04/11/2012

"Should I play SWTOR?" A review after ten months.

Recently, Rimecat asked in a comment why he should play Star Wars: The Old Republic. What makes it better than other MMOs on the market? That is a fair question to ask and a subject that I've been meaning to tackle for a while. While I personally think that it's a great game, and it obviously does some things better than other games, there are also things that it does worse. Whether you'll like the end result depends on where your priorities lie in an MMO.

So, without further ado: my review of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Since this is a fan blog, I'm obviously biased in favour of the game, but at least you can be assured that I know what I'm talking about in regards to all aspects of the game and that I'm not making a judgement based on having played the game for only two weeks right after release. It's also worth noting that this was written before the free to play conversion, which will obviously change some things, but it's probably safe to say that many core aspects of the game will stay the same at least for quite a while.

The Setting

It's not fantasy. This is a big deal for some people. I had a funny argument with a guild member's wife once where I tried to convince her to try the game, saying that in practice, a lot of its aspects were pretty "fantastical" anyway, i.e. use of the Force is essentially like magic. Her reply: "But it has space. I don't like space." Can't really argue with that, can you? You need to have at least some tolerance for sci-fi settings and spending time on drab-looking space stations.

Obviously, if you already like Star Wars, it should be easy to find something to love about this game, as it's very true to the setting in many ways.

Great if you: love Star Wars, or at least enjoy science fiction and fantasy in equal measure
Bad if you: think Star Wars is dumb or don't care for sci-fi settings in general

General Gameplay

In essence, gameplay in Star Wars: The Old Republic consists of two parts: combat and conversations.

The combat system is basically a clone of World of Warcraft's around the Burning Crusade era, with a liberal addition of jumps, pulls and knockback abilities. You more or less stand in place and push buttons to trigger abilities to kill your opponents. While melee combat is reasonably active, there are no "action combat" elements like dodging, blocking or more active targeting like they have been popular in other recent MMOs. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how twitchy you like your combat to be, and if you enjoy having several hotbars full of sometimes very situational abilities. The "holy trinity" of tanking, healing and damage is in effect.

What's also worth noting is that every single class effectively turns into a "pet" class at some point during the starting area, when you receive your first NPC companion. Later solo content is balanced around the idea that you'll always have a companion with you, though they are excluded from large group content. Having a helpful NPC with you at all times may or may not be your kind of thing, but since there are companions to fulfil all three trinity roles, this system opens up a variety of interesting gameplay possibilities, such as levelling as a healer with a dps companion by your side and actually practising your healing skills as you go.

Great if you: are happy with "classic" MMO combat, like having lots of different abilities to choose from, like levelling as a non-dps spec
Bad if you: want some action in your day-to-day gameplay, prefer working with a limited amount of abilities at any given time, hate pet classes

The conversation part of the game is mostly relevant while levelling. When you interact with NPCs to pick up missions and progress your personal story, it gets played out in fully voiced and animated cut scenes. You get to respond and interact with characters frequently, using the conversation wheel that Bioware popularised in its Mass Effect series of games. This creates a layer of immersion that makes even the most mundane "kill x monsters" quests feel important and worthwhile.

Great if you: like immersing yourself in the story, talking to NPCs, roleplaying
Bad if you: don't like reading or listening to quest text, don't care about what happens to some NPC that you'll never see again

Crafting

The profession system in SWTOR, which is called crew skills, can probably be summed up as "fairly generic but with a twist". At its heart, it copies the kind of system that has been popularised by WoW, where you simply gather some materials out in the world and then just push a button to craft your thing. It's not very involved.

The twist comes from the companion system, as it's not actually your character that does all the work - instead you send your companions out to do it for you. They can also gather raw materials that way, which effectively makes most materials available in unlimited supply, provided that you are willing to invest the time and money into making your companions do overtime. This is handy because it means that you can let one of your spare companions run errands for you while you continue doing something else in the game.

The other minor twist consists of the reverse engineering system, which lets you discover how to craft pieces of gear that you picked up in the past by taking them apart, and also allows you to learn how to improve on green or blue quality items that you already know how to make.

In its current state, the crew skills system is reasonably well balanced around the rest of the game, that is to say: it's easy to level your crafting alongside your character and create useful items as you go along. At max level all the skills have their benefits without anything being vastly overpowered.

Great if you: don't like going AFK while your character turns 300 pieces of ore into bars, enjoy crafting useful items for yourself and others
Bad if you: want crafting to be a mini-game of its own, desire complexity from professions

PvE Levelling

Even critics seem to agree that the PvE levelling is the best part of the game. The conversation system is something that hasn't been seen in any other MMO in this form. Eight unique class stories make it worthwhile to level alts, because the game feels very different depending on whether you go through life as a serious agent of the Empire, trying to hunt down its enemies in secret, or as a wisecracking smuggler who's always looking for treasure.

The vast majority of PvE levelling is tuned for solo play (including the entirety of each class story), but flashpoints and a plethora of optional group quests on each planet provide interesting group content for those who want it, without exerting pressure on the solo players.

The levelling game's only downside is that the heavy focus on story makes it all somewhat linear. Each level range is only covered by a single planet worth of PvE content, and all classes are expected to at least visit each planet once in turn, even if their motivations to do so (as provided by the class story) are completely different. The class story on its own also doesn't provide enough experience to level up, so you do need to pad your experience gains in some way by doing other content, which can get repetitive if you always find yourself doing the same side quests. However, since there are way more potential sources of experience than you actually need to level up (bonus quests, flashpoints etc.), you can mix things up by picking and choosing different ones on each character.

Great if you: enjoy smelling the roses while levelling, rolling many alts, like soloing or playing with a small group of friends
Bad if you: think that quests are an outdated mechanic, feel that the game only really starts at the level cap, dislike alts

PvE Endgame

Contrary to popular "wisdom", SWTOR does have a PvE endgame. It's mostly centred around group play however, which is somewhat in conflict with the heavy focus on solo content while levelling. (Then again, this is hardly a new problem for MMOs in general.) The solo player is pretty much limited to doing some dailies once he or she hits max level. You're kind of encouraged to roll alts instead.

For groups, there are eight small group flashpoints that have hard modes, and at the time of writing this, four raids which are split into three tiers of linear progression. The raids all come in a (comparatively) easy mode which you can do just to see the story, and at least one harder difficulty setting (sometimes there is also "nightmare") for the more progression-oriented players.

The raids are all very lovingly crafted and offer some fun mechanics, with the difficulty being very decidedly "middle of the road". Again, this can be a good or a bad thing. Story mode isn't like WoW's "raid finder", so if you're a very casual player who doesn't have time to raid in two or three hour chunks, you'll probably still find it too inaccessible. On the other hand, hardcore raiders that are used to chasing world or server firsts might end up finding even the hard modes way too easy for their liking, though Bioware has been working on making them more interesting and well... harder. Still, even on nightmare difficulty these aren't "wipe four hundred times before you win" kind of fights. The ones best served by this type of raid endgame are people who do have at least a few hours to invest into the game each week and are happy to play in an organised fashion, but don't want to stress about it too much.

Great if you: are the kind of player who dabbles in different aspects of the game and doesn't mind grouping up for hours at a time
Bad if you: primarily want to solo, consider yourself a top hardcore raider

PvP

The PvP in this game has turned out to be surprisingly popular, considering that it's not the main focus of the game at all. There are currently four warzones which provide an instantly accessible eight vs. eight PvP experience that is instanced and objective-based. They are very well designed, fun to play and offer a good mix of more traditional objectives and the slightly unusual, e.g. capturing and holding the turrets in Alderaan Civil War vs. Huttball.

As far as class balance is concerned, to quote Yahtzee: "cows go moo, dogs go woof, MMO players go 'the PvP is unbalanced'". My personal verdict would be that balance is "okay", and that's coming from someone whose main is of a class that currently even the forums agree on is comparatively weak in PvP.

The low-level warzones in particular offer a more balanced PvP experience than you'll find in most MMOs, as the bolstering system does a good job of equalising the levels from ten to forty-nine, and elegantly prevents issues such as newbies getting obliterated by twinks (since the latter can't really exist in this game). This makes doing warzones while levelling a very attractive way of padding your experience gains, even if you're a more casual player.

At max level, the system becomes a lot more gear-focused, and the best PvP gear in the game takes a long time to acquire. While Bioware has made efforts to reduce the power difference between newly dinged and established level fifty characters (you get a pretty decent set of starter PvP gear for free), it does remain somewhat of an issue. It can be very rewarding once you've worked your way to the top, but until then the randomness of having weakly geared characters face off against powerful War Heroes can be frustrating.

The weakest aspect of SWTOR's PvP however is simply that aside from warzones, there isn't much else to do. Ranked warzones exist for the hardcore, but they remain very niche and players attempting to participate often face long queues. World PvP exists only to a very limited extent unless there is some kind of world event going on. There also isn't any instanced PvP for group sizes other than eight.

Great if you: like casual PvP while levelling, don't mind a long gear grind at max level
Bad if you: want to fight players in another context than just running the same four warzones over and over

The Social Aspect

The levelling experience very much caters towards solo players that just want to do their thing, but there are mechanics in place to encourage grouping, such as increased experience gains while teamed up, and missions that require more than one player to complete. The "problem" is that all group content while levelling is optional, so people might level to fifty without ever talking to anyone and then complain that they are lonely. However, if you are willing to group up and talk to people, you'll find the content provided for small group play to be very rewarding.

As explained in the Endgame PvE section, at endgame, group content becomes the favoured way to progress your character, and the raids - while not amazingly difficult in story mode - are still designed with organised groups in mind.

It's worth noting that the game has no cross-server functionalities, and while the servers that remain after the merges mostly have a very large population, you'll still start to recognise some names if you play for a prolonged period of time. Paid server transfers aren't currently available, though Bioware is looking into this. As a result server community is quite strong if you care to get involved with it at all, and most players are fairly mature and friendly in game.

Great if you: play with a small number of friends, like being a member of a guild, don't mind talking to random strangers and befriending them
Bad if you: don't like talking to strangers, are highly annoyed by other players competing for mobs and resources

"Fluff"

Lastly, what else is there to do in the game when you're not doing PvE or PvP? This has generally become known as "fluff" in MMO blogging circles, and refers to things such as achievement systems, collectibles, vanity pets, player housing etc.

This is an area where SWTOR admittedly doesn't have a lot to offer. The two main alternative activities currently available are datacron hunting, which encourages exploration and the braving of jumping puzzles for tiny stat boosts, and the space game, which is a fairly simple on-rails shooter mini-game that becomes accessible once your character acquires their own ship.

The in-game codex is sort of similar to an achievement system, but less flashy. It doesn't give you a score or rewards for doing random things. While each player gets a personal spaceship, there aren't enough customisation options for them that you could seriously refer to them as a form of player housing. And while different vehicles and vanity pets do exist, there aren't exactly a whole lot of them (though this is an area that will get more attention with the free to play transition).

Great if you: don't care about achievements, don't like faffing around with mini-games
Bad if you: love any of the following and consider them a must-have feature in any MMO you play: achievements, player housing, mount and non-combat pet collecting, mini-games

In Summary

You should play SWTOR if you:
- like Star Wars or sci-fi settings in general
- enjoy traditional MMO combat
- like to take your sweet time progressing through an MMO and enjoy rolling alts
- enjoy getting immersed in the stories provided by NPCs and quests
- like to at least dabble in PvP and/or raiding
- don't really care much about "fluff"
- don't mind talking to other players, enjoy grouping up without being forced to

SWTOR probably isn't the right game for you if you:
- only really want to play fantasy MMOs
- are bored of hotkey combat without action elements
- think that a good MMO starts at endgame
- dislike questing and talking to NPCs
- consider yourself a "first-chasing" hardcore raider or PvP player
- are a big fan of sandbox elements and mini-games in MMOs
- don't want to interact with other players unless the game forces you to

Questions and comments are welcome, let me know if I forgot anything major!

18 comments:

  1. I think it's worth mentioning on the companions that they don't require attention during combat like many (most? all other?) MMO's pets. You _can_ control them, but you don't have to - they will fight or heal or whatever all on their own. So people who dislike pet classes solely because they don't want to control two characters in combat shouldn't be scared off.

    Also, between the various dialogue options and whether one aims for Light, Dark, or some mixture of the two, the class stories not only feel very different from one another but could feel different on a second play-through - some even have multiple possible endings. (As a side note, I find it incredibly fun to play Light Side Imperials. You get away with more than you logically should, of course, but that's kind of entertaining, too.)

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    1. Which other MMOs are you thinking of in regards to the pet classes? My main point of reference is WoW, and I don't recall ever having to do any more pet management there than I have to do in TOR.

      Good point about the class stories too, though I reckon that playing through the same class story multiple times is still a lot less attractive to most people than getting to see a completely new one.

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    2. Hm, perhaps it's just marginally better AI. One can completely leave companions to their own devices and it works out. I can recall some pretty wonky stuff happening on occasion in WoW (and also City of Heroes, if I remember right) if one didn't pay attention to one's pets. (Pets wandering off, strange chases that needed to be set to Yakkity Sax as the pet and some mob did circles around the area, tank pets not getting agro unless you sent them in first...)

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    3. Well, TOR's companions aren't completely immune to that either. I remember having a lot of fun with an elevator in Cademimu where my companion would regularly hurl himself off the platform and die while I waited for the lift. All I could think was: "WTF, Vector?" :D

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    4. Oh dear. Perhaps I've just been lucky so far!

      (They do seem to be at a complete loss as to what to do when one's Datacron hunting in some of the more interesting places, now that I think about it. Half the time they pace around below you looking up. Which actually works, but...)

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    5. Yeah, it's a good indication of being near a datacron when you find a seemingly lonely companion standing in a corner somewhere in the middle of nowhere and looking at the ceiling. :D

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  2. I think you should qualify your "hardcore raider". Imo, it covers too broad a group.

    I would say that if you are in the level of WoW guilds which beats all hardmode content early, and competes for world or server firsts (i.e. the Royalty guilds), then TOR raiding is probably too easy for you.

    But I think that anyone below that very top level will find TOR raiding to be pretty decent and have a bit of challenge.

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    1. Edited to clarify as I agree. Obviously it can be argued at which point people become "too hardcore" for the content, but I was thinking of the type who chase server firsts when I wrote this.

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  3. Well, I suppose I should comment...

    Congratulations on writing a neutral piece that avoids the fan-problem most reviews experience. You've managed to discuss SW:ToR as it is and not drag baggage from other games in to try and score points. Overall, I agree with you. Context for the below: I ran an SI to 50 and did the dailies until I was fully geared. Tried PvP and the instances. I also ran an SW to 49, a BH to 45, a JC to 42, and a JK to 3x. I did try to play it the way they seem to intend but I kept trying to find things to do with my SI that didn't involve joining a raiding guild.

    One major problem area I had with the game was the conversations system. First, it was massively annoying when doing dailies. After I've heard the dialog 10 times I never want to hear it again. Even spacing through it felt like a punishment. Do dailies in a group and you are subject to the slowest person.

    Second, many of the choices were anti-immersive for me. I come from an old-school role playing background (games like Ars Magica, Shadowrun, The Pool, or other pen and paper). I can tolerate WoW, Rift, and the like because they are combat sims wrapped in the blanket of a persistent world. SW:ToR advertised as RP, that you could decide your character's actions and your decisions mattered. Not really. Even before I hit 50 on the SI, and tried to understand why I (a member of the Dark Council) was taking lip from some functionary, I was looking for the option that didn't exist. Add in that it really doesn't matter what you decide; the story will continue as it will. The only thing that changes is your Light/Dark accounting.

    I also think that you are underestimating the mental whiplash that those of us who solo or work in a small group feel at 50. You go from not really needing to see anyone else, at least if you are a Tank with healer companion/groupmate, to needing to do everything in an increasingly large group. That is indeed the old style MMO but it really hasn't been true for other games for years.

    I think I'd simplify the negative summary to: If you like solo/small group content and do not want to run alts this isn't the game for you.

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    1. Glad you came back to read it!

      I agree that having long conversations for dailies isn't ideal, but Bioware seems to be moving away from that with the newer ones anyway. That said, having some repeatable quests with conversations is handy from a "gamey" point of view, to increase companion affection and social points while playing with friends.

      The "meaningful choices" argument seems to be a matter of taste. There are definitely points where your choices do affect the outcome of the story (Imperial agent being a much-cited example), but you're right that many events are inevitable. Personally I don't have a problem with that because I don't expect to be able to always have my way, not even while roleplaying. Might be due to being introduced to P&P RPGs via some very harsh DM-ing. :P

      Anyway, thanks for the comment!

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    2. I'll grant that there are gamist reasons to have the conversations but as someone who was drowning in gifts I never saw much point to it. Once I'd realized how that system worked my characters all took that profession, which I can't remember, until the companions hit max affection.

      So you're a bad DM survivor? I've been in some games where the DM thought that the campaign was on rails. I don't think I ever lasted more than a session. In a real game you do have choices as a player, even if those choices are bad. In an MMO, and this one is no different, you really don't. The game is on rails and you are along for the ride. There may be some eye candy (dark or light aligned companion) but that's about it. Given that I can't really impact the story I discovered that I'd rather not be bothered with the illusion of choice.

      I've actually been here all along. I've wanted to like SW:ToR since we were having debates on the forums on how group content would work in a classless game, as everyone expected that there would be no trinity in ToR. I just wish I could connect with it, but in the end it was just another WoW clone with less to do at level cap. It is nice to read someone who does enjoy the experience, if I can't get there.

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  4. Thanks for the review Shintar, half-inspires me to go back to SW:TOR once it's F2P and play through a class story. I generally like Bioware games and I reckon I would enjoy just playing 1 or 2 class stories to max. Once I get done with Halo 4, GW2, MoP, and a million other things....!

    As for bad-DMs, I don't know that I agree that a DM on rails is a bad DM, or that a "harsh" DM is necessarily a problem. Back in the day I mainly DMed rather than played, and there were definitely occasions when playing Call of Cthulu that I "forced" the rails on the players. I used loads sof pre-prepared materials, hand-written clue-scrolls soaked in tea and left to dry on a radiator, all sorts of props and sound effects, e.g. the time I made the group role-play their way out of a building with the power out and made them wear blindfolds whilst describing what they were doing with a CD of horror-movie sound effects playing at crucial moments to unsettle them.

    I mean, technically, they would have been within their rights to say "We want to RP that it's the end of the world anyway, so we go to the beach and spend our last hours drinking mojitos" but as far as I was concerned, I was going to think up any mechanism I could to *force* them into the building in spite of all the dank seawater inexplicably puddled in the hallway!

    I think as long as the players and the DM both understand whether they are [1] going into a scripted scenario where they are to some extent constrained (and will get a stern ticking off if they decide to role-play going to the pub instead), or [2] settling down for a totally free-form RP session where anything goes, either approach can work. But if the DM is from school [1] and the players from school [2] there will be trouble, but that's a failure of communication at the outset, not a failure of the DM.

    Hmmm... even writing about my Cthulu DM days makes me want to play that game again!

    /Boxerdogs

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    1. Well, I've always viewed P&P roleplaying as an exercise in group storytelling, with the DM being the one who has the final word. And I have no problem accepting Bioware as my substitute GM. ;)

      Also, most of my worst P&P moments have been down to players saying "but this is what I want to do" and then doing something stupid that ruined the game for everyone else. If I want complete control of my character's actions, I can always write.

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    2. There is a difference between a campaign on rails and a structured campaign. Like you I spent (and spend) most of my game time as a GM. In that role I develop the world, the scenario structure, and the plot devices. What I don't do is tell the players that, "Your character does not want to discipline the insolent non-entity who just insulted you. Are you going to praise him or ignore him?" That is the level of choice I have in an MMO.

      The most interesting games I've run all had moments where the players either did something I didn't expect and had to improvise through or they did something profoundly dumb and they had to deal with the consequences. Do I try to get them to follow the structure? Sure, but I don't tell them that your character decides to do X because that's what my plot says.

      As you said, you were going to think up tricks to get them to go the way you wanted. That's a structured approach and not putting them on rails. Consider:

      Player: "I'm going to go to the beach and party."
      GM: "No, you are going into the old factory."

      vs.

      GM: "The bus to the beach screeches to a stop. The driver leans on the horn and yells an impressive collection of profanities at a man who ran across the road. He looks back at the driver, a stare you've only seen on the worst of the cultists. The driver shrinks back and starts throwing things at the man, including the keys to the bus. The pedestrian has grabbed the keys and vanished through the door of a building that looks like it hasn't been used since the war. It seems you aren't going anywhere until the keys are returned. What do you do?"

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  5. Well done, Shintar.

    /applause

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  6. To be honest I am not impressed with Swtor endgame but I think you already knew that ;)

    There's an obvious experimentation of sort going on and it's hurting. Either it's a bit too easy, or too hard and then the progression from normal fp to hardmode fp to operations has a few weird jumps.

    Likewise, the heavy emphasis on grinding commendation is hurting for guilds like Snark Side where people have limited time outside of raids.

    At points, Swtor endgame has been very frustrating because of the hapazard progression. They seem to want to fix it but I'm a bit dubious.

    Anyway, that was a nice post and I hope you'll forgive this grumbly blogger.

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    1. I agree that there were some awkward difficulty jumps in the past (hello there, EC normal on release), but they were never as big a problem to me as they seem to have been to you. /shrug. That said, Bioware has worked on smoothing out the difficulty curve since then.

      I don't think story modes require much of a grind at all (leaving aside previous weird difficulty jumps as mentioned above), and I don't see what's wrong with making people work a bit for their hard mode progression?

      Anyway, thanks for the comment!

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  7. SWTOR has grown to address a few of the issues above and a Winter 2013 Game build review update would be great. There is a big update being done soon and new planets and worlds.

    A few missed points.
    1. Early on you realize to advance you must team with groups and guilds or you will be stuck at low levels. I suggest starting with a throw away character to learn and then start fresh once you know your way around.
    2. Customizing weapons and Companion Pets are very interesting and they can use guns or light sabers too and now they have COMIC-CON like eye candy and large space ships.
    3. You left out based on your answers and decisions you can favor the dark side and light side and that effects outcome over time.

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