Star Wars: The Old Republic extended impressions

I've still got seemingly countless hours to go before I save the galaxy in the name of the Republic. Now that my Jedi Shadow Bukowski has reached level twenty-three in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I've been able to spend some time delving into things like crafting, assigning points to my skills, and have even participated in some epic-looking space combat in my new personal starship. With a few caveats, these additional systems and gameplay mechanics have continued to add welcome layers to the MMO that is engaging me in a way that few others have before. focalbox My first impressions of the game chronicled Bukowski's rise from Padawan to Jedi Consular, gaining a companion character, and building his first lightsaber. Since that time, I've taken to the stars in my own personal ship to participate in both combat and escort mission, adopted the Jedi Shadow progression path (instead of Jedi Sage), dabbled in crafting a bit more, and upgraded to a double-bladed lightsaber. Each character type in Star Wars: The Old Republic must choose one of two class specializations upon reaching level ten. For example, as a Consular, I was able to choose Jedi Sage, a healing-based class, or the Jedi Shadow, a stealth-based combat class. The double-bladed lightsaber, relegated to the Shadow class only, ultimately made my decision for me. However, a close inspection of the overwhelming skill tree revealed that I could focus on building out skills in Infiltration--stealth-based abilities--combat, balance, or a combination of all three. The available skill trees are quite large, and deciding which skills to focus on can be a bit daunting. With each level achieved, I'm able to add a single point to an available skill of my choosing, but I've been pretty happy just picking skills that sound the most useful at a given moment. Despite agonizing a bit about each point assigned, I don't yet regret any of my choices. I was on Coruscant, about level fifteen when I completed the necessary class-specific quest to unlock my brand new spaceship. The moment when I first entered the hanger and saw it parked there--gangplank invitingly deployed--I got a little giddy. Allowing every player to unlock their own personal spacecraft is really a stroke of genius, one that speaks directly to a common fantasy of long-time Star Wars fans. As I entered the ship, I was also pleasantly surprised to note that it consisted of several rooms, and included both a holo-terminal and an on-board computer from which new missions could be obtained. The space-based combat missions themselves are a currently a bit of a mixed bag for me. I've only played a few so far, in a couple of different varieties: escort and assault. Presentationally, space combat is excellent. The violent ballet of fighters and capital ships is visually stunning, and the scenarios are all punctuated with the trademark laser blasts and epic score that really bring the early films to mind. Given how great the space battles look and sound, it was a bit disappointing to find that each of the missions I played was an on-rails experience for only one participant. Making my way through these battles was extraordinarily simple, provided that I'd outfitted my ship with the the appropriate degree of upgrades, much like companion characters. With movement relegated to the mouse, and a left-button/right-button laser/missile combo, early battles are a cakewalk, and a good way to rack up some easy experience points. Just don't expect anything close to the sim-like complexity of X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. The simplicity of space combat aside, BioWare has already revealed that it's got big plans to expand this aspect of the game with things like Guild-controlled capital ships. It's probably not unreasonable to hope that PvP space combat makes it into the mix somewhere down the road. After I'd had a sufficient dose of space combat, I had Bukowski take the ship's helm and fly it to the planet of Taris. I grinned ear to ear as I watched through the forward view port of my ship and witnessed the ensuing jump to hyperspace, followed by my destination planet coming into view. Once a galactic nexus of trade, the planet had since seen economic decline and a civil war. Ostensibly a two-layer city reclaimed by nature (with the poor living below the rich), the planet's denizens struggle to rebuild Taris back to prominence in the Republic, while fending off a scourge of Rakghouls, the Sith-spawned mutants that also appeared in Knights of the Old Republic. The story-driven quests surrounding the Rakghoul plague remained engaging throughout, though I was ready to move on to Nar Shaddaa by the time Bukowski had reached level 22 or so.

Welcome to downtown Nar Shaddaa.

The bustling metropolis of Nar Shaddaa stood out from the other planets I'd explored to that point, giving off a seedy Las Vegas vibe with its towering skyscrapers and garish neon signage. A more eclectic array of alien races are on display in the bounty hunter/smuggler's paradise, and urban touches like different types planters from which holographic trees sprung really add a lot to the atmosphere. Perhaps the one downside to Nar Shaddaa is that the map layouts seem a bit more labyrinthine, and therefore a bit more frustrating to navigate. Another aspect of The Old Republic that I've spent a bit more time with is the game's companion-based crafting system. Up to three related abilities can be trained, and are shared with all companions. Jedi Shadow Bukowski first teamed up with warrior-ally Quyzen Fess, but also received a protocol droid companion shortly before obtaining his ship. He mostly stays in the ship, because, in the words of C-3PO, "Nobody worries about upsetting a droid." Crafting skills fall into three categories, and players can select one from each category at a time. My current choices--Artifice, Archaeology, and Diplomacy--allow me to send my companions off to hunt for crafting materials, manufacture lightsaber upgrades, or retrieve gifts that can be given to companions to improve their opinions of you. Crafting is a neat idea, but is a lot easier to pursue consistently while adventuring in groups. When soloing, my character often needs his companion to run interference in combat--something that he can't do if he's off hunting for a new power crystal. The upshot for me was that utilizing my companions' skills often had to wait until I knew I'd be safe from combat for a while. Grouping up makes companions less necessary, so they can more easily be sent off to do your bidding. One minor issue I discovered is that some combinations of equipped items can create annoying visual glitches. You'll notice that in some of the screenshots included in this article featuring Jedi Shadow Bukowski that his hair clips through the top of his hooded robe. This visual issue was caused when I equipped a stat-boosting helm that I'd found, which apparently doesn't play nice with the robe I'd equipped. Bukowski has since moved on to statistically superior (though visually sillier) attire, but I played several hours in my glitchy hair-robe before then. The journey of Jedi Shadow Bukowski is far from over. Stay tuned for more mid-game impressions from Star Wars: The Old Republic, coming soon. After Nar Shaddaa, it's off to the planetary dustbowl of Tatooine. If there are Sarlacc pits to be found, I'm sure I'll manage to fall into one.