shot at is mitigated by the fact that you’ve decided to take cover this time. I wasn’t sure how to use the Agent at first, but found that while in cover, your abilities in the hot bar change. I guess this is kind of like a stance change. A lot of the Agent’s abilities revolve around shooting and blowing things up,which is great fun. After I found the right ability rotation (a curse of MMOs, natch), I was gunning down and exploding targets really good-like. Thanks to Rift, I even stopped several times to lob grenades at mobs under fire by other players before running on my way. I‘m a real fucking nice guy like that.
I don’t really follow the greater Star Wars canon, so I’m not going to get all geeky over nods to the universe to be found in the game. I liked the visuals, though. I thought they were properly immersive. In the Hutt palace where you spend most of your time as an Agent, you often pass through the cantina which had the same kind of surreal music you hear in Star Wars cantina when Luke and Ben hire Han: it’s kinda goofy, but in an alien way, so you nod and say “OK. I can get on board with that”. And, Twi’lek pole-dancers.
Hutta is kind of a crappy place, with a lot of swamps, some slave labor, and a kind of shanty-town feel despite being high-tech. That’s one aspect of Star Wars that I do like: how high technology can exist in such a run-down and totally crappy configuration that implies that the people living there don’t care that they have hover-bikes. It’s old hat to them, and they just shrug it off.
Jedi Mind Tricks
So after a while, I found that I wanted to go back and play, partly because I felt obligated as a tester, but partly because the more I played, the further I progressed in the Agent’s beginner story arc. And I was enjoying that aspect. The voice-over is crucial to this. It is as you would expect if you’ve played Mass Effect or other BioWare conversation dial games. If that doesn’t light your fire, well…turn back now.
Sitting here now, writing this almost a week after the testing experience, I can say with certainty that the into to the Imperial Agent story arc will stay with me for a long, long time. There’s only a handful of quests from any RPG or MMO that I can say that about, so I consider that to be a special kind of litmus test in regards to the worth of a game for me. Without getting spoilery, I can say that being a total dickwad, purposefully picking the decisions to maximize the Dark Side points, lead to a very sharp contrast when the situations got serious, but it was the divide between being an asshole and the hard decisions – and sometimes regret of making a particular decision – that put a pin in the whole intro for me. I don’t have any official plans to play Sith in release, but if the opportunity arises, I am so going to be an Agent all over again…and will probably be as big of an asshole as I was the first time around.
Bonus Content (Extra Stuff On The DVD)
One thing that also added to the enjoyment was the attainment of my first minion. She rolls into the…role…naturally as part of the story, which I thought was smooth. She kicked butt, but wasn’t a deus ex machina or anything. I had a bit of a stumble trying to figure out how to give her gear and to manage her effectively at first. After I left Hutta, though, I was able to use the companion system to send her to sell my junk items, and, once I got her her companion skill (Underworld Connections) I sent her away on her first solo mission. It works like the pet in Torchlight, where they go away for a set amount of time that, in this case, varies based on the implied complexity of the task (and the expense of shipping them out, and the level of the reward). I like the idea that you can do these things with them while you’re just bumping around the quest hubs or waiting on other players to get their act together.
But if you strip out the conversation system, the story, the companions and some of the other fluff that BioWare has added, you have a basic, old school theme-park MMO. That’s pretty damning for some, and it was for me up until I became invested in the story. I really don’t want another wall of text MMO where I really only read the objectives and compare rewards and never consider what the narrative reason is behind my task. It’s kind of a “thing” that’s been missing from MMOs: a real mechanism that nails the unappreciated aspect of lore and story to the player’s forehead so that he can’t ignore it, or can’t just read the objectives before robotically plowing his way through to get the reward. I really started to care about what I was doing, and how it was affecting the story, and yeah, at some point I stopped being a dick and started earing Light Side points because there were characters I didn’t want to betray (the one that mattered the most to me was handled badly by me, and I still regret the decision I made to that end). If it weren’t for the stories, and the way that they’re executed, I would have backed out on my order by now.
So some people are going to love it. Some people will absolutely hate it because it doesn’t deviate enough from the themepark MMO design. Some people will be on the fence and will probably buy it and give it a shot for the free 30 days of play time (strangely, I just questioned whether there would be a free 30 days…don’t know why…) and will make their decision in that time. It’s a polarizing game, which is good and bad because regardless of how you personally feel, it is doing some things to move the ball down the field which can only mean a march of progress for the genre that hasn’t really progressed by leaps and bounds over the past few years. We had this kind of minor shift with Warhammer Online’s public groups, the introduction of LFG tools, and other features that we now take for granted. I do hope that future MMOs integrate deeper conversation mechanisms, because I think then they can start to really tell the stories that they’ve been trying to tell all these years, and make more people take note of them.
One burr in my bonnet, though: I realize that the Hutt are intergalactic gangsters, but was it really necessary to give some of their minions those stereotypical “wiseguy” accents? I felt the only thing missing were the gold chains, bad Hawaiian shirts, and copious chest-hair.