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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.