Saturday, November 26, 2011

News About The Old Republic

BioWare recently decided to lift their cloak of secrecy surrounding Star Wars: The Old Republic, so since I am no longer bound by the NDA I figured it was time for a TOR-themed post detailing what I feel are the game's strengths and weaknesses.

I have been in the beta for approximately two months now and have raised several Sith Warriors (to 16, 9 and 6), a Sith Inquisitor (to ~6), a Jedi Knight (to ~10) and a Bounty Hunter (to 6) so I would certainly say I have a feel for the beginning areas of the game, and less so with the latter aspects (I didn't want to go too far and spoil it for myself if I decided to play it at launch).

Starting with the positives: it feels very BioWare.  And by that I mean if you enjoyed KOTOR and the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games then you are probably going to like TOR because it very much has that BioWare new car smell.  Even when I began playing the game was very polished, and while there were bugs here and there (which I dutifully reported, because that's the reason I was there in the first place) none of them were game-breaking for me.

While it had already been known for some time that TOR was going to be the first fully-voiced MMO, and I went into it with that understanding, until you actually play the game you can't really see how that is going to affect the experience.  Most people probably skip all the extraneous quest text anyway, boiling most quests down to (1) what do I have to do, and (2) where do I do it?  In voice conversations there are the typical three BioWare responses in any given interaction with an NPC.  You can either be a hardass, an angel or the third option which usually straddles the two somewhat.  You will sometimes gain Light or Dark points for conversation choices (these are marked before you choose them) which apparently affect your character's progression down the line, although I never got that far.

One nice touch in quests and NPC interactions is that every once in a while you will be thrown a curveball that only you can decide how to deal with.  Without going into too much detail (I don't want to spoil anyone) I was offered a quest by one particular person to obtain something for him, and he directed me to his assistant in order to get the details.  When you speak to her she not only fills you in on where to go, but also that if you bring the desired item back to her and betray her master then she will make it worth your while.  It's up to you to decide who you want to side with, and after having done it both ways on two different characters I can say that there are satisfying payoffs on both ends.

While the class quests are completely dependent on what class you are playing at the time (i.e. the Sith Warrior story is totally different to the Bounty Hunter story), side quests can be done with any class or even in a group.  Groups have a maximum size of four members, and usually break down into a tank, a support / healer and two DPS.  When grouped, during conversations with NPCs each character rolls a number and the person with the highest gets to make the conversation choice for the entire party, although you will only gain Light or Dark points for yourself, even if a party member makes that selection (so you won't get namby-pamby Light points on your Dark character if someone else happens to win a roll while grouped and chooses a Light option).  One nice touch is that if you are in a separate area of the map to someone else who has initiated a conversation, you can still participate holographically (you will be prompted on-screen when they begin).  It's a cool way of "virtually" keeping the group connected even if you are spread out.  Additionally, you can hit "Escape" at any point during a conversation to abandon it (say you mistakenly chose option A when you really meant to hit B); you can then start it afresh as if the previous attempt never occurred.

Certainly, TOR's greatest feature is its heightened focus on storytelling.  This was not hacked together by some High School Metalworking grad, but instead the storyline flows naturally, with meaningful choices having to be made on a regular basis which (presumably) will affect your character's later progression.

As to the downsides of the game...while the graphics are acceptable I wouldn't go as far as to say they were pretty.  Graphically you are looking at a level approximately that of the Mass Effect games; not exactly cutting-edge but enough to do the job they need to and no more.  The game also desperately needs an option to be able to import key bindings from other characters, as every time I made a fresh person I had to go through the laborious process of getting my keys set up the way I wanted, time after time after time.

There is also the use of instancing in the starting areas of the game.  While I understand why this was done (to help alleviate server lag from too many people in one zone at once, and in order so that they don't need to enable server queues as often) I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea.  I personally had no real issues with the zone instancing for the brief period I was aware of it (typically you will only notice when you are grouped, when one person is in a different instance than the other members.  You can switch between instances although only once every thirty minutes).

Other than that I found TOR to be a remarkably polished MMO.  Let's not forget it's been in development for five years, and that BioWare are a very good developer, but still, a Star Wars MMO would be quite an easy thing to screw up, and I did not get the impression of that at all.

TOR is different to every MMO on the market today, but the question is, is it different enough from the elephant in the room known as World of Warcraft, or even the plucky up-and-comer, Rift.  My gut instinct says yes, as the anti-WoW backlash is reaching quite epic proportions recently (WoW has lost almost 2 million players during the past year, standing at just over 10 million currently, from the high point of 12 million at the beginning of this year) and people are yearning for something fresh and new.  TOR's problem is that next year there are two big MMOs scheduled to be released.  Funcom's The Secret World is currently slated for April (although this may slip since the beta hasn't even started yet) and then NCsoft's Guild Wars 2 will probably follow a few months later.  This doesn't give TOR a tremendous amount of time in which to build a userbase free from even fresher competition than itself, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

I have not decided whether or not I will be playing The Old Republic.  If I can talk some more people I know into it then certainly I would be more inclined to plonk down the $60 that EA are demanding for it (another inauspicious MMO first - thanks EA!).  Either way, I believe it's a solid game that will more likely than not be a success.  I'm sure Richard Garriott and Realtime Worlds felt the same way about Tabula Rasa and APB though...