Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic – Empire

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic – Empire

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a MMORPG that I approached with extreme caution. On one side, many of the things I heard and read about it made me hopeful, on the other, It’s Bioware’s first MMORPG, and moving from single player games to massively multiplayer ones isn’t as easy and seamless as some may think. In addition to this, the alleged large similarities with a certain other MMORPG that counts ten million subscribers, and shall not be named here, made me very, very wary.

In addition to that, SWTOR is probably the most hyped MMORPG ever, and if there’s something that this industry teaches, it’s that excessive hype often leads to disaster.

This preview is based on my Sith Warrior, then evolved into Sith Juggernaut. I preferred to delve as deep as possible into the game with a single character to hopping from one to the other without really seeing much. If you want to read about the Republic side of things, you may want to check Chad’s preview as well. We decided to write one each in order to showcase both factions and because we’re extremely different gamers. Let’s just say that he actually enjoys the aforementioned MMORPG that shall not be named. Preposterous, isn’t it? I guarantee that reading and comparing both previews will be interesting.  

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Call me weird or crazy, but creating my character is actually one of my favorite parts of playing a MMORPG. The fact that a character with the features that I choose will be seen by thousands of other players still makes me warm and fuzzy inside despite having been a MMORPG gamer constantly since the earliest times of Ultima Online. I guess it’s my hedonistic ego rearing its head. That’s why one of the first things to really please me or really disappoint me in a MMORPG is the character creation.

When I created my very own Sith Warrior I was actually impressed by the depth of the character creation options. I heard some complain about the fact that the process is not slider-based, but lets the player chose between a (very high) number of predetermined elements. Personally, I always found slider-based systems rather overrated, as it’s very hard to get a decent looking result with them, and they pave the way to griefing, with a lot of people that think they’re so funny walking around me with characters that look unnaturally ugly.

That’s why i find myself perfectly at home with an option-based system, as long as it’s sufficiently big. SWTOR’s one has a metric tons of elements to chose from, especially in the realm of hairstyles, that ultimately are one of the most characterizing elements in a MMORPG.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

You can chose between four body styles (thin, normal, big and fat) and several options for face, hairstyle, scars, complexion (including eyebrows), facial hair, eye color, hair color, tattoos and skin color. The only disappointing element is the inability to chose separately one of the most visible elements of the face: the nose.

Of course you’ll also be prompted to choose your basic class, species (the species available depend on what class you choose) and gender. By the way, if you wanted to play an old reliable Chewbacca wannabe, think again, because there are no playable Wookiees. Luckily the nine species available at launch make up for the gap, catering pretty much to every human or alien taste, unless you want to be a furry of course.

While creating a Sith you’ll immediately notice that some of the most iconic Sith features, like the glowing and bloodied eyes aren’t available at all. Initially I was surprised, then I discovered something extremely cool. As you delve deeper into the Dark Side of the Force your eyes will turn yellow and then progressively glow more reddish, while your skin will become more and more pale and veined. Remember the renegade scarring in Mass Effect 2? That’s how it works.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

If you’re too fond of your handsome/lovely looks, or want to be deceptive, you can still decide to hide the effect. As usual options are paramount.

Entering the game put me in front of the first surprise of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I think, by now, everyone knows that the game is on the cartoonish side of visuals, and the engine isn’t exactly a super-shiny fest of polygon goodness, but I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

While the graphics are slightly stylized, they’re nowhere near simple, quite the opposite: thanks to the lower polygon count of single items and characters, especially the environments are some of the most dense and detailed I’ve seen. Vegetation is extremely lush and props are scattered everywhere, filling the screen perfectly and avoiding the slightly barren effect that proves detrimental to the looks of many MMORPGs that features higher polygon counts.

Add to that a truly inspired art direction that’s probably the fruit of the pairing between the years of Bioware’s experience in designing RPGs, Lucasarts’ almost fanatical love for the Star Wars universe and an awesome lighting engine that builds atmosphere, and you get some of the most lovely and inspired environments on the MMORPG market.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Another quite exceptional element of the game’s visuals are combat animations: lightsaber fights show probably the most beautiful coreographies I’ve seen in a game of this genre. In Most MMORPGs that feature melee weapons, characters just look like they’re hacking at each other with little or no real interaction. Some have great animations, but when you look at how those animations interact with each other your immersion tends to break, because they simply don’t interact.

Star Wars: The Old Republic changes that in a rather radical way, weapons clash with each other realistically, blows are parried in every direction, and transitions with attacks are seamless. When you hurl yourself in a fight wielding your lightsaber (or lightsabers, if you can dual wield), the game really immerses you in the atmosphere of the movies, with spectacular attacks, parries and acrobatics. Of course, in true Star Wars fashion, even blaster bolts can be parried, and the animations involved are especially sweet.

Pictures, though, are better than thousands of words, so I uploaded a large gallery of screenshots on flickr. You might want to sit comfortably and grab a drink, because when I say “large”, I mean it: there are 707 for you to enjoy.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

What’s probably the very best element of Star Wars: The Old Republic is that it gives a real shake to one of the most classic, and stagnant, elements of MMORPGs: Questing. While the quest structure isn’t too different from what you’ll find in other MMORPGs, the pacing and storytelling are absolutely revolutionary.

In most games of the genre is simply too easy to get bored of the usually rather trite dialogue and start pressing whatever skip button is available. In SWTOR every single quest that involves interaction with NPCs has expertly animated cutscenes and full voice acting. This shifts the balance of the game a lot away from the usual “kill ten bears” and towards the enjoyment of the story and the characters, even when you’re just sent to actually kill ten bears.

Those that hate losing control of their characters shouldn’t worry too much, though, as during almost all cutscenes you will be prompted with a wheel of three dialogue options (very similar to the one featured in Mass Effect 2) that more often than not influences radically the way a conversation will go, and in quite a lot of cases even the outcome of a quest. Options vary from executing a character or letting him live to telling an honorable enemy that he’s being betrayed and so forth.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Many of those choices will also shift the character towards the Light Side or the Dark Side of the force. If you’re wondering, yes, you can be a rather ruthless Jedi or a respectable Sith, adding a lot of possible depth to your character. Unfortunately you can’t completely switch sides, but who knows, in the future it might become a possibility. The game’s alignment system is very conducive to something like that.

That said, I can easily predict that a lot of gamers will enjoy massively playing a Jedi corrupted by the Dark Side or a troubled Sith leaning towards the Light Side. The only slightly disappointing element is that the game actually tells you what choices lead to what side, thing that will prompt many to chose depending on their side of choice and not on what they would really like to do.

The atmosphere of the Sith Warrior campaign is just perfect, and those that yearned to see the Empire side of the Star Wars mythology flashed out more than in the movies and in most of the available literature will have a field day with it (or a whole lot of field days). The best thing is that Imperials and even the Sith aren’t nearly as stereotyped as one would expect. There are villains, heroes and a whole lot of shades of gray in between them.

Of course most of the Imperial characters you’ll have to deal with, bear the signs of living in a totalitarian environment where the strong crushes the weak, but this is filtered by realistic and non-judgmental writing, turning exploring imperial planets and meeting their denizens into an extremely interesting and novel experience.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

When I started my Sith Warrior campaign I didn’t have much hope to see my character interact with others as a Sith would do. In basically every single MMORPG out there you start as a powerless weakling that get commandeered by farmers and sent on errands to kill ten bears for a meager amount of coin. Even here Star Wars: The Old Republic filled me with joyous surprise. The first few levels at the Sith Academy on Korriban will go by very quickly and, after that, you’ll be unleashed on the Galaxy not as a lowly peon, but as a true Sith that strikes fear and respect in the eyes of those that meet him.

People will call you “My Lord”. They will grovel in front of you and try to get on your good side, because despite your low level, you’re a creature of extreme power. Mind you, some will still send you to kill the Star Wars equivalent of ten bears, but thanks to the great writing, animation and voice acting, they won’t make you feel like an errand boy, but like the great hero (or villain) that imparts his help to the lowly and inept masses.

Combat is very coherent with that sensation: normal enemies are quite weak, but come in sizable numbers. While in other MMORPGs killing one of those ten bears will take you a a while as you hack and slash endlessly at its thick fur, in SWTOR you’ll leap in the middle of four “bears” like an angry tiger and proceed to swiftly and gracefully make minced meat of them. This is not to say that everything is easy, as there are plenty enemies on the difficult side, but battles are definitely balanced to make you feel like a superior being and not just like any random dude that happened to wake up one morning with a lightsaber on his night table.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

This is, ultimately, what Star Wars: The Old Republic is most successful at. Most MMORPGs make you feel one of the many dudes with a sword: even games with a great story like Final Fantasy XI and XIV ultimately fail at making you feel like anything more than an external bystander, while other characters take the spotlight. A few examples like Age of Conan or Champions Online got somewhat near to the right effect, but still didn’t get quite there.  

SWTOR makes you feel like you’re The main character of the story. The Hero that will save the galaxy or the villain that will conquer it. You’ll lead at the forefront of immense battles, shoot down fleets of enemy fighters, take part in complex political plots and seduce powerful Sith Lords (or Ladies, but in Star Wars female Sith are still called “Lord”). Ultimately you’ll get to be the real big shot of the story almost from the very start, making you feel almost like you were playing a single player Bioware RPG. And mind you, I’m not even talking about Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2. I’m talking about Knights of the Old Republic or even Baldur’s Gate 2. If you played them, you know what I mean, and you know that it’s absolutely great.

Since you just read “single player”, you probably think that those awesome storytelling elements apply just when playing solo: You couldn’t be more wrong. Even when questing together with other players, not only their characters will appear in all the cutscenes, but they will influence them. Every time a dialogue branch has to be chosen every player will be prompted with the choice (different for each class). Then a random number will be generated for each character, and the one that rolls the highest will step in and speak the line or execute the action he chose. Personal story quests are the only exception, as the player that owns the quest will be the only one controlling the choices, but characters accompanying him will still appear in the cutscenes and their players will still be able to watch them, allowing everyone to enjoy all the storylines without needing to play every class.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

This radical innovation to storytelling during group gameplay goes hand-in-hand with its equivalent applied to solo questing. It’s definitely a revolution to one of the most stagnant aspects of the MMORPG genre, and an extremely welcome one. Not only it makes narration more interesting and dynamic, but it populates your story with characters that feel alive and “real” (quite obviously, since they are controlled by real players), helping you care for your friends’ characters almost as much as you care for your friends, and increasing involvement and social interaction tenfold. You’ll also be able to enjoy different character designs much more than you can during normal gameplay, as you’ll see their faces from up close, hear their voices and see their expressions.

Many MMORPG developers faced the problem of how to encourage players to group and socialize without penalizing solo-oriented gamers. Bioware may have found the perfect solution: people in Star Wars: The Old Republic (or at least in its beta) group up simply because it allows them to watch better cutscenes and enjoy those they normally wouldn’t be able to access.

Of course, if you’re crazy and you totally hate cutscenes, you can still skip them, but in that case you may want to ask yourself if SWTOR is really the game for you, because chances are that it’s not.

Players that like to play solo, though, shouldn’t feel left out, as Star Wars: The Old Republic brings to the table another innovation that improves solo gameplay considerably: the companion system.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

I can already hear many that will say that companions are nothing new, and that many other MMORPGs already have similar features. The radical difference is that in SWTOR companions aren’t simple pets. They are basically full fledged additional characters controlled by the AI in battle. Not only they will take an active part in storytelling, but you can also customize their equipment like they were your own character, you can build relationships with them and you can even romance some of them. They will even react to your choices in different ways, gaining or losing respect and affection for you.

They are much deeper in their implementation and execution that the companions and pets you can find in any other game of the genre, and they take a primary role on the stage at your side, again behaving pretty much like the companions you’ll find in a single player Bioware RPG.

On top of that, Bioware pulled out all the stop to make them extremely useful. They will complement your character’s weakness in a fight, but that’s just scratching the surface. Your inventory is full? No problem, you can send your companion to sell all the low-quality items automatically. In a minute he’ll be back with the money and you’ll have more free slots for further loot. Want to craft or harvest? You don’t need to worry about it, because your companions can do that for you. They can even be sent on missions, returning with valuables that you can use.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Basically SWTOR’s companions are the second best thing to an actual live friend playing with you. If that’s not a boon to the many solo-focused gamers out there…

Of course you can even mix and match, grouping with other players and using companions to fill the empty spots.

Each class gets different companions. If you add that to the fact that it also gets a different storyline, you can pretty much see that playing different characters in SWTOR is almost like playing a new game in the same setting. It adds a lot to the longevity of the game and will make the alt-a-holics squeal with pure joy even more than in other games that have some degree of storyline variation.

Combat and character progression are the fields in which Star Wars: The Old Republic doesn’t innovate much, besides the aforementioned fast paced, exhilarating battles in which you’ll slice through trash mobs like they were, aptly, nothing but trash, and the great animations, the combat system pretty much follows the classic scheme, with an action bar on which you’ll activate your abilities to attack your selected enemy. The abilities available are a good mix of straight attacks, conditionals and positionals, so there definitely is  room for skill, but battles don’t feel excessively twitchy.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

The Sith Warrior actually follows the power builder scheme used in some MMORPGs. Instead of having a set mana/stamina/energy bar, there are a few attacks and abilities that build “Rage”, that will be then spent to unleash other, more devastating skills.

A small innovation comes for ranged characters, that have the ability to seek cover behind an obstacle in order to mitigate damage, in a way somewhat similar to third person shooters.

Ultimately, though, SWTOR doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in terms of battle, and personally I don’t feel it needs to. It innovates enough in other areas to feel very different from any other MMORPG I played before.

The same can be said about character progression: you get to chose a basic class at the beginning, and at level 10 it will branch into one of two advanced classes that will give you a more specialized role. For instance the Sith Warrior can evolve into a Sith Marauder (a dual wielding damage dealer) or into a Sith Juggernaut (a well armored tank). Each advanced class has access to three talent trees (two are unique, the other is shared with the other advanced class) to offer a degree of customization. Again, it’s nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it definitely works well.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

While polished systems and an awesome story are great elements in a MMORPG, veteran gamers know very well that they don’t go very far without content. too many MMORPG developers did the fatal mistake of launching without enough content to keep players busy until the first large updates. Unfortunately when players run out of things to do, they start to leave. There’s no way out from this.

Bioware seems to have learned this vital lesson well, as SWTOR includes a staggering quantity amount of content to enjoy.

The first planet and partly the second (Korriban and Dormund Kaas for the Sith Warrior) are misleading, as they are a bit on the small side and fairly linear, but that’s probably an intentional choice in order to avoid disorienting new players. As soon as you get on the third planet (Balmorra in my case) things start to get serious, and the playfield becomes really expansive, non-linear and ripe for exploration and discoveries. In SWTOR exploration pays dividends, as there are stat-enhancing  holocrons to find, lore-related items that will unlock codex entries and even quite a few quests are hidden far away from the high traffic hubs.

Add to that the fact that each faction has access to 14 different planets and you get the picture.

With the fact that almost every quest has cutscenes and voice acting, you might think that Bioware can’t have implemented that many, and again you’d be wrong. There’s a metric ton of quests, split between solo-oriented ones and a smaller (but still large) number of heroic quests that require a group of two or four characters. Do you think that’s enough? Think again.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

In addition to the quests mentioned above players have access to a sizable number of larger instanced and story-driven group-oriented quests named “Flashpoints”, that are the real crown jewel of SWTOR’s Player vs Environment gameplay. Their length averages around one hour or a little more and they are really expansive and fun. I can bet a fair amount of Credits that my esteemed Republic rival Chad will take issue with their duration, as people that enjoy the game that shall not be named are used to rush through dull dungeons for half a hour and come out with the phat loot (and a lot of boredom).

I can honestly say that I’m glad that Bioware decided not to cater exclusively to the self-entitled casual crowd that wants everything here, now and fast, and offered something semi-exclusive to the core player base that can and is willing to dedicate more time to the game. The duration of flashpoints is basically perfect to tell a great story, as it’s similar to that of a movie. Any less and they would have to be dumbed down considerably. Luckily it’s not going to happen. Casual gamers that want quick content to enjoy during their lunch break have plenty to play between the quests and heroic quests mentioned above. It’d be simply silly to tailor everything on their tastes and needs.

As a passing note, there are also endgame raids, in the form of 8-men and 16-men “Operations”, but I can’t talk about them in depth for now, simply because I still didn’t manage to try them.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Of course there’s also Player vs Player content: In addition to PvP servers, in which combat is allowed everywhere outside of a few safe zones, there are be high-level open world PvP areas with objective-based gameplay similar to the Realm vs Realm we found in Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online.

There are also instanced battlegrounds called “Warzones”, that offer a more localized 8 vs 8 PvP experience. They’re actually extremely well designed, especially because of the varied objectives that keep boredom and repetitiveness at bay. The most fun is probably Huttball, a sports-like competition organized by a Hutt cartel in which players won’t just have to kill each other repeatedly, but also to bring a ball into the enemy end zone. You can easily think of it as a Star Wars themed Blood Bowl.

It’s definitely too early to start talking about balance, but what I managed to try of SWTOR’s PvP was definitely fun, with closely fought battles and exhilarating fast-paced combat. As a tank I definitely had the tools to compete, thing that isn’t always a given in many MMORPGs.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

Since I wrote about planets, I definitely cannot close this preview without talking about starships, that in Star Wars: The Old Republic double up as personal player housing and travel vehicles. I won’t mince words here: they are simply awesome.

First of all they are big.  You don’t get a small fighter as you could expect, but a large, full featured ship of a size similar to that of the Millenium Falcon. Earning one feels like a real accomplishment, even if you will receive it quite early into the game (at the end of the story quest on the second planet), just because they are so expansive and they open so many possibilities. You can use them for basic functions like item storage, you can invite friends over, you can meet your companions (that will act as crew) and interact with them. You can also upgrade them with new parts that will increase their performance in battle.

Yes, I said battle. You will be able to use your ship in different space battles, even if it’s exclusively a solo activity for the moment. The gameplay is in third person, somehow similar to the old venerable on-rail shooter Star Wars: Rebel Assault II. You have limited freedom of movement to avoid obstacles and you can use your mouse to aim your blasters and missiles against a variety of enemy fighters, capital ships and starbases.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

While it can be considered more of a minigame and it’s definitely no X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (I know, that would have been awesome), it’s also massively fun and definitely addictive. The graphics are quite spectacular, and the action is fast and challenging, especially at higher levels. Hopefully Bioware will expand the feature in the future, introducing group scenarios and maybe even some form of competitive gameplay.

I will add a final note about equipment customization. Several pieces of Equipment in SWTOR are nothing else than a basic container for components called “mods”. Once you combine your mods in the basic item, they will determine its level and stats.

This doesn’t only allow you to customize the statistics of your equipment, but it also has a subtler but very interesting effect: like a lightsaber hilt, but you’re outleveling it? Just change its internals and you’ll be able to have a weapon perfectly appropriate to your level but retaining the same looks. Don’t like the color of the beam? You can just change the crystal with one of another color. The same goes for blasters and armor (even if, of course, there’s no beam to be changed in your armor). You can even just buy a fully modded weapon or armor piece appropriate to your level, remove the mods from it and put them in your old equipment. I think I already said that options are paramount, and Bioware really pulled out all the possible stops to give SWTOR players as many options as possible.

Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic - Empire

I started this preview talking about possibly damaging hype and how I joined the beta of Star Wars: The Old Republic with a wary heart. I walk away with my heart full of anticipation for the game, as SWTOR truly has the potential to be one of the few MMORPGs in the genre’s history to truly live up to its hype, or at least get very near to that accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beta and it shows in several ways. It’s in no way a perfect game, and it will never be (no MMORPG ever is, even years after release). That said, it didn’t launch yet, but it’s already more polished than many games that are currently on the shelves and several months or years into their life spam. It includes so many unexpected features that you often don’t find even in veteran MMORPGs and the amount of content is so large, that it’s hard to believe that something like this has been created by a software house at its first experience in the genre.

The ladies and gentlemen at Bioware aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they are adding to it many elements from the genre they are the strongest in, creating a deeply engrossing, vast and simply charming RPG experience, that also happens to be Massively Multiplayer. And it’s Star Wars. What’s not to love?