About 12 years ago, I was an EverQuest fanatic. EverQuest was one of the first generation of its kind: a big-budget, graphics-intensive, Massively Multiplayer, Online, and (theoretically) Role-playing Game. Its precursors were the text-based Multi-Use Dungeons, which had been around since the 80s with much the same mechanics but no graphics to speak of.
I played EQ obsessively for three years. When I finally quit, I was burned out on the leveling-game genre: kill monsters so you can get xp so you can gain levels so you can kill bigger monsters so you can gain more xp so you can gain more levels GOTO 10.
Lut has remained a big fan of the genre, and so I've tried a number of MMORPGs since then. City of Heroes grabbed me for several years, mostly in spite of being a levelling game rather than because of it. I burned out on City of Heroes last year, but kept my subscription through this year and have continued to play once or twice a month with terrycloth. I still think CoH is a great game, with features unmatched by any MMO before or since. (It's not you, CoH, it's me.) But most of my friends have stopped playing and the game doesn't engage me anymore.
In November, Lut joined the beta for Star War: The Old Republic for a couple of weekends. Largely on the strength of watching him play it, I decided to buy it. terrycloth, Lut and I preordered it a week or two ago, and we started playing in the early-access period on Thursday and Friday.
What I Like
Typical MMO quests/missions/adventures/whatever start something like this:
* Click on NPC marked as "quest giver"
* Read a block of text describing what the quest involves and why the NPC wants you to do it
* Click on "accept" or "decline"
In SWTOR, getting a quest involves an actual conversation. With spoken dialogue (and subtitles). And shifting camera angles. Facial expressions! And choices of what your avatar will say.
Granted, your conversational options are limited and sometimes badly described. (Description: "I hope I'm not wasting my time." Actual speech: "If this is a waste of my time, I'LL MAKE YOU PAY!" o.O ) You get at most three options, and the conversations go much the same direction regardless of what you say. The main game-mechanical impact of your choices is getting you light-side or dark-side points. Most choices give you neither, but occasionally you get a moral choice to make -- kill this guy or spare him, help these people or rob them, etc. -- and depending on how you make it, your character moves towards light or dark. Later in the game, this will effect what equipment you can use.
Sometimes the moral choices make you go o.O. One quest has a choice between "poison these slaves quickly" (light side) or "poison them slowly and painfully (dark side). Lut and I rather felt this should be "dark side" and "even more dark side". Another quest offered "give this medicine you rescued from the bad guys back to the Republic soldiers who owned and need it (dark side) or to these refugees who stole it and also need it (light side)". Which both seemed like reasonable good-guy options to me.
But even so, I find the storylines and the use of machinama scenes and voice acting engaging and entertaining. This is the reason I got the game. It may not be quite up to the quality of, say, Mass Effect 2, but it's pretty impressive given the breadth and scope of the game.
Class Story Arcs
Each class has its own story arc, of which that character is the star.
koogrr once said that the pinnacle of WoW character development was to become one of the elite units in Warcraft 3. "Not one of the heroes. You'll never be a hero. At best, at the very top of your game, you'll be a valuable unit." SWTOR does not make you feel like a walk-on part in the star NPC's story. It puts you on center stage. This is good for player morale, and bad for universe versimilitude. The game feels less like an MMO than like a four-player game to me. My smuggler groups with [Bad username: lt.warhound]'s Republic trooper and terrycloth's Jedi counseler, and we ignore the rest of the players because if you have more than one of each class, the class stories don't make sense. In fact, you can watch and help other players with their class quests -- unless it's the same as your own. "Only one member of this class per instance". Because the conceit is that you're the only one to retrieve this unique artifact, the only one whose starship was stolen by this crook, the only padawan of this jedi master, etc. There's only one Luke Skywalker rescuing only one Princess Leia, and you're him.
I think this was a good choice on the developers' part, but it does feel a little like surrender. The difference between an MMO and a four-player game that lets you auction items to the entire userbase is, it turns out, pretty negligible. The dream of a virtual world populated by real humans who will roleplay with each other remains unrealized in the genre. (Go try a MUCK or Second Life for that.)
Regardless, the class-based story arcs are pretty interesting and fun. This is the first game where I may play all the classes just to see all of the stories -- although I can see a large fraction of the other stories by grouping with characters of the other classes.
The Little Things
Most MMOs these days have an internal email system. You check your mail box and can pick up messages, items, and credits from other PCs.
SWTOR has this too. Except that you can also get email from the NPCs. That NPC you helped escape might send you a thank-you note. Or a gift. Or a warning.
It's a little thing, but it's another way of giving you the sense that what you did mattered, that the world is different and your life is different because of your choices.
The Star Wars theme is captured well, without actually using characters or storylines from the movies. The use of music and the hokey yet beloved scrolling yellow prologue text are good touches. The jedi have that same sense of being the good guys and yet their code isn't as pure and sensible as one might hope. I am not a big SW fan, in fact, but I find it very well done.
What I Don't Like
You have to set your keybinds and preferences for each character, which is not uncommon to MMOs yet still annoying. More annoying is that the game forgets your preferences occasionally -- if you don't want to use the "cover bar", you need to turn it off every time you log in and occasionally in the middle of a session. I eventually resigned myself to using it.
The autofollow command, which is seldom very good in an MMO, is completely useless in SWTOR. It cannot follow a character moving in a straight line on level ground for fifty yards. It's that bad.
This is very, very subjective.
I am at best a mediocre player of MMOs. I am slow at targeting mobs, slow at figuring out which mob everyone else is attacking, or which one is being held and shouldn't be attacked. I have basically no sense of direction and am slow at figuring out the path I'm supposed to take to get to any given location.
I pretty much play this game by following Lut and Terry, looting the mobs they've killed, and now and again healing them or tossing fire at something that was tough enough to survive their initial volley. Come to think of it, that's how I played CoH, too. I find myself regretting that the conversational options don't change if you've got a group, because there've been times I'd like to have said to a troublesome NPC, "Oh no, no, kiddo, your problem isn't messing with *me*. Now, messing with the jedi and the boy scout here -- BIG MISTAKE."
SWTOR amplifies my incompetence a great deal. My 15th (out of 50) level smuggler has at least 20 powers. There's a bunch of ranged attacks, including a few damage-over-time, a few straight damage, a charged shot, a couple of explosives, a few melee attacks, a power to recharge my powers, two heals, a buff, a stealth power that I don't actually know when I'm supposed to use, and some other stuff I can't even remember much less know what to do with it.
I can effectively use about 6 different abilities in a fight. I don't really want more than that. Maybe when I've been playing the game for a few hundred hours I'll feel differently, but to be honest, I was never enthusiastic about having more than ten powers in CoH, and CoH hadn't given me nearly this many by level 15. @.@ I keep getting upgrades to existing powers, too, so I don't think I'm supposed to be just ignoring some.
Oh, and the 'cover bar' that I didn't want needs to be re-arranged every time I get a new power, because it doesn't automatically get anything. So I need to periodically comb through my giant list of powers figuring out what does what and needs to be where, and trying to arrange things so there's a chance I will be able to remember which buttons to push in the 1.5 seconds before Lut and Terry have killed whatever mob I had targeted.
I am sure for many people, this is great fun, but for me it just reminds me how I have no idea what I'm doing and suck. v.v
SWTOR attempts to help with directions by providing a minimap that's too small to be useful when navigating between quests, and a big map that usually needs to be navigated up a level or two before I can find what I'm looking for. If I try to figure out where I'm going without just following Lut and Terry, they'll have arrived before I start moving. Obviously, this is a problem with me and not the navigational system, since it works fine for them. The various maps do helpfully mark where my other group members are, so I can usually manage to stay glued to them. The maps are often twisty, with a lots of walls/mountains that you can't walk through and have to run around, making the minimap's "target thisaway" icons pretty useless.
* As far as combats go, the game plays a lot like all the other MMOs out there.
* As far as navigation goes, it's more annoying than CoH for me, mostly because there are more nested maps and the zone maps are twistier.
A Zillion Simultaneous Quests
Generally, you pick up all the quests you can find for an area, then run around that area doing them in geographical order. I find this pretty meh. I lose track of the story threads when there are so many competing ones. In CoH, where you had travel powers and moved quickly across the city, doing one story at a time worked great. I guess this is more in-theme for Star Wars -- "we'll do some extra good deeds while we're down in this cess pit anyway" but meh.
I'm spoiled by CoH, where most of your missions were instanced. Most of the Star Wars content isn't. They cut down on player competition by having lots of zone instances -- there might be hundreds of people in Black Sun territory right now, but only twenty or thirty in the same version you're in. Still, we've only done one group-specific instance so far.
Like every other game except CoH, you need to group with people your level. If your friend is 15th and you're 8th, you can't even get to the same planet as him, much less help him with his missions or he with yours. This shouldn't annoy me because it's "every other game but CoH", but it does.
"If City of Heroes could match the conversational scenes for the storylines, I'd rather be playing it."
Crafting works much the way it does in games like WoW and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. You gather bits and combine them to make stuff and to improve your making-stuff skill.
The nice thing about crafting in SWTOR are that it's a crew skill -- you get NPC companions and they do your crafting skills for you. This doesn't make a huge difference -- you still have to give your crew orders and you still have to tie up inventory/bank slots with crafting bits. But it does mean that you don't have to pick out the crafting bits and put them into the special forge or whatever. You don't need to carefully organize your stacks of crafting bits so you can find them later. Your crew will pick out what they need, as long as you've got it somewhere.
I kind of like the crafting, but I always have kind of liked crafting in various games, so that's not saying much.
Anyway, I've only been playing for one weekend, which is nothing in MMO time. But I'm enjoying it overall, despite my incompetence and laments. It's a good game.
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