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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, December 01, 2011

SWTOR REPORT

PRINCESS LEIA: Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!
HAN SOLO: Who's scruffy-looking?

Trooper
I finished another round of beta testing for Star Wars: The Old Republic this weekend. This time I had a bit more time to play and concentrated hard on getting as much play time as I could in (to my detriment). And since the beta is over and release is coming up in a few weeks, I'm gonna tell all, considering the non disclosure agreement not active. And since I'm going to tell about details that help them sell rather than details about secrets they want you to discover, I can't imagine the company would be upset in any case.

First off: if you like sci fi or MMOGs at all, this is your game. Even if you aren't fond of the Star Wars movies (especially the latest 3) this is your game. The setting of Star Wars is fascinating space opera, and with George Lucas cut out of the mix you have a terrific universe to run about in with easily understood and recognizable concepts that help you leap in quickly and easily.

You can play either Empire or Republic characters. There are four classes, and in the beta only 4 races you could pick for each class. I suspect strongly that the full release will have more races. Don't ask me what all the races were, I only remember a couple of the names. There's human, Twilek (the tentacle head guys), the spike-headed tattoo race that Darth Maul was part of, and you can even be a Sith (more on this in a moment) if you play a dark force user.

The Sith are a race. Originally "sith" meant a race of evil force users, not an anti-jedi. Long, long before this game is set, there was a galactic war which was thought to have obliterated the Sith as a race. Now there are very few pure blood out there, mostly ones who have bred with their slaves. By the time this game is set (and the movies, thousands of years later), "sith" means "evil force user" as a generic term as well.

CLASSES
The basic classes are these:

Jedi Knight/Sith Warrior: light saber using acrobats. You don't use a lot of force special effects like throwing things around, but you are lethal with your saber and very quick and mobile. You can wear medium armor (like leather) but generally rely on your skill for survival. Examples: Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Jedi Consular/Sith Inquisitor: You still have a light saber, but primarily use the force directly, usually through lightning effects. You can't wear anything but light armor (usually cloth) but rely on "crowd control" and companions (more later) for survival. Examples: The Emperor.

Smuggler/Imperial Agent: This is more of a stealth class, using cover to fire from, crouching behind objects, hacking into things, sneaking past people, and so on. You use weapons and explosives as well as hand to hand combat. You rely on not being hit and stealth to survive. Example: Han Solo.

Trooper/Bounty Hunter: A big heavy hitter. You use big weapons, rocket packs, explosives, and just being big and mean in combat. You shrug off damage and go in face first. Example: Boba Fett.

ADVANCED CLASSES
However, each class has two advanced classes which you can specialize in later.

Starship
The Jedi Warrior can become a Jedi Sentinel (dual wield sabers, damage dealer) or a Jedi Guardian (defensive fighter, can wear heavy armor) , while Sith Warriors can become Marauders or Juggernauts, the empire equivalent. This gives you a tank or dps build from the same class in MMOG terms.

The Jedi Consular can become a Jedi Shadow (stealth dps) or a Jedi Sage (force based attack dps or healer). Sith can become an Assassin or Sorcerer. The Sorcerer/Sage can either be a ranged damage dealer or a healer, depending on your talent build (and the healer can do some damage or the damage can do some healing in any case).

The Smuggler can become a Scoundrel (stealth and healing) or a Gunslinger (fast gun damage); the Agent can be an operative or a sniper. I didn't play this class except for a few levels so I can't really comment but they seemed really effective in the groups I was in.

The Trooper can become a Commando (damage dealer with grenades and rockets) or a vanguard (defensive fighter/tank); the Bounty Hunter is a Mercenary or "Powertech" (the tank, not a great name).

So in effect you have eight classes each side to choose from.

TALENTS
And then you get talents. Talents allow you to personalize your character, giving you one point per level once you have an advanced class to choose between special skills that enhance your existing abilities or add new ones. So the choices get even more broad, because each build has three talent "trees" you can choose from to focus on what you want most.

For example, this time around I made a Sith Inquisitor. When I reached level 10, the game allowed me to choose my advanced class, which I made a Sorcerer, flinging lighting and lifting people off the ground in a telekinetic whirlwind. I could have focused on damage or healing with this build, but I went primarily with damage as I knew I'd be working alone most of the time in the beta. So I chose talents that enhanced my damage skills rather than my healing skills.

And the interesting thing to me is that a non-force user is as capable and flexible as a force user. They did this by focusing on making each class interesting and distinct, rather than their raw power. You can do the same quests and fight the same guys with each class, but your approach will be very different.

JEDI vs EVERYONE ELSE
At first I was very skeptical. I mean think about it, what would you rather be: a guy with a gun and armor, or a guy with a gun and armor ... and superpowers? I mean Han Solo was a capable enough guy but clearly Luke was more badass. And look at those Storm Troopers, they folded up like cheap card tables when shot. And Jango Fett was one-shotted by a Jedi.

But the truth is, Jedi vs, say, a Smuggler is no different than a Wizard vs a Rogue in a fantasy setting. A guy that can call down lightning and blizzards on his enemy is clearly more powerful than a sneaky guy with a knife. Objectively there's no comparison. But if you build each class right, it can work, and fantasy games do this all the time. So they did the same basic thing with Jedi and other classes.

You feel incredible as a Jedi, and I didn't really care for the Smuggler when I played it, but they're no more powerful than the other. They are just different, with different strengths and weaknesses. A Trooper might not have a fancy sword or lightning but he's a brute that can shrug off blasters and claws and shove a rocket down the monster's throat. And it works.

COMPANIONS
VetteI got to level 19, and by that time I had a starship letting me fly around the galaxy and a companion monster that did my bidding. The "companions" are a pretty important part of the game, like Han Solo and Chewbacca or Luke and the two robots. They are a "pet" of sorts that travel with you and help you fight. Most of the time, they draw attention of the bad guys and soak of damage so you can attack the target safely.

However, they have a lot of other uses. You can tell your companion to sell items which are valuable but of no practical use to you ("gray" items, in MMOG terms). They disappear for a minute or two, then show up again with the cash. You teach your companions trade skills, and they go do the trades, making items, collecting supplies, and so on. That saves you the trouble and time so you can be doing other things.

Your companion interacts with the game as well. SWTOR has a lot of voice acting cutscenes, but like its predecessor Knights of the Old Republic, you can interact with the cutscenes as well. Every so often in the dialog you're given 3 choices to respond with. Usually there's one really snide, mean, or mocking choice and two different reasonable choices. Often, what you choose affects how your companion perceives you, and you can increase their "affection" by choosing what they like or prefer you to do. As you get them happier with you over time, they begin treating you differently, even offering quests.

Some companions you can even engage in a romance, if you choose. Get their affection high enough and you'll start getting romantic dialog choices. Being a Sith Sorcerer, I had no time or interest in romance, and its sort of uncomfortable to me to be making love to a computer anyway, but I can see how a lot of people might like this option (particularly female gamers).

In the dialog you can also move yourself toward the dark or light side. For two of the base classes this is largely irrelevant, but the Jedi and Sith need to keep their force in their direction or they start to suffer loss of force points (your "mana" or fuel to use abilities). As you change toward the dark side, you start to show it in your appearance, and conversely toward the light side.

I doubt its in the game right now but there was some suggestion that a character should be able to shove their character so far in one direction or the other that they could change factions, moving from Sith to Jedi, for instance. There's plenty of precedent in the movies, fiction, and previous games for this, and its kind of a Jedi fixation - redeeming people who've fallen to the dark side.

ROLE PLAY
The dialog options, light/dark slider, and affection from your companion actually contribute tangible, interesting rewards for role playing, something no previous MMOG has done successfully. As you pick responses and actions which give you the responses your companions appreciate and move you toward the side of the force you wish, you'll find patterns and

I'll give you one spoiler here to help illustrate my point. There's a quest early on for Jedi Knights in which you go find a pair of fellow Jedi who've fallen in love. Star Wars fans know that Jedi are infamously impassive and calm, avoiding love and passion. The main reason for this is that it helps them maintain the "light" side without falling into the dark side of the force. Yet this concept is never really explained very well in the movies or previous games (maybe it is in books, I've not read many).

The quest helps you understand this, but you have opportunities to move away from that pattern at the cost of potential light points or even gaining dark side. What you come to understand is that love makes you start making choices that benefit the relationship or protect the person you love more than what makes you a better Jedi. Jedi are to tell the truth and work to protect. But if you thought your sweetheart was about to be thrown out of the academy, how far would you go to protect them? What part of your code would you start to question or break?

And since the force is so powerful, it is difficult for people to control. Start to give in to impulses and passions and you'll start to use the force for your own gain and benefit, not others, and that leads too... the dark side. Which is why Jedi are forbidden love. And it all starts to make sense, and that happens because of the dialog choices. And it helps you role play.

So overall, this game adds a lot to the MMOG concepts, is a lot of fun to play, offers a dynamic setting, is fresh and a welcome change from fantasy (which I love, believe me), and was fun and interesting to play.

There were some abiding bugs that they're hopefully fixing, the companions are sometimes frustrating in how they behave and what they are like compared to their lore (the huge assassin monster the sorcerer gets is supposedly the most terrifying thing in the world, he looks horrendously intimidating... and he's a pansy. I could soak up more damage than he could), and some of the companions were actually deadlier than the characters, a real problem. But every game starts out with some issues, and as problems go, these were pretty minor.

I recommend Star Wars: The Old Republic with five out of five gold stars. This one is a winner.

Oh, and yes, you can get nerf herder gear. Its pretty good at low level.

3 Comments:

Anonymous BobK said...

Christopher,

I agree with your assessment of The Old Republic - I just did the beta weekend as well. I brought a Jedi Consular to lvl 18 and a Bounty Hunter to 11. I was pleasantly surprised by the mechanics and gameplay of both classes, and the voice acting in the story segments and group quests was great. The element that hooked me on SW:TOR is story - the feeling of immersion in a characters story really enlivens the standard MMOG "Go There, Kill X-number of Beasts, Bring Back Stuff" quest format.

Are you purchasing the game? I'm preordered, and counting the days 'til Dec. 15. See you in game, I hope!

7:24 PM, December 01, 2011  
Anonymous Rollory said...

I tried it. Was very bored within a couple hours. The gameplay is the same as it's been since DikuMUDs - same lineage as Everquest and Warcraft. That was fine when I was in college but now it just leaves me constantly conscious of how much time I'm wasting doing absolutely nothing.

I wanted to try to just follow the storylines but couldn't get very far in them, the random aggro from random hostiles kept getting in the way. That was precisely the part of the game I didn't want to deal with, and it seems to be the main core of it.

8:01 AM, December 05, 2011  
Anonymous BobK said...

Yeah, it's evolutionary, not revolutionary. But one big difference from WoW that I noticed - most character advancement was from story related questing, not the exp grind. And believe me, I was a king of the Alterac Mountain yeti grind...

I'm looking forward to early game access on the 15th.

10:15 PM, December 05, 2011  

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