19 Nov 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic – First Impressions

The NDA for Star Wars: The Old Republic has now been lifted and I’m finally free to share my opinions with you. In theory this would mean that I’d be unleashing a huge mega-post containing details of every single nuance about the game. I’m going to resist the urge and scale back a little bit on this, instead focusing on a couple of key areas.

I’m going to go into a bit of detail about my experiences with the two “caster” force classes in the game: the Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor, along with the Jedi Sage and Sith Sorcerer advanced classes. I’ll also be talking a little bit about how SWTOR advances the MMO genre and the areas in which it falls back a little.

I’ll be concluding this post with a look about how the game performs on a range of systems. If you’re wondering if your PC will handle SWTOR or whether you should upgrade then feel free to skip ahead to this section.

The Generalities

If Warcraft is an example of an MMO built by a real-time strategy developer then SWTOR is undoubtedly the product of one of the best role-playing game creators around today. A huge emphasis is placed on the stories that make up the most significant part of this game. I’m not going to go into details about each because I want you to be able to enjoy them for yourself, but they are all very strong.

Tied in with the story is the bold move to have all character dialogue voice acted. This works surprisingly well, with good quality actors used in the vast majority of cases. There are several moments when the delivery of dialogue had me grinning or even laughing out loud, something I haven’t experienced for a good while with an MMO.

SWTOR is also visually appealing on systems that can handle it. Rather than going for ultra-realism, BioWare have gone for a soft ‘toon’ look more akin to Pixar or Dreamworks. The environments are beautifully presented, from harsh deserts to stark space stations. You’ll catch more screenshots in my ever evolving beta gallery if you’d like to see more.

It’s not just the scenery that looks nice. Combat is visually impressive as well as great fun. Whether it’s throwing spells at your opponents, shooting blasters and ducking behind corners or wading in with the lightsaber, SWTOR has that unmistakable Star Wars feel. I’ll go into a bit more detail about caster classes shortly, but all of them feel satisfying to play.

Sound effects are solid for the most part – lightsabers and blasters all sound as they should – but you feel like there’s something missing at the bottom end. There’s nothing that gives a real bass rumble meaning that combat can sound a little flat. Accompanying you through your adventures is the traditional Star Wars orchestral score, which varies depending on the action as well as where you are in the galaxy.

That doesn’t mean it’s the greatest MMO ever made – far from it – but it should give you an indicator of the kind of game this is. I’ll be touching more on this later.

Net Casters

Although there’s a good choice of ranged DPS (there are blasters right?), only a couple of classes use the powers of the Force in a traditional spellcaster manner. If you’re looking to transition from a Mage, Warlock or Priest in Warcraft then you’ll probably be considering one of two options: the Jedi Consular (moving to the Sage advanced class) or the Sith Inquisitor (moving to the Sorcerer advanced class).

Advanced classes are essentially a way of allowing you to pick a playstyle that suits you. When you start out both the Consular and Inquisitor are capable of melee and ranged combat. Once you reach level 10 you’re asked to pick an advanced class that favours one of the two playstyles. The Jedi Shadow and Sith Assassin focus on melee damage (and even tanking), while the Jedi Sage and Sith Sorcerer provide ranged DPS and healing. You can’t change your Advanced Class later so choose carefully.

What’s the difference between a Jedi Sage and a Sith Sorcerer? Honestly, not that much. The Sage uses force powers to throw objects at their enemies, levitate them and perform other kinetic-based attacks. The Sorcerer achieves exactly the same results through the use of lightning, lightning and more lightning.

Ultimately the choice comes down to this. If you’re a fan of throwing rocks at people in the hope that they’ll eventually go away, go Sage. If you like the idea of throwing lightning from your fingertips and being crowned Sarcastic Bastard of the Galaxy, go Sorcerer. There’s no other decision to be made – everything from abilities through to talent trees has a direct translation from one class to the other.

The difficulty I’ve found so far is that for a ranged caster class I’m not able to stay in ranged combat. There’s always a reason for me to wade in swinging with the lightsaber, from running out of Force power through to having all my caster buttons on cooldown. Until you get deep into the talent trees it feels like melee combat is unavoidable.

That said, your first companion does do a good job of tanking for you as long as you keep them maintained. Make sure you get regular gear upgrades for them so that they can continue taking the punishment for you. You’ll need to keep them on a short leash as well, as the Companion AI does have them running off occasionally to pull everything in the area. If you play a mage then you’ll really start missing invisibility.

Genre Progression

If you’ve been wondering where the RPG element from MMORPG has gone these past few years, you’ll be pleased to know that SWTOR brings this back in spades. I’ve never before played an MMO with such an acute focus on story. Even at this early stage it’s setting a new benchmark in how story can be presented in online gaming.

There’s also clever use of companions as more than just a tool for tanking or DPS. Each has their own tale that emerges as you progress towards level cap, enriching the experience and making them more than just a tool. There’s also the option of using them for crafting or gathering missions, making them useful even when you’re not in combat.

Finally there’s the use of small pocket instances. I know that mentioning this word tends to be a black mark, but in SWTOR instances are actually used sensibly. Group and class quests tend to be hidden behind a green instance barrier, with some great results. It means that you’re not waiting ages for a mob to respawn just so you can complete a class quest. It also means that group quests are more finely tuned, moving away from the traditional zerg approach to something a little more challenging. Several group quests can only be done in pairs, for example.

Nothing Is Perfect

I mentioned that SWTOR isn’t perfect, and it does indeed have some serious shortcomings. How much these affect you is probably down to where you’re coming from. Fans of the RPG genre will probably welcome the additional freedoms that SWTOR includes, both in terms of character choice and overall adventure. Those coming from a traditional MMO might find the experience more limiting.

Overall the level of content in SWTOR is very finely balanced. In order to maintain a consistent levelling rate you’re going to need to find and complete every single quest out there. This includes heroic (group) quests and flashpoints, as well as the ‘kill ten rats’ style bonus quests. Every single grain of XP needs to be hunted down.

As well as scratching around for XP there’s also an issue with credits. You can’t earn enough of them. The high cost of everything from skills to speeders means that you’re going to be hoarding every single credit that comes your way. Crafting professions might be a good way of earning back a few credits, but right now they feel as distorted as they do in Warcraft.

Then there’s the story itself. If the voice acting or the storyline doesn’t grab you then it acts like a lead weight on your entire experience. If you end up wishing for certain characters to be killed off then it’s possible that you might get more fun from playing a different class. It can really tear some players who love the playstyle but hate the story they have to drag themselves through.

There’s also the spell and skill system. I thought we’d moved on from the days of spell and ability ranks that needed to be updated at a trainer. I also thought we’d moved on from flooding people with tons of new abilities before even hitting level 10. Talent trees also make a comeback, which also means that once again there’ll be cookie cutter builds. There’s also no dualspec option which means that people like me will never be speccing as healer.

All this means that the UI gets pretty crowded pretty quickly. While it’s possible to enable more action bars, the end result means that things feel a little cramped unless you’re playing on a humongous monitor at incredible resolutions.  I guess we’ve been spoiled by the ability to streamline our interface with addons in Warcraft.

Finally, I have a gripe about the world experience. Working through SWTOR is a very linear experience with little opportunity for variation. This is partly due to how finely balanced the rate of XP gain is, but it’s also a by-product of winding the story tightly around the leveling experience. There’s no opportunity to switch questing hub or play a different story. While there’s plenty of replay value through the different class stories, the faction one is identical and could become repetitive.

Performance Pointers

I’ve played SWTOR on a range of hardware from a 4 year old gaming laptop all the way through to a good quality gaming rig, with interesting results.The game engine is flexible enough to run on almost anything, but there are huge benefits to upgrading.

Before I start I should point out that there’s probably a final graphics engine pass to be completed before the game launches. Anti-aliasing is still disabled in the UI, meaning jagged edges galore unless you’re running at very high resolutions. There’s also a few bugs that mean your framerate can sink like a stone after a few hours of extended play. Both of these are likely to be fixed before release.

At the bottom end it’s possible to run SWTOR on an Intel Core 2 Duo with around 4GB RAM and something like an NVidia 9600GT. If you’re looking to get acceptable framerates, expect to drop almost all the settings down to the low end of things. It’ll still be acceptable, but there’s a huge difference between acceptable and glorious

If you’re running a system lower than this spec then it’s likely that the game will become borderline unplayable for you, particularly if you’re going to try and take part in Flashpoints and Operations (dungeons and raids). In particular if you’re still struggling on with just 2GB RAM then you’re going to be hitting all kinds of local lag problems as data is shuffled between memory and the hard drive. Now might be an ideal time to treat yourself to a new machine in time for launch.

At the higher end of things, you can expect comfortable performance with the more modern gaming rigs. If you’ve got an Intel Core i5 with 8GB RAM and a NVidia 460 or 560 series card (or better) then you should be fine with most if not all the settings running at maximum. The screenshots I’ve included are taken with a taken on a GTX 480 with 1.5GB of onboard memory.

If you’ve got a Solid State Drive then you’ll be pleased to know that the game does benefit from being on there. You’ll be spending a lot less time staring at a loading screen if you manage to squeeze the client on to one. Squeezing’s the right word too – the client weighs in at a mammoth 20GB. If you’ve only got a 64GB SSD then cramming this alongside Windows is going to be an interesting task. My advice? Start clearing the space. If you’ve not yet picked up an SSD then a 128GB one would be a great choice.

Wrapping Up

Overall, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great game with some really enjoyable content. Like all games it has some shortcomings, some more severe than others. Whether they make the game worth buying or not is up to you, but it’s worth looking at it with both eyes open. For what it’s worth, this game is one that I’ll be playing at launch.

What will be interesting to see is how SWTOR stands the test of time. Will it be a game that people pick up for a few months as they play through the levelling content, or will there be enough to hold people for the longer term? This is a much more difficult question to answer as endgame is currently a big unknown.

There’s also the question of fresh content. By using heavy voice acting and a deep storyline, producing new content for players is going to be both expensive and time consuming. In an age where some MMOs are churning out content patches every month can BioWare afford to spend three to six months creating new quests for us to play?

Just as with Warcraft before it, SWTOR has a legion of fans behind it desperate to get into the game at the end of December. it’s certainly got enough momentum behind it to gain critical mass and become a significant hit in the MMO market. Whether it enjoys lasting success or ends up being a short term flash remains to be seen.

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