Just like everyone else I spent my weekend playing in the Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta. Or well, the part of my weekend that I could reasonably spend on gaming anyway. Time enough, it turns out, to get a Jedi Sentinel to level 18 and not much else. Unlike so many of you, I didn’t manage to try out all the classes, so I still don’t know what to play at launch. What has the world come to? Anyway, here are a few impressions in no particular order.
Voice acting, it works!
I’ve always enjoyed the voice acting in the Bioware games, especially in the Mass Effect series, and therefore it isn’t all that surprising that I like it in SWTOR as well. What is surprising, though, that I’m actually following the story in an MMO – and all thanks to the voice acting. I’m not quite sure yet how things will pan out once I start playing alts, but for now quests actually feel like quests as opposed to random markers on the map that lead to (usually insignificant) rewards. The quests themselves aren’t all that different from the standard MMO fare, but the voice acting and “cutscenes” make me feel actually involved.
Companion crafting is weird
SWTOR diverts form other MMOs in that you aren’t doing your crafting yourself, but instead task your companions/crew with it and reap the rewards. Not only can you make them craft items from resources, you can also send them on missions to gather those resources for a bit of money. The odd thing is, though, that you don’t get to tell your crew to go gather lightsaber crystals while you yourself go to bed, but instead need to give them new commands every couple of minutes. This leads to an odd sort of gameplay in which you constantly tell the companions you left behind what to work on next, even when you’re in the middle of fighting your way through an enemy stronghold. To be fair, it seems as if crafting/mission times get longer with increasing level so maybe things won’t seem as stupid any more at higher levels. At the point I was at though, things were plenty stupid. My crew would even be so kind as to directly place newly crafted items in my inventory even though they took the raw materials out of my vault. It’s just weird and absolutely no improvement over more “normal” crafting systems.
Bioware stories and MMOs don’t mix all that well
I like how the story works out in the game overall, it is fun, but it tend to get awkward when confronted with the MMO elements of the game. For one, characters entering a conversation/cutscene simply stand next to the NPC that started the scene with a bubble over their head indicating that they are in a conversation. That conversation my include NPCS walking away, others appearing and so on, but you only see that for your own conversation. This leads to scenes in which dozens of characters run into a door and stop there with those chat bubbles over their heads while each one sees their own version of the story playing out.
Larger story elements use instanced regions instead. I’ll give it to Bioware, the transfer between the world and such an instanced area is absolutely smooth. The lack of savegames can create quite weird situations though. In one case, I was ambushed by a set of Sith who kept one of my companions hostage. I started a fight, died, resurrected, ran back in the instance and the Sith were patiently waiting for me to come back and rescue my friend. Now, this happens in other MMOs as well, I’m sure, but I never really notice because I don’t actually follow the story. The expectation in a Bioware MMO game, however, would be either a full reload (which is something gamers have accepted by now) or the hostage being dead or the Sith having run away. Instead, there are no consequences and there’s an odd freeze in time while people wait for me.
On rails space battles are enjoyable
The space battles in SWTOR remind me a lot of good old Rebel Assault, being almost identical in gameplay to the 1993 game. Your ship will fly its course on rails and you get to shoot stuff in your way. You get some minor control over the ship’s movement, allowing you to dodge debris and such, but mostly you are just pointing your crosshairs at things and shooting. Oddly enough, it is quite a lot of fun. I don’t know how long it will stay fun, but the on-rails character of these missions allows the designers to actually put you in the middle of Star Wars battles, shooting down interceptors and performing bombing runs on imperial star destroyers. These are also a nice distraction from the normal gameplay, a minigame if you will.
The world seems huge
The planets are really big and you never feel confined to small spaces. Additionally, the placement of enemies makes some sense, unlike the usual clustering of enemies in an MMO. I can’t really say how much bigger the world is than, say, that of World of Warcraft, but it sure feels a lot bigger. And hey, zoning by planets means never-ending expandability without having to invent new continents all the time.
Overall, my beta experience was enjoyable, if short. I don’t really see myself raiding or some such in the game (the combat is too similar to WoW for that to be appealing anymore) but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy leveling and playing with friends.