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Star Wars: The Old Republic—Impressions from Beta

The force is derivative with this one.

[The force is derivative with this one.]

The Imperial heavy-trooper stands mere feet in front of me: oblivious to my presence. Hard-won knowledge of the force cloaks my movement and that of my fiercely loyal Trandoshan companion, Qyzen-Fess. We creep closer and I circle behind our unsuspecting foe before unleashing a devastating thrust of my double-bladed light saber—a respectable beginning. Qyzen rushes in with a powerful swing of his mace, distracting our target from the force-fueled invasion of his mind that will soon follow. But the burly man is not so easy a mark after all. He knocks us away and readies his heavy repeating blaster. The unarmored body of a Jedi is more susceptible to the attack and I remain briefly helpless as my follower rushes back in. Despite the blaster fire he sustains, Qyzen gains ground and the trooper is pushed back onto a huge industrial lift. It rises high into the rafters and I’m left below. I can’t see, but it’s clear the Imperial now has the upper hand. I look up, helpless; a final explosion sounds and I sense my friend's defeat.

I fight to suppress my fury, for the path of anger is perilous to all, but especially a Jedi. The lift slowly returns and I know I will soon be tested. I am focused—calm. Before the lift even stops, I’m upon him. My blows come so fast they can hardly be seen. I block several blaster bolts as he fires wildly. One gets through; I don’t feel the pain. I unleash a great wave of force energy and my enemy is knocked prone. The force courses through me again and my attack brings a weighty piece of nearby equipment crashing down onto the soldier. It’s finished.

Based on my time with the beta last weekend, this represents the best that Star Wars: The Old Republic has to offer. But like my Jedi’s knowledge of the force, great training and patience are required to achieve moments like these, and much of the drama must be provided by your own imagination. For, above all, this is an MMO.

That’ll only be a problem for people who’ve played Bioware’s other Star Wars games, the excellent KOTOR series. (I’m aware KOTOR II was actually developed by Obsidian, but they stuck so closely to the spirit and implementation of the original that they may as well have been an extension of Bioware.) These were engrossing RPGs that explored the universe, the dichotomy of Jedi and Sith, and the force in general in fascinating new depth. The latest online offering is clearly built on the backs of these earlier titles, going so far as to include cameos from the most important characters, but the game is so concerned with being accessible to the current MMO market that the storytelling suffers.

This may be surprising because, if you’ve read or watched anything about The Old Republic, it’s sure to be how “Bioware is bringing its signature storytelling approach to create a fully-voiced MMO that lets you live the Star Wars experience.” To some extent—that’s true. If you’ve played any Bioware game in the last few years you’ll immediately be at home in the dialogue wheel. And yes, when they say fully-voiced, they mean fully-voiced. It's almost all good, too. Considering the sheer number of characters they had to implement, that’s a staggering achievement. But this is also the problem with the game. It’s such a massive undertaking that the logistical machine required to give it life also burned up its soul. We’re getting ahead of ourselves; let’s talk tech.

In my three days of play, I had a few lag spikes, one stuck character that I was able to fix myself with fast-travel, and maybe two or three crashes to desktop per day—not a single disconnect. If you’re not used to playing MMOs near launch, this equates to, “the game is a rock.” I was playing with maxed graphics and a great frame-rate on 4GB of RAM and a three year old 8800GT graphics card. Sure, there were animation glitches, occasionally weird shadow rendering, and a few inactive resource nodes, but not once was a quest broken to the point where I couldn’t complete it. Not once did I lose an item to a bug. Not once did I have a power not function as described. I was impressed by how well everything just… worked. The only substantial issue was the endless pop-in on characters in dialogue. Each new camera angle changed the distance from the speaking character, and therefore the detail-level of the model. But the game could never keep up and I would see the ugly low-res textures while waiting for the detailed version to kick in. This put a dent in my enjoyment of every conversation, and fixing it is Bioware’s shortest path to a higher quality product. At least a new graphics option is needed for people with beastly machines.

As for the quests themselves, I only experienced one nonsensical mission and one character, out of hundreds, with dodgy voice acting. These stuck out like a Hut at a swimsuit contest, but only because the rest of the content was such quality. So even if the rocky start of other MMOs make you wary of playing at launch, I would say don’t be. Bioware is fully aware they’re making nerd-crack, and that drugs are only as good as their distribution. Like all good dealers, they also know their clientele.

This manifests in details like the pitch perfect “beeps” and “boops” of passing droids or the classic yellow block-text summarizing your main quest progress in the loading screen. Sure there are light sabers waving around, but most of the time they act more like baseball bats so the slack in the Star Wars vibe is frequently picked up by the music. I’m not hardcore enough to know how much is lifted from the films and how much is new for the game, but it swells in the right places, and the Williams-esque background works just as well for adventuring here as it did for Luke and Co. in the films. Plenty of holograms and dense lanes of traffic in the skies of Coruscant round out the atmosphere. Despite the stylized character visuals (light saber hilts should not be the same size around as pool noodles) when you walk through the game, it feels like Star Wars. That’s good, because you’ll be doing a lot of walking.

In a traditional MMO, you spend most of your time running around a zone, then back to town to turn in quests, then back into the zone. Notice I say around. In Star Wars, you frequently run through the game. I’ll explain. Usually, instanced dungeons intersperse the predominant open areas. These consist of more linear and directed content that allow for a focus on story. It can take one to several hours to complete them and when you’re done you teleport back to town. But they punctuate the experience, they don’t define it. In SWTOR (pronounced: sweater) almost every quest area feels like a dungeon, a long mostly linear space that you fight through from one end to the other… and then back. You still have a teleport on half hour cool-down, while speeders and space-taxies on rails (read: griffins) get you between the mission hubs, but my overall impression was of running down a long narrow map with little room for true exploration.

It was especially bad in the huge structures of Coruscant (does the space doc really need to be that far from the senate tower?) but popped up in many parts of Tython, a lush out-door grassy world, and Nar Sha’da, which offered more city life on a Vegas-in-space style planet. Taris, once a city world like Coruscant—now an overgrown ruin, was the one place I didn't feel I was being tugged down a hallway. Of course, I only experienced a small fraction of the game's environments, and it’s possible these starting areas are specifically narrow for the benefit of new players, but I don’t expect things to change drastically in later content. All players get a boost to speed at level fourteen and the option of player controlled vehicles (read: mounts) at twenty-five, but in the early game, the massive environments are beautiful to behold and a chore to navigate.

You may have noticed I haven’t discussed gameplay yet, and that’s only because there isn’t much to discuss. It works. There is no auto-attack (that’s a good thing) though it’s not quite an action game since there’s nothing like true collision. If your melee attack is within range according to the stats, it’s a hit, no matter that the light saber was still three feet from the target. The visual effects of blaster fire, melee combat, and force powers are all suitably spectacular and do a good job of connecting you to the moves. The enemy AI doesn’t cheat by clipping through objects or running up terrain that you can’t, and they take appropriate fall damage if you knock them off a cliff. You usually fight groups of 2-4 mobs at a time, which sounds difficult but actually isn’t. In fact, it’s so easy to avoid pulling mobs most of the time that it feels like they’re politely waiting for the next adventurer to come along and kill them. The hot-bar is easy and intuitive to use for your skills or consumables. You can avoid ranged attacks by breaking line of sight, and in a nice touch, the full-screen map becomes transparent when you move, letting you access your hot-bar or see where you’re running.

NPC companions join you as the main story-line advances. You choose one to fight by your side, allowing a more solo-friendly experience, or order them to perform mundane tasks like resource harvesting and crafting on your behalf. Taking a page from Torchlight, you can send them to sell vendor trash that’s cluttering your inventory; they’ll vanish for a minute and come back with a pile of credits. Unfortunately, they have a near supernatural ability to divine exactly what you’re about to click on and then hurl themselves in-between it and your cursor to thwart the attempt. Occasional path-finding glitches also mean you need to dismiss and re-summon them, but overall they’re a benefit, especially to the anti-social player. I had one head-ache inducing experience when the way in which I summon the companion changed because I had obtained a second one. This forced me to find a menu I hadn’t used yet instead of the bit of corner HUD that had always been there before. It was problematic because some missions require a specific companion to complete. A word to the wise:  “n” is the default for the crew menu.

Space combat is a bad Star Fox rip-off; don't bother.

I played on an open PvP server and was flagged a few times on Nar Sha’da but never ran into any players from the Empire. I understand that later in the game, shared mission planets between the two factions force more conflict. Alternatively, you can queue up for an arena PvP match at any time via your HUD. I just didn’t.

Given all the nice things I’ve said about the game, why am I not more excited? How could the game behind those Blur cut-scenes (better than the prequels by a light-year) be anything but amazing? It's because, ultimately, SWTOR is WoW with better systems design and a Star Wars skin. They took every single thing in the house that Blizzard built and gave it a good polish, but replaced nothing. You don’t like to read, we’ve got voice acting. You don’t like cheating mobs, ours follow the same rules you do. You love Star Wars, we have Jedi! (The plural of Jedi is Jedi, right?) The game’s sole function seems to be luring lapsed and current Warcraft players to the dark side. The problem is I quit playing WoW a long time ago because of the formula’s limitations, not because Blizard’s production values weren’t good enough. The objectives are overly simplistic, repetitive, and there's too much travel between them. You still kill X number of mobs. You still click on glowing object Y to perform all non-combat interaction. And because of the absurd amount of content they needed to meet their playtime goals, most missions feel shallow and padded, not compared to WoW, but to Bioware’s own previous work. "Diluted" is the word. In my story at the beginning, I didn’t fight the Imperial because he was threatening the galaxy; I fought him because a bonus quest told me to kill three guys just like him. I didn’t actually “sense” that my companion got his ass kicked; I saw his health bar on my HUD drop (and I revived him the second the fight was over.) The piece of machinery I threw to end the battle wasn’t even nearby, it was spawned by the move itself (lower levels have a rock instead.) When I could be playing Skyrim, why would I play this?

Star Wars: The Old Republic isn’t a new drug to deliver our fix; it’s an old one that’s easier to swallow. Bioware and EA are betting big that's what a lot of people are looking for, and I won't say they're wrong.  I'd just rather have KOTOR III with co-op.

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