First impressions on Star Wars: The Old Republic – Not impressed.

PGWTOR 2011

So yesterday night, I’ve had the opportunity to try the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic during its open/stress test beta weekend, so I might as well write my impressions of it.

First I want to say that from everything I know about it, I was not planning to play SWTOR. The reason for this is that the game, to me, frankly seems like a reskin of WoW, circa 2005. Few classes and races, holy trinity setup, not particularly innovating gameplay, cookie-cutter quests etc. The few videos I’d seen about it, made it seem like nothing particularly exciting, unless one was a hardcore Star Wars or Bioware fanboy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Star Wars universe quite a lot (albeit, I’d love if G.Lucas stopped messing with it, and let some people with a more realistic understanding of ethics and human motivation take over) and I’m still a Bioware fan, but WoW couldn’t keep my attention for more than 3 months (and that was pushing it) and thus I didn’t expect such a similar game to do any better. Also compared to other games like Guild Wars 2, which really seem to be doing a lot of innovative steps at a far lower cost (i.e. no subscription), I just didn’t see why I should bother.

That disclaimer out of the way, let me give you my impression of the various aspects of the beta.

Getting to the game.

I got my invitation, from the Bioware social site of all places. It came in a PM from the admin directly, and frankly, up until that point I never even bothered to try the beta out. But hey, I wouldn’t turn down a free demo of one of the largest games of the year. I’m guessing I got the PM because I had bothered to actually populate the Bioware social with my Dragon Age characters and the like and I was also currently replaying Dragon Age: Origins. I doubt I would have otherwise gotten a free invite. But perhaps I’m wrong and everyone registered there got one as well.

Downloading the game client was a bit of a headache as well, because for some strange reason, the installation program would crash if I had FRAPS running. It took a lot of search online and in the forums to figure this out. After I managed to get the client, came the very long download process, which went OK, barring an unexpected BSOD just as it had finished downloading, which I’m not sure was the cause of the downloading client, but anyway. Nevertheless, I still don’t get why they didn’t use EA’s Origin, which they rammed down our throat with Battlefield 3, but rather they used this standalone client, and thus yet another useless program to have on one’s PC.

As the open beta period was starting, I was hearing horror tales about hour-long queues, lag, crashes and so on, but to my surprise, everything went without a hitch. Europe had only half a dozen English servers and far too many German and French ones. No idea why this is the case, since everyone who doesn’t speak German or French is likely to go to the English ones. Nevertheless, even with so few English-speaking servers, the queuing times were very small. I managed to create characters in three different servers within an hour or so (I swapped servers due to miscommunication with Plutonick and some other friends I was supposed to play with). Still on the subreddit for SWTOR, I still see a lot of people complaining about the long queue times which I didn’t experience. The worst I had, was 25 minutes.

Character Creation

I won’t got into a lot of detail here, since you can find lengthy videos about this all over the internets. I’ll just mention the things that stood out to me.

Why are the larger body type men somewhere between overweight and ultra-beefy, while the larger body type women are simply displayed as (in structure) large and curvy, but still fairly slim/athletic type? What is it with game developers assuming that there are people who will play overweight men but not overweight women? Just give the option and let people choose for crying out loud.

I like the varied options for characters but I was disappointed when I found yet another game where I couldn’t play a long-haired guy. The best approximation I found for cyborgs was a fairly tame bob cut. So I went for the mohawk instead.

On the matter of hair, why don’t facial hair have their own slider for cyborgs but are rather tied in with either “hair” or “cybernetics”? Perhaps it is different for normal humans, but for cyborgs, I just couldn’t make what I wanted.

I still don’t get why in this day and age, a game thinks it’s a good idea to keep all starting character uniform rather than let them choose some preferred skills, abilities and clothes? Why is it so difficult as a smuggler to choose to be proficient with a blaster rifle, rather than a blaster pistol? Why do we all have to start with the same clothes? This is supposed to be a role-playing game goddamnit. As it was, the only differentiation between starting characters of each class, were body types primarily and faces secondary. And within the same body types, you might as well have had clones.

Playing

Disclaimer: I only played through the introduction area as I didn’t have enough time (since the beta was, as is common with these things, starting on US time. Yeah, America is the only place that counts obviously). As such, perhaps I’m missing how things improve considerably later but I’m not holding my breath.

The first area might just as well have been the clone vats. Dozens of identical-looking characters, doing the same quests, using the same skills, killing the same people. It was all fairly silly. I realize much of this was because of the beta and because everyone was new at the game, but the whole thing still was looking messy. Especially with everyone vying for the same enemies to kill and whatnot, even with the instancing that happens to separate all the people in the same area.

For someone who is looking for immersion, the whole area was really a blow to my suspension of disbelief. There was nothing permanent. Any quest you did, reset a few seconds later for the next person. I blew up a communications tower and it was pristine a few seconds later, enemies just popped into existence 20 seconds after you killed them and a horde of newbies, wearing the same clothes and wielding the same weapons, was running through an area that was supposed to be controlled by the enemy.

It also still left you with very little opportunity to choose your path. As a smuggler, my enemies were always the “Separatists”. Was there ever any option to start working towards joining them? To stay neutral? No, there’s a railroad quest-line with very little opportunity to avoid. The best you can do is select a light or dark answer at the end of some discussions, but effectively you still had always the same end result. Seriously, at some point I was offered a quest from, the main storyline, and I selected the option which very explicitly said “[Refuse Mission]”. I was expecting the classic Bioware nonsense which exited the dialogue and didn’t let you continue unless you talked to them again and accepted anyway, but surprisingly, I simply got the quest regardless of my choice. The main quests are very much a railroad and the side quests, (which you need to get in order to receive the necessary experience) are all very simple. Mostly go there and kill that, or go there and destroy 3 of these things, or go there, kill that guy and get this item. All very uninspired with their only benefit being the fully spoken dialogue.

That last part was really the only saving grace of the quests which were otherwise completely forgettable and superficial. You see, nothing that you do affects the world around you, and you do not really have much of a choice when doing them. It really felt too much like the way I felt when doing Borderlands quests. Just gather as many of them as you can, go to the area where they’re all concentrated and just do them one after another by the bucketful. I never really felt at all interested in most of what I was doing as I had almost no input as a role player. I had no option how to approach the scenario, no choice to avoid combat and very little choice on how to deal with the quests. Just bland Dark VS Light options (i.e. good vs Eeeeevil) which  sometimes manifested in you finishing the quest at a different quest giver than the original. The voice acting helped to draw you back to the quest, but it was only at the beginning or at the end of the quest line (with few exceptions) and thus, it was just not enough to make me care. It just helped me avoid skipping the dialogue altogether.

In this kind of game, I always try to play a character that is fairly outside the boring norms of good vs evil behaviour or lawful evil VS chaotic good. For example, two of my favourite archetypes I like to play is an Anarchist1 or an archetype I call “Benevolent Might Makes Right”2. Both of these are imho closer to the nuanced ethics and ideology of many humans and it’s interesting to see how they interact in a very binary system of “Dark VS Light”. What happens is that there is rarely any acts or dialogue choices that are provided to me, fit within the character role I’ve selected. Very often I’m given three different options in a dialogue and end up saying to myself “Well, this character would never say any of these”, so I’m left to choose the out-of-character option that more approximates me. So that Anarchist archetype usually ends up coming off like a greedy opportunist with a good streak, while the Might makes Right Archetype sounds like a schizophrenic.

I digressed a bit above here, but this was to point why the quest lines of SWTOR and the dialogue left me unimpressed. The characters I like to roleplay cannot be done in this game of standard Bioware trinary morality (Good, Eeeevil or Greed), and the quests are generally uninspiring.

What I did like somewhat was the dialogue system when multiple player are involved, but I feel that this has so much untapped potential that they simply did not even consider. Why did they go for simply random rolls to see who speaks, which have no relation to who is a better talker or has more powerful personality? Why don’t we have skills pertaining to dialogue that can be utilized in these cases either in combination with the other players when trying to convince an NPC (and avoid combat for example) or against other players when trying to see which quest path you will take? Some mini game, based on skills and abilities between the speakers would be a great addition to a game so focused on dialogue. Unfortunately I can see why a fully voiced game would shy away from something like that, as it could theoretically increase exponentially the amount of spoken dialogue. But then again, that’s why I think that spoken dialogue can easily be a detriment in role-playing games as it severely limits available options.

On the graphical side, the game is good-looking but nothing particularly jaw dropping. Fortunately that meant my VGA could handle it, even though on the starting area, my FPS took a severe beating. Initially I thought it was because I had too high settings, but my FPS managed to creep up to the high 70s after I moved away for quests, so it seems to me that it had mostly to do with how many Player Characters were around my area.

A minor peeve was how the game prevented me from playing with my two Jedi friends which were apparently on a completely different planet. I understand that this can be amended after you reach level 10 and leave the intro portion, but it still annoyed that I couldn’t play with my friends, especially since the only guy I could play with, got bored with the game within a few hours and left me alone.

As for combat and general such gameplay – One word: Boring. Perhaps this was because I was still at the first levels, but I never felt any challenge, nor any need to actually strategize. It was simply a process of using my abilities one after the other as their cooldowns expired and my energy allowed. As a smuggler, the cover mechanic worked only half the time, as it was very often I would stand next to cover rocks or whatever, and the character would simply kneel rather than use them. I could however run behind them and kneel and then I would actually get the benefit of cover. I also don’t understand why I couldn’t take cover behind covers, or behind trees. If you actually hide behind a tree and use cover, rather than peek out and shoot, the game would tell you that you have no line of sight. As a result of this loss of opportunity, the level designers ended up spreading random barrels and chests on the rooms, simply to act as cover for people, where the corners would have sufficed much more believably.

I still don’t understand what is with their obsession with 3-man groups. Granted you still find the occasional solo beefy enemy, but usually it’s groups of 3 people standing around for you to kill, before they pop back into existence a few seconds later. It was fairly silly, and at some point Plutonick got killed by such a group of three when he went afk for 3 minutes and it ended up spawning on top of him, at an area we had just cleared. I don’t understand why we can have larger groups, as was the case with other Bioware games, thus forcing one to actually strategize with Area of Effect abilities, tactics in movement and cover (such as when being attacked from multiple sides) and so on. But no, usually just the usual boring 3 enemies waiting for passers-by, or a beefy single dude.

In closing

I’ll probably try to play it a bit more today and tomorrow and see if things improve at all outside the intro zones, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also interested to see PvP, but I don’t think it will be anything to talk about.

After playing this beta, I’m sure I’ll be sticking with my original plan to completely bypass it and try Guild Wars 2 instead. The price for this game, is imho just not worth the lack of innovation and lackluster role-playing and story. The funny thing is that I would be perfectly willing to purchase this game if there wasn’t any subscription required, so that I could play it at my leisure with a few friends a few times per month or simply as single player. But this is definitely not something worth however much a monthly subscription will be.

  1. Direct action towards helping others, or let them help themselves, combined with actions which undermine established hierarchical authorities, such as armies, police, states and other kinds of oppression – i.e. closer to Chaotic Good in D&D terms but with a lot of fine details []
  2. A character who believes the weak should defer towards the strong (in power of arms) but that the strong have a moral responsibility to protect the weak who are under them. Usually I couple this with some underlying racism (not against human skin colour, but rather against other fantasy or sci-fi races) and xenophobia as well as a strong sense of honour, loyalty and respect for accepted authority. i.e. similar to Lawful Evil in D&D tems, but again, not exactly []