It’s a momentous weekend, dear gamers! Not only were we able to snag some hot titles (bet at least one person misread that phrase) at Black Friday sales, but this weekend begins the final large scale beta test for the hotly anticipated and much heralded WoW killer (are we sick of that term yet? At this point only Blizzard can kill the game) Star Wars the Old Republic.  Mixing the much adored world of Star Wars with the game design talents of Bioware, SWTOR looks to offer players a completely new world to meet up with fellow players, run fetch quests, and obsess over gear load-outs, stats, and other minutiae.

Not only did yours truly get into this weekend’s beta, but EA has at last lifted the non-disclosure agreement of the testing, meaning players are officially allowed to share their experiences with others. So what better way to spend this week’s column than getting some hands on feedback with the game that EA hopes will be the toast of the town this Christmas season? Over the next few hours, I’ll be starting and leveling a character and will post my impressions and hopefully include some screenshots, which I also can do now! So if you’re wondering if SWToR is right for you, follow along (or comeback later to read it all in one sitting!)

Author Credentials: For those wondering about my level of familiarity with the Massively Multiplayer Online genre, I have three months of Dark Age of Camelot, three months of City of Heroes, a month of Rift, and a year of Lord of the Rings Online all under my belt. I have tried World of Warcraft out but never really gotten into it. So my opinions are going to be coming from someone casually interesting in the genre. If you’re looking for how a hardcore MMO vet responds, I am afraid I can’t help. But if you consider yourself an average Joe gamer, I think my feedback will be relevant.

My Feedback

After a huge download this morning (seriously, like 20 GB all told) I finally hopped onto the servers, where queues were generally pretty manageable. The game loaded into an intro movie, after which I could pick my side and make my character. Being the evil monster I am, I jumped to Sith straight away, where I could choose one of four classes: a Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor, Bounty Hunter, and Assassin (for MMO veterans, essentially these are DPS, caster, Tank/Crowd Control, Rogue). Since everyone and their mama wants to be Force aware in these games, I took the alternate route and selected Bounty Hunter, hoping my mix of blasters, jetpacks, and rockets would make me the next Boba Fett. After some basic character choices (most importantly character race) and some tweaks to appearance, I was good to go. One interesting thing to note is that certain classes are locked out to certain races. So, for example, if you dream of being a Twi’lek, you can’t play as Bounty Hunter. It’s nothing new, but I imagine a few players are going to find it inconvenient. After creation, I ended up with a character looking like this:

Like Bioware’s last big RPG Dragon Age, each class starts off with its own unique class story before moving to the main world. Bounty Hunter’s find themselves searching for sponsorship in a huge event on the planet of Hutta called the Great Hunt, a proving grounds of sorts for the galaxy’s up and coming hit men. If you can win the Hunt, you’ll be a made man in the galaxy (try to ignore the fact that there will be tens of thousands with the exact same resume). Obviously it’s not going to be so simple, but I won’t spoil anything.

Quests in SWTOR have a bit more gravitas than the typical MMO thanks to full voice-acting and dialogue trees. While the tasks themselves often boil down to “Go fetch this item/talk to this person/kill this person” (the last more so for bounty hunters), hearing the giver talk to you in dialogue heavy cutscenes really adds some depth to the proceedings. Conversations are handled identically to Bioware’s Mass Effect series, with the return of the dialogue wheel.

Sadly, your conversation choices are mostly cosmetic, other than the option to accept or deny a quest. Occasionally, though, you can change the course of a quest via dialogue, usually by choosing a light side or dark side response to character. They add some variety to the quests and whether you are light or dark side will have effects later in the game regarding certain equipment (so I read), but the rule of “save an orphanage or kill the children” dichotomy returns, and most choices are either horrendously evil or cartoonishly noble. Since a light side Sith makes little sense to me, I have chosen exclusively evil actions in my three odd hours of play. Mostly these boil down to murdering people for credits. Nuance has no place for a Sith. For those paranoid about accidentally doing evil (or good), the game helpfully marks all conversation choices that net you light or dark side points.

However, with this being an MMO, everything boils down to combat, and thankfully what I’ve played so far has been pretty good, if only thanks to the departure from the fantasy trappings of most MMOs. The Bounty Hunter excels at ranged attacks and crowd control, the latter of which is handled quite differently that the standard stun/daze fare of games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. The rocket attack knocks down enemies in a given radius, while my favorite attack, the sticky dart, attaches to enemies and causes the less bold to turn their attention towards ripping it off before it explodes (they can’t, but the time they spend counts as stun time). At the end of the day, however, this is a well made but ultimately pretty standard MMO combat system. You line up powers on your skill bar, press the corresponding numbers, and right click on enemies to attack if no skill is ready. SWTOR makes some nice twists on the standard WoW formula, but combat is not one of those (even if you can do a Hadouken).

I have already seen players in game chat complaining about wanting to skip the voiced cutscenes or lamenting that the world isn’t as immersive as Skyrim, which both somewhat highlight the tenuous world the SWTOR seeks to occupy. It’s an MMO that wants to behave and flow like Bioware’s past single player offerings, and it’s merit is really going to be based on how appealing of a mash-up that sounds to you. For those obsessed with optimized builds, epic raids, and endless PvP, the constant focus on single player-esque quests and storyline may do more to slow you down (and with its massive head start, WoW is still going to have more content there unless you just hate the lore and world). Those that want to enjoy the successor to Knight of the Old Republic, meanwhile, might finds themselves turned off by the monthly subscriptions, need for an internet connection at all times, and the inevitable forced grouping that MMOs are known for (I have only had one such quest so far, but it is early). Despite the promise of ever growing content, though, you have to wonder if a new Old Republic experience is going to be worth the $180 a year the subscriptions will cost (assuming $15/mo). That comes out to three new single player games a year. Bioware better offer a LOT of content for that price.

The ultimate question is whether the mix will resonate enough with both sides to keep them playing after the first month. It’s certainly a wise strategy; to best World of Warcraft by offering a meaningful, engaging story. But despite all the time and money EA and Bioware have sunk into the project, they need to keep people around. And as Star Wars Galaxy before us has shown, you can’t expect to keep players around on name alone. Personally I enjoyed my early hours with SWToR, but I can already feel myself exhausted by it a bit. Part of this may be my personality: the only MMOs I have been able to stick with are the ones I had friends playing with me in. If you can get yourself a group of dedicated friends or find a good guild to get into, the value proposition of the game rockets up immensely.

Did anyone else get into the beta? Or is looking forward to the game’s launch next month?

Update #2: Getting Better

I jumped back on for a few hours tonight, and for some reason everything started to click more. Partly because the game finally gave me my first companion (named Mako, who you can see below with a customized hair do; yes, you can purchase and earn cosmetic changes for partners). Much like your party members in the original Knights of the Old Republic, your companion supports you in combat, can be equipped with gear and weapons, and will respond to your choices in dialogue. While the first few hours seemed a bit lonely and dialogue choices pretty superficial, adding a partner adds the added stakes of companion affection. Say the right things and your partner will grow more fond of you. Say the wrong things and they’ll start to dislike you. I haven’t yet seen what affection actually does in regards to the game, but it made dialogue a lot more engaging. And for those who like to lone-wolf their ways through online games (trust me, I’ve been there), the companions add some much needed odds against waves of higher level enemies.

The quests still amount to fetch quests and mob killing, and the constant running back and forth gets tiresome (Skyrim spoiled me with its fast travel). But the storyline is starting to reel me in, and the game really has started to capture that Old Republic feel that kept me coming back for four different playthroughs. My only complaint now (though I suppose it was true of the original KOTOR) is how downright slow the progression can feel at times. I am six hours in (at least) and have still yet to get off the starting world. Playing in shorter shifts has helped, but I am still not getting much of a massive or social feel from the game, save the ever scrolling chat window in the left. It seems like a server full of people trying to play a single player game, and I wonder if the growth of guilds and PvP in the full release will be able to inject some community into the game. Because otherwise it still seems like paying a subscription for the latest single-player KOTOR.

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