Thanks to the lovely folks at RockPaperShotgun, I managed to snag a weekend beta pass to Star Wars The Old Republic. I’ve never been huge on MMORPGS but I’m not alien to them – I invested a fair amount of time into Matrix Online, a reasonable amount of time in Lord of the Rings Online, played some WoW and D&D Online, and I still play the heck out of Kingdom of Loathing (although KoL is a slightly different beast). SWTOR has been dubbed a potential “WoW killer”, so I was interested to see how it panned out. I wasn’t personally interested in playing, until my friend showed me this:
I mean, seriously. A Jawa with a rocket launcher? What’s not to love?!
So this weekend I put in a few sessions with the game as a female human Smuggler (in that I’m a female smuggling goods, not ladies). She’s got the whole Han Solo thing going, which is cool. She’s at level 8 or 9 now. I’m still in the newbie class-specific area (that I share with Troopers). My character’s recent skill acquisition was effectively “kick them in the groin”. It complemented my “throw a grenade into their face” skill.
What’s it like? Well, it’s like a MMO. It’s like WoW. It’s like expansive, slightly low res environments where nameplates run around and there are little pockets of bad guys standing around, waiting to die. It’s like watching cooldown on icons so you can do your same cycle of skills to kill yet another insurgent that’s getting in the way of you running to a dude and getting the next location to run to. Of course, I’m overly cynical here. SWTOR is definitely an improvement over the WoW style (last time I played WoW). Having conversations with quest-givers actually be little cutscenes (a la Mass Effect or any other modern Bioware game) is neat. My first bunch of NPCs were really boring and I was a bit disappointed that they had spent a lot of time and money getting voice actors to deliver boring stuff. But as I got on, the animation got better, the writing more nuanced and the voice acting more varied and interesting. I wasn’t blown away by it, but man, it’s so much of an improvement over WoW “oh gawd, I dunno, fetch 10 wolf pelts” streamlined quest givers.
I don’t know if Lord of the Rings started it, but I like the seemingly new design choice to make the quests from quest-givers actually something with a plot, and incidentally along the way you can kill 10 bad guys and get a bonus. LotRO invested more in it (in that the “kill 50 dragonflies” were quests that hung around) but SWTOR seems to make them more thematic. For example, all of mine thus far have been to teach a lesson to the separatists as part of a larger campaign, so I kill 12 separatist scum whilst travelling between quest-giver and quest-Macguffin.
All the things you’d expect for a MMO to have is there: an extensive list of social actions, quick-fire slots for all your skills, hub cities with clusters of vendors, if you hover over an item it’ll tell you what you get by equipping it versus what you already have… There’s a fast travel taxi service between areas, and my character at least had a special “Quick travel” skill to zip between known areas. It’s all from Ye Mighty Checklist of Modern MMORPGs and it’s all done pretty competently. The UI is slick and help isn’t too hard to get. The codex entries are fairly detailed, but I never read them. There were some nifty surveys on quests to help them fine-tune the game. I grinned at a support request coming back to me via “Protocol Droid M0-T0 of Human-Cyborg relations”.
It’s all very well done. Maybe better done than WoW. But to me, it’s still just polishing that old tile. A lot of my time was spent creeping between pockets of bad guys, gradually nuking them with grenades, or finding the racing line between them to avoid aggro. All the bad guys exist to die, and you kinda have to wait your turn for them to respawn before you get your chance to kill them. It’s like an oversized fun park where you have to travel sizable, awkward distances to get anywhere, and all the rides are Skinner boxes. In this sense, SWTOR was not much different to the Star Wars MUD I played about a decade ago.
The writing here is much better than I’ve seen in other MMOs, but it’s not excellent as far as real writing goes. Most characters are introduced just to discard once the quest is complete. Despite their plight, there’s nothing to invest in here. I like that quest-givers are voiced and animated, and there are usually interesting camera angles on the action. But the animation in cutscenes is merely serviceable, and the vast majority of your interactions in the world are with very strict animation state machines (aka bad guys).
All-in-all I think SWTOR is a good take on the modern MMO formula, but with all the money and talent they threw at it, I’m a little disappointed that it’s a shinier version of more of the same. It’d be risky to do something new and there’s a lot of money on the line, but the gameplay has barely evolved since the mid-2000′s. I would love to see someone turn the formula inside out and produce something new. Regardless, I know a bunch of my friends will invest sizable chunks of their life to this game, but I don’t think I will. My mistress has and probably always will be Team Fortress 2, but if someone would do something significantly different from prettier, more fine-tuned Skinner boxes, I’d be into MMOs in a heartbeat.
So while Jawas with rocket launchers are hells cool, and I enjoyed my weekend as a female Han Solo, I think I’ll leave SWTOR to the millions and millions of people who will enjoy the heck out of this game.