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The early levels of Star Wars: The Old Republic [Review]

23 Dec 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Star Wars: The Old Republic is big. Really big. It’s an MMO, for crying out loud; there is no conceivable way I can do justice to it in a full review this early. It’s barely been a week since Early Access started, and for a game with eight classes – each with their own stories, story-related quests, voice-acting, and mechanics – that’s barely enough time to play one to highest level, let alone spending long enough with end-game content to review the product as a whole. Unless I skipped a lot of the story stuff and focused on simply hitting max as fast as possible, anyway, but that would be rather missing the point.
So I won’t do that. Nonetheless, there’ll be plenty of you out there thinking about maybe picking this up for the Christmas holidays when you’re forlornly wondering why your pants feel a lot tighter than they used to and why you felt the need to eat so damn much, so we felt it was worth giving an overview of the game as it stands, right now. The early levels, if you will.
I played SWTOR quite a lot, a month or so ago, so I’ll quickly point you towards the general preview, the overview of the Sith Inquisitor, and the overview of PvP. Therein you’ll find plenty of details on how the game works and feels, and I’m going to try to retread as little ground as possible (although I inevitably will). Since then I’ve played a fair bit more, having experimented with various classes and leveled up both solo and with a friend, and today I’m going to review that experience.

There were always two specific design points in SWTOR that intrigued me. One was, obviously, the story: can an MMO with a story work? The other was that the game seemed to want to make you feel like a unique and powerful individual, which is only problematic in that every other player needs to feel the same way. Is such a thing possible?
The answers are “yes” and “yes.”
The story makes a huge difference, honestly. It’s the crux of your experience; it’s what takes you from planet to planet. You’re not going from place to place simply to level up and become more powerful – you’re going there because of your class story. Every other quest is incidental. If you’re (say) a Sith Inquisitor, then you’re going to Balmorra to find an ancient Sith artifact; getting yourself involved in fighting the ongoing rebellion, which forms the centre of the world’s story, is merely an aside that you choose to do. You know why you’re on each planet, and it’s not for the sake of doing every quest available and levelling up, or because some guy at the last quest hub said “Hey, I hear they’re having trouble over in Horribleworld, maybe you should go take a look.”

So, too, does the level of power you have, and much of that comes down to the quests, the writing, and the fact that you’re supposed to be the elite. I said this in the previews but there’s no killing rats in someone’s basement – instead, you might be asked to cull aggressive animals that have started hunting near speeder paths, which have already killed a commando team sent in to put them down. Hell, the Jedi Knight class’ opening (the stuff you’re doing at level one) has you landing on the planet to take your trials and advance from Padawan to Knight, only to find that the Jedi Temple is under attack by natives who’ve gotten their hands on blaster pistols. From the very start you’re treated as the best of the trainees: you’re off repelling attacks, rescuing other Padawans, and investigating the causes of this technologically-advanced aggression. It’s all very… involving.
And this is an MMO. There’s all sorts of stuff I want to talk about from the first 20 or 30 levels, but as ever I don’t want to ruin the surprises. Bah.
It also feels like Star Wars. Jedi are still annoyingly sanctimonious; Imperial officers are still comfortingly British. The music and the sounds are straight from the films, and in terms of tone and theme it’s far closer to the original trilogy than the new ones (or, if you prefer, the Knights of the Old Republic games.)
Not that any of this matters if it plays badly, for the most part the gameplay mechanics are fine. It’s clearly taken some inspiration from World of Warcraft… actually, no. It’s clearly mugged World of Warcraft for its gameplay mechanics and left it bleeding in an alley, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re sick of WoW-alikes and aren’t interested in Star Wars or a character-and-story-driven MMO then this certainly won’t change your mind, but those who like this sort of thing are unlikely to complain.

That’s not to say there’s nothing new. The removal of auto-attack adds a strange sense of precision to the combat, particularly with most of your attacks using your (limited) energy reserves, and the rapid out-of-combat self-healing means that you’re focusing more on each individual fight rather than on minimising downtime. The addition of companion characters makes it easy for tanks and healers to make up their shortcomings when questing. The cover system feels fresh and interesting – although I’m not entirely convinced by it, just yet. It’s also surprising how much of a difference the sub-classes actually make to your play experience.
So yes: it is good! Rejoice! But I do have some concerns.
One, which I’ve now experienced for myself, is the somewhat problematic replayability. Yes, the class quests are different, but nothing else really is. Each faction has two starting areas, but from level 10 onwards you’re pretty much on the same path as you would be with any other class, doing mostly the same quests. It’s not entirely a bad thing – it’s easy enough to skip dialogue for quests you’ve already done – but there aren’t really any occasions, yet, when you can decide to venture into a different area to have a mildly different levelling experience. Each of the classes have a slightly different feel, at least, thanks to the different reasons they have for being in any given area and the different levels of involvement they have in the proceedings.

Another issue is the sheer volume of bugs, and this is where we do have some issues. Alignment changes don’t always seem to always update properly, the crafting menus and vendors have some very strange quirks, and one dialogue choice led to the wrong line of speech and the wrong animation (although choosing to torture someone with lightning, and then watching your character stand stock still and say “YES MY LORD” while lightning shoots out of the air a few feet in front of them is quite funny, admittedly) but these aren’t even close to earth-shatteringly important.

But then there are items showing different requirements when you mouse-over them to when you click their link in a chat window. Companions can vanish and you won’t be able to call them back until you restart the game, or they might suddenly lose the ability to sell trash items, or they might simply stop fighting. Far too many resource-gathering nodes are completely broken and unusable. The chat interface has some annoying quirks (not least, bizarrely, a bit of lag with regards to text appearing when you type it, but sending as soon as you tap return, so half of the things I say are cut off) and the Auction House interface is an abomination.
Oh, and the space combat’s arse, but no-one ever expected anything different.
So yes, it needs a lot of bugfixing and a lot of polish, but for all of that it’s been a surprisingly smooth launch. There’s not as much lag as you might fear, and the worst queue I’ve seen was estimated at about 25 minutes. I get the feeling BioWare focused on having a smooth and polished launch rather than ironing out all of the individual bugs, and… well, it seems to have worked. This is one of the most pleasant MMO launches in which I’ve ever participated – until a bug hits.

For the most part, I’m deeply impressed. In terms of sheer gameplay mechanics SWTOR is a WoW-alike, yes, but it’s a highly polished WoW-alike, and that does make a difference. It’s the only MMO in recent memory with actual characters – not least your player character actually being a person rather than an avatar – and there’s a genuine sense of being an important person doing important tasks and making a difference in the galaxy. There’s still a nagging feeling that it’s almost a single-player game with an MMO interface, I’ve got a few concerns about endgame content and min-maxing morality choices, and there are certainly a mess of bugs that needs sorting out, but the quality is still high enough that I’ve got no reservations in recommending this to anyone to who fancies an MMO with an emphasis on making you feel like the only player that matters.
As for how it holds up over extended play and how the endgame works, well: check back in a few weeks.

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