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SWTOR Beta Impressions

27 Nov

Having signed up before 11/11/11, Bioware was kind enough to invite me into the closed beta weekend event this last weekend.  With the NDA lifted, details have begun to filter out and although highly anticipated, the news I’ve been getting from trusted sources has been a bit concerning.  So, I went into the event with maybe a bit of a negative predisposition.  Unfortunately, that was not changed.

First the good.

The game itself feels very solid.  As of Saturday night, I clocked about 15 odd hours in game and never experienced a crash or any noticeable lag.  Queues did show up Saturday morning, but I’m told that some folks were green lighted on Friday morning (me) and others couldn’t get in until Saturday morning.  The Saturday hordes descended and queues of up to several hours were present.  I still had no significant queues applying the two general rules of optimal server selection:  pick the lamest name and/or a PVP or RP server, or better, both.

The game is polished from the technical side.  In that sense, it can likely withstand the hordes on launch.  There are a few getting stuck in the terrain issues, but I didn’t really see any noticeable bugs.  Kudos to Bioware for getting the backend in reasonable shape before launch.

The world(s) are big.  They are beautifully rendered (in a stylized and limited pallet sort of way) and certainly give a good immersive feeling of the Star Wars universe.  The soundtrack is pervasive and all the familiar sounds are ever present.  It gushes Star Wars.

There are cinematics.  Boy are there cinematics.  It must have been 15 minutes from log on through character selection with the cinematics.  Selznick must be proud.  As others have noted, the ubiquitous theme music, the text scrolling into the vanishing point and lots of story story story.

I enjoyed it.

Now the not so good after the break.

I’ll start with my overall impression– Bioware knows how to make a great game, but doesn’t know (yet) how to make a great MMO.  I trust that they’re coachable and will be reasonably quick studies after the game launches.  I have no doubt that STWOR will be a better game in 6-12 months.

I managed to play a Sith warrior, Jedi Counselor, Bounty Hunter (Empire) and Trooper (Republic).  I managed to drag them all to a range of levels 5-9.  Overall, I found the core gameplay fun.  Yes, there is the point blank blaster combat challenge, but I felt that the both the Bounty Hunter and the Trooper to be fun to play with a useful bag of tricks to deploy in different situations.

Pro tip:  if you have a ranged weapon class, always include the equivalent of a pistol whip or rifle butt smack skill.  The Trooper’s Shockstock (or whatever its called) added that missing bit to what could sometimes be soulless pew pew.  Yes, even with grenades.

The mobs are what you’d expect for a typical MMO.

Walkabout

This is where they started to lose me.  Meaningful travel in an MMO is something I care for.  On balance, it creates a sense of immersion and sense of adventure.  Being far from home in a dangerous place is exciting in and of itself.  Walking yourself through a Kubrick film however, not so much.

Here’s what I imagined SWTOR would be like:  I report to someone, we have a 30 second to 1 minute dialog– with the occasional longer more involved one– then, objective in hand I spend 1-2 minutes traveling to or exploring the location (while at risk) and then the pew pew begins.  A quick jaunt back and the story progresses.  Rinse, repeat.

Here’s what I experienced:  I travel 2-3 minutes to a location such as Sith Academy, Jedi Temple, etc., spend 1-2 minutes running through mostly empty hallways, spend 2-3 minutes in an extended conversation with Master Hoodat, spend 1-2 minutes running back through mostly empty hallways to a taxi, spend 1-2 minutes on a taxi ride to the nearest hub to my objective (assuming I discovered it first, otherwise its a walk as is the norm), then another 2-3 minutes to travel from the hub to the objective location (sometimes at risk, often not) and then another 5-10 minutes (at risk) running through a tomb/temple/headquarters to find/kill/activate/deactivate the horgensplicer, then unwind the whole thing to turn in.  Something like a 1/2 hour or more without return, about 1/2 of which is spent in uncontested travel.  Alternative number B would be to recall to a bind point (usable every 30 minutes, more on that in a minute).  Not that there is no downtime in other games, its just that the downtime in other games tends to be non-combat interaction with the world.

Even Luke had a speeder as an orphan

My numbers may be off a bit, but it sure seemed like it just took forever to get to the fun.  Traveling in Everquest was a bit painful, but it also seemed adventurous.  Even with a limited recall spell, a trip was a commitment of time and an undertaking fraught with serious risk.  Here, I felt I had to drag myself along to get to the actual woosh woosh pew pew.

With the added tax of the vaunted fourth pillar of story on top of travel time, I found myself nodding off.  I’m probably broken by more recent MMOs, but I should be out of the noob zone and into the “real” world, core abilities learned and in hand in about 2-3 hours of game time, tops.

As an experiment, I rolled a Bounty Hunter and decided to eschew all quests and just go old school.  First of all, it was quite fun even if a bit thin on plot.  I ended up with pretty decent green quality drops which were on par with quest reward gear.  Generally I was able to take on mobs 2-3 levels above my own without too much trouble.  I went around exploring and killing through the zone and ultimately decided to depart Hutta for points unknown.

I ended up about level 8 after about 2-3 hours–just about the same time as the characters that progressed through the quest chain.  The difference was of course, that almost all of that was active at risk time.   Knowing that travel was giving me a bit of a headache, I consciously plotted my route from taxi point to taxi point so I could return to train when I leveled.  It was fun.

Map Stuff

With an epic universe and a slavish devotion to real(fake) world scale, you need to convey a huge amount of information about navigating in this overwhelming universe to the player.  This is where I’m most disappointed with SWTOR.

The maps and map system sucks currently.  And by sucks, I mean that with such loving devotion to their actual rendering, its a damned shame that core functionality seems to have been an afterthought.
At any point in time, you have two main map views.  Your immediate zone and the larger zone you’re in.  For the starter worlds, this means basically whatever sub region you currently occupy (e.g., Sith Academy, Jedi Temple) and the one big zone for the starter planet.  I’m told that for truly big worlds, there are multiple regional zones and presumably a planet wide view that would connect them all in context.

First, micro to macro.  Given only two views at a time, it can be exceedingly tedious to plan your travel route or even to get a sense of where you are in the universe other than a box.  For example, at any given time, I can’t choose to look at another region or planet’s map.  Only the local zone I’m in and the region.

So, if I’m in the orbital fleet having arrived from Hutta and want to go somewhere else, I get a map of the arrival spacedock (segregated by routes served, e.g. Korriban and Hutta) and map of the entire fleet.

That’s it.  I can’t actually look at Hutta or Korriban’s map.  I can’t actually see the full map of the ship I’m currently on until go further into the station.  Once in the station, I get the full station map and a map of the fleet.

A killer for me is the inability of the map system to allow me, the player to choose my frame of reference and to freely switch between all of the knowledge that I presumably already know.  Likewise without the ability to switch views between floors/local zones within a ship/building, the player is generally left with good memory skills, trial and error or taking notes to get to where they need to.

And while I’m ranting on the map system, they made the unforgivable design decision to use radio button selection for points of interest in the main map.  If you want to know where the trainer is push the button.  If you want to know where the taxi is, push the other button thereby turning off your prior selection.  You may only see one type of point of interest at a time.  Why you wouldn’t permit a checkbox system (like every other AAA game out there) is beyond me.

The Emperor has decreed that you shall have one point of interest at a time.

Unforgivable.

Its design decisions like this that made me say that Bioware doesn’t know how to make an MMO yet.  Putting the offworld shuttle half a zone away from the main activity hub (cough, Korriban) and without a taxi stop there smacks of novice design and is frankly immersion breaking.

Go with the Flow. More taxis than a night a Lincoln Center.

Summing it all up

So I didn’t spend a huge amount of time discussing actual game play.  That’s because I enjoyed it and it felt about right.  Unfortunately, with such time devoted to story and travel, all the other grating little inconveniences start to add up in a negative way and I’m left with the frustration of unmet expectations.  Two years ago, I would have overlooked these.

I have no doubt that in six months or a year’s time, all of these challenges will get addressed (or at least I hope so) but I’ve got to say that with the resources Bioware had to bring to bear, I would have expected many more of the nuts and bolts aspects of an MMO to be addressed better.

As it currently stands, I feel like Bioware added the story aspect on to the two more traditional and time consuming activities of an MMO– travel and combat– without reducing the total time investment by the player.  Indeed, you could say they increased them all.  I’m still hopeful, but I’m sitting this one out for a while.

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10 Comments

Posted by on November 27, 2011 in Star Wars: The Old Republic

 

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10 responses to “SWTOR Beta Impressions

  1. Mika Hirvonen (@Hirvox)

    November 28, 2011 at 12:53 am

    Taxi design becomes even more ridiculous on Ord Mantrell; The Sith capital city has it’s own internal taxi system, disconnected from the main network. It’s only used to cross the chasm between the main city and the Sith temple, the Mandalorian enclave and Empire intelligence bureau. The latter three are connected by walkways, but each of them has their own taxi point as well.

     
  2. bhagpuss

    November 28, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Really interesting write-up. I’m so far from being interested in playing SW:tOR that I didn’t even bother to apply for the beta, but if you’re interested in MMOs you can no more ignore the oncoming juggernaut than you can ignore a hurricane because you don’t like getting wet. So I’ve been reading a lot of commentary.

    I was so pleased to read about your “going old-school” experiment. That’s pretty much the way I play all MMOs and I do get a little tired of trying to explain to people that just because an MMO tries to give you quests you don’t have to take them. Many MMOs that are supposedly “on rails” have never seemed that way to me. I just climb up the embankment and set off across the fields.

    The two things that have most put me off SW:tOR are a) it’s Star Wars and b) it’s BioWare. I don’t rate BioWare’s storytelling as highly as others do. It’s pulp writing at best and often not very good pulp at that. (Of course, you could say that makes it perfect for Star Wars…). I really didn’t fancy the idea of having to slog through the equivalent of a Star Wars novelization every time I wanted to play my character. If it’s feasible to go off-piste and level up open-world just by exploring and killing stuff and doing only the quests that interest me then I’m a lot more interested than I was.

    Having a huge world, or worlds, to explore is wonderful, but as I recall from early Anarchy Online and Horizons, a vast world with nothing in it but scenery doesn’t satisfy. I’m fine wioth slow travel so long as there’s stuff to do, as in the Everquest example. From your account, I can see this being a problem.

    Spinks also mentioned the travel issue, but she underplayed it, saying “Lots of running around. I don’t mind this, it just makes the game feel a bit more old school. Some people will find it annoying”. In my experience, the number of people prepared to put up with “old school” travel in MMOs nowadays is minimal.

    There’s a honeymoon period for the first month or so as everyone runs around going “gosh-wow” but once the rush wears off one of the first complaints is always that it takes to long to get from one place to another. If they don’t address that fast it could easily become a retention problem. I’d guess, though, that they will add some much faster means of travel pretty early on. That’s what most MMOs I’ve played that had this issue did.

    Going to keep an eye on how things go at launch and read a lot of blogs about it. I don’t imagine actually trying it for quite a few months.

     
  3. Facepalm

    November 28, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Great write-up Mr. Shot! Great read. I got into the Beta this Saturday and have been playing non-stop ever since. I totally agree that there are lots & lots of rough edges and questionable design decisions. (The map system needs a ton of work. I found the ‘magnifying glass’ option slightly helpful).

    The part that I’ve really enjoyed is that nearly every quest has a voice-acting piece with decision points. No more fast-clicking through popup windows with quest text. I found myself truly interested in nearly all quests. I felt like I had more stake in what was going on.

    As per the endless travel, yeah it’s a pain. Once I got off the started world and had professions I basically began auto-running and then having my companion craft while I was en-route. Worked out pretty well and was an interesting take on the system. (No more being stationary at a forge for example).

    Overall I am enjoying the experience, but I’ve found many areas that just feel tedious. I’m not sure if it’s the game or just that I’ve played MMO’s so much and STWOR isn’t a huge leap in a new direction that the new car smell just wears off faster.

    Either way I’m looking forward to launch, catch you out there!

     
  4. p@tsh@t

    November 28, 2011 at 10:15 am

    @Hirvox: Coruscant has something similar on the Republic side. I pushed my Trooper on through to see what I could see Sunday evening. More thoughts on that tomorrow.

    @Bhagpuss: I was almost going to call it “going Bhagpuss” because I know that’s how you consume these games ;) I was expecting a quest-heavy progression and to be “disadvantaged” compared to my story participating peers, but apparently not. Especially since decent gear became more readily available that I had expected.

    @Facepalm: It was precisely the tedium that was grating on me in the starter areas. A win would have been instilling a strong desire in the player to re-roll and experience other classes and races. The thought of going through that even more was just too daunting. You’ve got about 1/2 an hour to grab the player and convert them. An hour in, I was skeptical, two hours I was doubtful and by three I was cooked though I soldiered on in the name of science…

    Stay tuned for a bit more on SWTOR tomorrow.

     
  5. Oakstout

    November 28, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Great write up. A few things I discovered. The Heroic areas don’t exactly give you any idea how many people you need to complete missions in that area. Some, you only need two, but others you need more and maybe a healer to get things done. The same with Flash points.. they recommend a full group but you can do them with 2 players and 2 companions if the levels are high enough. More explanation would be great in those areas.

    Sprint should come faster than level 14, but that’s my opinion. And Sprint helps tons with making running around easier. The one thing I did like was even if your grouped with someone and they are doing their class quest, you can still see their cut scenes and help with difficult mobs, which is nice. You don’t get that when your doing smaller quests but the main story line its nice.

    I also liked that you didn’t have to bind at one place as long as you found the different bind points on the planet. After discovering them, you can Fast Travel to anyone of them which is different.

    Well, that’s my two cents. Nice write up.

     
  6. Wilhelm Arcturus

    November 28, 2011 at 10:46 am

    There were some wonky level related issues I ran into following the new player quest chain. As a low level Jedi I was sent off to a cave about a five minute run away (if you went the right way, which I did not, though I did find a cache of stuff in the woods) which turned out to be full of mobs 3-5 levels above me. Death sent me back to where I started for another five minute run, at which point I decided to play something else for a while.

    @Facepalm – Maybe I did not get far enough along, (4 chars played over two betas, but none past level 8) but aside from a few light side/dark side points, do decision points in the quest dialog make any difference at all? It seemed to me that I was going to be sent off to kill those ten rats whether I was uppity or gung-ho about it.

    @Potshot – Yeah, the starter areas, in the end, did not make me feel enthusiastic about the game. Long runs, mild quests, uninspired story, and the usual “everybody looks the same” did not stoke my interest.

    On the other hand, it was amusing to see literally dozens of Jedi going out of their way to kill anything that moved just after being lectured in a dialog event about how troubling killing is (or should be) for a Jedi.

     
    • Facepalm

      November 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm

      @Wilhelm I believe you are correct, the decision points, as far as I could tell, don’t affect the quest itself, but maybe parts? Decision points award Light/Dark side points (which are used as requirements on future gear/quests/etc., but they also award/remove companion affection points. Not sure what a fully loyal or grumpy companion will offer (better quests, crafting etc?) but it at has affected how I decide in some dialogues.

      Once you get off the starter planet you can purchase speeders I believe (not usable in-doors?) so that’s another travel option.

      I like the gear customization and crafting systems. I hope I’ll be able to have a droid shop at some point, though I doubt it’s currently in game…since droids are companions and not something you can swap out like a new pair of sneakers, but you can hope right?

      Another thing I found interesting is the “phase” areas that are for your class. I think it’s a bit harsh to have big red doors for places you can’t go…couldn’t they have found a better way?

      The biggest thing I’ve always enjoyed about the visuals in WoW was that everything appeared to be hand-crafted by the designers. Attention to detail was huge and the environments (should I use the new fancy term “Biomes” now?) were so immersive. I’ve only seen Ord Mantel & Coruscant but it just feels like an afterthought at times…oh well.

      Anyways, hopefully the rough edges will be smoothed out. I still have my pre-order queued up so we’ll see how opening day goes…

       
  7. p@tsh@t

    November 28, 2011 at 11:04 am

    @Oakstout: I didn’t want to nitpick but the bind points were a mixed bag for me. Its a nice innovation that you can use what in other games is a recall ability to go to any discovered “bind point” (at least once every 30 minutes). However, I don’t think they did a very good job of explaining how they work and the fact that you had to discover them much like the taxi stands. Furthermore, when you did click on them (after you found them… not prominent), the casting/action bar dialog says “binding” rather than discovering.

    In my veteran-mmo haze, I assumed that when I bound there, I was well, bound there, so I eschewed “binding” other locations until I determined whether I wanted to “home base” there like in other MMOs. Probably my bad for not paying attention, but it was certainly annoying to go back and discover them.

    I didn’t know when you got sprint, but probably should get it about Level 5. Of course if you need it at Level 5, what’s that telling you about travel in your game. Likewise, now accepted, but equally ridiculous, we all auto run everywhere because walking is too slow… If you’re going to model mobility better, you should rely on walk, short duration run/sprint and then artificial transport– mounts or taxis… Who are all these marathon runners jogging through cities and markets?

    @Wilhelm: I had a similar experience in a number of areas. Most annoying was the Jedi/Sith. Least annoying was Ord Mantell which was more hub and spoke even with long runs through the Manett Point complex and the Separatists base.

     

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