Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Preview

Along with many others around the globe, I was playing the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta weekend and all-in-all, I have to say, I was quite impressed. My experience was as follows.

With a due sense of anticipation, anxiety and excitement, I click on play. The game loads and the opening CGI video plays out. Anyone who has been keeping up with TOR will have seen this video before (it’s the one with the Zabrak Jedi and his Padawan). So far so good. Server selection. There’s a lot of red names and ‘FULL’ warnings. I go for one of the ‘FULL’ servers that doesn’t list a waiting time and I’m straight in to Character Creation. Hmmm, what shall I pick. Well, in my extensive experience, an oddity in MMOs is that the nicest people always join the side of the bad guys and as any Star Wars fan knows (and any non-Star Wars fan will be told often and loudly by Star Wars fans that cannot comprehend such blasphemy), the bad guys in this setting are the Sith Empire (the Imperials).

The Sith Empire: Large groups of fanatical devoted followers and huge numbers of excessively overpaid mercenaries that follow/worship the Sith Lords as gods. Their plan: to conquer the Republic and then do something, but they’re not quite sure what that something is yet. They are, however, certain that the conquering of the Republic should be done with all haste.

The Republic: Sort of like the European Parliament, except that they agree even less and tend to solve their problems in a more physical manner by throwing Jedi at it until it goes away. The Jedi Order has a long standing relationship with the Republic as their own private police force, did I say ‘police force’? I meant close allies.

So, I choose the Imperials. Class selection. There are four to choose from for each faction, each of these four then splitting into two more once you complete the prologue world at around level 9 or 10.

The Imperials:
Sith Warrior - Juggernaut: the Darth Vader archetype. Wield a single lightsaber and wears heavy armour. Warning: choking hazard. for those who like the idea of walking (alternatively: flying through the air propelled unnaturally by your own will) up to an enemy then proceeding to utilise your lightsaber as more of a club than a sword.
Marauder: the Asajj Ventress/Galen Marek (Starkiller from The Force Unleashed) archetype. Dual wielding single lightsabers and wearing medium armour. For those who like their opponents filleted.
Sith Inquisitor - Sorcerer: the Darth Sidious (Emperor Palpatine) archetype. This one’s for the megalomaniacs amongst us. For those who like shooting lightning from their hands and cackling maniacally.
Assassin: the Darth Maul archetype. The sneakiest of the four saber-wielding Sith. Carries a saberstaff and likes to go invisible to spy on the other initiates in the showers...
Bounty Hunter - Mercenary: the Jango Fett/Calo Nord archetype. Wielding two blaster pistols and a wrist-mounted missile launcher with heat-seeking rockets. For those that enjoy it when their employer has to state, “and no disintergrations”, just to make sure.
Powertech: the Davik Kang archetype (for those who played Knights of the Old Republic). The Powertech specialises in Heavy Armour, Shields and Flamethrowers. The philosophy of the Powertech seems to be, ‘if I can’t die, how can I lose?’.
Imperial Agent - Sniper: the Trenchers of the imperial war machine. Less traditional sniper, more mobile gun emplacement. The Sniper can deploy their own cover shields and also deploy things such as mines and droids to defend their entrenched position.
Operative: the more traditional field agents and spies of Imperial Intelligence. They use stealth to get close to people before silently removing their kidneys. Good for people that like to work from the shadows and ignore their friends repeated calls for help.

The Republic:
Jedi Knight - Guardian: the Obi-Wan Kenobi/Clone Wars Jedi archetype. Wearing heavy armour and wielding a single lightsaber, they are the traditional Jedi Knight we all remember from the films. For the traditionalists among us.
Sentinel: the Anakin Skywalker (when he fights Count Dooku in ‘Attack of the Clones’) archetype. Dual-wielding lightsabers and wearing medium armour, they are a mix of damage and resilience. For those that really like the sound of whooshing lightsabers.
Jedi Consular - Sage: the Yoda archetype. With their superior mastery of the Force, they have decided they want to throw big rocks at people they don’t like. For those that like to imagine what it would be like to pick up a car with your mind and drop it on someone.
Shadow: Not a traditional Jedi archetype as we know it, although it seems the saberstaff was a much more common weapon in the Old Republic timeline. Focusing on cloaking themselves with the force and striking from behind, they seem like the least Jedi of the four Jedi classes. For those who don’t like Jedi or Sith, but like lightsabers.
Republic Trooper - Commando: the Heavy guns expert. Not a commando in the traditional sense, as I don’t think most commandos would go into battle with only a giant rocket launcher or a minigun, but still. For those that enjoy shouting “I AM BULLETPROOF!”.
Vanguard: the clone trooper archetype. Wearing heavy armour and carrying a blaster rifle, they look every bit the part of the walking tank. For those who like to strike hero poses.
Smuggler - Gunslinger: the space cowboy. Dual-wielding blaster pistols and using explosives to damage and sabotage their opponents. For those that like wearing big hats and saying cheesy one-liners.
Scoundrel: the Han Solo archetype. Using a one-handed shotgun-pistol and stealth tactics, they like to bide their time before breaking cover to steal everything that isn’t nailed down. For those that like Wookies.

I’ve always been a fan of Zabraks (before Darth Maul) and the saberstaff (again before Darth Maul, although he did combine the two much to my delight), so I thought I’d try for Sith Inquisitor into Sith Assassin. I won’t give any specific details so I don’t spoil any of the story for those that haven’t played it yet, suffice to say that it was all very much in keeping with the Sith we know and love from the KOTOR series. However, I found the first area’s quests for the Inquisitor stiflingly boring and when I took a break and logged back in, I found that I didn’t want to play the Inquisitor and decided to try another class.

So, over to the other side of the fence. Jedi Knight looks fun. Sure enough, it is everything we expect, heroic and helpful, but there’s still something missing. The Jedi Knight character is quite bland and there isn’t much scope to create someone intriguing. So, onto the next character.
Bounty Hunter. Now, I liked the look of Bounty Hunter from the start, but was put off by an article in PC Gamer that spoke about the boring conversation choices and the stagnant storyline. Perhaps because I played a female character (a first for me, shock horror), instead of the male bounty hunter that the PC Gamers article tried, and because I went down the light side route (as far as a bounty hunter can be light side), I found the Bounty Hunter story hugely engaging. The character is voiced well and you can choose between being a complete bastard/bitch, a complete mercenary with no morals without profit or the uncompromising hunter. The feeling of satisfaction I felt when I got to freeze someone solid with a carbonite ray because I chose the light side option to keep them alive, I knew I’d made the right decision going down the path I had.

Every class’ skills were interesting and mostly unique. No skill felt redundant and I often found myself using all of the skills I had in fights. Combining this with the removal of the auto-attack mechanic (probably the best decision Bioware have made in terms of combat) makes the combat engaging and responsive, because your character will not act without your input. Traditional MMOs can be compared to playing a keyboard at school. You put on the auto beat and then press the keys when you need to. TOR feels more free and creative, more like a piano. No sounds comes out unless you press a key, meaning that it is you that creates the music.

Every quest, and I do mean every quest is completely voice acted and animated with your own individual conversation. I can’t even begin to explain what a difference this makes to the overall questing experience. The level of engagement and immersion is second to none. The traditional ‘Kill x number of y’ quests are gone, although for those with a sense of nostalgia or simply a wish for some extra experience get the option to do them as Optional additions to other quests whilst you travel to them, but they are by no means necessary for levelling. Gathering quests, unfortunately still remain, although they are mostly painless and there are still the usual ‘go here and press this button’ quests that can get a little tedious from time to time. However, there are many interesting and unique quests that are a joy to complete (the story quests, which are character specific, in particular).

The heroic quests and Flashpoints are also interesting and of varying levels of difficulty. The first time I fought Iron Fist (a Mandalorian Commander) in the first Flashpoint you get access to, my partner and I got roundly trounced. The second time, however, we won and felt a distinct sense of achievement for doing so. A little disappointing was the fact that the final boss of the same instance, who is supposedly a Sith Apprentice, was woefully easy to beat. I expect this will be rectified before release.

Later on you can do the 4-person group Flashpoints, although I am still undecided on the 4-player group mechanic they are going for. It’s a much bigger break from the norm than it seems at first, mainly because the class roles are not as clear cut as they are in other MMOs. Whilst there are specific classes better at doing certain things (Tanking, Healing, etc) you still get the pleasant feeling that everyone is a damage-dealer first and whatever else second. Because of this, I have found that hybrid groups seem to work much more effectively than the traditional 1 tank, 1 healer, 2 DPS, which, I’m sure, is what we all expected would be the norm. The best group combination I found for a 4-player Flashpoint was two tank/DPS hybrids and two healer/DPS hybrids. This works much better than any other combination I have tried. You have the main tanker take on the toughest, most damaging opponent, whilst the second tanker (the off-tank if you like) takes the rest of the trash. The healers then work together and keep everyone healed, whilst still doing silly damage.

It is important to note that healing in TOR has received a lot of criticism over the past week and it seems to me that it is mostly because people are complaining that they can’t out-heal the damage tanks are taking. This is just not true. Healing in TOR is about teamwork. The tank needs to keep his damage reduction as high as possible so that the healer can easily keep him topped up. Gone are the days of the healer healing through damage that should kill entire groups, now there’s an element of people keeping themselves (DPS and other healers included) alive instead of relying on the healer to do all the work and this is no bad thing. I like the new mechanic, but I worry that people will not be able to break their old habits, even in the name of progress. We shall see.

Bioware have done the impossible. When we heard their plan, we all thought they were crazy. They wanted to create innovation in the MMO, whilst still keeping it accessible enough for MMO veterans to feel comfortable. Not only have they managed to do all this, but they have managed to place it in a Star Wars universe whilst maintaining the look and feel of both the Star Wars films and the KOTOR franchise. A truly astonishing feat. I have heard grumblings from certain other sites about the TOR beta and in particular their belief that the singleplayer story and multiplayer elements do not combine well and instead feel like separate entities. My reponse to this is to ask, how many of us have played an MMO and been forced to grind up the levels in order to play with our friends? It is rare that we actually level together as gamers and even rarer that we level together for the entire game. This is why I think that TOR seemeless transition from singleplayer RPG to MMO really shines. The ability to have fun living a real story whilst levelling up; and at the same being able to drop into Flashpoints and other grouped missions makes this a truly interesting combination. It is also the first MMO I can think of that actually looks like playing through the game as a different class will give a completely different experience, instead of just different combat mechanics and the same questing areas.

The beta weekend showed us one of the most polished betas ever seen in the gaming industry and it truly showed that Bioware haven’t been wasting their time. There’s no doubt that TOR is going to be big. The only question is ‘how big?’. For the answer to that, we’ll have to wait and see, but here’s one person who’s hoping that TOR lives up to everything we hope it will be.

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