Star Wars: The Old Republic Previews

With a partial embargo lift earlier today, it comes as no surprise that several more beta-based previews of BioWare Austin's Star Wars: The Old Republic have reached the Internet. Surprisingly, though, not all of them are very favorable.

So far, the standard Alderaan Warfront match plays out with each faction grabbing a side turret quickly, and the center turret remains under contention until one team overpowers the other. Taking back an enemy turret is no simple task -- when a team owns a turret, a speeder bike appears in that team's spawn-point that will take them almost directly to the turret controls, making it easy to return to defend from death. However, getting between points while alive is more difficult. The center turret is blocked on almost all sides by a wall. Players in the center can easily jump over the wall to defend a side turret, but the side turrets have a longer and more vulnerable path. An underground path that travels beneath the center turret connects the two side turrets, but there is still a large distance to travel.

Although the paths between turrets are interesting and there are elements of rough and tactically-exploitable terrain in the open spaces on either sides, the areas around the control panels -- where everyone rushes to fight -- are generally wide open and don't allow for much in the way of clever positioning or sneak-attacks. The similarities between all the turrets also mean that each turret can be assaulted in a really similar fashion. As far as capture-point maps go, it's very simplistic. This puts more emphasis on the combat more than the tactics. I'm not very good at PvP combat, so Alderaan didn't appeal to me very strongly. That said, I recognize that this Warzone could become very competitive.

What's bugged me about SWTOR since I first played it and continued to bug me during the Origin World beta was the overall look of the game and the carbon-copy World of Warcraft core gameplay. After watching the aforementioned eye-popping CGI opening, the barebones visual style of the actual game is a huge letdown. And we've said it before but it bears repeating: SWTOR is WoW with lightsabers. Fetch quests, kill 10 of these quests, more fetch quests, and more kill 10 of these quests. If you're not a fan of that old-school MMO formula, SWTOR might not be for you.

However, as my playthrough with the Origin World beta proved, when you actually get to create your own character and immerse yourself into the well-written, dialogue-packed storyline, SWTOR's shortcomings are easily overlooked. Bottom line: I'm really enjoying my time with SWTOR.

Much later, I was joined by a companion character in a final assault on a rebel base. While I fought, I encountered a number of players with exactly the same companion. I guess the ability to have companions in an MMO means conceding something in the way of realism, but I seem to remember Cataclysm handling this a bit better. If BioWare Austin wants lessons on instancing, they should really look to Blizzard.

Star Wars: The Old Republic's biggest problem though is that there's no hook. After playing all the way through Ord Mantell, I saw nothing that made me think, "Wow, I want to play this to its conclusion." I didn't care about my character--she was just chick who was dumb enough to get her ship stolen. If it were a demo, I would delete it and never think twice.

The Escapist:
Each character also experiences the game from a unique perspective. Though you're running through the same areas, fighting the same sorts of enemies, the Smuggler's experience of the civil war is very different from the Trooper's. The Smuggler's story kicks off when his ship is stolen, so all his interactions with Republic officials, refugees and Separatists revolve around trying to get the ship back and taking revenge on the person who stole it. The Trooper is very different. He or she has been sent to the planet to help put down the Separatists and experiences the content through a different lens.

What makes it work is that BioWare explores the drama through the stories of individuals and relates it all to your character's motivations. For instance, at one point my smuggler was sent to rescue a boy who had been taken captive by the Separatists and, while the plot details are interesting by themselves, I was even more impressed by all that the mission accomplishes. First, it advances the overall narrative of the war between the Separatists and the Republic. Second, it tells you what the Separatists are all about. Finally, it allows your character to respond to the situation in a way that expresses your own values. Do you help the kid? Do you force him to do what you think is the right thing? Do you even tell his parents he's alive? There are lots of examples of this in each character's story, from deciding whether or not to expose a pair of Jedi lovers, or pondering whether to destroy a shipment of weapons or hand them over to a group of threatened people.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let's talk about the Trooper's basic play style for a moment. On a basic level, the Trooper uses an ammo resource system where each ability uses a certain amount of ammunition (except for your first ability, which can be spammed) and you'll have access to a wide gamut of blaster shots and ordnance, ranging from rifle-fired rockets to sticky bombs, to riddling your enemies in a barrage of fully automatic fire. Ammo can be reloaded in combat using a certain ability, but the ability is on a lengthy cooldown so it isn't meant to be used willy-nilly. Otherwise, ammo regenerates in combat on its own.

Later, (as in level 10) the Trooper can choose between the Vanguard and Commando Advanced Classes, which open up entirely new avenues of gameplay options. Both Advanced Classes can specialize in damage-based roles, but between the two, only the Vanguard can fulfill the tank role and only the Commando can play the medic. In a DPS role, the Vanguard sticks to medium to close range (including melee) abilities and makes use of a blaster rifle. The Commando, on the other hand, walks around with a gigantic sort of blaster minigun. I'm personally interested in the Vanguard, but I took some inspiration from Brick of Reilly's Rangers in Fallout 3 and thought the idea of a chick wielding a giant minigun sounded cool so I went with the Commando.

Combat in the game boils down to hitting numbers on your keyboard or clicking icons on a tool bar, watching the animation play out, and then triggering the next ability. It's the same gameplay that MMOs have been copying for years, but for once I was actually having fun doing it. At least in the case of my damage-per-second Jedi Shadow/Consular, it was incredibly satisfying to unleash a devastating combo on tough enemies. Start combat out by using the Project ability to throw debris at the enemy -- stunning him. Follow that up with Telekinetic Throw, which pins them under a volley of gravel. If they recover from that quickly, unleash Stasis Field to stun them and follow it up with Project again. After Stasis or Project, run behind the enemy to unleash the Shadow's backstab ability (Shadow Strike). Rinse, repeat, and have a blast.

Each of the questlines in TOR is fully voiced, meaning I actually sat through and watched cut-scenes and went through dialog tree conversations with quest givers. The days of clicking "accept" on the quest without reading or bothering to find out what it actually involves are gone. The writing in these scenes isn't quite to the level we've come to expect in other Bioware games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but it's far more engaging than the text-driven alternative. This means you'll spend a fair amount of time watching scenes play out because there are a lot of quests.

Ten Ton Hammer:
The Jedi knight is a brawler; most of your combat will involve leaping into the fray and performing a deadly array of very pretty lightsabre attacks whether as the Guardian or Sentinel. Even though you will have a full action bar of sabre twirling abilities early on in the game I would have liked to have see some more force attacks to break up the swordplay if just for a second. I understand that this is a melee class but (force push) seems like it was a fairly standard part of any Jedi's repertoire in either the movies or previous games.

Companions have been a much hyped aspect of the game and they definitely deliver in many ways. First of all, I was extremely surprised by the amount of damage my little T7-01 unit was able to dish out. The first time I had him out in the field our body count was about equal, a hit to my self-esteem to say the least. He has many useful abilities that complement the Jedi Knights play style very well. The one I had a problem with, and ended up turning off a lot, was the grappling hook ability which pulls the enemy to T7-01. The problem I had was that every time I would force leap onto a bad guy my trusty companion would immediately pull that enemy away, forcing me to target the next guy who hasn't been knocked senseless from my force leap. Kira Carsen I felt had the better skill set for my style of play. Namely; quickly leaping from group to group, stunning enemies and mowing them down with sabres. In the short time I spent with my companions I didn't really find myself feeling the sense of attachment that I had in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. This may be due to the fact that this was all pre-ship material and I can see things getting cozier once everyone's together aboard the Defender Class Corvette.

Games Radar:
In The Old Republic, the same care that goes into the first few levels of a typical MMO goes into every mission we encountered, from the early, plot-specific missions to the random missions picked up by strangers standing on the side of the road. We found ourselves not just not skipping the dialog, but enjoying it, and searching it out.

Hearing actors explain the context of the mission makes it more important to us, and being given the occasional branching dialog options (that can reward players with positive or negative morality) had us feel as though we were honestly, truly involved, as we do in singleplayer RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic.

And RPGFan:
The most important thing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic got right was that it felt like Star Wars. Lightsaber battles. Music to match. Getting to actually say things like "Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy." The game remains a masterpiece because it captures so much of the spirit of Star Wars.

There are moments where that happens in the MMO. Sometimes the dialogue hits perfect notes. Sometimes the choices you have to make invoke classic Star Wars themes. And sometimes, just sometimes, the action feels just right. There was a moment when performing a certain quest where I approached a group of three flesh raiders with my Jedi Consular. Taking them all head on might have been a difficult fight, but instead I force lifted one of them to immobilize him, immediately followed up by force pushing the second one, and then used the force a third time to hurl a boulder at the last one. That felt like Star Wars.