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Star Wars: The Old Republic – initial review.

December 25, 2011

Foreword (or forewarning!?): This post is basically a mental dump of all my thoughts about the game over the past week. I’ve been slowly adding to it after each session with the game. So there is quite a bit of rambling, and this post is more for myself than for general consumption, but with my blog just being the best place to put it.

Short version: I really like the game, and it is very much and balanced mix of WoW and KOTOR, yet I’m not sure the game has any lasting appeal. If you like WoW and you like Star Wars, at least pick this up and give it a try; likewise if you liked any BioWare RPG, you really should give this a try.

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DETAILED REVIEW (and some rambling)

+ The launch went exceptionally smooth for me. I bought the disks at Walmart (they had plenty in stock, even in my itty bitty town), I installed the game, I downloaded a meager 135 mb patch, I set up my account, I play. Sweet. No server downs. No emergency patches. No lag issues (other than my terrible connection). I’ve never experienced a first-day launch as smooth as this.

+ So far, TOR definitely plays like KOTOR 3. Say what you will about “generic” quests, but in all reality quests have ALWAYS been generic in /all/ RPGs. Kill X of Y. Take package to town Z. Rescue the princess. Stop the madman. Etc. The only difference between then and now is MMOs have streamlined questing to the point that we can finally recognize quests for what they are, and MMOs have toned-down quests to the point where they provide no challenge.

That being said, the moral system in TOR is very much a direct descendant of KOTOR1: black-and-white moral choices, often times with unexpected twists and awkward decisions with counter-intuitive moral rewards, e.g. “I’m ‘dark’ for not wanting to feed the starving old couple? yet I’m ‘light’ if I do the bidding of the boot-licking refinery foreman that works for an evil Hutt?” Ummm… ON the other hand,I think this simple, black-and-white moral system is part of the Star Wars “Light and Dark Side” dynamic. It’s restrictive, but it’s canon.

Ultimately what feels different about this game and the KOTOR story is that you aren’t leading up to any kind of over-arching plot that ends with you saving the galaxy from near destruction. Instead, you are an individual on a fairly personal mission (or, really, train of missions); and given that TOR is an MMO, we already know the ending: there isn’t one. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly enjoying the Imperial Agent plot. There’s enough intrigue, interesting characters, and interesting missions to keep me playing through the “story” missions. Plus, I bet that’s the only way that I get the best unlocks, such as new crew members and my frickin’ ships, as well as new worlds to explore.

Aside: If only Star Trek Online had been more like this, it would have felt a lot more “like Star Trek”. As a show, Star Trek is really just a space drama. The show was really about people and situations, not about phasers, ships, and combat. The futuristic setting allowed for much more imaginative sets and situations than stories set in mundane settings. While Star Trek Online provided Trek-like combat, technology, and setting, it provided absolutely none of the person-to-person stories or drama that really made the Star Trek shows and movies worthwhile.

Interestingly enough, most of the Star /Wars/ games that I have played erred on the side of action and combat, which suited the Star Wars universe more, I guess, since Star Wars /is/ an action-based, space swashbuckler opera. Yet, the best of the Star Wars games (KOTOR) was built on a Trek-like story architecture: it it contains deliberate, well-writen, intrigue driven story about individuals and situations involving moral choices. Action in KOTOR only seemed to act as a punctuation mark between dialogue, and only about as often as it does in ST:TNG episodes.I guess it’s all subjective and very much a matter of perspective, but that is how I see things.

I’m a Trek fan just as much as a Star Wars fan, so for me the whole KOTOR / TOR experience is a serious /win/.

+ Companions: I love this feature, it’s probably one of the single best features of the game, and definitely one that sets it apart from the other WoW-clones. The reason being, the companions that I’ve seen so far are intriguing /characters/, not just summoned or tamed pets. Plus, they don’t detract from group play like I thought they would (which makes me think that GW2 should have kept companions in). Companions definitely help with harder content, but they are no replacement for real players – and that is a good thing. In my experience, TOR players were still eager to join with a “real group”, even if they had their companion. Basically the companion acts as an assist, not an artificial group-mate. The fact that your companions play a part of the mission stories is definitely one of the top things that separates this game from other WoW-clones.

+ Deep lot with unexpected twists. Granted, I’m only in the starter areas, but so far the plot has provided me (if even only illusionary) tangible choices, sides to choose from, and memorable NPCs to interact with. In contrast to WoW, where the only memorable NPCs are the main lore NPCs that players very, very rarely interact with (until Cata, and even then it’s “Meh” and spread too thin). Even the no-namer NPCs in TOR are more memorable than other MMO NPCs, making TOR /feel/ more like KOTOR than WoW at times. I know that many of these NPCs will only be memorable /once/… that is to say, I know that when leveling my next character of this class I won’t have the same unique experience… Nevertheless, this is MILES above and beyond the typical MMO leveling experience.

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PRESENTATION AND GRAPHICS.

+/- Overall I have mixed feelings about the visual presentation and graphics. At first I really wished that BioWare hadn’t gone with the cartoony, Clone Wars style. I wanted to believe that the old KOTOR graphics were limited by the hardware of the time, instead of being limited by /style/. Apparently I was wrong – BioWare had intended the cartoony presentation all along.

As I played the game, I started to see how the simplified visual style suited the game. Now I thoroughly enjoy the uniform visual style and adherence to the Star Wars feel – at least in the places that I have seen so far. A “more realistic look”, like that seen in EQ2, would provide a very inconsistent style and feel to the game.

– Character creation lacks options. There are only FOUR body types for each gender, and they are all pretty extreme stereotypes for each gender.

Female body types:
1. Paris Hilton.
2. Megan Fox.
3. Amazon (e.g. Kristen Johnston).
4. Jenna Jameson.

Male body types:
1. Elijah Wood.
2. Ben Stiller.
3. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
4. John Candy.

With that said, I don’t think KOTOR 1 or 2 had many options at all, so maybe I should be grateful?

– There are only simple humanoid races (that all likely share the same animations). It reeks of Cryptic laziness (Star Trek Online, Champions Online, City of Heroes…) All of the characters “blend in” past 30 yards. Even at max resolution it’s hard to discern between friend and foe, strong and weak. They are all just palate swaps. I made a rant about class-based and racial silhouettes in an early Rift post, and it’s just as bad in TOR as it is in Rift. You can’t tell at a glance what a character’s faction, class, or role is most of the time.

+/- Likewise, I can’t help but think that some of the presentation was put together by former Cryptic programmers… Subtle sounds, icons, UI elements, and other small nuances make me feel like I’m playing through a Cryptic game. That’s not a /bad/ thing really, because TOR has what the Cryptic games lacked: style, story, and player involvement. Unlike TOR, while playing Cryptic games I never gave a shit about the city or universe I was “saving” (or destroying).

The combat animations and open-world layout of enemy NPCs also feels similar to Cryptic games. Dudes just standing around, ready to be blasted or jumped on by a player. Combat involves the occasional grenade or melee attack, and lots of phasers… err, blasters. There are also a few animation / emote glitches. Meh. No biggie. But many of the emotes and dances look like they definitely do not belong in Star Wars – I can’t really put my finger on it… They just look like City of Heroes canned animations that were thrown in.

+ Overall the UI is very useful without needing mods, so far. Probably the easiest to live with stock UI I’ve used so far. I like how my party menu is on the bottom-left, by my main action bars, so I can watch my cooldowns and party status better. The TOR map system is significantly better than WoWs, it’s very easy to find vendors, inns, flight paths, etc. No need to “talk to a guard”, thankfully. The minimap is also better – mouse wheel zoom ftw. The map also “leads” players to their quest objects, making the focus on gameplay, not navigation.

+/- No UI mods. This is what I’ve heard anyway, that TOR will not have any UI mods, unlike most of the top-shelf MMOs. This is unfortunate, /however/ it seems to have forced the TOR developers to create solid UI, and to that end BioWare has largely succeeded. I think the developers will /likely/ end up adding WoW-like features over time that are “needed” for end game, such as target-of-target, threat-o-meter, cooldown counter, and more information in the party menu (such as removable debuffs only, buff timers, etc).

+/- Corpses are colored based on the quality of loot. Sweet! Now I can powerlevel without having to worry if I missed a useful item on one of those boar corpses ten levels back. I really wish the game had an AOE loot however. AOE looting should become industry standard by now.

– End game and long-term concerns. I’ve yet to hear /anything/ about end-game, other than there is an instance or two. Or two!? Sheesh people. Once the former WoWers hit 50 (which doesn’t seem like it takes very long), they are going to be hungry for long-term content. Blizzard has had the better half of a decade to sort this out, and this is one of the critical points that ALL new MMOs have failed on. Once the player base reaches level cap, they will quickly get bored and leave the game.

Another serious issue is expansion development. Is BioWare going to hire the same voice tallent and sink gobs of money into the game for a new expansion? Or are we going to see a lazy (but necessary) switch to traditional text-based mission text? Is BioWare going to be able to crank out expansions fast enough to keep the player base interested? There are a lot of questions about the long-term viability of TOR, questions that will likely remain unanswered for at least a year.

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GAMEPLAY

+/- Combat is really just WoW with a Star Wars skin. While I generally don’t mind it, I do have mixed feelings about it, especially the lack of an auto-attack. BioWare wanted players to be more involved in combat, so they “removed” auto-attack. I’m calling Bullshit on this. The fact of the matter is, the auto-attack has been replaced by a zero-energy, low DPS attack. All this means is while you are waiting for your important rotation cooldowns you are smashing the same fucking button over and over. That’s /gay/.

I have a friend that thinks it’s “more interactive” and whatnot, and I /get/ where he’s coming from, but I don’t believe it makes the player more involved in the action; it’s just busy-work to do between cooldowns to maximize DPS. Utterly myopic on BioWare’s part.

– No dual spec. No ability to ever change your advanced class. Potentially expensive respec. Hrm. This is a major issue for me… Perhaps more so than the no-auto-attack BS. Basically at level 10 you choose your “advanced class”, which is your honest, “real” class, and you can never go back. This is a very Vanilla-WoW mentality, and it scares me. I like being able to experiment and I also like being able to switch my role as necessary in order to fit into any group. You can respec, at a price, but the price grows exponentially to the point of being ridiculous. It does reset every week, however. BioWare has said they aren’t sure if they will add dual spec. Honestly, I don’t think they will. This is a real shame and greatly limits the enjoyment I could get out of the game, because I really enjoy a _variety_ of play styles in one character – it keeps me interested. It’s one of the reasons I keep going back to WoW.

BioWare also  made the cardinal sin of making “pure DPS” classes (that you can’t switch out of). This means that the perpetual population imbalance of tanks/healers/DPS will plague SWTOR.

What makes this limitation especially egregious is there is no reason for it other than greed, and it has nothing to do with the story element of the game. For instance playing a Jedi Knight twice (once as each of the advanced classes, Sentinel and Guardian) does not provide the player with new story options or a new plot; BioWare is just arbitrarily forcing players to re-level toons in order to play multiple roles.  I think this is a very shortsighted method to force players to “play the game more”, which means to subscribe for a longer period of time. I don’t think that BioWare realizes that we are in the Cataclysm age, not the Vanilla age. Players won’t stick around to level an army of alts – they will get bored with the one toon on TOR and then go back to WoW or Rift, where they have a much higher degree of choice.

– No side-kick system. Okay, seriously? This stinks of direct WoW copy-and-paste. This is one of the serious issues that may have me leaving the game at some point. I have a friend that plays the game, but we never play together because he is ten levels higher. I likely won’t ever play the game with him, as he will already be at level cap and advancing through whatever Tier gear this game has. If there was a side-kick system (like that found in Cryptic games or Guild Wars 2), I’d have big incentive to recruit friends that are on the fence about TOR. Then I could level with them, no matter what the level difference is, and still have a good time. Blind TOR fanboys would be quick to retort: “but you can start a new alt and level with them!”; True, however they will likely outlevel my alt – this has happened MANY times in many different games to me – creating a new level gap where my friend is too high for my alt, and too low for my main. “But you can just group with them anyway on your main!” – Yes, I can, however there would be no challenge in playing the game with them on my main, and they’d just be following my character around as I cleared out areas for them. The fundamental problem with the lack of a side-kick feature in an MMO is the lack of relevent challenge and reward – which are two pillars of gameplay. If a game isn’t challenging, and if it’s not rewarding, players will get bored and find something else to do. What I fail to understand is how hard it is to code a side-kick system. I mean, really, how hard is it? Cryptic did it, and they are terrible at making games. I think BioWare should be able to pull it off.

– Zones are mostly inhabited by NPC enemies standing around in small groups, with the occasional “Silver” mob. There are very few “patrols” and enemies respawn in the EXACT same location. What’s worse is that none of these groups of monsters provide ANY challenge… ever. That’s a bad recipe for replayability. I am still low level however. . .

There are “Elite” areas with stronger mobs that are intended for small groups (similar to EQ2), but combat between objectives is still very bland. Combat often times lacks any kind of challenge or reward.

– No grouping tool. God I hope they change that. On the other hand, I will say that it was nice to have the old EQ “LFG Crushbone Keep” feel to the game, where you’d see multiple parties mobbing through “elite” areas for quests. And it really didn’t take anything at all to get a group going. HOWEVER the game is still very new, most players are still leveling their first toons, so there’s a very large population of players to group with. This won’t be true a few months from now, and I think that looking for groups, especially at level cap will become an issue.

Also, there’s the EQ2-style “LFG” status that a player can enable, showing up as an icon by their nameplate, however almost no one uses it or even recognizes what it means, just like EQ2.

+ Questing is very, very smooth and streamlined, due in no small part to the useful map and auto-tracking system. Even better than WoW, by a decent margin. It’s not /perfect/, but better than any game I’ve played so far. This is one of the few areas where TOR is progressive – I can honestly say that I wouldn’t resub to the game if questing was a pain in the ass. Confusing and broken questing in Warhammer is a big reason why I dropped that game and never looked back.

+/- Companions have a few pathing issues, but not nearly as bad as WoW pets. If I get too separated from my pet it’ll warp to my location. I haven’t encountered an UBRS-like issue where I MUST dismiss a pet several times in an instance. No more train of mobs via my pet/companion. Also, the companions are KOTOR strong, almost player character strong. And they are more reliable and consistent than regular players – without a doubt.

+/- Fast travel is IDENTICAL to WoW, except it’s speeder-bikes instead of gryphons. Heh. Lazy, but effective and it suits the theme of the game.

+ Smooth transitions between zones (mostly). I’ve experienced very few loading screens.

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FINAL THOUGHTS (and concerns)

As I said earlier, I really like The Old Republic. The story, the bug-free gameplay, and the Star Wars setting is enough for me to say that TOR is one of my favorite games of 2011. Nevertheless there are some outstanding issues with the game that may cause me to leave the game.

The lack of a group finder tool, the general inability to change roles on the fly, the inability to change advanced class (while not tying in that choice to STORY), the “no-auto-attack” BS, the lack of a side-kick system, and the dearth of end game content are gross oversights by BioWare, indicating that the the developers at BioWare are not serious MMO players. They haven’t raided much, they haven’t witnessed WoWs transition from Vanilla to Cata, they haven’t grinded professions for tens to hundreds of hours, they haven’t “put a 40-man raid instance on farm status”… Quite simply, BioWare developers just don’t understand MMOs or the slow, painful evolution of the genre. More importantly, BioWare devs don’t understand why Blizzard has added certain key gameplay features to WoW over the past seven years. Getting to my point: while I REALLY like SWTOR, there are some arbitrary, sloppy, obvious copy-paste moves by BioWare that indicate to me that the developers at BioWare simply do not understand the MMO market very well, and the game might fail because of this lack of insight.

TOR might end up becoming the next Star Wars Galaxy or Star Trek Online. TOR could become the next one-hit-wonder; complete with high initial population and hype before the next big Blizzard game or expansion comes out. Just like Star Trek Online, Warhammer Online, EQ2, I see the potential for a future of “server consolidation” and 1- to 3-month accounts. It might not take long until TOR becomes another victim of developers not understanding how the market works and failing to develop a WoW clone beyond the Vanilla WoW vision.

I hate to be so pessimistic about TOR, but I have some serious concerns about the long-term livelihood of the game. So far, all of the MMOs that I have predicted would fail, failed… and they failed in a predictable way and for predictable reasons. What all of this means is, I think BioWare has some /serious/ legwork to do if they want to be competitive with Blizzard in any real way, or to produce an MMO that won’t simply wither after 3 months. If BioWare doesn’t keep up, TOR is going to be another niche game that only picks up where SWG left off by adding the some of the BioWare fan-base to the game; which is paltry in comparison to WoW, which is a financial ogre and has the population of a small nation.

Some might argue “Well, we don’t want the game to become like WoW, we want it small, we want the WoW players to leave”. This is flawed logic, because the larger the player base, the more income the game generates. The more money that the game generates, the higher quality expansions and extras the company can afford to publish for TOR. Beyond that, a successful competitor to WoW would encourage companies to invest more in the MMO market – which is good for the genre. With so many big games that tried (and failed) to compete with WoW, investors and executives are often-times reluctant to invest in a traditional MMO. WoW’s success is suffocating the market, which kills ingenuity and diversity. Investors are seeing dollar signs in the terribad, asinine “social games” like Farmville that generate insane amounts of money on very little capital investment. If WoW doesn’t see a serious competitor in the genre, WoW will become “the only MMO”. TOR has the momentum from a HUGE Star Wars and BioWare fanbase to actually provide solid, long-term competition with WoW, but only if the BioWare developers stop blindly copying the Vanilla WoW formula.

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