I've been following blog posts about people's first impressions of SWTOR with interest, and as was to be expected, there are both features that people love and things that they hate. That's fine. However, there's one little argument that I see coming up every now and then that bugs me because I feel that it's truly based on nothing. The latest instance of this was in this post by Tobold, and even though several of his commenters already spoke up about it, I'd still like to dedicate a whole post to the subject regardless.
"SWTOR is just a big single-player RPG."
I'm not sure who originally coined this phrase, and to be fair, to a certain degree it's a fair assumption to make. The game was always advertised as being a lot like Bioware's single-player games, and if you've ever played any of those you're likely to think of features such as having personal conversations with NPCs and companions that follow you around because you're going to save the world together... surely that can't work well with other people around?
Well, yes and no. It is a bit weird that every trooper in the game potentially has the same cat-man following them around as I do. However, it's something that's easy enough to ignore, as it's not as if you get to listen in on everyone's private NPC conversations, and over time, people acquire a variety of companions that they can dress up in different outfits, so after a while they tend to look different enough that you hardly notice the similarities anymore. Not to mention that from a roleplaying point of view, different companions do kind of evolve into different people depending on how you treat them. My boyfriend's little helper may be called Aric too, but while his is a very happy fellow because my boyfriend's trooper does a lot of things he agrees with, mine is rather grouchy because he doesn't approve of the way I sometimes sass my superiors.
Talking to NPC quest givers in a group was also solved in a (in my opinion) very elegant manner - when I first saw this in action in a gameplay preview video, that was the tipping point that got me from "completely uninterested in SWTOR" to "I might just have to check this out". You basically pick what you want to say, dice are rolled, and whoever wins gets to speak and decide the outcome. If you are really concerned about possibly being subject to someone else's decisions, you can always chat with the NPCs separately, but personally I wouldn't want to because it's just so much more fun in a group. It tends to shine an interesting light on your fellow players' characters, as whether they decide to save or kill some innocent bystanders says a lot more about them than a 3000-word character biography ever would, and if people disagree with a decision it's always a good conversation starter. ("I can't believe you killed those engineers, you jerk! We're not in that much of a hurry!") You also earn a currency called social points, which is only good for some cosmetic rewards as far as I'm aware, but adds another layer of friendly competition to wanting to win conversation rolls.
Anyway, so far I've only detailed how two of the things that you would consider strictly single-player features aren't all that at odds with grouping, but more importantly, voiced NPC conversations and personal companions simply aren't all there is to the game!
There are optional group quests that are actually challenging in pretty much every sub-zone, and they can be repeated on a daily basis, so if another friend needs help with them the next day, you can help out and get rewarded again. (Keep in mind that this is different from daily quests, which are designed to make you repeat them.) Today my boyfriend and I were playing through one such area which had some pretty tough mobs in it and required some fighting back and forth, so when he spotted another group of players working their way towards us, he exclaimed: "Thank god, other players!" I laughed and asked him whether he could remember the last time he felt like saying that in a multi-player game.
Likewise, the flashpoints (instances) are very fun too, both due to the challenge and due to the group conversations. Conveniently, they all start with a shuttle from the fleet, which allows players to naturally congregate and form groups there for pretty much anything.
There are world raid bosses available across all levels. Our guild wanted to kill one of them last night but unfortunately for us he had already been taken down.
Also, I don't know how this will play out at higher levels, but at least during the lower half of the levelling game so far I've noticed that even though the game embraces the holy trinity, it's quite easy to plug holes in your group with an appropriate companion, as long as people play intelligently and are willing to compensate a little for the not-so-clever AI, so you can mostly work with whatever you have without having to worry too much about grouping with the "right" people.
Other than merely being fun, grouping also provides experience bonuses, and since most mobs actually put up a decent fight, forming a party makes things both more efficient and safer for your characters. At the same time the levelling speed seems close to Vanilla WoW to me, which means that you don't have to worry too much about outlevelling your friends by accident if you do anything at all without them, which gives both of you more freedom while still allowing you to play together continuously.
In conclusion, can you play SWTOR to the level cap completely on your own? Yes, but that's hardly news, is it? I believe that there was some outrage about this when WoW first did it in 2004, but this is 2011. The more important point is that there is still plenty of group content, and even the things that can be soloed are generally more fun to do with company (something that I don't find to be as true in current WoW anymore, for example). I don't know about you, but to me that's not un-MMO-like... in fact, it's exactly what I think a good MMO should be like. However, even if you don't agree, I would think that at the very least this kind of setup is anything but unusual and strange.