Note: The following shouldn’t be treated as a review. Outside of this past beta weekend, I’ve never had a chance to run around the SWTOR universe – so take that as you will.
I don’t have the highest expectations for SWTOR. It isn’t that I hate BioWare – not at all – it’s just that I’m leery about how Star Wars will translate into an MMO after seeing the whole Star Wars Galaxies debacle. That and I’m not a huge fan of the KotoR universe. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the games, it’s just that I prefer the more “modern” Star Wars setting. Call me a classicist, I guess.
Either way, this past weekend I hopped into the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta for two days to see what all the fuss was about. Admittedly, I went into it as blind as possible, not having the slightest clue about what direction I planned to go in.
My experience started fresh at the character creator – or at least it did after a few cut scenes. While I’ve seen them before, it was neat to see them as part of the whole game experience. They certainly set the mood for the drama that’s at work in the background of the game, making you quite aware that you’re about to jump right into a massive conflict.
Of course, after the cinematics end, you’re presented with the character creator. It’s worth talking about this for a bit simply because of how fantastic it is. It isn’t the best or most customizable system out there, but I’d rank it in the top tier of what exists on the market right now. You’re not going to be able to screw with your facial features and bone structure to the level of EVE Online, but you are going to be able to make a character that you’ll probably be able to relate to, which is nice.
Something of special note is just how much you can customize the physical size of your character. Considering that most MMOs on the market limit your body type to whatever “fits” with your race, it was nice to see that I could make my character as overweight or as underweight as I pleased. After playing a he-man sized human in World of Warcraft for seven years, it was nice to have some choice.
One disappointment, though, is the lack of variety in race choices. The armor/clothing system that BioWare currently has in place seems to support scaling very well, so it’s somewhat disheartening that there isn’t a bigger selection, especially considering the scope of the Star Wars universe.
The classes you can pick from depend on which side you choose. The Galactic Republic get the Jedi Consular, Jedi Knight, Smuggler, and Trooper. The Sith Empire gets the Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, Sith Inquisitor, and the Sith Warrior. Like many of the modern MMOs that have come out over the years, most classes have the ability to slot into many traditional roles. Smugglers can DPS from range, or they can get in close – not to mention heal. Jedi Knights can tank or DPS, and so on. As you can also expect, all of the classes can be further customized using skill points and specializations. Unfortunately, as I only played up to level 11, I didn’t get to truly experience any of the game’s depth.
I, of course, picked Smuggler and went on my merry way. If there is one thing that SWTOR does incredibly well, it’s dropping you right into a role. All of the classes have their own starting quests and story, setting you up in the mindset of the job that you’ve selected. I can’t comment on the other classes, but the quests for my mini-Harrison Ford were fantastic. From the very moment you load in, you are treated to an experience that feels authentic – and a tad corny, in just the perfect Star Wars way.
Also fantastic was the voice acting. Considering how many lines were recorded for the game, I was thoroughly surprised at the quality. Speaking of which, all of the sound in the game is great. The aural experience was worth noting throughout my short time with the game. Tiny ambient noises popped up wherever I went, from buzzing doors to strange animal-boar-cow things, making it feel like a legitimate Star Wars experience.
SWTOR’s writing also deserves praise, as I found myself hooked to the Smuggler’s intro quest line from the moment I loaded in. While not exactly high literature, the story itself feels perfectly tailored to your character. Likewise, the dialogue choices you get to make don’t feel quite as thin as prior BioWare games. Sure, you occasionally get very vague choices that lead to awkward results, but you generally have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
Most of the UI, including the quest system, map, and skill bars are all pretty standard. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and I never found myself struggling to figure anything out. If you’ve played a single-player BioWare RPG before, or any MMO released in the last decade, you’ll feel right at home. This does mean that comparisons will be made to a certain other MMO – but that really isn’t a bad thing. If there is one complaint, it would be that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the map. It wasn’t bad, per-se, but it wasn’t really fantastic. While it was functional, I felt like it was cluttered. It would also benefit from more customization options.
Speaking of aesthetics, I’m not really a fan of how the game looks. To me, it seems like they were going for a general theme of style over graphical power, a philosophy that typically works very well, as it leads to “timeless” art instead of graphics that looks mediocre in a few years. Unfortunately, even with solid art, I never found myself in awe of the scenery.
Playing on max settings, I felt like the game already looked dated. I could’ve been playing a three year old game and I really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. While this isn’t something that would keep me from playing, after seeing cinematic after cinematic… well, it’s a bit of a letdown. If I’m going to be moving into a new MMO universe, I want it to feel completely fresh, and that includes the technology behind the game.
SWTOR does make up for this with fantastic animations, however. Characters string together moves effortlessly, without looking like they are switching between cycles awkwardly. Considering how poorly most MMOs these days do the whole animation thing, it’s a relief to see that BioWare has managed to do it right. It’s also notable that even during the stress test weekend, I never experienced any lag – nor did any of the other players warp or have any sort of animation break.
But what of the questing? The combat? The base experience?
Well, there’s a reason I’ve saved that for last.
In short, I wasn’t a fan. Don’t get me wrong, the combat isn’t bad – in fact, it’s actually quite good. It flows smoothly, it’s logical, and I instantly picked up what was going on as far as movement and taking advantage of situational mechanics. The problem was that the combat felt very numb to me, as if I wasn’t a part of it. Strange – especially considering there isn’t an auto-attack. I knew I was pressing buttons, and I could see what they were doing, but it didn’t matter. I felt no connection to the action on the screen.
I’ve had some friends tell me that the combat felt quick to them, but I disagree. To me, while it felt reactive, I never felt engaged. I never felt like my choices really made much of a difference. Sure, I would move differently or roll up into a new position, but I never actually felt connected to the action (nor did I feel the need to keep moving). Perhaps that was just the class I was playing, or maybe it was just that combat isn’t very interesting at low levels.
Of course, I’m willing to bet the game just takes a bit to get going – which is fine – but it doesn’t exactly encourage me in SWTOR’s capabilities to break genre conventions.
Speaking of which, the leveling is slow. Not agonizingly so, but slow enough that you’re conscious of trying to make it to the next ding – even before you’re level five. From what I’ve read into about the later stages of the game, it doesn’t get much better. Once again, that doesn’t exactly give me high hopes for SWTOR’s ability to truly stand as an evolution of the genre.
Which brings me to my final point – an uneasy worry. Maybe it’s the longstanding fear of Star Wars MMOs, or maybe it is just EA looming in the distance, but something just wasn’t right during my time playing SWTOR. If I had to try and put a finger on it, I’d have to say it’s a feeling that SWTOR just isn’t different enough to guarantee its longevity in the market. In fact, it reminds me very much of Lord of the Rings Online – a solid game with a lot of neat features built on a wildly popular IP – but not enough oomph to push it to become the next big thing. Considering how much has been invested into this title… I have to wonder what anything but massive success will mean for the future of the game.
This is especially relevant considering the kind of company BioWare is. One of SWTOR’s shining features is the amount of polish they’ve slapped all over it. The voice acting, the story, the animation, the tiny details that make your character feel very personal – that sort of quality is hard to keep up, especially in an MMO market that expects new content last month. I also can’t imagine it’s cheap.
An MMO is a long term investment that requires a steady hand. You can’t respond to dips in subscriber numbers with overarching changes (I’m looking at you, SOE), nor can you just toss a game into the abyss and hope it works out. Considering EA’s prior MMO projects… well, I’m a tad worried.
Still, that aside, SWTOR is shaping up to be a solid title, and while I’m not sure it’ll be a massive success, I do think it could be a big win for BioWare – if EA doesn’t get too greedy, that is.