Star Wars The Old Republic Beta Impressions

This post was made around the time Bioware removed the press-embargo regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic. I decided not to publish it because I did not want to be a “Debbie Downer”. Don’t get me wrong, I love how Bioware managed to re-invent story-telling in MMORPGs. This is a novelty that needs to be added to MMOs nowadays.

By incorporating their own “dialog-wheel” from their single-player games and giving your character a voice, they really force this unique “epic” feeling. You are the star of this adventure. No longer will you stay quiet and read block of texts and accept quest like a mute Link (you know, because he never talks). You will say out loud your opinions and even be responsible for your choices. This is also your typical MMORPG. The same themepark we all have come to love and hate. You have your classes that are mirrored between factions for balance purposes and the usual abilities to click. Personally, I really like the artistic direction of the game. The Hero engine is doing its job.

For those complaining that this game is World of Warcraft with a Star Wars skin, you knew this was going to happen. It’s a formula that works and your dreams and hopes of playing Star Wars Galaxies 2 will have to remain just that, dreams and hopes.

Since SWTOR’s greatness has been established, let’s get to the ugly. Here are some of the things that I did not liked:

  • The Character Creator. For a game with such story and voice-acting, the character creator feels weak. The species leave a lot to be desired. Clone Wars anyone?
  • The animations are a bit stale. It seems like every race is using the same one. I need to check this in more deph though.
  • Phasing is not working. This is something that it’s confusing for me. Not sure if it was not working for me or there’s simply none.
  • Graphical Glitches. For some reason my avatar’s portrait keeps dissapering among a few other oddities. This should be fixed by release (hopefully).

New players to the genre (if there’s still such a thing) will have a blast with this game. My best advice for hardcore and casual “mmorpgers” is to play the game for what it is. If you enjoy the Star Wars Universe, you will like the game. If you like MMORPGs, chances are that you will like this one. Just don’t come with unrealistic expectations.

Here’s a very short clip I made while testing the ground for future game-commentaries and video-editing. It shows the character creator and the beginning of the Jedi Knight class.

Pictures in the galleries provided by Chris.

 I leave you with this post from the forums. A well-detailed post on why he (or she) is not buying the game. I agree with some of his points but you can’t compare a beta-test (or new game) with older games that have added functionality and content over the years.

 

I keep trying to find reasons I should buy TOR, and have expressed this several times to friends who have also been lucky enough to get into the beta, but ultimately I simply cannot justify purchasing a BioWare-flavored mediocre MMO.

TOR gets a lot of things right: Presentation is spot on with superb voice acting, impressive environments with consistent and thematic art direction, and even a moderately compelling story line, but it is in no way a complete or functional game. Almost everything else about TOR is lacking and incredibly unimpressive, all the way from core class design to the user interface.

I tried to drink the kool-aid, I really did. I even called friends who had been in the beta before me out on their negative outlook of the game, but low and behold, I now feel that they were right all along.

Everything about TOR with the exception of its presentation reeks of half-baked implementations, shortcuts and complete and utter apathy. It’s actually jarring as you play through the game to see how abysmal some of the content gets and how lazy the game’s production feels. It’s as if TOR has a design document sitting around that’s artfully crafted, filled with ambitious ideas and deep conceptual fervor that was simply pushed into the waste bin by an EA executive who didn’t give a crap about how good or bad the game is, and only cares about the bottom line.

Despite this, I have played a Guardian, Scoundrel and Mercenary to the level cap across the 3 builds I’ve been in the beta, for no other reason than boredom and ample free time. If I had anything better to do TOR was invariably put to the wayside, even though I was privileged enough to play in a beta that thousands of people would have killed to be a part of.

Total playtime is ~350 hours since I was invited (~3h/day), but most of that is in quite dense play sessions, followed by extended breaks. I would ballpark that it takes about 2 weeks of dedicated play to reach the level cap per build.

“Based on your experience today, how likely would you be to recommend TOR to a friend”

This started as an 8 and briefly jumped to a 10.
Now I usually just close the window.

The game is simply not what its cracked up to be, and Bioware is doing an incredible disservice to its dedicated fan base by conning all of the weekend beta testers into seeing the only good content the game offers up in the first ~20 levels of play, and even then it is rife with bugs and instability.

If you have reached beyond Coruscant and Dromund Kaas and ventured into Taris and Balmorra, this is what the game truly is: Ample wasted space, long runs, uninteresting story lines, and laden with kill and collect quests.

And without further ado, reasons I will not be buying TOR:

TOR is far and away the least mechanically fun MMO game I have ever played. 

This is a bold statement, but I feel it is very justified. Relative to other games I have played in the MMO genre, TOR does not hold up well, featuring a myriad of problems with its general gameplay. Everything from a clunky (and dysfunctional) skill queue to the unresponsive TAB targeting system, the game simply does not feel like a game of its caliber should.

To its credit, it has actually been getting better over time (there is no more acceleration on jumping, for example), but it is no where near the responsive level it should be, and has a staggering amount of small issues that culminate into a major headache that simply make the game un-fun.

Off the top of my head, issues that need to be fixed that directly affect playability of TOR:

  • Needless skill bloat on all classes
  • Poorly distributed utility skills (long duration CCs, sunders)
  • Skill queue lockups that prevent skill use entirely
  • The cover system in general, which has devolved to “press a button before you press a button”
  • AOE targeting indicators that are absent or completely unreflective of size
  • Debuff tracking is terrible
  • Lack of [Mouseover] style macros (lack of a macro system in general, but most predominantly this)
  • Reactive buffs not displaying in a useful or intuitive way (i.e., WoW’s glowing borders on action bar buttons that indicate a proc)
  • World-clicking in general is a headache (small objects, clustered enemies, companion obscruction)
  • Companion AI is awful (example: not attacking on offensive spell channels and casts, only on instant and reactive events)
  • Nameplates of dead NPCs need to go away unless they are targeted

There are a lot more problems that affect playability that are more case specific, but that list hits the vast majority of the problems that make playing the game in general unfun.

Story does not make up for other short comings

“I want to save the story for live, so I won’t play my class in beta.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this (or a variation thereof) on public forums in relation to weekend testing. This statement alone acknowledges that story is not a sustainable enough part of a game to make it worthwhile. When it comes to TOR, the story is the only reason in many cases to slog through the game. People are actively avoiding the story now so they won’t “waste” it for later.

What people don’t seem to understand about TOR is that past the first couple planets, your class story actually fills an incredibly small portion of the overall content of the game. I would estimate upwards of 85% of the game is recycled every time you play a character of the same faction. On later planets, it will get to the point that you may actually forget entirely what is going on in your story quest, as well as major characters and why they are important.

Repetitive questing content:

The general composition of each planet is pretty simple: they are divided into sections (usually divided by map segments) where you will do 1-2 story related quests, and an inordinately high amount of side content. On lower level planets this is not a very noticeable issue, as you require less quests to level (The first 2 planets are 1-~18 of 50 levels.) On later planets, this disparity can get staggeringly high. For example, on Quest, Bounty Hunters have exactly 1 class quest, which takes about 5 minutes to complete. Literally, 1 class quest for an entire, although short, planet.

Light/Dark illusion of choice:

The light/dark system is a very poorly conceived system that punishes you in several different ways while only affecting the story in very minor ways in most cases:

  1. You will feel obligated to be consistent in your choices, and may be forced into situations you disagree with if a neutral option is unavailable. Picking lightside when at Dark 5 will drop you to Dark 4. There is no buffer at all.
  2. Going the “grey” route is actually not that big of a deal, however your character will be completely insane if you try to keep the bar between dark and light 1 to access all color crystals
  3. Picking choices you agree with penalizes you the most, as you will not have the benefits of a maxed out light/dark scale (relics, cosmetic gear) and not be able to use all color crystals.

Because the system is a single scale, there is a huge opportunity cost associated with picking one choice over another. If I pick a +100 Dark option, I can miss out on a +100 Light option, meaning I effectively received -200 Light (assuming that I was going light-leaning) putting me even further away from my Light V goal… but that guy really needed to die.

The choices you make in the Light/Dark system are generally frivolous in nature as well.

You picked Dark and killed Darth Superdude!
You picked Light and nobly spared Darth Superdude!
You picked neutral and Darth Superdude was never heard from again.

All roads lead to Rome, as they say.

If this was a non-class quest, and not part of a core planet quest line (which they all have past Coruscant/DK) it is 99% likely you will never see or hear from Darth Superdude again except by mail, with a small sum of currency, provided he didn’t die. You’ll probably collect a bounty on him if he did. Again, it’s an illusion of choice.

Dark/Light choices outside of class quests are the main offenders of this as they literally change nothing about the story except the dialogue you see when you turn them in, or whether or not you cinematicly strike/shoot/shock someone.

There are some cases in the class story quests I have done where I wondered “What would have happened if I went Dark instead of Light here?” but the answer is always the same: I would have just killed a different named NPC, and the story would have continued in a way that is consistent with the next step.

The final story quest will sometimes make you want to know what happens if it plays out a different way, but there is not a single chance I (or most rational people for that matter) would spend over 100 hours to find out first hand. Most will just look it up on Google or ask around. Without the ability to quick save/load like you would in a traditional Bioware RPG, the player will tent to experience apathy towards the story instead of being able to go back and actually see the differences.

Grinding, and other tired MMO mechanics

TOR had a huge opportunity to do something fantastic with its game that has never been done before in any MMO I’ve had the privileged of playing: Removing the leveling system entirely. My character could have progressed through an epic tale, and advanced as a rate reflective of where I was in the story so all content would be relevant to my abilities at all times. As new skills were introduced, the game could provide situations for me to use them and learn how to play my class. Instead, it opted for the tired XP treadmill that would allow me to (begrudgingly) kill 500 rats to collect their 200 teeth, because all rats don’t have teeth, and of course they only have 1 each.

Not only are there quests that feature grinding as a core objective, there are bonus quests to encourage grinding too. The sad part is that if you actually skip the Bonus kill quests you will fall behind the XP curve. I had a class quest with a kill 135 bonus quest. This is not an exaggeration.

The XP system is not the only place TOR is just another tired, old MMO. I sure am glad I have to buy these skill ranks, repair my gear and carry these vendor purchased crafting materials… Oh, this boss has 800,000 HP and is completely un-threatening? I guess more health means he’s harder. Good thing they removed auto-attack so I have to be here to perform this completely trivial endeavor.

I seriously don’t understand where the disconnect happened between the community who has been playing other MMOs for years and the BioWare development team. Did it occur to no one down at that office in Austin that MMOs have been boring and same-ish, with droves of people leaving them for quite some now?

No one is asking TOR to re-invent the wheel, but it goes backwards in a lot of places.

A cooldown on resurrection for classes who aren’t healers? Somehow, I feel classes without healers will need to resurrect people significantly more than those with healers.

There is no summoning mechanic in the most current build (although it was briefly, and completely non-functionally in a previous one.) Putting everything on the Fleet or Ilum was a nice touch. It’s like implementing teleporting to dungeons, only lazier.

I can’t understand how a company with the Star Wars license wouldn’t push the boundaries of current game design. It astounds me. Being able to put the words Star Wars on the box for your game not only ensure that it absolutely will not fail (because if Episodes 1-3 didn’t kill it, nothing will) but look at how big of a turd The Force Unleashed 2 was and it still sold something silly like 600,000 copies.

Being a hero, and other Anti-MMO ideas

Back at Gamescom ’09 when we were first introduced to Hutta and the Bounty Hunter class (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ielWubUXpaU) and there is a lot of marketing speak about how classes all feel iconic, and how everyone should feel like a hero.

When it came to class mirroring, the idea of iconic classes was thrown out the window. Going full auto on someone as a Trooper makes a lot of sense, but needing to devise a flamethrower alternative falls into a huge grey area. The concept works fine (mostly) for the force users, but for the tech classes, it just gets kind of silly.

  • Calling your ship to do a bombing run, or laying down an orbital strike is not iconic.
  • Shooting Kolto darts at people is not iconic.
  • Punching people instead of shooting them because all tanking classes needed to be melee for gameplay reasons is not iconic.

This is simply a matter of gameplay being incompatible with canon, and forcing the design to fit the gameplay needs. While admirable, this completely backfired and just turned into a ton of skill bloat and overlap. When I think of a Trooper and a Bounty Hunter, I feel they would be similar, but not mirrors, yet the game pushed the square peg through the round hole anyway.

This is a major design flaw in my estimation. Last time I checked, the Empire also has troopers, so why couldn’t I just play one of those? Let’s pretend they don’t have a -100% accuracy modifier… And does the Republic never work with mercenaries? I can’t find any good reasons the republic can’t hire a Bounty Hunter (off the record, of course.)

Then there is the whole concept of being a hero, or feeling heroic in general, which is honestly just replacing 1 NPC with 3. At no point in the game does combat feel “heroic”, it just annoyed me as a melee class because I had to run between ranged NPCs to heroically kill 3 weak rats instead of 1 normal rat.

Everyone who zones into the class phase will kill the same boss, get the same rewards, be a hero. This is very fitting for a single-player experience, but makes your story feel extremely hollow in a multiplayer environment. This is just a fundamental conflict between how an MMO works, and how a single player game works; ultimately, nothing you do in an MMO can be important because thousands of other players need to do it too.

Planets made of phase portals and wasted space

This may be considered more of a minor gripe, but when playing the game you will notice something on subsequent playthroughs: No phased areas are used by more than one quest. There are 2 Lightsaber forges on Tython, one for Knights and one for Consulars, even though they both go to it to do the same thing. Areas need to be made much larger because of this, and if the game were able to dynamically place doodads or modify terrain to accommodate the needs of certain quests the planets would have much more space to feel less like hallways. TOR’s phasing tech is simply not up to par.

If a hallway requires more phase portals to facilitate more quests, it gets longer and longer. This snowballs to an insane amount of empty space required when you have upwards of 60 phased areas on a planet.

This may have been intended to facilitate the “do class quests with your friends!” feature, but seeing how many flaws it has (inability to see many conversations, not seeing any conversations that happen outside of phases) it seems like more of a happy side effect of a poorly developed system to begin with.

The only quest in the entire game I can think of that actually shares a phased area is the quest in the ice fortress on Hoth, and even then, both factions go there to kill exactly the same guy (although the 2 planet stories surrounding the area are completely different.) I imagine this lone portal as the most technical challenge the phasing system has.

Companions feel tacked on

I’m going to ignore all technical issues (they can’t ride elevators, they can’t jump off ledges, they don’t walk through doorways which used to feature gates/doors, etc.) but pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make the annoyance of them go away. We’ll also ignore the AI issues which I alluded to previously in this post.

Companions have a major flaw, where some companions are simply worse than others, and for the most part the situation genuinely doesn’t matter. This is another fundamental breakdown between the MMO and the single-player story experience that is TOR. When I play Mass Effect 2 on Easy, I can use whoever I want, but when I play on Insane, I always use Miranda. Since TOR only has 1 difficulty level, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to use anything but your best companion at all times, as content in the world is scaled around having them and they aren’t simply a friendly tag along.

In the current build, it is inadvisable to use anything but the healing companions as they vastly reduce your overall downtime. In previous iterations of the system, the tank companions were always the optimal choice and DPS companions the build before that. The gameplay needs of the player take precedence over the desire for story variety, as the companions never truly influence how the story plays out unless the player modifies their conversational choices to suit their companions preferences (see: to score affection points.)

There are also companions that are mandatory for certain quests even though their gear may be 30 levels behind the times, and the order you acquire certain companions can make some classes harder to play than others (Warriors get their healer on Balmorra, Knighs on Hoth), or make crafting far more annoying (Knights have 3 companions at the end of Coruscant, Agents get their third companion on Alderaan, 4 planets later.)

Ultimately, companions are just pets that you need to fully equip with currently weapons and armor if you want them be even remotely effective. They are more of a burden, but are so required because of how gameplay is designed.

If this were a single player game, and companions had more dedicated content, they wouldn’t feel nearly as tacked on as they do. In Mass Effect 2 I liked all of my companions and knew all about them because their content was my content. They became part of my story. Nothing about TOR companions feels even remotely close to the level of ME2 in terms of story, and I genuinely feel no attachment to them, I simply select them by roll, and try to keep them as equipped as possible, while blissfully ignoring the existence of the other, less useful ones. Once I hit 50, I just feed them gifts.

There is no reason that large portions of content (both planet and class) shouldn’t be tailored for specific companions conversationally more so than they are, which would give them all interesting story lines that don’t require you spamming gifts at them, or answering dialogue in a certain way. I can’t think of any reasons not to go fishing through companion quest dialogue trees for optimal affection points, just to unlock more companion content faster.

Pretending the companion system isn’t flawed (story vs. functionality) is a bit of a stretch, and as you get higher level the problem only get worse. The whole system is just lazy which heavily detracts from the story feel, with the exception of your first (or second) companion who is well integrated into your class story line.

Itemization is… yeah

It doesn’t take a mathematics major to figure out that the stat system in TOR is inherently flawed. There are stats that add static stats (class primary stats and power) and stats that add scaling stats (crit, surge) meaning that there will be a point at which 1 crit will be worth more than 1 power and vice versa. This will be a math problem, and moddable items will facilitate these variables fully. The mod system allows for people to choose stats (including base stats like Aim and Strength) over stats like Crit and Surge, and I can tell you right now, without having any numbers or idea how some classes work, that there will be an optimal solution, and people will min/max the system in as much time as it takes them to whip together a rough spreadsheet.

Augment slots exacerbate the issue further, as they provide “free” stats on top of the moddable nature of items. If they just give raid gear Augment slots no one crafts, and if you don’t give raid gear augment slots, crafting is mandatory. If I can get a raid drop epic and strip its mods to put them in a craftable item with an augment slot, there really won’t be much variety to the game.

If this is what the final version will be, I almost feel ashamed for the folks down in Austin for this obvious and major oversight. They may as well take the stats off of everything and just put a rating on gear if it remains as it is at current since there will only be one “correct” way to itemize.

There is basically no endgame!

This is probably the biggest hangup of all as it means that TOR devolves into nothing more than a single player game with a monthly fee until there is something worth paying for to progress my character.

I don’t want to read some smug idiot posting about how “Molten Core wasn’t in WoW at launch” because it was. Patch 1.1 was the launch patch, look it up on WoWPedia. Was it buggy? Yes. Was everything in it except for Ragnaros killable? Yes. WoW also came out in 2004, and is the reference to what games that want to be taken seriously need to live up to. I don’t care if you love or hate WoW, but I think it’s pretty sad if you’re emotionally invested enough in a game to hate it.

In every build so far, endgame has consisted of virtually zero fully functional content although it is getting more plentiful each build, with new issues cropping up every build as well. There are daily quests on Ilum and Belsavis, and 3 level 50 flashpoints that are nearly functional currently.

Hard mode instances are just scaled up versions of the originals and blatantly untested. No boss mechanics are different, and the encounters are extremely hit or miss in terms of difficulty (some are unbeatable currently.) Based on how poorly most flashpoint content has been implemented on their initial pass throughout my time in beta, I have very little faith that the Hard modes will be balanced for live and they will likely be entirely too simple if what’s on the servers now is any indication.

Eternity Vault is buggy. Leaping at a turret on the first trash pull throws you into space and disconnects you until your raid group kicks you, leaves the instance, and resets the phase. The second boss desyncs from the instance and is unkillable without the ability to avoid his attacks, which is basically the entire fight. I don’t know how many bosses are in the Eternity Vault, but it will be down within 2 weeks, and all Hard Modes within a month based on what I saw and the fact we were able to rag-tag together a random pug in greens and beat the first boss with virtually no information on him in 4 pulls.

Random gripe grab bag

  • Non-moddable crafting is completely useless at the level cap. All trainer learned items when fully RE’d to Artifact quality are lower rating than the lowest rated Operation drops. All Schematics that drop from Ops make Artifact quality gear right away, so the RE system is entirely useless in the grand scheme of the game.
  • Space Combat is an afterthought like a fart in the breeze. Although it scales up with you as you level, there is nothing challenging or notable at the end of the journey. If you level all the way to 50 before doing any kind of Space Combat, all but 3 of the missions will be painfully simple because of ship upgrades. This still feels like a totally half-baked feature and the only reason people will do it is for easy, fast, XP while leveling and free credits at the level cap.
  • Skill trees are 100% illusion of choice. There is only 1 right way to spend talent points and be effective at your intended role. There is a reason WoW is abandoning this terrible design, and it’s because you might make a total of 2 real choices when filling them out. They are also a trap for new or inexperienced players.
  • Total lack of macro support makes things like trinkets and off the GCD skills annoying to use as they require individual key presses. This makes skills like my “causes next cast to be instant” skill harder to use an an emergency than it should be. Why would I use it on anything but my biggest heal?
  • There is no LFG tool and every single flashpoint falls between planets, meaning that in order to assemble a group you have to wait on the fleet stations and hope you randomly find people, stay on the planet just before it and wait for people to finish the planet to join you, or hope you can catch people at the beginning of the next planet before they feel too far in to leave and come back. It is incredibly inconvenient to get groups together for flashpoints, and even with servers queue’d out to the max for the beta weekend, it is a nightmare getting groups for anything but Black Talon/Eseless (which only require 2 people, and spec doesn’t matter at all.) The Hammer is just after Coruscant/DK, and it took over 20 minutes to find a healer when we had 3 people waiting to go. We got him through sending random unsolicited tells.

Final Thoughts

From what I’ve seen of TOR since August, I could not in good conscience recommend that people who really want to experience that whole MMO feeling all over again waste their time on TOR. It brings nothing meaningful to the table and will be coasting to success on what’s left of Bioware’s reputation and the Star Wars license.

People who are excited to leave other MMOs and come play this will only be disappointed by its endgame offerings, and this will be a giant step backwards for the MMORPG genre as a whole.

TOR is simply not good enough to pay a monthly fee for.

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