So I’ve been playing the Star Wars: The Old Republic early-access all weekend (and far too late into the night). I was also in two of the betas and have friends and guildmates who were in still-earlier betas. I’ve watched some aspects of the game evolve over quite some time and thought I would share my impressions thus far.
Stuff I Like:
- I actually know my character
Look, I’m not a hardcore roleplayer. Actually, I’m not much of a roleplayer at all – I spent about ten minutes on a RP server back in my WoW days and I pretty much wanted to punch everyone around me in the face by the end of that ten minutes. That said, these are role-playing games. Even if I don’t want to write a back-story, pretend I only speak Elvish or any other such nonsense, these games should tell a story and with most MMOs I simply don’t know what that story is. The dialog system fixes all of this.
Now some folks won’t like the dialog system – some folks are perfectly happy killing poachers and collecting their ears for no reason other than ”a quest-giver told me to” and will happily mow down bosses every weekend, not because they need to be defeated, but because they drop purples. To me, these sorts of games feel more like doing chores than an RPG, but some folks prefer this. SWTOR probably isn’t for them. Possibly the game’s most-touted feature is fully voice-acted dialog. Sure, there are “kill x of y” type quests here, but there’s no quest-giver or dialog, they’re “bonus quests” that show up automatically when you accept the main quest. They’re optional and, for the most part, they don’t require a lot of special effort to complete.
This isn’t to say there’s not a story in other MMOs – the lore behind WoW is an intriguing and compelling series of stories that many (myself included) find fascinating. But WoW doesn’t tell that story. The game somehow seems to exist around the story, with players taking part in pivotal events in that world’s history and, for the most part, having no idea why they’re doing so. SWTOR simply doesn’t make this an option: BioWare came to tell a story and they succeeded admirably.
- I’m not wearing armor that was stapled together from leaves and tree bark…
It’s a fairly well-documented fact that, in most RPGs, even a level 1 character is significantly more powerful than the average Joe. In most RPGs, the average civilian is what you’d call a “level zero” or in WoW terms, “critter.” They’ve got really no hit points to speak of, they can’t wield any weapons or handle any armor at all (at least not effectively), you won’t find them casting spells, wielding the force or saving any princesses. Being level 1 (and having the ability to level higher) makes your character special, so why are you dressed worse than the villagers around you? In most games the armor given to level 1 characters looks like the half-rusted junk that a real warrior might hang on his small child as a joke – if you even get armor at all! I’ve had low-level characters wearing what appear to be hot-pants and one early weapon in WoW is literally a rolling pin. Now I’d expect the end-game stuff to look much cooler than early level stuff but… a rolling pin? Really?
No such nonsense is present in SWTOR. With the exception of the Jedi, everyone starts with incredibly lethal weapons and armor that actually looks like it was designed for combat. The Jedi are, of course, a special case since they have to craft their first lightsaber and even their combat gear is still basically a bathrobe. Still, even they start with “practice lightsabers” which are way more badass than a rolling pin…
- And I’ll never ever have to
Anyone who’s played WoW for a while will tell you, even when you finally get your hands on some of that awesome epic gear, it still looks like crap. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in a lot of cases, what the game designers think is awesome, the players tend to disagree with. This is a pretty normal problem for any long-running MMO: When you design your first game you make the highest-tier gear the most amazing-looking thing you can imagine. Problem is, five expansions later you’ve had to top that five times and eventually you’ve got players walking around in impossibly huge, impractically ornate armor that, at some point, has become so over-the-top that there’s a fair chance that a lot of players will absolutely hate it.
So hated is much of the higher-tier armor that addons exist for the sole purpose of changing into something that doesn’t make you look like a walking scrapheap every time you walk into a non-combat area. SWTOR has addressed this issue in a fairly ingenious manner: The Modding System.
The modding system was in the game since the first beta, but has undergone some drastic changes to be what we see today. Originally mods were like a grossly over-complicated version of WoW’s “jewelcrafting” profession: Items had sockets and you could get stuff to put in those sockets to make the item better. Unfortunately there were dozens of different kinds of sockets, each requiring their own separate items and once placed in a socket, mods could never be recovered. Aside from the gross over-complication, the loss of mods is normal fare for an MMO, but it made SWTOR’s sockets fail to satisfy their intent: to let people keep cool-looking items longer.
After a lot of playing and tinkering, the devs finally settled on a very nice solution: In addition to the standard green/blue/purple hierarchy of item quality, they added an orange item quality that indicates an item with really no stats of its own. What few stats these items have scale with level and they have so many slots for modifications that they can be comparable to other at-level gear via modifications alone. Much of the better gear in the game is orange quality and most items of blue or above quality get the majority of their stats from modifications. Additionally, modifications may now be removed from one item and placed in another. These effects combined mean that if you happen to find an orange-quality slave-Leia bikini, you can pull the mods out of the awesome new items you get from raiding and drop them into the bikini (don’t ask me where). Pretty much the only stat still inherent to orange items is armor value, which does make some sense at least.
Stuff I Don’t Like
- Bugs OK, I know it’s technically still pre-release software (and there are patches nearly every day) but there are still quite a few glitches to work out. There’s a whole planet (Taris) that seems to have a massive memory leak that absolutely destroys performance. There are, on occasion, glowing parallel lines that seem to form a plane across (and through) the game world. Occasionally I’ll pull up my guild roster and see nothing at all, when I know that I have guild-mates online. Sometimes I’ll see a list but only a partial list – then I click the “details” button and magically everyone appears. I’ll sometimes see crystal clusters that I can gather with my archaeology but they’ve already been gathered and just haven’t disappeared like they’re supposed to. It’s all small stuff, I know, but it adds up. The game doesn’t feel like it’s quite ready for prime-time but it does at least work – it functions but it lacks polish. Speaking of polish…
- Awful UI
There are a lot of places where SWTOR lives up to its claim to “combine the best parts of every MMO” but the UI isn’t one of them. Ask any WoW addon junkie what the one addon they can’t live without is and… well actually you’ll get a lot of answers. Ask this addon junkie, however, and the answer will always be the same: button bar addons. The default button bars for most MMOs just plain suck. Let’s say my wife gets me the Razer Nostromo that’s been on my Christmas list for a while. In my EQ2 days I had a similar device and it was incredibly handy to be able to re-shape the bars to have the same number of rows and columns as the controller. While my old gaming keypad was long dead before I switched to WoW, addons that allowed me to have more button bars, scale them to the sizes I wanted and place them where I wanted were a lifesaver. SWTOR won’t even let me scale my button bars so I guess I’m glad I don’t have an odd-sized screen.
Chat is another big issue. First, the frame around the chat panel is gigantic and there’s absolutely no way to make the chat panel non-interactive (i.e. click-through instead of click-on). This means that wherever I place the chat panel, it’s the only thing that can ever be there. Now that’s fine if you just want one tiny chat window at the top left where they squeezed it in, almost like an afterthought, but the whole “social gameplay” aspect is a big draw MMOs have, so four lines of text probably won’t cut it for most folks. So where can I put a somewhat larger window? Well thanks to the fat frame I can’t put it far enough to either side that it doesn’t affect my ability to click on either buttons or stuff in the world. I thought I’d found a nice spot toward the bottom-left until the first time I needed to make a holocommunicator call for a quest and realized that’s where they put that button. Then I tried the right side but it interfered with my quest tracking. There is simply nowhere to put this monstrous window and so I’ve taken to leaving it secluded to its tiny corner and moving/resizing it every single time I want to chat. Totally unreasonable.
Of course none of this would be a big deal if I could actually move things. I’d love to have both side button bars and my quest tracing on the left, for example, which would free up space for chat along the right side. The ability to move the (comparatively) little holocommunicator button into the cramped space where chat sits by default would solve this entire problem too, but as it sits I can move nothing and so my UI (and with it my gameplay experience) remains a cluttered mess.
So that about sums up my experience in SWTOR so far: A lot of awesome and a little suck. So far the awesome outweighs the suck by a pretty fair ratio and none of my complaints are bad enough to make me stop playing what is otherwise a very fun game. I also suspect that I’m not alone in many of these complaints and that BioWare will eventually get around to tweaking some of their various interface issues.
May the force be with you.