• Far Beyond My Capacity
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  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
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  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity
  • Far Beyond My Capacity

Friday, November 18, 2011

My SWTOR Beta Review

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I've been quietly playing the Star Wars The Old Republic beta for some time now. At last, with the drop of the NDA announced on Friday I'm able to give you my detailed thoughts. I've been making busy making notes and recording my thoughts and experiences in preparation for this day, so now I get the chance to let you all know what I think.

Those of you who are regular readers will know where I am coming from with regards to SWTOR, but as a quick refresher for those who don't know, I'm an 12 year MMO veteran having started playing the original Everquest back when it was launched. Since then I've played all the major western MMOs. I am a huge fan of Bioware RPGs, especially the Baldurs Gate, Mass Effect and original Knights of the Old Republic series.

I am not a particularly huge Star Wars fan. I have a soft spot for the original trilogy, but really cannot stand the prequel trilogy and most of what has come since. I have been looking forwards to SWTOR for a long time however, and pre-ordered my Collector's Edition on the day that pre-orders were first announced. So, my feelings on the game are obviously coloured by all of those aspects. Having said all that I am going to be as objective and judgemental as I can be with regards to his review.

This is going to be a long and detailed review, but bear in mind that I was playing a game in beta, and many of the things I'm going to talk about (certainly the smaller details) may change for launch. Many things changed with the most recent build on Thursday. Also, I'm not a min-maxer and not interested in statistics and theorycrafting. This review will contain impressions but not detailed run downs on abilities and skills. I should also note that I only got a character up to level 25 during my time in the test, so my impressions should only be taken as accounting for the first 25 levels of the game.

I've already written a lot about SWTOR. It's obviously the game I have been anticipating the most for quite some time, so I began the game with high expectations. Read on to find out if I was disappointed, surprised or happy with what I found. This is going to be a long and detailed review, so strap yourself in, it could get messy...

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

The beta client was easy and simple to download and install, but came in at a whopping 20GB (the most recent build is a little smaller at 18.5GB), surely the largest install for any new MMO. My EQ2 folder (a game that is now 8 years old) only takes up 14.7GB.

I'm sure a great deal of this is down to all the hours and hours of voice-over and the 6 hours worth of orchestral music score. Anyway, it's big! If you have purchased the digital version of the game be prepared for a long download.

Once the client was installed it patched with ease and I was given my choice of servers. I chose the EU English server and logged in to see the opening cinematic (the epic Return cgi trailer). Then I was straight into the character creation screen.

Character Creation - "You stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder."

Character creation is more than sufficient, offering plenty of customisation options. It is based on preset features that you select from a slider (such as found in MMOs like LoTRO and WoW), rather than the more advanced type of character creator which allows you to tweak ear length, nose thickness etc.

There are many options available, the exact number depending on sex, class and race choice. A male human Jedi Knight for example can choose from 4 body types, 24 head shapes, 17 scars, 47 complexions, 5 eye colours, 36 beards, 28 hair styles, 15 hair colours and 36 skin colours. I'm sure that there will be some looks that are more popular than others, but that still gives a total of millions of combinations just for that one class, sex, race combination. I never came across anyone else that looked like my character whilst playing.

You can create some odd looking characters
Another thing I liked about the character creation screen that I did not immediately spot was the information tabs along the top. These gave a detailed run down on such things as the type of equipment a class uses, the abilities and skills they will use, the advanced class choices available, the combat roles that a class can take, and the background story for each class. A lot of information very well presented here.

Expect the spend a lot of time on the character creation screen if that's your bag. It's worth doing so as you will spend much more time looking at close ups of your character than is normal in MMOs due to the cinematic storytelling style.

I played a couple of characters, both on the Sith Empire side as I will be playing on the Galactic Republic side come launch and I didn't want to spoil anything (the two factions have 100% unique content apart from a few shared Flashpoints and Operations). I played a Sith Warrior Juggernaut and a Bounty Hunter Powertech as these were the classes I was least interested in playing after launch.

Graphics - "I saw a city in the clouds."

It is well known by now that Bioware have gone for stylised realism when it comes to SWTORs graphics. This has the advantage of giving a very scalable engine that will run on many machines, but does run the risk of not appealing to those who do not like the art style. All I will say is that I love the graphics in this game. Screenshots and videos simply do not do it justice. The environments in particular are beautiful and spectacular with a really long draw distance and some of the best MMO sky boxes I've seen. The art style gives them a painted look. Bioware have done some great world-building here. There were quite a few moments where I sat staring at the scenery open-jawed.

Character models are really good for the most part, and they need to be due to the large amount of close ups seen during the cinematic conversations. The art direction is superb, and the graphics really do evoke that Star Wars feeling. A few of the armour textures still need a little work however. Armour appearances are very varied; there are absolutely hundreds of unique looking armour pieces in the game.

Some of the environments are very atmospheric
Whilst there is no separate appearance tab for characters, you can choose to colour-match your armour (it will colour itself to match your chest piece, giving a more unified look).  Note that the colour-matching was removed in the latest build for testing purposes, but I'm sure it will be back in by launch. There is little need for an appearance tab anyway, due to the way that itemisation works and the item mod system (more on that later).

I was regularly getting between 45 and 80 frames per second depending on the number of players around. That was running the client at maximum with bloom enabled, maximum view distance and high quality shadows. Anti-aliasing was not yet incorporated into the build (AA is commonly one of the last things to be added during MMO betas). The game ran very smoothly indeed. The engine seems very scalable, and running it with everything maxxed looks great, especially the shadows when you run under trees and the like.

For reference I'm running an AMD  Phenom II 955 with an ATI Radeon 5850 graphics card and 4GB RAM.

Animations - "You look strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark."

Whilst the graphics are good, the animations in this game are quite simply the best I've ever seen in an MMO. Early footage of the game raised a few concerns about animations, but rest assured that they are stunning. Not only is there an incredible level of polish in the animations (for example, leaping from a high spot will cause your character to do a really cool roll when they land), the combat animations in PvE at least are reactive. My Sith Warrior wasn't just standing there swinging his lightsaber, he was parrying and blocking blows, reflecting laser blasts and reacting in a realistic manner depending upon where and how he was hit.

The first time you "Force Charge" into an encounter (Sith Warrior) or fly up above the combat on your jetpack to rain down "Death From Above" (Bounty Hunter) is amazing. In fact even after seeing those animations hundreds of times they never got old. There appears to be some kind of physics engine in the game because cloaks, robes and lekku (those weird head tentacles on the Twi'lek race) all bounced and flowed pretty realistically.

There are also a whole load of social animations from the basic /wave to the more extravagant /woot. Not all of them have associated animations in beta right now, but I expect they will be added. In the most recent patch Bioware added the ability to sit on chairs, though for now only in your personal starship. I would expect this to be expanded to the open world in the future now that the tech is available.

Roleplayers will be pleased to note that custom emotes are in game and working (e.g. /em giggles maniacally).

UI - " I think my eyes are getting better. Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big bright blur."

The UI is the one area of the game that I feel needs to be improved. The basics are in place, and it looks good and relates all the information you need in a concise and efficient manner. However, some basic functionality is still missing, such as the ability to move and resize UI windows (only the chat window can be moved right now). The default UI is so well set out that this isn't a major issue for now, but I expect them to add full customisation in the future.

Additionally, there is no support for macros (not a big deal for me to be honest, I don't like or use them) and no target forwarding function (target-of-target). Having said that, the UI is slick and the game is perfectly playable without those functions. I would be disappointed if they were not introduced at, or shortly after launch however.

Custom chat channels were only added in the most recent build of the game, so it's possible that more UI improvements might make it in before launch.

I have to mention the in-game map, which is superb. Clear and accurate, it not only tracks your quests but those of your group members too. Additionally it automatically becomes transparent if you start to run, making it really easy to use as you travel around.

There is a dressing room in the UI, which you can see by CTRL-clicking any object to get a preview of it.

Quests - "It wasn't my fault, sir, please don't deactivate me. I told him not to go, but he's faulty, malfunctioning. Kept babbling on about his mission."

So, let's discuss SWTORs big selling point, or at least the feature which the developers have been selling most strongly - Story. When first announcing the game Bioware stated "Traditionally, massively multiplayer online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars - combat, exploration and character progression. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, we’re fusing BioWare’s heritage of critically-acclaimed storytelling with the amazing pedigree of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, and adding a brand-new fourth pillar to the equation – story". Does the story really add that much to the game? Is it the defining feature and game-changing addition we have been told?

Absolutely, positively YES. I cannot overstate how much the storytelling makes a difference. No other MMO has immersed me so much in the world.

Ask me to describe the starting story quests of my warden in EQ2 and I'd struggle. In SWTOR not only could I describe the story accurately (I won't for spoiler reasons), but I could explain who a particular NPC was, what his motivations were, discuss his relationship with his daughter, the politics he is involved in and tell you how my actions effected all of the above. What's more I actually cared about these things.

Many strange beasts cross your path during your story
Whilst not doing away with the MMO grind SWTOR hides it so well that I did not notice it at all. I did not hit level 10 by going out and killing 5 Chemilizards or 8 K'lor'slugs (though I certainly did those things). I hit level 10 by taking the trials required to become a Sith Warrior, by out-manouvering a political opponent whilst furthering my own progression in the Sith ranks and by exploring ancient tombs and recovering valuable artifacts for the Sith Order. I betrayed a Sith Lord and helped his apprentice take his place. I explored the valleys of Korriban and found an ancient Datacron containing the wisdom of the Sith (more on this amazing feature later).

Sure, there are still "kill 20 XXX" quests, but they just pop up in your journal automatically when you enter a new area as bonus objectives. You achieve them just by going about the business of your main quests.

I'll give you one quick example of a low level quest I did with my Sith Warrior that illustrates the kind of thing that I'm talking about. I've hidden the paragraph for spoiler reasons.

There are small instanced areas where your main class story plays out. This allows you to change the world for your character without having to change it for the thousands of other people on the server.

The technology used to achieve this is stunning, and so good in fact that it is almost completely invisible. You simply run into your story area and you are in an instance for your character only. There is no loading whatsoever, it's just a seamless blend with the open world. Same when you run back out of the instance into the open world. Several times I didn't even realise I'd run into an instance area (though the game does flash up a message telling you when you do so).

Instanced areas that your character can enter are denoted by a green forecfield over the entrance. Those you cannot enter by a red one. It's a simple system and so smooth and unobtrusive that I couldn't help but be impressed. If not for the subtle message and forcefield glows you would not even know you'd entered an instanced area.

Voice Overs - "Wait, I know that laugh..."

What makes the quests more involving is the cinematic storytelling and voice overs. The quality of the voice work is simply stunning (and there is an unbelievable amount). Only a couple of times did I find the voice work out of place. However, it is not just the fact that the quests are fully voiced that gives the immersion, it is the cinematic way in which they are presented.

Unlike other voiced MMOs your character does not simply stand around talking to an NPC that is rooted in place. The characters move, pace, fight, run and take part in action sequences depending on your decisions. Even that isn't the real grab however. What really begins to drag you in, slowly and imperceptibly is the fact that you have real choice in your responses (see the spoilered quest above for an example). Your decisions effect the NPCs around you and your own character as well.

During the quest I discussed in the spoiler section above I made a couple of Dark-side decisions (these are clearly marked with icons on the conversation wheel). When I did so the music swelled menacingly and the screen took on a red tint. I was awarded Dark-side points. Get enough of these (or the alternative Light-side points) and you can purchase special armour and items from faction vendors. As you fall deeper to the Dark side your appearance even begins to change as you look more "evil" (this option can be turned off for those that don't like the idea).

Each time you start the game you get a summary of your story so far
I can see that some players may get tired of the cinematic quest system (especially once you've played a few characters). Those that like to reach endgame quickly may find it frustrating (though you can skip through the cinematic conversations by pressing the spacebar). I however found it to be a complete game changer. There has never been anything like this is an MMO, don't let anyone else tell you any different.

As I stated at the start of this write up I created a Bounty Hunter and Sith Warrior because I wasn't really interested in playing either class when the game launched. Now I want to play both of them to the end. Each class has such a powerful (and different) story that I am genuinely interested to see what happens. The way the story is so closely integrated into the game and the way it is presented have completely eliminated grinding for me. Additionally I never had to camp any specific mob (this could have been coincidence I guess).

My level 85 warden in EQ2 is a human male. That's about all I know about him. My Bounty Hunter is mercenary bastard who will betray anyone to get what he wants but is not above helping out those in real need. He has lied to protect the innocent and told the truth to bring the guilty to justice. He is driven to be the best but can't hide the worst in him at times. I could wax lyrical about the questing system in this game for hours. It's the best I've ever played.

According to other testers each class story has a very different feel. Some class stories start slow and then suddenly turn into huge epics, others hit the ground running with full on action and others are involved in discovering and influencing the politics of the galaxy. There is bound to be something for all tastes.

Sound and Music - "It only takes one to sound the alarm."

I should take a moment here to discuss the sound and music in the game. It is quite simply astonishing. The music (and there are hours and hours of it) is uniformally excellent and really helps set the mood, especially in the cinematic conversations. It evokes John Williams original movie scores whilst remaining unique to the Old Republic era. The music also swells and changes reacting to what you are doing, and boss battles in particular often have stirring scores.

I particularly liked the cantina music and the fact you could change the music being played on the jukebox. The sound design is fantastic as well. Combat sounds are as visceral as the animations, and I found it a nice touch that different weapons have different sounds as well as appearances. Some of the higher level stuff apparently sounds very unique.

So, as we've seen the game in my opinion is second to none when it comes to presentation and polish. Just the initial "choose your allegiance" screen is enjoyable to watch as capital ships and smaller ships fly across the screen over a huge planetary vista for example. Next I'll discuss the mechanics and systems and my thoughts on them.

Combat - "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."

The combat system in this game is a hotkeyed system like 99% of current MMOs. There are a few differences however. First of all there is no auto-attack (unless you count your companion as an auto-attack).

You have to make a conscious decision to take an action. Initially I did find myself standing in combat not hitting my opponent a couple of times (my Sith Warrior just stood there deflecting and dodging blaster bolts with his training blade), but I soon adjusted. Your right mouse button is mapped to your basic attack (actually hotkey 1), so it's easy to spam that as required. Most abilities can be used on the run.

Eat flame scum!
The combat is very visceral, with the excellent animations I discussed previously. Watching two saber-wielding opponents go at it is amazing as they actually dodge, parry, deflect, strike and react accordingly. The reactive combat system looks incredible. Even ranged characters have some great moves though. The physics system means you can blast mobs off ledges using rockets and they will take falling damage (or even die). You can even line up shots to blast one mob into another, knocking them both down. Most of the time you will be fighting three or more mobs at once, which adds to the fun.

One thing that took me a while to get used to was the global cooldown. It's pretty short at around 1.5 seconds but I've never been a fan of GCD. It is however one of the most reactive and least frustrating GCDs I've played with and has been very well tuned (far, far better than the GCD in Rift for example that I just found frustrating to deal with). The most recent build added the option to change the window in which you can queue up your next skill, which has further improved the flow of combat.

Another slightly unusual thing that took a (very short) while to adapt to was that hitting a skill might result in your character making three of four combat moves in the animation. It looked great but initially was a little odd as it was something I wasn't used to.

The combat system uses the standard three archetypes that most MMOs use; tank, healer and dps. It all seems pretty well balanced, though it takes a little while for the archetypes to begin to shine. They only really become apparent when you pick your Advanced Class (around level 10). Up until that point all classes are primarily focused on dps. This allows the concepts of healing and tanking to be slowly introduced, and this seems typical of the game as it seems to want to ease players new to MMOs into the game systems. All classes get some kind of crowd control (though others specialise a bit more) and some kind of CC escape (generally on a relatively long cooldown).

It's worth noting that there are containers on some planets that will explode if hit. A well timed shot at a barrel of toxic waste can seriously wound any mobs standing near the resulting explosion. A nice touch that I haven't seen before in an MMO.

The death system offers something a little different to most MMOs, and takes the soft approach. Items become damaged when you are defeated (and slowly during normal use) and can be repaired at vendors (if damaged too much they cannot be used). When you die you can respawn at a medical center or summon a medical droid  which will revive you. Once revived you become stealthed for 12 seconds, giving you chance to get out of range of any nasties that may be lurking around. All classes get two revive (resurrection) skills as well - one revives your companion and the other can be used on group members.

I haven't had time to experiment with the much vaunted cover system that Smugglers and Imperial Agents can utilise. Cover classes can roll behind scenery to take cover, opening up a new bar of skills they can use. It sounds fun and I'm looking forwards to trying it out come launch.

The AI of your NPC opponents varies considerably. Lower level mobs have pretty much standard MMO AI (though even that has improved noticeable with the latest build). Even on the starter worlds however I did notice some opponents taking cover, moving round to get a shot at my back and so on. The AI on boss mobs (especially in Flashpoints) is much more interesting, with new mechanics such as aggro stealing and aoe adds adding to the challenge.

The difficulty of the combat was actually adjusted during my time playing, and encounters are now quite a bit harder. It's no longer possible to solo elite mobs in most cases. The AI and abilities of the mobs has been improved, and they hit harder. Boss mobs in particular have been given a variety of unique skills.

Levelling - "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is."

As I hinted at above, levelling happens almost without you noticing. The systems uses the standard MMO levelling approach, with new skills being available for purchase from trainers when you reach a new level. I haven't really come across any redundant skills yet, though there are some murmurs of skill-bloat at high levels according to other testers. Hopefully it won't be quite as bad as EQ2 (I had
around 8 full hotbars at level 85!).

I did find a slight issue with underlevelling on the starter world (this could be easily avoided by grinding a few mobs, but in a game that hides the grind so well that would be defeating the point). At level 4 my story quest took me to a place where I had to defeat a level 6 elite. Needless to say I got my Sith ass handed to me. According to the developers they have taken this on board and the starter world xp is being tweaked in a future build. Anyway, I had another couple of quests in my journal so I did those first then went back and got my revenge.

Experience is also rewarded for exploring (finding new areas awards a small amount of xp) and unlocking new Codex entries. The Codex is like some kind of galactic wikipedia, containing a massive amount of background information on planets, characters, mobs, equipment and a whole lot more. Lore buffs are going to be very happy.

At around level 10, when you leave your starter world, you get to decide on your Advanced Class. This is where you really choose your potential combat archetypes, depending on how you spec the AC, and your character really starts to grow into their role. I haven't had the time to experience all the Advanced Class specifications, but they seem to offer some unique styles of play.

The game does include rested xp (you gain an xp bonus if you rest and log out in certain areas). The rested xp areas include your personal ship and cantinas.

The levelling speed of the game does seem slower than in many modern MMOs. After a couple of hours play I was still level 4, whereas a couple of hours play in EQ2, WoW or even LoTRO would be enough to get close to level 10. This in part may be down to the extended conversations and running round, but at no moment did I find myself bored or even watching my xp bar.

The Game World and Travel - "That's no moon. It's a space station."

I was slightly worried after reading some previews of the game that suggested the starter worlds were a little small and much of the game was on-rails. I'm happy to report that my fears were unfounded. The starter worlds may be much smaller than later planets, but they are still very large (at least as large as starter zones in most MMOs). Whilst the quests do send you from one hub to another there are often several ways to the same place and you often get quests that send you to places in opposing directions. Call them quest hub system linear if you want, but it really works well. Later worlds are truly open, with massive open areas to explore.

I was also amazed at how buildings are handled in this game. There is no loading when you enter a building, and the interiors are actually the correct size for the building. One early example is the Sith Academy on Korriban. It looks massive from the outside, and it is massive when you go in. It really adds to the scale of the game world.

Regarding travel, there are plenty of taxi hubs, but you must reach them and talk to the operator before you can take a taxi there in the future. At level 15 you get the ability to sprint, which speeds things up before you get your first mount.

Taxi routes are on rails, but personal mounts are available too
One thing that did surprise me a little was the amount of running around and distance to cover. Those brought up on second generation MMOs may find this a bit of a shock (at least before they get access to a mount), but it really reminded me of the old Everquest days, where travelling really meant something. It may get old after a while, but I for one enjoyed spending my time running through the amazing worlds Bioware have created.

Apart from taxis there are a couple of other ways to swift travel. You can instantly return to any bind terminal you have visited on the current planet (using a skill on a long cooldown) or can purchase homing beacons that allow you to swift travel to a group members location (assuming they have set up a beacon). This will be useful for organising Flashpoints and Operations.

At level 25 you get the option to purchase your first mount (assuming you can afford the training and the vehicle itself). Low level mounts are of the single-person platform type, but higher level ones include landspeeders of various designs and speeder bikes (and some of them look absolutely brilliant). Most mounts, even the early level ones, travel at the same speed, but the higher level vehicles can take more damage from mobs before you are dismounted.

Heading off the beaten track and exploring really does yield up some great rewards in this game. Other than hidden quests and exploration xp each planet has several datacrons hidden around. Find them all and you get a special reward. In actual fact, finding some of them isn't difficult; I saw my first datacron just sitting there on a ledge. Actually reaching them to unlock the wisdom contained within (a permanent stat boost) is a much different matter.

Reaching the datacron itself is like a complex puzzle involving running, jumping and timing. Some of the datacrons involve you having to group with other players, each work your way to a separate button, then press the buttons at the same time to open a door leading to the datacron. It's a great system that is half-exploration, half-puzzle solving, half platformer, and it really does rewards the explorers amongst us (my Bartle Test shows me as 80% Explorer, so I loved this feature).

Group Content - "Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy."

Each planet has areas set aside for heroic quests. These are clearly labelled in your quest journal (for example, as Heroic 2+, meaning you need at least two players to run the quest). The mobs in these areas are generally much tougher than the rest of the game world.

There are also world bosses on the planets that wander the open game world but require full raid groups to defeat (since the latest build at least, before that they were a little easier).

The main reason to find groups in the game is to complete the Flashpoints, instanced story-based dungeon runs. During my time in the beta I only completed a couple of these, but they were some of the most fun times I've had in an MMO. The story really gives you a meaningful reason to be running the Flashpoint, and the multiplayer conversations are a real hoot. Additionally the Flashpoints contain some unique boss encounters and some really fun mechanics - it's the first time I've seen a crafting skill unlock alternative paths through a dungeon!

Companion characters - "Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice."

Like the questing system and cinematic conversations, companion characters are another feature that could alienate some, but I feel change the game for the better in so many ways. First of all let's get the obvious out of the way. They are not simple pets. Far from it. By the time I'd had several conversations with them, learned about their character, raised their affection ratings and seen them in combat you I was looking at them in a whole new way.

Companion characters bring the story and roleplay aspect to the fore once again. They each have their own morals and aims, and have their own quests that you can unlock as you raise their affection rating with you. This is done during conversations (dialogue choices you make will either make them happy or upset with you) and by giving them gifts (which can be found, purchased or crafted). They will occasionally chip in with lines during conversations, and will also pipe up with their observations as you run around the game worlds.

Many different looks are available for your companions
You can be nice or nasty to them and they will eventually respond accordingly. There is a good deal of variety in the companions, with a whole host of species and classes available. Some companions can be romanced as well, though I didn't progress far enough to see the results.

One quick note, I found that you could only instigate full conversations with your companions in rest areas (cantinas, your starship, etc).

One concern with companion characters is that it might look odd with other players running round with the same companions in tow. In practice I really didn't notice it as an issue. You don't see the names of other player's companions, and you can completely change the appearance of your companion characters (though not their sex or species). This is done by using appearance kits that can be found and purchased. Additionally you can equip your companions just as you can equip yourself.

In combat the AI of the companion characters is pretty good, and I never had any issues. Each companion character has their own skills, and they gain more as they level. Each skill can be set to be triggered by the companions AI, or to only be triggered manually by the player (so you can for example set their AoE abilities to manual if you don't want any accidents with CC'd opponents).

The dps put out by the companions is pretty good as well, and they can stand in for a human player pretty well in Flashpoints and heroic quests. I managed to hunt successfully in a heroic area with my companion healing me and dpsing, where I would have struggled alone.

Companions can also be instructed to run back to base and sell your trash loot for you, and can even be asked to gather crafting resources for you. Little touches like that make them useful as well as fun to have around.

I really grew to like some of my companions, and to dislike others. Not because their mechanics were broken or because they were useless in fights, but because of their characters. I've never felt affection or annoyance with the character of a pet in an MMO before. And what other MMO allows you to electrocute your pet with a shock collar if they are getting too annoying!?

Crafting - "Your father's light saber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight."

The crafting system in SWTOR is easy to pick up and offers a good deal of complexity. There are many different professions and you can pick three. The crafting system is called Crew Skills because you can instruct your companion characters to do the crafting for you. You can queue up to five crafting missions, and they will be completed even whilst you are off-line. I really liked the system for getting rid of the need to stare at progression bars without limiting the complexity. It's a really easy system to pick up and like much of the rest of the game hides the grind aspect very well.

There are three types of crew skill - gathering (for collecting resources from nodes out in the game world), missions (you spend money to send a companion off on a mission. If successful they return with a reward), and crating (actually making stuff using the resources you have gathered or obtained from missions). Mission skills can also reward companion gifts, credits, and lightside or darkside points, as well as crafting resources.

The kind of things that can be made, depending on your crew skills include different types of weapons, different types of armour, modifications for weapons and armour, stims (temporary buffs like potions in other MMOs), colour crystals for lightsabers and blasters, implants (stat boosters like jewellery in other MMOs), and even vehicles (as of the latest build).

Economy - "Look, I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I'm in it for the money."

It's really difficult to get a handle on how well the economy will work in a beta. There are plenty of moneysinks (crew skills, repairs, vendors, skills). There is one universal basic currency (galactic credits), but also a few other types of currency in the game. Social points (q.v.) can be spent at social vendors. Each planet has special vendors that exchange items for commendations, a type of reward that is unique to each planet. There are also PvP-specific commendations for use at PvP-centric vendors.

The auction house (called the Galactic Trade Network, or GTN) works well and has all the features you'd expect in any modern MMO. There are also mailboxes through which you can send credits and items. The basics are all in place but I have no idea how things will go come launch.

Itemisation - "This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age."

There are a LOT of unique items in this game, just an incredible amount, and many of the armour items have unique appearances (at least I didn't see any obvious repeats). As well as the items you can find adventuring and on vendors there are specific PvP items, special planetary items on commendation vendors, and social equipment on social vendors.

One thing I really liked was the modification system. This really starts to kick in as you level up. Certain items contain modification slots - the basic items do not have any statistics at all, the stats all come from the mods that are slotted into them. This means if you find a chestpiece you like the look of for example, you can keep that chestpiece and just slot in higher level modifications as you level up. It is worth noting that some items have more modification slots than others however.

The system seems to do a good job of balancing traditional MMO itemisation with a more versatile way of doing things.

Modifications can be unslotted for a price (this was a new feature added in the latest build, so it remains to be seen if you will be able to unslot them at launch). The number of these modifiable items available grows as you level up.

I was surprised at the huge number and variety of trash loot items too. Mobs seemed to drop appropriate items (none of the infamous snakes-that-drop-chests-and-swords or four-legged-beasts-that-drop-six-legs, of the type found in EQ for example).

Space ship - "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid."

Not long after leaving the starter planet you will receive your personal starship. Not only does this give you a kind of basic player housing (somewhere for you and your companions to rest, somewhere to store items (it contains a bank), somewhere for the story to play out), but it means you can travel independently to other planets and take part in the space combat mini-game. Receiving your ship is a huge story moment.

You'll see a lot of hanger bays
I was a little disappointed that there was no full housing decoration system in game (though the devs have said the tech exists in the engine, and so may be added in the future), but I have been spoiled recently by the excellent housing system in EQ2. The potential is certainly there and it would be great to be able to decorate your ship with the spoils of your adventures. I see the personal starships as a work in progress and laying the foundations for bigger things.

You can invite your friends onto your ship, and fly with them to other planets (their own ships will follow you, piloted by their companions).

PVP - "Good against remotes is one thing. Good against the living, that's something else."

So, that brings us to PvP. Oh Lord, the PvP...

I'm not a massive PvP fan. I've played on open world PvP servers in other games, but grew to dislike the ganking and one-shotting that came with them. Does that make me a care-bear? Maybe, but I really don't care.

PvP in The Old Republic is just... an insane amount of fun! There are a few reasons for this. First of all, like the rest of the game, the PvP system is so highly polished. It's easy to get into and is presented in a way that makes sense. Secondly, tactics have a bigger impact on success than level or equipment. There are no one-shot kills, and one-on-one fights often take 30 seconds or more to resolve. Well timed abilities and conservation of resources mean as much as having the biggest gun.

The final reason is the Resolve bar. I loved Dark Age of Camelot dearly, but man it got annoying running all that way for a PvP raid then spending the entire fight chain stunned. In SWTOR every time you get CC'd your resolve bar fills up a little. When it is full you become immune to any kind of CC for a while. Additionally everyone can see your current resolve, adding tactics as to whether or not to bother CCing someone.

The battlegrounds are all very different and a lot of fun. Alderaan is a capture and hold scenario, Huttball is a kind of reverse capture the flag in a sports arena, and the Voidstar is a conquest map. The maps on each seem well balanced, and include spawning power ups and sometimes environmental hazards, like a game of Quake, further adding to tactics and run timings.

I didn't get to involve myself on the open world PvP zones on Tatooine or Ilum.

Space combat - "Got 'im! I got 'im!... Great, kid. Don't get cocky."

Many people are going to hate the space combat. You can already see the complaints on the official forums and from other testers, mainly based on the fact that it is a mini on-rails shooter game rather than a full open world space exploration game. I 'd love a full on space game too, but I'd rather wait for it to be done properly. This is a good stop-gap.

Taken on its own merits as a mini-game I had a blast with it, but it is quite light and not the kind of thing I'll be spending much time on. Missions are quite short (5-15 minutes or so), so it is a fun time-filler whilst waiting for your mates to come online. Rewards come in the form of credits and upgrades for your ship (sadly only space combat upgrades, not interior decorations). It should be said that the space combat does look and sound spectacular though.

Whilst fun there are a few balancing issues with the space combat mini-game right now, and it can be tough to progress before picking up some upgrades. This means you may have to grind a few missions first (I haven't bothered doing so), which seems odd in a game so desperate to hide the MMO grind.

Endgame - "It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. You, like your father, are now mine."

I haven't experienced the endgame yet (as I said I only reached level 25 during my time testing). I know it will be focused on Operations (each with varying difficulty levels), open world PvP zones, crafting, and level 50 hardmode versions of all the Flashpoints in the game. If the Operations can bring the same level of polish and imagination to raids that Flashpoints bring to dungeon runs then we are in for a treat. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

There are currently two Operations in game; The Eternity Vault and Karraga's Palace. Along with the 15 endgame Flashpoints and PvP warzones and lakes I feel there is more than enough endgame content for launch, especially if it is of the same quality as the early game.

Roleplaying - "I'm rather embarrassed, General Solo, but it appears that you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honor."

There are quite a few nice things in the game for roleplayers. An absolute shedload of emotes (though not all have the animations attached in this beta build yet) and custom emotes are a good start. Cantinas will serve as social hubs, and the ability to load up the jukebox will go down nicely. Additionally each race has it's own unique social emote as well. You can invite other players onto your starship, and the ability to sit in chairs (currently on your starship only) was recently added.

Social items can be purchased from vendors using social points, and these include things like cosmetic pets, clothing, companion appearance kits, and armour. Want to wear that skimpy Princess Leia outfit to your next raid? Well go purchase it from the social vendor, plug in your raid modifications and you're good to go.

Social points are awarded for taking part in group activities, such as Heroic Quests and Flashpoints. Winning group conversation rolls nets you a bagful at once.

Guilds and Social - "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Guild facilities are functional but basic. The developers have said they are working on guild progression, guild banks, and guild ships, but it doesn't look like these will be in game for launch right now. In the current beta you get the option to form guilds in your faction's capital city, and can assign limited ranks and use guild chat. That's about it.

There is a LFG tag, along with a basic social search window that allows you to search for other players by zone. You also have a friends list. Again, basic but functional right now.

Summary - The Little Things - "The circle is now complete."

There are many little improvements over standard MMO tropes that really make the game a pleasure to play. Things like AoE looting (richt-click on a corpse to loot it and also loot all other corpses in a large radius), loot glows that tell you what kind of loot a corpse holds (if a corpse has items to loot a glowing pillar of light rises from it; the colour of the light changes depending on the rarity of the item - green, blue, purple, etc), the ability to send your companion back to base to sell your trash loot, the ability to send your companion to gather resources whilst you take on the mobs guarding them, the ability to join some multiplayer conversations by holocommunicator, the way your story so far is summarised each time you log into the game, the option to add group mates to your friends list with a button click... they all add up to make a fun and enjoyable experience. There is virtually none of the frustration associated with many MMO mechanics.

It's been worth the wait!
Is the game perfect? Not by a long way. There are still quite a few bugs (although the only ones I've come across are graphical glitches and a few missing textures), and some people will simply not like the approach the game takes to some of the mechanics (such as the cinematic storytelling, the standard tri-archetype combat system, the on-rails space combat mini-game and the amount of running around). Some systems are pretty basic right now (such as the LFG system, the guild system and the UI). The few rough edges stand out because 99% of the game is so highly polished, but the joy of MMOs is that these small things can be improved after launch.

Some people won't get on with the whole story-based questing, the slower levelling or the lack of one-shot PvP action. If you don't want another theme-park MMO world in the vein of EQ2, WoW, LoTRO, AoC and many others then there may be enough here that is different, but the basic mechanics remain the same.

Have Bioware played it safe? In some respects yes; this is a theme park MMO and utilises the generally accepted mechanics of the genre such as hotkeys, class archetypes and quest-based levelling. In other more subtle ways they have taken some brave decisions such as the strong ties to story, companion characters and a difficulty curve that is welcoming to newcomers, all of which have the potential to put off more hardened or hardcore MMO gamers. Opinions on these matters will vary, but I can only tell you what I think.

Will the forthcoming Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World offer a better experience? Maybe, who knows. They will have to be bloody amazing games to compete. Right now, based on the first 25 levels, SWTOR is the best MMO I have ever played. It is the most polished, frustration-free, grindless MMO world I've ever had the joy to live in. It is absolutely packed to the gills with content, and it has not even launched yet. Combined with incredible stories told in a cinematic way that actually make you think about the decisions you take, along with amazing worlds to explore, The Old Republic is simply stunning.

Does that make me a fanboy? I didn't feel like I was before I played. I do now. I think this game is going to be a huge success, and deservedly so.

I don't care what the critics will say (I think the game will divide critics between those who love it and those who hate the mechanics and theme-park style they have chosen to employ). Actually playing the game has exceeded my expectations. I am having the most fun I have ever had in an MMO. In fact, writing this is just making me want to go and log in again.

Bioware have given us one of their best RPGs for a while (8 of them in fact), in the form of a solid, content rich MMO, and it just works so well.

Roll on December 20th.

29 comments:

  1. Great review, well worth the wall of text.

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  2. "Roll on December 20th. " thats all that needs to be said really :)
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    ok ok, great review and an interesting read, having had a small test of the game myself (why oh why did they only give me a weekend :( ) I couldn't agree more with what you have said but my experiance is very limited (only got to level 10 twice)

    but you do get sucked right into the game and story even by level 10 I had to make some critical(?) decisions and found some harder to choose than others. Add having a group choosing out comes to that and you got something really interesting there! It will make playing on the Dark Side difficult and hopefully fun!

    thanks for your review!

    Radi

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  3. Thanks guys :)
    Not long to wait now Radi! My experience with the BH and SW have made me much more interested in playing Sith Empire as well now.

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  4. Outstanding review MC, entertaining and informative. Mid-December can't get here soon enough!

    PS. This has helped me to cement my choice of main so thank you for that :)

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  5. Gets the juices going, did you have to heal yourself much on the combat side. Is your pet / companion like the Lotr soldier in skirmishes?

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  6. Didn't heal myself too much, got a companion for that ;)
    They are similar to soldiers in LoTRO skirmishes in only the basic sense. Much deeper, more skills, more useful, better AI, plus all the story stuff they bring.

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  7. Id say I read most of it, but you were really not joking when you said its an extensive one, well written though, could read the last few parts but WELL DONE!

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  8. TL:DR!! Of course..only joking!

    I'll sum up your excellent (excellent!) report by saying..because of your report and the fact I obviously respect your opinion.. I quit my EQ2 raid force today and am now eagerly awaiting 20th December. EQ2 is soon to be consigned to the bin (I was ready to quit there anyhow)and it looks like SW;ToR is going to be the replacement. Now I just gotta tell Emarald..

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  9. Wow bro, I'm not sure what to say! Excited! Just hope you don't regret taking my opinion on board ;)

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  10. I have played EQ2 solidly since it's release. My main account is about to get its 8 year veteran reward..I think I may have played the pants off that game. It really is time for a change, and where better than amongst some familiar and friendly faces :) and to top it off..what seems like a barnstormer of a game ...

    Of course you know me, if it doesn't work out, NO blame will be headed your way! But of course it will be your fault ;) LoL.

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  11. Excellent review.

    I'm a 6 year wow veteran myself and although I understand that TOR has been able to glean and learn from other MMO's and other titles from Bioware I am still amazed at how polished it is, how much content there seems to be etc. (only tested this last weekend myself). I hope the lag issues are fixed, although you can't take too much from them in a beta weekend, with stress testing on the environment. Frame rate was a little bit frustrating too at times. However, all in all I'm still very much sold and can't wait for the early entry for pre-order customers. My winter holidays are booked and spoken for ;-)

    Monartu.
    SnS

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  12. Glad you had fun Monartu, hope to see you in game soon! I hope the release client will stabilise some of the issues you've been having (I haven't had any personally, but I know beta clients are often unoptimised).

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  13. game is utter garbage your character is like a badly drawn and rushed cartoon character.if i wanted to play a game from the 80s id play my c64 emulator

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  14. Thank you for your brilliant insight! I hope you find a game you can enjoy as much as I am enjoying SWTOR :)

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  15. Nice informative review ;)

    I had the pleasure of trying it during the weekend and i was also hooked on the storylines.

    I played a Smuggler up to lvl 10, a Sith Warrior up to lvl 8, a Jedi Councelor up to lvl 5 and a Bounty Hunter up to lvl 5 just to have an idea of their respective playability and i really liked the way the story unfolds with your characters on center stage and the choices you are sometimes forced to make, for good or bad (even if the Sith was a bit slow to pick up and more difficult to roleplay - i'm not naturally evil - even though i did end up making some light side decisions).

    Grinding was not openly apparent even if i did have to wait on some occasions for mission objectives to respawn after other players used them just before me (this was the only thing that was strange, lots of body everywhere in the trail of another player or party, who sometimes would respawn right in your back when you were not looking ;(
    And lots of running was indeed needed all over the maps ;)

    I didn't however experience any lag or framerate issues like others reported, only a few disconnects during the knowledge base stress test, and i was put on a queue only on my initial login for 10-15min, not afterwards.

    A very impressive first look...can't wait to play again when it's released ;)

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  16. Cheers for the deep review. I didn't play nearly as much as you, but I also wasn't nearly as impressed either. I think the game is good, but not good enough to justify a subscription (I would buy it had it none).

    Since you're a veteran on MMORPGs, I'd be interested to see what you think of Guild Wars 2, which is what I'm really excited about.

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  17. Good lord, were you paid by Bioware to write this?

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  18. You know with all other MMOs you get into a state of autopilot. When you re-roll a ton on WoW it's the same thing over and over and I was ok with that. Now that I've played TOR I am not, not at all. Now when I re-roll I want to try saying this or do that one thing different. It's like this is what a MMO should be. I agree the game exceeded my expectations as well.

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  19. @ Dbo:
    I'm keeping on eye on Guild Wars 2. It looks really interesting, and it sounds like they are trying some really innovative stuff. That could pay off big time or backfire - no way to know until their beta starts properly. I really didn't get on with GW1, but it sounds like there is enough different to warrant trying the sequel. As there is no sub I'll probably at least try it unless the reviews stink.

    @ Anonymous (two up - Blogger really needs a decent comments reply system! ;) )
    Nope, of course I wasn't paid. It is possible to like a game (with a few reservations, which I detailed) without being on the payroll of the developer you know. Would be boring if we all liked the same thing no?

    @ Everyone else:
    Thanks for the comments everyone. Great to hear all your feedback, good and bad :)

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  20. Great review!

    I was able to play last weekend, so did my sister and we both loved it, we can't wait for it to come out next month!

    We're both hooked on the storylines (which we both agree on the fact that others MMOs do not focus enough on story) I was able to play the Bounty Hunter & Trooper during my oh-so short time on it.

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  21. I've been reading a lot of comments about lag and fps... I didn't experience any of that, even during the stress tests. I had a 45 minute queue to get on a server and didn't experience any problems once I got in. I think it's time for some people to get new boxes. ;)

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  22. Great read! I have to comment that I feel the quest assist feature of the map (showing you where to go) had to do heavily with not making questing feel like a grind. Yes, other games have them, but they are not as refined as they are here. For instance, suppose that a particular NPC you have to find - is in a building, on the third floor, NW corner. It will lead you there step-by-step. Other games would have me aimless wondering in the general area to find the NPC. Not only that, but if you are in a group, you can see the other players quests (in a separate color) on your map too!

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  23. Good read to help me off my end of beta weekend gloom :-) Agree with everything, I think. Hopefully, BW will continue to expand and improve this and not leave it to wither like Warhammer. Companions is a great addition to the genre - especially when they can make up numbers in groups. Even solo questing I was quite happy to sit back and watch Kira kick-ass while she gave them verbal "Eat lightsaber, jerk!" LOL Bring It On. I Can't Wait.

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  24. I am an FPS convert - I have over the years played MMO's after coaxing by my friends ( E&B, SWG, STO, WOW ) But mainly have played First Person Shooters.
    That being said, A buddy of mine got me to sign up for Beta testing TOR back in March of 2011 and I have gotten invites to every Beta test they have put on so far.

    As others have said most MMO's lack a flowing storyline and contain a tedious helping of grinding which quite frankly closes my wallet.
    Although grinding is present in TOR, its mixed with a rich story telling experience infused with great cutscenes and characters.

    I leveled up 6 different characters over the test period to atleast lvl 11 to get an idea of the advanced classes for each. The folks that havent played this game yet are in for a sweet surprise.
    Dont walk to the store....RUN. - This game will be a success and will introduce elements to MMO's that quite frankly WOW and others will need to incorporate to survive.... pandas ain't gettin' it

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  25. Good to read everyone's thoughts guys, thanks :)

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  26. Great review. It was quite extensive and helpful. Thank you! I had no real plans to get back into MMOs after UO, EQ, DAoC, WoW, SWG, etc... but after playing the beta weekend, I was hooked. It is by far the best MMO that I've ever played. I rarely pre-order games, but I did for SWTOR. I can't wait!

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  27. EXCELLENT review! You covered just about all I wanted to know (as a former WOW player), you have confirmed everything I was hoping about the game, and I LOVE the way you wove in key trilogy movie lines as headers for the review sections. Yes, I know every line, who said it, and what movie. You may not be a Star Wars fanboy but I'll be you know the first 3 movies by heart. (I do).

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this, I have already pre-ordered and downloaded and can't wait to get started.

    Now go F yourself. (I'm a Sith, what do I care?)

    ;)

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  28. Very nice review. Mind if I ask, what type of player are you overall -prefered role/class, game-time etc? What did you play in Daoc?

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  29. My Bartle test shows me to be 80% explorer. I like taking my time and grouping when I can, and raiding with friends. I was a Nightshade in DAoC, I normally play stealthy classes, at first anyway.

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