Star Wars: The Old Republic finally opens its virtual doors to everyone this week. I've already made my way through the first ten levels of gameplay as a Jedi Consular, though, for some early impressions. Given the pedigree of the developer, muscle of the publisher, and a stupendous IP, The Old Republic might be the first MMO that stands a chance of being truly competitive with World of Warcraft. It's far too early to give anything resembling a final verdict on such a massive game, but my initial experiences with it yielded some positive surprises.
Character creation and customization options are good, but with a universe as rich and well-known as Star Wars, some folks are bound to be a little disappointed when they can't play as that Jedi Wookie they always dreamed of. For my Republic-allied Jedi Consular I chose the Miraluka race, an eyeless, humanoid people that see using the Force.
Beginning his journey as a Padawan, armed with little more than a training saber and a few Force powers, I had my character Bukowski explore Tython, one of the Alliance Jedi training grounds. Though home to several friendly encampments and the Jedi Temple, the planet's wilderness was infested with a violent race of creatures known as the Flesh Raiders. Bukowski became tasked with finding the source of the Raider's hostility, clearly agitated by an outside entity.
The degree to which SWTOR's implementation of fully-voiced in-game cinematics for every quest improves player engagement cannot be overstated. The game's cinematic treatment of dialog sequences--complete with light and dark-side dialog choices--add a significant level of immersion, dramatic tension, and emotion that would have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve had the story been told through traditional walls of text. I actually cared about many of the NPCs I met--a first for me in a massively-multiplayer title--due in no small part to some great voice acting. I suspect a significant number of WoW players might have a hard time going back to the text-based missions in Azeroth.
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Perhaps the one down-side of conversations is that dialog choices will visually telegraph whether or not they're "light" or "dark" in nature, as in the Mass Effect series. I appreciate that some players just can't abide making the "wrong" dialog choices, but effectively telling the player what selection to choose seems to undercut some of the role-playing aspect. At least interested players can turn off these light-side and dark-side hints, should they so choose.
Groups also accommodate the cinematic conversation bits. During general story quests, each player in the group is given the opportunity to choose dialog responses, and then the game determines which of those players' avatars actually gets to respond during the cinematic. It works quite well, and adds another interesting layer of engagement to cooperative questing. Class-specific missions, on the other hand, can still be played in groups; however, the quest owner is the sole driver of the dialog in these instances, with the other players taking on spectator roles.
Furthermore, quests that are labeled "Heroic" are really best played in a group, and--even fairly early-on--there are also optional quests where grouping is a requirement.
The mechanics of questing and combat aren't markedly different from other successful MMOs, and long-time World of Warcraft players will feel mostly at home with the interface and options. Those less familiar, however, will find a bit of a learning curve. Massively-multiplayer online RPGs aren't typically known for their hand-holding with regard to features and functionality, and SWTOR isn't much different, though there are brief instructions that pop up whenever a new interface option is used.
On the battlefield, Star Wars: The Old Republic is also one of the best looking MMOs I've seen. Mechanically, it's still a matter of simply targeting an enemy and using a thoughtful combination of abilities from the character's toolbar, but the battles are pretty flashy, and a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Jedi will deflect blaster shots and incoming melee attacks while gracefully slicing and dicing with their lightsabre. One of the first powers my Consular achieved allowed him to telekinetically rip objects and debris from the ground and send them hurtling toward his targets. When grouping with other players (a very easy process, in practice), battles are even more visually varied and fun to participate in.
A minor (but perhaps expected) downside is that even during the first 10 levels of gameplay, I noticed a few examples of modular level design, wherein a certain section of a caves or other interior mission areas are reused across different quests. It's a minor quibble, and didn't really significantly detract from my enjoyment, but is worth noting.
Companion characters are also introduced early-on. My Consular's first companion was earned through main-story progress, and was story-specific. However, players soon get some say into who their traveling companion will be. Accruing the right crafting skills, for example, would later allow me to fashion my very own droid companion. Furthermore, companions can be trained to go out on a number of different mission-types on their own to find special items and resources, from diplomatic assignments to archaeological digs. I've barely scratched the surface, in this regard.
There's only one other point of concern about my the early-goings in SWTOR that's worth mentioning. So far, I've only ever had to queue about 10 minutes or so to get onto my server, but at certain times of the day I've seen a number of servers with 30+ minute queue times, and even some that ask players to wait over an hour to login. Keep in mind, these are early-access server populations. I can only imagine that BioWare is planning to roll out another batch of fresh servers for the game's official public launch.
All in all, I'm fairly shocked at how much I'm enjoying my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic, especially because I'm not typically much of a MMO player. I'm still early enough in the game where I haven't been able to dabble in major things like space combat or PvP, but based on my early experience, I'm very much looking forward to doing so.