Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic – Republic

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic – Republic

There haven’t been a lot of MMOs that I’ve really, truly looked forward to in quite some time. Star Wars: The Old Republic represents an interesting conflux of ideas, especially for an MMO. While most games in the genre tend to focus loosely on a story, BioWare, for their part, chose to put the story – especially your own personal class story – front and center. So from that aspect, this is a unique take on an MMORPG, and certainly a general fan of the genre itself would want to take a look at.

Within genre fans, however, there are various subsets, and it’s unlikely Star Wars: The Old Republic will appeal to them all, especially those who want more of a sandbox to play in instead of a themepark experience.

Fair warning, there are a ton of other MMOs on the market, and it is a legitimate practice to compare them, considering the fact that they’re part of the same genre and use similar ideas for basic game mechanics. If you get offended when I compare SWTOR to World of Warcraft or any other “standard” MMO on the market, the door is to your right.

Make no mistake – I love BioWare games. I’ve been a fan of the entire Mass Effect franchise, and I loved what they did with Dragon Age: Origins, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and others. This is a BioWare game through and through and it shows in just about all aspects. It may be built around standard MMO building blocks, but this is not really your typical MMO experience.

Disclaimer
I actually did play the Republic side and quite enjoyed it more so than any other MMOs recently, however the vast majority of the things I talk about below are general game mechanics and hold true (as far as I know) on both Republic and Empire sides.

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Questing and Storytelling
The basis of an MMO of this type is the questing. It’s likely the first thing players are exposed to and it also takes up the majority of “the journey” to the level cap – that’s a lot of time that requires the game keep the player occupied and interested.

The very first thing you’ll notice about the questing in SWTOR is its emphasis on story – and this is a striking difference from most other MMOs on the market, including the top dogs. Everything that is in BioWare’s RPGs you’ll find here – fully voiced dialog for all quests, cut scene animations and cinematic flair, dialog choices, moral choices, various quest outcomes and, of course, great storytelling.

Let me re-emphasize this – all quests are fully voiced, and the voice acting is actually pretty darn good. Of course, you will always find some bad apple NPCs in a huge game like this, but generally speaking, this is all done beautifully. Even in the biggest budget single-player RPGs every single quest is not voice acted, so that is a huge plus to this entire experience. Like I said, the questing itself – the mechanics of picking up the quest, completing the quest objective and returning to the NPC is basically the same. However, with the extra element of storytelling flair, BioWare has effectively re-created the way we go about questing in MMOs, without actually changing the basic formula.

Because of that, questing feels new, fresh and fun, unlike the stale, repetitive quest completion and light storytelling of most MMO questing these days. Don’t even get me started on the tedium that is the idea of “daily quests”, either. While I’m not saying SWTOR will never implement similar ideas, the core of the game’s questing is completely story-driven. You won’t find another MMO out there this hellbent on putting that front and center.

Each class has its own heroic story and questline to back that up. These quests are generally more indicative of a movie or telelvision show, in that they have you doing a variety of things such as breaking in to enemy bases, corrupting data, confronting bad guys, chasing down criminals and what not. Typically the story quests are devoid of mindless “kill X amount of foozles” type of nonsense; those are reserved for the incidental quests picked up along the way.

However, just because the core mechanics of a quest might not be different from your Average Joe MMO, always keep in mind that it’s wrapped in the sugary coating of an entirely voiced, cinematic experience. Also, as far as quest mechanics go, just about every main quest objective has a series of bonus objectives that can be completed before turning the main quest in, for even more experience overall. These bonus quests are usually where the bulk of the “kill X amount of this bad guy” come in, however it isn’t as tedious as you might think.

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One of my biggest pet peeves of other MMOs is they’ll send you on three quests in one area, which would look like this:

  • Kill X amount of bad guy Y.
  • Find X amount of Y object.
  • Kill named mob Z for good measure.

The problem with this is that, you’re usually barely into the area when you finish the “Kill X amount of bad guy Y” quest, so the rest of the time you’re completing the other objectives, the other kills pretty much don’t mean anything – it’s just a few extra experience points and some random loot.

The Old Republic kind of kicks that around and makes all the other kills you complete while going after main quest objectives worth something. Here’s a typical quest layout for most non-story quests I’ve encounter in the first 20 levels so far:

  • Main Objective: Access the enemy computer to corrupt some data so they can’t do bad things.
    • Bonus Objective 1: Kill 10 of these bad dudes when they look at you funny.
    • Bonus Objective 2: Kill 40 of these bad dudes because they smell like sweaty socks.
    • Bonus Objective 3: Kill the bad dudes’ lieutenants because they don’t promote bathing every day.
    • Bonus Objective 4: Kill the boss dude because he was born.

Note that all four of those objectives have to be completed in sequence, but they’re designed to be completed on the way to and from the main quest objective, so very few, if any, of your mob kills will go unrewarded. Those bonus objectives are optional, of course, however you do get a chunk of extra experience for each one, plus it adds more depth to the questing experience as a whole.

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Combat, Leveling and Skill Progression
There really isn’t too much out of the ordinary as far as combat, leveling and skill progression goes. If you’re familiar with the way typical MMOs work, you’ll be right at home here. The biggest change is the addition of shooter-style cover mechanics during combat for ranged classes.

These can either be environmental, or permanent, cover, or, the classes that can use cover also get a portable shield which grants you some of the benefits of permanent cover, but perhaps not all. When you’re wandering the environment and target an enemy, locations you can jump into cover are clearly shown by a green, humanoid outline. This means if you press F to jump into cover, you’ll slide there. If there are no such locations around, you’ll drop into your portable cover. Either way, the advanced classes that can use it tend to have many abilities that require it.

For example, I went Smuggler, and chose Gunslinger for my advanced class. I love ranged combat, and it’s even more fun in SWTOR with the inclusion of the cover mechanic. It kind of gives you more stuff to do during a fight than just hit buttons. As enemies move, your cover position may, in fact, need to be adjusted. The majority of my abilities in the skill tree I’m going down are defined by cover – you can only use them while in some form of cover.

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The other notable addition (or exclusion?) from combat is the lack of an auto-attack for any class. This is a plus, if you ask me. It requires you to actually give a flying falcon about what is going on on screen, and not just sit there, hit auto-attack and be done with it (GG huntard). Even if there were auto-attack, the game requires that you’re very aware of your environment and the way you control enemies, so you need more than just sitting in one spot to take on most encounters.

I will also mention this, which is interesting – solo combat in SWTOR is group-oriented. That is to say that you’re typically fighting enemies in groups of three or more. The enemy AI is fairly smart, too. While this typically makes for weaker individual enemies, the entire battle is what you need to look at, and it, once again, focuses the player more on the strategy of combat instead of just mashing a few buttons and plowing through enemies without paying much attention to anything.

Leveling and skill progression are pretty standard. Once you hit level 10 and arrive at the fleet of your faction, you can choose an advanced class, which is a branch off of the basic class you chose at character creation. While the basic class (in my case, Smuggler because, well, they’re awesome) will have their standard arsenal of abilities, your advanced class takes those one step further. You also have access to a talent tree very similar to that found in (yes, I’m going to mention it) World of Warcraft. Nothing really new here. Moving on…

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Morality and Companions
You might think it odd that I stick these two topics together, but they actually have a lot to do with each other. At the same time, they don’t. If that makes any shred of sense. For starters, just like other BioWare titles, there is a morality scale. You can play Republic and still lean toward the dark side of the force. Likewise, you can play Empire and still be a goodie two-shoes. In my case, I was a Republic do-gooder and never chose a “Dark Side” decision (they’re clearly marked as such in the dialog wheel, just like in Mass Effect).

What’s interesting here is the morality decisions aren’t necessarily limited to the main story – any quest can have them built it. This is something that surprised me, because I figured they would be limited to the main class narrative. Leaning so far to one side or the other carries benefits in both extra quests and specialized gear.

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Companions are NPCs that you pick up throughout your journey that can help you with various things – whether it be combat, crafting or whatever. You can also gain favor with your companions based on your decisions, as well as giving your companion gifts. Eventually, there are a subset of companions that you can romance. Again, this is all very BioWare RPG-like, but makes very interesting and, in my opinion, successful additions to an MMO.

I think it’s cool that 1) BioWare is using companions to switch up typical MMO crafting and 2) they’re getting companions in on the whole morality meter situation, assigning companions themselves “alignments”, so to speak, and if you make a dialog choice that is in line with their thinking, they’ll like you better for it. You can also have chats with your companions either in cantinas or on board your ship, which nets you experience, and bumps up your rating with them.

This isn’t even to mention they can be outfitted and equipped – both with practical gear and with vanity packages – to your liking and for your desires. Your first companion also tends to work with your class and has their own overarching story interwoven with your own. I honestly can’t say enough good things about this particular feature, because it’s like you have people to play with, yet you don’t. If you want to travel the galaxy mostly solo, your companions are your best friends. Heroic quests which may require two or three actual players to join you, are also able to be completed with a companion in tow and no other support.

While other MMOs have implemented a “henchmen” mechanic, none have even come close to integrating the companions into everything else in the game – its quests, its crafting and its morality sliders.

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Visual Style and Atmosphere
You’re in the Star Wars galaxy, make no mistake. What I like about it is, though, that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it if you didn’t already know it was. I’ve been wanting a real, modern, tradition sci-fi MMO for quite some time. While the BioWare fanboy in me wanted it to be a Mass Effect MMO, this is a great substitution and certainly fills that need.

The atmosphere of all the areas I’ve visited so far really envelope you in the Star Wars universe – from the hustle and bustle of Coruscant to the mild serenety of your own vessel traveling between planetary locations. It all fits, and fits very well.

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The main issue I have here is the visuals are not necessarily up to the standard I would expect from an MMO released at the end of 2011. MMOs with much less of a budget and not as big of names behind it have much better visual appeal, if we’re strictly talking graphical prowess. I hope BioWare upgrades textures in a high-res release, like some recent MMOs have done to improve their graphical impact. Keep the scaling there, so still those with low-end machines can run the game, but give something to those with higher end cards, as well.

Now, I will say that anti-aliasing is not turned on in the beta, but other than that I had all other settings maxed, running on my Intel i5 750 with a GTX 560 card. It did run beautifully (other than some very horrible texture pop-in after you tab back in from being tabbed out). As I noted in my Skyrim review, I wonder the same thing here – why is it still an issue for game developers to make a game that smoothly puts itself in a full screen window, to make tabbing in and out a breeze? I don’t know, but it is an issue. Other than that, however, the atmosphere is awesome. The graphical prowess of the game could use some work, as many of the textures are almost painful to look at. But, this game is not about the graphics at all, and if that hangs you up, you have bigger issues than which MMO to play.

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Caveats, There Has to be a Few
I’ve lavished Star Wars: The Old Republic with praise so far. Honestly, it is a great entry into the MMO landscape overall. There are some caveats, however, and depending who you ask or what your vision is for this game and the genre in particular, they may be some pretty sizable ones.

It is very much a themepark MMO. You’re basically there for the ride. At times it feels linear, at other times you might have freedom. The story is very linear, as a matter of fact, regardless of class. The big clash here is between the current juggernaut, World of Warcraft, and the new kid in town, Star Wars: The Old Republic. The latter is actually the first game I can see even having a chance at ousting the king. However, if you’re thinking of jumping from one to the other, keep this in mind – if you are tired of the themepark atmosphere of WoW, you might as well just keep playing it, because you’ll get the exact same thing in SWTOR. However, if you just want a change of scenery and all your friends are coming over, you’ll likely find an overall better themepark experience in SWTOR.

Sometimes it’s almost too linear. The questing in the first 20 levels or so goes like this: You hit a quest hub, pick up quests (including one story quest), go to a location, do all the quests, return to the hub, turn them in, pick up follow-ups/more quests, go to another location and repeat this process over and over…and over and over…and over and over again. There is room for exploration, but sometimes it seems too shoehorned into going on one path and sticking to it. This is somewhat offset by the many dialog and morality options you have, however.

Choice in destination isn’t what I expected. This is a BioWare MMO. Once I got my ship at level 17 or so, I hopped on board to go to my next destination…and there was only one in my level range. After that, there was only one in the next level range. Color me disappointed. I would have assumed that something like what was included in Mass Effect 2 would happen here – you would have your choice of three or four areas to go into. They could all be part of the story, but you can do them in any order you wish. This is certainly not the case, so if you expect complete, non-linear freedom, you’ll be barking up the wrong tree.

Flashpoints. I’m a bit on the fence here. I absolutely love that you delve into an awesome story each time you enter a flashpoint. But, at the same time, going through that dialog takes a lot of time, perhaps time that some people don’t have. I’ve gotten accustomed to short dungeon romps of 30 minutes or so – certainly less than an hour. Flashpoints can take nearly two hours to complete. If you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t have much time to stay put for that amount of time, minimum, in a sitting, you might want to think twice, as WoW’s dungeons lately are much faster if you need them to be.

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These things may sound like a lot of negatives – and it’s likely my friend Giuseppe will not consider these to be so – but in reality, if you’re looking for a new experience in a new world with new classes and a sci-fi atmosphere, there is probably no better MMO to jump into than SWTOR. What I played of it was, for the most part, absolutely amazing. Some things bother me, but more because of the fact that I expected certain things from a BioWare MMO. I want this game to be great. Sales and pre-orders don’t make it great. The setting doesn’t make it great. What makes it great is how it defines itself within the genre. There are some absolutely amazing things about this game, enough to make it a must-play title for any MMO gamer, in my opinion. Just consider your options carefully, because if you’re looking for a completely different experience, you may come away disappointed.