Beta Thoughts - Star Wars: The Old Republic
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During the weekend of 26-27 November, Bioware extended more invites than ever before to the beta test for their upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. Although we don’t know the actual figures involved, it was referred to as a stress test in the run-up to launch on 20th December and gave many people the chance to give the game a try. Open betas form part of the marketing plans of any new MMO these days and they tend to be marked on things like server stability, bugs, responsiveness to bug reports and the ever-popular server queues. In order to mimic how early access is going to work for Star Wars: The Old Republic, beta testers were allocated one of two start times, Friday 4pm or Saturday 4pm (10am CST). I was lucky enough to be in the Friday 4pm grouping, so got my first real hands-on look at the game once I got home. The game was available to download a couple of days beforehand, and everything seemed fairly smooth, though I know this wasn’t the case for every tester.
In case you’ve not heard of it, Star Wars: The Old Republic marks Bioware’s first foray into the massively multiplayer gaming market, although they did have Mythic’s expertise to call on once Electronic Arts acquired both companies (Mythic was responsible for MMOs Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online). The game is set within the Star Wars universe – long after the Knights of the Old Republic but many, many years before the action of the films takes place. Players can choose between four basic classes to start with on either side of the inevitable Republic / Empire divide, but each of these is divided in turn into a pair of advanced classes once level 10 is attained.
I started my exploration of the beta with the Empire classes, which began on one of two planets, Hutta (if you play a Bounty Hunter or Imperial Agent) and Korriban (if you choose a Sith Inquisitor or Warrior). Character creation was nothing out-of-the-ordinary for this type of game; you choose class, race and gender and then move on to customise your looks from the options available. For each race you could select gender, body type (from four choices), face, skin colour, hair, hair and eye colours, and then race-specific customisations such as tattoos/embellishments. I made a spiky-headed Rattataki Sith Inquisitor and dove in. Here’s where it all gets interesting. I may not have been paying much attention as I hit the ‘next’ button, but then the rousing Star Wars theme music kicked in and that iconic scrolling yellow text laid out a bit of my character background and set things up for the opening cinematic. As each class has a unique intro sequence, it feels justifiably like your character’s been given a prominent role in the narrative and you’re immediately ready to immerse yourself into some Star Wars gaming. It’s such a boon for Bioware to have this at the launch of the game, it’s untrue.
I’m not going to talk too much about storylines, except to confirm that every single class has a different story quest to play through. These bits mostly consist of solo gaming, but you can take friends in to help out (or simply for company!). Admittedly, there’s some variation of the quality of the story. I’d heard the Sith Inquisitor wasn’t as interesting as some – in the same way I’ve heard Imperial Agent has a fantastic personal story – but I really enjoyed it: seeking out Sith artifacts, dealing with rivals, being smug and sarcastic – good times. It’s got that distinctive Bioware story touch and will no doubt encourage players to try making characters in many different classes and therefore extend their enjoyment of the game. In most MMOs, I only play one character, but I’m certain that come launch I will have a couple of characters on each side of the Republic/Empire chasm just so I can play through their respective stories. During the beta weekend I tried the Sith Inquisitor, Jedi Knight, Bounty Hunter, Smuggler and Imperial Agent, and enjoyed them all – my own gaming preferences coming into play to decide my favourites (i.e., not the ones with blasters). Embarrassingly, I had previously maintained that I wouldn’t play any Jedi or Sith classes and yet they were the ones I ended up loving the most.
While the personal story quests mark a high point of the game, questing is fairly standard if you’re used to playing other MMOs. There’s a fair bit of running around in early levels: you’re delivering messages, killing x number of things/people, looking for items, etc. What is different though is that Star Wars: The Old Republic is a fully-voiced game, which means there are literally thousands of hours of voice actor work that’s gone into creating real personalities behind each and every NPC who sends you on a mission. You respond through a dialogue wheel interface that will be familiar to players of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect series. Interestingly, you can even refuse some quests through dialogue. Also, some responses will earn you either Light or Dark Side points which will affect characters later in the game (there are items that require certain levels of Light or Dark). These choices are signposted by either blue or red symbols next to them, so if you want to make sure you never pick the wrong one, Bioware has provided a way to do so. Personally, I went by what the actual conversation was, and ended up with quite a few light side points as a Sith and dark side points as a Jedi. The voice acting is some of the strongest in any computer game I’ve played, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, not finding it intrusive or that it slowed me down, except in a couple of instances when I wanted the conversation to move quicker.
Another Bioware standard is the companion system and they’ve built this into Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is unusual for an MMO – especially as your companion can be used as a full group member for group content. Classes get different companions at different starting levels. Jedi Knights get a droid fairly early on, for example – but have it taken away from them for repairs for a few levels immediately afterwards! – while Sith Inquisitors get their Dashade companion nearer to level 10/11, at the end of their first big storyline. As you level, you pick up other companions and can choose which to accompany you. They then develop or lose affection points, depending on your conversation choices and what gifts you give them. You can equip them and also they craft for you.
Which leads us to the crafting system. I didn’t get to play around with it too much, but you get to select three crafting professions (two gathering, one production) and your companion can then be sent off on ‘missions’ to go gather materials and then to actually craft items. I made a couple of belts, but didn’t have time to look into the system much more. Crafting in MMOs is either something you enjoy or that you don’t pursue, but it’s always worth setting up some gathering skills even if you just sell materials to other players. Not being much of a crafter, I actually enjoyed being able to shift the mental burden of this task to my companion, even though it’s still me pressing the buttons; this is just one of the signs of how immersive Star Wars: The Old Republic can be if you let it.
Grouping is a mainstay of any MMO, and something that really distinguishes the genre from normal single-player games. In Star Wars: The Old Republic you can group for all quests or just group up for heroic quests (ones that distinctly need more than one player to succeed), and also for flashpoints which are the dungeons/instances of the game, taking up to four player characters through a scenario with a start, middle and end. I only grouped for heroic quests and flashpoints. The fully-voiced nature of the MMO means that in a group you need to wait for every member to click on the quest-giver before the conversation starts, and when giving responses, everyone picks their choice of response and the game rolls for whose response ‘wins’. This led to instances where dark-side options won out over the more popular light-side ones, and vice versa – but never fear – your character only gets points for what you voted for, not for what won out. Waiting for group members wasn’t painful, as some have feared it might be, but we were playing with very little server lag (thankfully!) and were also fairly advanced MMO players, knowing to click everything that moved! It may harm some of the replayability of flashpoints, making the conversation options seem more of a ‘grind’ when not seeing them for the first time – but my groups had quite the laugh over where our choices differed.
The game’s still (just) in beta, due to launch of December 20th in Europe and the US. Stress tests are usually quite fraught, given the number of players hammering new servers. Given that, I found Star Wars: The Old Republic a very stable offering and this was one of the best open betas I’ve taken part in over the years. Bioware responded quickly to the need for new servers as players came online, even though some servers did develop fairly lengthy queues that might seem more intimidating once we’re all paying for our access. There were some bugs still, on Friday night a number of us found it impossible to log out of the game and had to Ctrl-Alt-Del our way out. This was fixed very quickly in a maintenance session on Saturday morning and was definitely the kind of bug the company would have been watching for as part of the stress test. We found other bugs, some more annoying that others, but reported them all and I have faith the company will deal with all the important ones as quickly as possible and before launch.
Star Wars: The Old Republic may not be as innovative as some old-time MMO players would like it to be. The combat and class system are evocative of many other games in the genre. It’s building on lessons learned, however, and because of this feels familiar enough to anyone used to these games, while not so tricky that new players won’t feel they can get on-board and explore the Star Wars universe through Bioware’s vision. The fully voiced aspect is very impressive. The companion system is something I really look forward to exploring through companion choice, affection points and the crafting system – giving me just enough that I’m not used to for it to have some real staying power. Another new aspect is the legacy system, where all of a player’s characters on one server can share a surname or title and each can contribute towards legacy experience points and legacy levels. Didn’t get to see any of that in the beta but colour me intrigued, it’s like guild experience but just for your own characters! There is innovation, but it’s iterative instead of cataclysmic.
Open beta tests give the gaming company a ton of data to crunch about player numbers, stability, bugs, people’s choices in-game. They give players a first look at an upcoming game, allow them to dip their toes in the game’s atmosphere and playability and still plenty of time to pre-order. Going into the beta I knew I had the game on pre-order, but wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy the game, beyond some of the story elements. Having played for a weekend, I’m convinced I will be enjoying it and also satisfied in how Bioware have brought the game to life.
You can find all the digital pre-order information here, though obviously you can also pre-order through your normal retailer. The SWTOR website is also a great place to start if you want more details on anything I’ve mentioned in this overview.