Publisher: Electronic Arts
Two weeks have now passed since Bioware unleashed the Star Wars shaped beast that is The Old Republic, and there have been plenty of talking points in recent days on how well things have been handled. Server queues that reached the heights of two hours, and the inability to access the website to register account keys have caused disgruntled users to flock to the interwebs to voice their annoyance. I did have a chuckle at it all, bring reminded of my experiences when World of Warcraft launched many moons ago. You could argue that EA and Bioware should have been more prepared for the heavy traffic that was obviously going to come with the Star Wars name, but I took the queues as an excuse to make a sandwich… and clean my study. However here we are a couple weeks later, and apart from a few five minute waits the majority of queues have all but evaporated, allowing us to finally return to that galaxy far, far away to begin the adventure unhindered.
MMORPG’s are huge in nature, so SWTOR will not be reviewed in the traditional form you are accustomed to here at Dealspwn. We will be chopping up the content and updating you with our impressions over time, as this is a colossal game with copious amount of content. As such, consider this first instalment more of an assessment of the starting experience and the launch, with reviews on Flashpoints, end-game content, Space Combat, Legacy progression, PvP, and focused looks at character roles and classes in the near future.
SWTOR provides players with four classes per factions, with Jedi Knights, Jedi Consulars, Smugglers and Troopers on the Republic side, whilst the Empire has Sith Warriors, Sith Inquisitors, Imperial Agents and Bounty Hunters on their disposal. Upon completing their start areas and arriving at the main faction space stations, players will have the choice between two different Specializations for their class, with the choice usually being between damaging dealing and either being a tank or healer. All options are described in detail, allowing the player to make an informed decision on how they want their character to progress. For example, a Jedi Knight can either go as a Guardian, wielding a single Lightsabre with a focus on being a tank, or go as a Sentinel, allowing the use of duel Lightsabres to hit enemies with. Each Specialization contains three skill trees to pick from, providing a sense of familiarity for MMO players as you can distribute skill points that are earned once a level.
Let’s begin by looking at the most prominent part of SWTOR, which is the combat. The usual suspects are all here, with varying levels of damaging abilities available to players as they rise high through the levels, abilities such as sap and armour rend being around, line-of-sight functionality and minimum distance all playing a part, and cooldown timers, all there and present. Each class has its own “mana” or “energy” bar along with the health bar, which provides a limit to the number of abilities that can be cast. For example, Sith Warriors will need to build up Rage to execute abilities, whilst Smugglers have a set amount of Energy to exhaust that rebuilds slowly over time. It isn’t ground-breaking or genre-defining stuff, but it all works well and looks visually stunning when the action gets going. When my Bounty Hunter unleashed the rocket barrage ability for the first time, causing fire and dust to rise up around my enemies, it was incredibly satisfying to watch.
While SWTOR does not attempt to completely shed the MMO template popularised by Everquest and World of Warcraft, it does manage to inject enough variation to be commended from the perspective of the delivery of its content. This is done by the emphasis on the story, and creating a deeper sense of involvement for the player in a more personal level. Each class has its own story arc, as grand as any single player RPG campaign, which comes complete with conversation choices done in a similar fashion to what is seen in Mass Effect. This means Light and Dark side decisions for a large portion of the options, as well as influencing the level of affection towards you by your companions (who we’ll look at a little later on.) If I'm honest, it has a feeling of being the Knight Of The Old Republic sequel we have craved for years, but you have the chance to experience it with others.
What Bioware have managed to achieve is inject a sense of single player philosophy into the MMO arena, but this doesn’t mean you have to go through conversations alone. When engaging in conversations with others in your group everyone can choose a different response, with a dice roll to decide which outcome is acted out in the in-game cut scene. That said, players will receive the appropriate affection and moral rewards from their personal choice, meaning goodie-goodie players won’t ruin the evil streak of other wishing to make the galaxy a more miserable place, and vice-versa. Meanwhile, during conversations in class-specific personal missions, other players are able to spectate over the action, which helps to keep things from feeling segregated when they so easily could. Of course, you can alternatively just do things on your lonesome, but doing so means you forfeit the chance to accumulate Social Points that unlock the ability to purchase special cosmetic items.
Perhaps my favourite aspect involving conversations in groups is the Holo-call feature, which provides players the option of participating in conversations without having to be standing next the NPC in question. It allows for a greater sense of freedom and progress, and is a welcome addition to proceedings.
What strikes me when playing through the many missions given to me is how well placed everything is, even when playing with a group of friends with various goals. Regardless of whether they are Class-based personal missions, or group missions that are dotted around the map, there is a great sense of flow when moving from one location to the next (as long as you are doing all the missions in your log in one big go, that it.) I have rarely felt like I was being forced to go off dramatically in the opposite direction for one objective, something Bioware should be commended for.
As well as a focus on personal story, the other big difference with SWTOR is the AI Companions that are recruited during your journey through the galaxy. Joining up with you at different stages in your personal story, they provide additional features to the gameplay. The most obvious is following you around providing support as you complete missions, be it healing you or dealing some damage. They will also add additional dialogue to conversations if they are present, as well as rewarding the player with personal quests at various points in their relationship that delve deeper into their own backstory. It all provides a level of investment that is normally missing from MMOs, and plays well into the story-focused element of the game.
However, Companions are a key element to the crafting element of SWTOR with Crew Skills. Players are able to train up to three of these skills with a mix of both crafting and gathering options available. What sets it apart from other MMOs is the ability to not only progress them while running around doing missions (such as gathering resources littered around the map) but players can also send their companions away to fetch objects or craft items for fee of credits. The difficulty level affects the duration of how long they are unavailable for, as well as the chance of success, but this effectively allows players to complete missions whilst improving their trade skills. It’s a helpful feature, and allows me and my first companion to go off fighting bad guys while the droid on my starship does all the hard work, grovelling to me when he fails in a task.
One key part of any MMO is the customer service, for when things go wrong (and they inevitably do) they are the ones to help solve your problem. I have sadly not been issue-free during my time with SWTOR, but that was more down to my own stupidity than anything else, and I ended up contacting the CSR team, under the guise of protocol driods, for help. While the issue was not dealt with as fast as I would have hoped, I felt I had to consider the fact that a game launch is an incredibly busy time (and the fact I am not the only person playing in the world.) However, I cannot fault the helpfulness and professionalism of the representative that resolved my issue, ensuring I was able to play the game without any trouble from then onwards.
Of course, this is just my own experience and opinion, and your experience, depending on the severity of the issue, the number of people contacting support, and the moon’s gravitational pull (maybe), will vary. However, I really do hope the speed at which they handle tickets improves over time, and based on how the situation with server queues was resolved I have faith that it will.
Everything from this first part of the review comes from the experience over a couple of character classes that have yet to complete Chapter One of their main story arc, meaning this really is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is left to see. We’ll be back soon with more impressions in the near future. Until then, I’ve got more of the galaxy to explore.