19 December 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

There is an old saying, "Opinions are like assholes.  Everybody has one and most of them stink."  This is probably more true than ever in the age of the internet as now we all can blog, vlog, tweet, and facebook anything and everything we want to say.  Well today we shall find out just how smelly my opinions are.  I was one of the first people invited to the Star Wars: The Old Republic early access period due to my early pre-order date.  As such I have been playing the game very heavily for almost a solid week now.  I think I have a pretty good idea of what the game is, what I like and don't like, and now it is time to share those observations with you.  I am not looking to change anyone's mind about the game, just to tell you how I see it in an objective a manner as I can.  So without further ado, away we go!

Technical Aspects (8/10):

Let's start with the fairly dry aspects of the game.  I'm going to include graphics, sound, and all other "technical" details into this section rather than review them separately because I want this review to be mostly about the gameplay.  MMO's in general rarely do anything astounding in these categories anyway due to their need to appeal to as large an audience as possible.  Highly demanding graphics and other technical details can deter from that.  That being said, not everything here is as rosy as EA/Bioware would have you believe.

In terms of sound, SW:TOR is great.  The music is excellent, a combination of established Star Wars themes and new music written specifically for this game.  You get pieces of the epic William's epic, samples from the Knights of the Old Republic series, as well as the new pieces.  They all fit together well and really help put you in the Star Wars universe.  Also in terms of sound you have SW:TOR's excellent voice work.  The voice actors for the primary characters are all amazing, and the "supporting cast" are no slouches either.  Although I will say you may get tired of the same few lines of alien speech after a while.  To be fair, there isn't much way around this, and KOTOR had the same problem.

As far as graphics go, SW:TOR looks good, but has some issues.  The box requirements are... a bit optimistic.  Yes the game is playable on a wide range of systems, but "playable" means different things to different people.  I have a very beefy desktop so I was running at max but with shadows off.  I find the shadows ugly and why tax my system to look at ugly effects?  I encountered a few graphical glitches in the game itself, mostly when I arrived on Tatooine.  These were annoying but did not directly impact gameplay so I didn't fuss too much about it.  Altogether SW:TOR is serviceable from a graphics perspective.  It looks nice, could look better, and doesn't run quite as smoothly as I think EA/BW would hope.


I'm going to break this down into several sub-topics as I want to make sure and fully address several of the more important gameplay systems and mechanics.  Let's start off with my biggest complaint with SW:TOR and get that out of the way.  The game's User Interface (UI.)

User Interface (3/10):

If SW:TOR has a major flaw in my mind, this is it.  The default UI for the game is... barely adequate.  If this game had been released say, five years ago, I don't think I would complain nearly as much.  And no, this complaint has nothing to do with the lack of add-on support at launch.  My problem is that the UI at present is almost completely fixed.  You can do very little to modify it to personal preferences.  You can move and re-size the chat window, and you can add a few additional hotbars for abilities, and that's it.  Nothing else can be moved or changed.  Again, five years ago this might be acceptable, but in today's MMO market, it is not.

When RIFT shipped, it didn't have add-on support either, but every aspect of its default UI could be moved to the user's content.  I was able to essentially recreate the same layout and feel that my old (heavily modded) World of Warcraft UI had.  This was one of the things that RIFT absolutely got right and it is inexcusable that SW:TOR launched without this capacity.  And this isn't just a matter of preference, there are gameplay consequences as well.  Just as an example, I was healing a Flashpoint today and one of the bosses had a debuff he would put on players that did a significant amount of damage.  Seeing the icon for this debuff is VERY difficult and I had a hard time identifying and removing it promptly.  This would have even more severe consequences in endgame Flashpoints and Operations.

I hope to see this addressed soon, hopefully in the first major content patch.  It really is a major flaw.

Combat (7/10):

As you probably know by now, SW:TOR doesn't seek to rewrite the book on many staples of the MMO genre, so it shouldn't be a surprise to find fairly standard "hot button/cooldown" combat.  The major difference here, especially for people coming from WoW, is that there is no "auto attack" in SW:TOR.  Everything must be initiated by the player.  This takes a wee bit of getting used to for long time WoW veterans, but after a couple hours, you really barely notice it.  It kind of becomes second nature.  I don't really have a problem with this as I found auto attack fairly useless anyway, and it only applies to half your classes in the first place.  No "casting" class ever cared about auto attack (yes I know most of them get wands or something similar,) so removing it entirely doesn't bother me in the least.

The overall "feel" of combat in SW:TOR is good.  Both ranged and melee combat feel well paced.  I never found myself wishing that things were a little faster, nor did I get the sense that things were frantic.  There are certainly a good amount of "tense" combat situations, but rarely do you find yourself feeling like you can't "keep up."  When things get hard, it is due to some mechanic, or grabbing too many mobs at once, not because the pace of the combat itself is wrong.  That said, there is nothing groundbreaking here.  It is a simple system for people to pick up, which was probably intentional on BW's part because they knew they'd be getting a lot of first-time MMO players with this game.  But for "veterans," there's nothing new to see in terms of SW:TOR's combat.

The one thing worth mentioning is that everybody is a "pet class" in this game.  While some would argue that this is groundbreaking, I don't see it as anything special.  Every MMO has a class or two dedicated to the use of pets in combat.  SW:TOR just makes those pets available to everybody, and frankly this could be seen as a negative as well as a positive.  I know there are people out there who avoid pet classes specifically because they don't want the headache of babysitting them.  The fact that everyone has a "pet" in SW:TOR could be offputting to those folks.

Space Game (8/10):

 Ok here I might come off as a little bit of a "fanboi," but I love the space mini game.  As soon as I got my ship I did all the available missions and I have done the dailies every day since.  My enjoyment of it is simple, I take it for exactly what it is.  Yes it is a rail shooter.  Yes it is very basic.  But as I said in a previous post, people who were expecting the second coming of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter were setting themselves up for disappointment.  It is a mini game not the main game, and it is purely optional.  Nothing here directly impacts the primary game experience.  You can get some titles, costume gear, etc. but nothing that will give you a direct advantage in other aspects of gameplay.  The only reason it isn't a 10/10 in my book is that it does get redundant after a while, even when you take it at face value.  But give it a chance.  It really is designed well and very fun.

Questing/Leveling (7/10):

BW was not kidding when they said that story would be the focus of this game and that "grinding" mobs would not be an efficient way to level.  I can attest that they have stuck to their word on both counts.  Each class has a main story arc that they follow from planet to planet and zone to zone.  It really helps give you a sense of purpose as you land on a new planet thinking about why you are there, rather than simple jumping to the next zone in your leveling progression.  Also once you get past about level 25 and find yourself on Tatooine, you start finding more focused story arcs on each planet themselves.  These are sort of present on the lower level planets, but not to the degree you find starting at this point.  These new, deeper arcs are almost as involved as your class story and really help drive the action forward.

At this point it should also be mentioned that leveling in SW:TOR is probably slower than what many people are used to these days.  Speaking as a WoW and RIFT veteran, this game is much slower in terms of leveling than those two.  WoW practically levels for you these days, and RIFT isn't much better.  But SW:TOR practically demands that you slow down and smell the flowers as you go.  The starting planets go fairly quickly and you can reach about level 11 or 12 in one or two solid play sessions.  But once you hit your second planet, the pace slows.  Now this may be an issue to some people, especially if WoW is the only other MMO you've ever experienced.  But like of like with the space game, you have to take this aspect of SW:TOR at face value.  This game is just as much about the journey to maximum level as it is about what you will do at max level. 

One thing I'd like to make special mention of here, is that SW:TOR does an excellent job of making your character feel special and significant in the game world.  NPC's constantly refer to you in "heroic" terms.  Many MMO's attempt this, but none of them really convey that feeling the way SW:TOR does.  Maybe it's the voice acting, I don't know.  But you really feel like your character is powerful, not just another mage or warrior.  This was always my problem with WoW.  You never felt important in the game world.  You always felt like "just another guy."  I can't say exactly how SW:TOR pulls this off so well, but it does.  I really felt like my Smuggler was a daring, fearless hero who could pull their bacon out of any situation.  It just really works.

Flashpoints/Dungeons (7/10):

If I had written this portion of the review a few days ago when all I had done was Esseles and Black Talon, I would have rated it 10/10 easily.  But over the last few days I have run Hammer Station and Athiss as well, and neither of these was anywhere close to as engaging as the two introductory Flashpoints.  Seeing them all in perspective, I know what BW was doing.  They wanted the first Flashpoint experience in SW:TOR to be memorable and to really convey the story based mechanics that the game would focus on in general.  In this, these early Flashpoints succeed.  Esseles and Black Talon both have you participating in several cut-scenes, making major decisions, and telling a complete story.  It really shows you what this game is capable of conveying in terms of its storytelling.

But it is immediately apparent that BW choose not to have all of its Flashpoints be so constructed.  Hammer and Athiss are both very straightforward "dungeon crawls," much more in the vein of what you see in WoW or RIFT.  That is not to say that they are bad or poorly designed.  They aren't.  I found the bosses challenging and the pacing appropriate.  They just lack the interactive and story elements that are present in spades in Esseles/Black Talon.  So it appears that there will be different kinds of Flashpoints in SW:TOR.  Not all of them will be hour long, story driven tales.  Some of them will be the "in and out" dungeons runs many of us are more used to.  And I think there is room for both approaches.  I was just a little disappointed at first.

Crafting (9/10):

 Ok so that picture has nothing to do with crafting aside from the fact that it illustrates what exactly your character does in terms of the crafting system....... nothing.  All crafting aspects in SW:TOR are handled by your companions.  They do the gathering and they do the actual crafting itself.  And I have to say, I love this system.  You can send companions on missions while you are doing other things.  You can have them craft while you are playing.  There is no need to "sit around the forge" and spend hours making a ton of bronze swords.  Yes you will still make a lot of redundant patterns to skill up your crafting, but it can all be done in the background while you continue to play and advance your character. 

The other aspect of the crafting system I really enjoy is reverse engineering.  Many of the items you can create can be subsequently reverse engineered and broken down to recover some of the components used in their crafting.  But not only do you get some materials back, you also have a chance to learn an improved version of the recipe.  Even the earliest patterns can be improved in this way and you can have a level 10 character running around in "epic" gear if you really want.  This adds another layer of depth and reward to the crafting system and I find it very enjoyable.

Social Systems (6/10):

As an MMO, social systems are an important part of the overall experience, and unfortunately this is another place where SW:TOR falls a bit flat.  Guild functionality is limited at this time.  There are no guild banks or guild progression.  I'm somewhat on the fence about guilds being able to "level up."  I saw it destroy a lot of small, casual guilds in WoW as people flocked to the guilds with lots of perks, so this is somewhat of a double-edged sword in my mind.  Guild banks however, are another of those features that an MMO launched in 2011 simply must have.  Again, it might have been acceptable to not include this five years ago, but standards have changed.  This needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

Another highly controversial function is a dungeon finder tool.  SW:TOR has no such mechanism currently and there are no plans to implement one in the near future.  For many, the lack of this feature is a good thing.  For many others, it is not.  Frankly I don't like automated dungeon finders.  I feel like it turned WoW into "World of Queuecraft."  Everybody just sat around the major cities and waited for the queue to whisk them away.  I feel like it also damaged the sense of community on individual servers.  There wasn't a need to get to know people or make friends now that the game would find groups for you.

That all having been said, it is still annoying to have to sit in the Fleet hub and spam chat to find groups.  And yes, finding groups is still somewhat difficult, even with so many people playing right now.  Thankfully my main character is a healer and so it is somewhat simpler due to being in demand, but it still takes time and effort.  The last two Flashpoint groups I was a part of, I had to take the initiative and put together myself.  I don't mind doing that every now and then, but sometimes I'd like to just go along for the ride.  So I can see how the lack of a dungeon finder could be an issue for some people.  I still think we're better off without it, but check back in a few months after the initial buzz dies off.

Overall (7/10):

Whew, I think I hit just about everything.  Oh right, PvP.  Umm... yeah, I don't PvP.  I know... "lol carebear."  So shoot me.  If you want opinions on PvP, you'll have to try another blog.  It just isn't an important feature to me.  I know it matters to a lot of people, and I hope they find what they are looking for, but I just don't care for it.

So overall, what kind of game is Star Wars: The Old Republic?  It is a well crafted, highly polished "themepark MMO."  It doesn't rewrite the book on what an MMO should be, but for what it is, it is an excellent game.  I find it superior to World of Warcraft or RIFT or any of the other "AAA" themepark games on the market right now.  People who were expecting more, will be disappointed.  But people who accept it for what it is, will find a very rewarding experience.  If you think I overlooked something or got something totally wrong, please let me know in the comments.  I hope you found this review helpful.

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