Immersive. Meaningful choices. Subtlety.
That’s the 3 things I took away from my beta experience with Star Wars: The Old Republic beta weekends. I’m going to talk broadly about my experiences with the game and I’m also going to talk about it from the POV of a WoW veteran, so forgive me for not calling the factions ‘Alliance’ and ‘Horde’ as I cba to think any other way just yet. :P
Game installation was smooth and there was a lot to like – the production values are insanely high. Graphics are amazing, a really good balance between realistic and cartoony, kind of like what I think WoW2 would like if Blizzard wanted to make the game look more ‘modern.’ The art design does an excellent job of making the world have that Star Wars feel but it’s really the audio that’s the star of the show.
Every single NPC in the game has a voice. You pick up a quest, the NPC narrates it to you. You go talk to vendor, they have a voice. You talk to a random NPC, they have a voice. And this is what’s amazing, the voice acting is just beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a game. I never met a single NPC with bad voice acting – and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s not just the actors, the dialogue is just amazing, informative and subtly nuanced with emotion and inflection. Every single NPC feels like a real and distinct character.
What I really loved about the voice acting though was that if you play Alliance, all the voices are American and if you play Horde, all the voice actors are British – because we all know the British make the best villains! :D Seriously though, I think it’s a genius move. Years of Hollywood conditioning pays off dividends. Alliance characters feel like all-American heroes and Horde characters feel suitably sinister and evil.
And again, the subtlety is great – the Sith have a broad spectrum of British accents, from the plummy clarity of the Sith ruling classes to the thuggish East London glottal quality of the rank and file Sith.
Combat feels fast and smooth – I played a warrior on both Alliance and Horde side and the classes are identical, except that all the attacks have different names, depending on faction (e.g. Alliance warriors have Charge, while Horde warriors have um, Slammy Run or whatever (yeah, I just called it ‘charge’ in my head and paid no attention the silly non-WoW naming of SWTOR). Bioware have rather sensibly just done a straight rip off of the WoW controls – hitting ‘B’ opens your bags, ‘C’ brings up your character window, ‘X’ makes you sit, ‘Z’ makes you sheathe and unsheathe weapons etc. The transition from WoW to SWTOR is seamless, you can just pick up the game and treat it like WoW with a different coat of paint.
This was something that annoyed me with Rift – I’m all for another company making a WoW clone with better graphics and new innovations but dammit, couldn’t Trion have just given us the same damn controls as WoW, rather than change everything around and make it unintuitive?! I don’t want to spend half an hour re-mapping all the key bindings to how they are in WoW simply because the keybindings for the same damn controls are unintuitive -e.g. to open your bags, you had to hit ‘I’ instead of ‘B.’ Why? ‘I’ is for ‘Inventory.’ Seriously, I just found it annoying as hell.
By the by, enemy nameplates are off by default – there’s no keyboard shortcut for enabling them, you have to do this manually via hitting ESC and going to the Interface options. I highly recommend you do this before you start playing – It’s very hard to spot enemy mobs sometimes as they just seem to blend into the environment. Many a time I just blindly walked into a whole pack of Flesh Raiders simply because I didn’t spot the extra three sleeping in a corner. Having nameplates enabled fixes this problem.
Questing is fun but it’s just the same as WoW. Kill stuff, collect stuff, escort stuff. The collect stuff is annoying as many objects are near invisible in the environment but once you get used to it, it’s fine. If you enjoyed the questing grind in WoW, you’ll enjoy it in SWTOR. Additionally, each class has a story that you play through with phased zones and class specific quests. This is actually pretty involving and immersive. You’ll want to keep playing to see where your character ends up by the end of his journey.
And questing is full of those meaningful choices I mentioned earlier. Every time you’re given a quest, the quest giver actually interacts with you – he tells you the quest details and you can ask them more questions about what you’re doing or give your opinion on the quest – you know, actually have a conversation with the NPC. This is where the game truly shined for me – whenever you talk with NPCs, you get a choice of what to respond. It truly makes your toon feel like a real character because no matter your faction, you can choose to be a good guy or a bad guy based solely on your responses.
I’ll bring up an example from WoW that I kept thinking of. Back in WotLK, while leveling through Borean Tundra, you get a quest where you have to torture a prisoner. You have no choice on the matter, you just click through the dialogue and you must carry out the torture in order to complete the quest. I found this to be very disturbing when I was first faced with it – Zelcandor just wouldn’t do that. He’d refuse to take part in torturing a prisoner because it’s simply unethical. It broke my immersion in the game and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
In SWTOR, if there were a similar quest, you’d get a choice – torture the prisoner or refuse. Heck, you’d probably get the following choices:-
- I’ll do what I need to. Hand me the hot irons.
- If we need information, there’s another way we can get it.
- I refuse to do this, it’s unethical and unnecessary.
And the choices would all have excellent, passionate voice acting to go with it – if you chose Option 3 (like I would), your character would passionately proclaim:-
“No. I will not torture this prisoner, it’s unethical and wrong. You call yourselves soldiers of the Alliance? You should be ashamed of yourselves. We’re better than this, dammit!”
You’ll also be rewarded for choosing certain options over others. If you choose option 1, you’d accrue some Dark Side points. If you choose Option 3, you’ll accrue Light Side points. These points affect your story and, over time, open access to special items and other perks. It’s really great!
I had a blast with the beta but something one of my guildies said about it struck me as very true: it feels like an amazing single player experience with multiplayer stuff bolted on. You’ll spend a lot of time playing through your class, get it to max level and you can do so without interacting with anyone around you. Player interaction feels a little clumsy so far and I’d like to see how that pans out on live. I think that one of the other things that we’ll see a lot of in the game is people maxing out a toon of every class, on both factions, just to experience the stories of all the classes. The game could really use a RealID style feature to let friends talk cross-faction.
Another complaint is that the interface is very clunky. I really hope that Bioware will either patch in more UI customisation or allow the use of AddOns. I have an heavily customised UI for WoW and I changed things around to match that UI when I played Rift.
Finally, the best thing about it… the attitude towards WoW from the SWTOR community. I’ve tried out a few other MMOs – Conan, LOTRO, Aion, Rift, DCUO – and one thing that’s driven me away from those games is just the relentless and utterly venomous slamming of WoW in general/trade channels 24/7. It’s like people have got nothing better to do than fill those channels with ‘wow sux’ chat and people asking for help just don’t get any replies. It really brings me down, y’know?
When I started playing WoW, the general chat was a great place to get help and advice on quests and game mechanics, though it was still full of trolls and idiots. These days, the advice to troll ratio is heavily on the troll side.
SWTOR is refreshingly free of that.
Now, granted, I’ve only played the beta so far but I found very little talk about WoW or well, if there was, it wasn’t negative. Sure, people said they no longer enjoyed WoW for whatever reason but it was reasonable chat and nothing that brought me down. People were helpful and informative when help was asked for, no-one called anyone a retard or noob and there was a real feeling of friendliness and openness. That’s what really sold the game for me.
I’m very tempted to get this game after my beta experience. I know the game will be successful based upon the brand and developer. However, as with all MMOs, it’s all about the endgame for me. I hope that SWTOR can provide a compelling, challenging and fun raiding experience. I hope that content comes regularly and is well developed and fun.
But most of all, I hope it is full of fun innovations that push Blizzard to do better, and make WoW even better than it currently is!