Publisher: Electronic Arts
We’re back with another instalment in what we are calling our season of “SWTOR Saturdays” with the third part of our Star Wars: The Old Republic review. It has been an interesting week for BioWare’s MMORPG, with a new content patch released to much fanfare, only for it to break a number of things in the process, perhaps most notably the Ilum battleground fiasco. Thankfully, there’s more to this game than exploitable PvP mechanics and we’ve still got more ground to cover before our final judgment on this one, so let’s get right to it.
When players have reached the end of their class story on the second planet their visit, which is Coruscant for the Republic or Dromund Kass for the Empire, they are finally rewarded with access to their very own space craft, and each presented in their own special way. For example, Sith and Jedi are given their own ship for being loyal members of their order, while Bounty Hunters and (especially) Smugglers have to do a little more leg work story-wise to get their keys to their ride. Each class has its own different design, inspired by iconic space-faring vehicles from throughout the franchise. Sith Warriors get something that looks like a giant Tie Interceptor, while Smugglers receive a ship that looks not unlike KOTOR’s Ebon Hawk (Troopers sadly get something that looks like it is flying backwards, which is a little disappointing and / or funny.) Being able to move your avatar around the outside of your vehicle in the hanger bays is a nice touch, allowing you to appreciate the galaxy-trekking machines in all their glory before heading inside.
These ships act as a personal base of operations for your character in addition to being a mode of transport between the various planets. It provides you with an area where you can interact with all of the companions you have recruited so far, and allows you access to your cargo hold to store items without resorting to a return trip to a planet or faction base. The holoterminal allows the flow of story missions to continue between planets, but the cockpit also plays host to a key departure from the game thus far; Space Combat missions.
The on-rail space combat sections are fairly reminiscent of the old Star Wars arcade games, using your mouse to aim and steer your ship to around whilst attempting to shoot down enemy craft and turrets. While this is the main focus of these sections, you will occasionally be given objectives such as protecting a friendly ship as it makes its way along a debatable flight plan past several enemy ships until it reaches safety. The controls are simple to pick up, with Left Mouse firing lasers and Right Mouse firing missiles, and the craft following the mouse pointer with ease. You can even attempt to get yourself out of sticky situations by doing that tried and tested combat manoeuvre we all know and love, the barrel roll, by hitting the Space bar, although I do question its effectiveness in heavy fire situations.
It does look cool to do, though.
Mission objectives come along with Bonus objectives in a similar manner to the on-foot missions in SWOTR, with proceedings being easy enough to begin with, but as additional missions unlock as your character advances through the levels the difficulty gradually cranks up. To provide assistance you are granted new abilities, such as transferring power to weapons or shields (at the cost of the effectiveness of the other) and eventually EMP blasts to help blast your way to victory. Of course, you won’t stand a chance of making it through the later skirmishes without upgrading your ship with better equipment, which is done in a similar manner to swapping weapons or armour on your avatar and companions.
Are these sections any fun though? They are a welcome way to break up the content in SWTOR, distracting the player every once in a while, and the experience gain from completing them at least once a day is incredibly helpful for those looking to level up quickly. It’s not X-Wing or Tie Fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but then again it’s quite clear BioWare had no intention for it to be. The space combat sections provide enough of a visual thrill to replicate the action the franchise is famous for, and most missions are short enough to not outlast their welcome.
With the discussion of space ships and travel done and dusted, it leads me quite conveniently on to the topic of the various locations used in SWTOR (this isn't a look at system performance, which will be done in next week's article.) The art department have done a phenomenal job bringing the worlds from Star Wars to life, be it from the films such as Coruscant, Hoth and Tatooine, or the expanded universe locations such as Taris and Dromund Kass. Each planet offers something contrasting in terms of palette, and the attention to detail in making each location more than just an area to run around and complete missions should make the die-hard fans of the series happy.
Two locations spring to mind that need commending, the first being the ill-fated Alderaan. As well as providing a different approach with its story thanks to the Aristocratic nature of its inhabitants, players finally get to see the long-described beauty of the planet scored to some of the best music in the game (although the best music has to be the funk-jazz muzak used in the many cantinas, something Max Remo would have been proud of.) The second location I have to make note of is Nar Shaddaa; the true hive of scum and villainy in the universe. Strong influences of Blade Runner can be found in the visuals and audio cues of the Hutta moon, with the taxi rides between zones highlights the sense of scale of the towering skyscrapers (something Coruscant also manages to do quite well.)
If you want to see the locations of the game at their graphical best, you can check out some panoramic pictures at the link here. It's worth pointing out though that players cannot achieve the levels of detail demonstated in these pictures, but it quite clearly something the game is capable of should BioWare flick the switch. (EDIT: This is in fact not true - you can achieve this level of detail in SWTOR's current state, but you risk making your PC cry. See the comments section for word from the creator of the panoramic pictures!)
We briefly covered Crew Skills and crafting in the previous instalments, but we’re going to look over the mechanics in more detail and what is expected to make the best gear. I’ve already mentioned that your companions do the majority of the labour when it comes to crafting, as they can be sent off on missions to retrieve materials and items at your request. These come at a cost in credits, and are separated into different level tiers, each displaying their intended reward along with how long the companion will be unavailable for. Along with this there is a difficulty rating which is indicated by the colour of either a dot next to a craftable item, or the colour of the mission text for retrieval missions. For instance, grey yields trivial rewards for your level and no skill increase, green provides the lowest possible rewards, yellow indicates normal skill level gain, and red signifies the best skill gain.
While crafting an item with a red indicator will gift you several skill points, with retrieval missions there is a risk of your companion returning empty handed. However, it is with these missions that the rarest materials, needed for the better-than-average craftable items, can be found. As you progress with your crafting skills you can learn new recipes from the available trainers, however there are two ways to discover improved recipes; the first is by randomly being rewarded one from retrieval missions, and the other is by using the Reverse-Engineer ability on any created items. This ability, located at the top of the inventory box, not only provides a chance at learning an improved version, but returns some of the materials used in its creation back to the player, ensuring you at least get something every time the action is performed. Early level items tend to provide you with an improved recipe within the first 4 or 5 attempts, but once you get to over 200 skill the chances drop significantly, and I found myself feeling personally insulted when I didn’t discover a better version.
It’s now at the point where I’m blaming George Lucas every time it fails.
Overall the crafting system does exactly what it intends to, providing the player with the ability to create epic items without the need to stop their adventures whilst doing so, and I especially like how you can store crafting materials in your cargo hold for use, eliminating the need to carry everything with you whenever you wish to make an item. However, I do have one gripe with the crew skills, and that is how the retrieval missions (Investigation, Treasure Hunting, Diplomacy and Slicing) do not give you an indication of which rare materials they will reward you with, and as such will force the player to do external research as to what the best one for their main crafting profession will actually be. Additionally, one current bug when picking up materials scattered throughout levels has been frustrating for me. At the time of writing, if a player goes to loot a resource and then does not pick it up, it causes the empty node to remain in the world and not respawn. There were numerous times when I would go to a spot indicated on my mini-map where I could scavenge some metals, only to realise my effort was all for nought. I hope this is fixed in the near future, but consider this a friendly “heads-up” on the issue for now.
We’re out of time for today, but make sure to come back next week for more impressions from our time in SWTOR, where we will be delivering our final judgment on BioWare’s MMORPG.