With the official release of Star Wars: The Old Republic happening tomorrow, I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten past the initial levelling surge thanks to my early game access. I’ve used that time to simply enjoy playing rather than bursting through the levelling and, much to my delight, I wouldn’t have been able to “burst through” even if I’d wanted to. This initial review is simply to put my thoughts into writing, a catalogue if you will, and I hope I can make a few points that other people coming to the game will bear in mind.
Do remember, however, this is a first pass – both for the game itself and for a player very much in the infancy of his galactic career.
So, what have I managed to do in the first four days of the game?
1) I’ve selected a Sith warrior class, Pureblood race. She’s a girlie and is currently sat at level 22. My advanced class is no shock; I’ve picked the Juggernaut and my talents are going into the Immortal tree.
2) I’ve completed the missions (quests) on the planets of Korriban (roughly up to level 10) and Dromund Kass (level 10 to about 16 or 17), while getting a good chunk of the ones on Balmorra done.
3) I’ve done some trade skill levelling, both with my crew and personally. I’ve taken Biochem, Bioanalysis and Investigation and am sat at around 110, 105 and 90 respectively.
4) I’ve managed to unlock three companions so far. Vette (extra DPS) is starting to like me, my droid (does basic tasks) amuses me constantly and Quinn (mainly heals) has got “romance” written all over him.
5) I’ve unlocked my starship, the Fury, and completed the opening space combat quests. I’ve also done a bit of upgrading to said ship, but nothing too elaborate or too heavy on the credits.
6) I’ve completed three flashpoints (dungeons) to this point; the Black Talon is easy and can be completed with companions, but Hammer Station and Athiss are huge steps up. Companions are next to useless in Athiss.
This seems to be confusing people, but it needn’t really; it’s quite simple. There are four basic classes to choose from, with each class having two advanced options to specialise in. Once you choose your advanced class, you’re locked into it forevermore and cannot change it so pick carefully. Each advanced class has got two unique talent trees, and one that’s shared as a baseline tree.
Simplified for ease of reference, there are eight different classes and 20 dedicated talent specialization trees throughout.
There is no “pure DPS class”, nor is there any “true hybrid” advanced class – the opposite, however, is true. What I’m saying here is that the Inquisitor can tank, heal and DPS, but neither advanced class can tank AND heal; the Assassin can tank or DPS, while the Sorcerer can heal or DPS. As far as I can tell (could easily be wrong), only the Sith Marauder and Imperial Sniper have no option beyond DPS.
TL, DR? Say goodbye to arguments about the hybrid tax.
Playing as a Sith Juggernaut is, quite literally, a blast. The gameplay is smooth despite each attack having its own animation, and the resource system is intuitive without being overwhelming. The sheer number of attacks you have to weave into the combat web makes for very compelling gameplay rather than simply spamming a filler button while you wait on your nuke to light up.
Most importantly, looking ahead to tanking, it appears as if actively taking charge of your own mitigation has been given a front and centre position. I’m only level 22, yet have three major cooldowns that reduce damage and have saved my skin on countless occasions.
So far, the only letdown on gameplay is the camera. It’s something that you get used to after a bit of time, but it’s going to be a huge annoyance during challenging Operations is it’s not fixed. Panning always ends up at the default once you stop panning, while the default is far too close in for a decent view of the battlefield. This really could do with some work or I could do with some information on how to sort it out. :P
We were promised immersive story lines from BioWare, and they’ve delivered. It’s impossible to play the game and not get sucked into what your character is doing. The continued fawning of the Imperial military every time they see a Sith is distasteful, but you actually feel that distaste through your character and can respond appropriately. My biggest worry about the system was that I disliked linear questing in World of Warcraft and I didn’t know how this could be avoided if the game was designed as “story driven”.
Fortunately, this isn’t actually the case.
Only the main story of your character is driven in this fashion, meaning that sticking to said story will provide you the baseline experience you need to move on. How you choose to round out the experience needed is up to you; you can pick and choose the quests you fancy, while you can also farm areas for mobs, run Warzones (PvP), do Flashpoints or get involved in space combat. I’ve mainly stuck to questing and there’s easily enough experience in doing the single-player missions to allow you to move on.
Heroic missions, however, are well worth the time and effort. They’re tough to complete, require more than just yourself when level appropriate and grant strong rewards in most cases. They’ll net you good experience, but will also add to the fun and immersion of the planet they’re on.
There is something I would like to stress, however. Both normal quests and particularly heroic quests are a significant step change if you’re coming from World of Warcraft. Some of the quality of life changes such as AoE looting or out of combat healing and resurrection being available to all classes may give the wrong impression; questing in The Old Republic is significantly more challenging than in Azeroth.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, dies in three hits and there’s no auto attack other than your companion. Getting two pulls in one is likely to kill you, and getting three pulls in one certainly will. Not only that, if you attempt heroic quests on your own you will positively get your backside handed to you. While some early-game companions are better than others (if you play a Sith warrior you will look enviously on the Inquisitor’s Khem Vaal or the Bounty Hunter’s Mako), you will still certainly not complete heroic quests without some friends.
So how does all this shake out?
It’s actually a very intuitive questing system. The bare minimum to move the story on (single player, I might add) doesn’t ask for a lot of time, but you’ll want to round out your planet experience before you do so. You can do this with optional quests that are either tuned for single players or for groups; what this does is allow you to quest however you like, in a challenging environment, without HAVING to complete anything. It’s entirely your choice.
The other cool part about questing is that some rewards come in the form of commendations. Commendations are a form of currency that you can use to buy powerful gear on the planet you earned it on; what they do is provide worthwhile quest rewards even when the gear offered by the quest giver is of no use to you or your companion.
All told, the questing system is a major success. It’s varied, fun and challenging, while solving certain issues at launch that other games couldn’t solve after years.
Crafting and professions have taken a quantum leap forward thanks to BioWare. The tedious grind of area or auction house for the required materials is replaced with the ability to send your companions out to do the job, with the added value of selecting what it is they’ll go and farm for you. Each constituent part of an individual craft will be labelled with what type of material it is, and a drop-down in your crew skill window allows you to send your companion off to farm exactly that type of material.
In my case, I have Biochem and Bioanalysis (think Alchemy and Herbalism in Azerothian terms); if I want to craft a stimulant, one of the materials might be a bacteria. This bacteria is listed as a grade one biochemical sample so I would send my companion off to farm me some grade one biochemical samples. After the allotted time, voila! My companion returns with the material I need and I can start crafting.
But that’s not all.
Reverse engineering is a skill-specific process similar to disenchanting, in that it allows you break down what you’ve made into its constituent parts and have a chance at learning a stronger version of the craft each time you do it. Basically, every time you make something, you can reverse engineer it to get most of the materials back, skill point in hand. If you get the upgraded version of that craft, it automatically appears in your crew skill list ready to be deployed.
The only slight issue I have with this system is the credits involved in learning new crafts (recipes, plans, patterns etc) and sending out your companions. That said, I’m sat on over 30k credits and have bought everything I’ve wanted up until now. I suspect that means the numbers look high but, in reality, aren’t.
I don’t have much to say about companions, really. You can only have one with you at any time, it’s up to you which one you have, and they will help you in combat to the best of their ability. You can gear them up as you do yourself, but their combat abilities aren’t that fantastic – they’re AI, after all. :P
That said, they do add something to your play. Vette’s damage isn’t inconsiderable when you’re starting and need a bit of help, while Quinn’s healing will get you through a lot of tough spots. Picking a companion to help you in combat will depend on what you’re trying to achieve and what you do yourself whilst in combat. As a Juggernaut, popping into Soresu Form lessens my damage intake to a point where Quinn can keep up. If you play a Marauder, Vette might be the better choice in order to burst things down before health even becomes a problem.
The other main point about your companions is that you can build affection with them. The more affection they have for you, the better they will do the jobs assigned and I assume that includes their combat abilities. Some have additional trade skill bonuses but, put simply, the more a companion likes you, the harder they’ll work on your behalf. I don’t believe your alignment (Light/Dark) has anything to do with it, but your choices in a conversation while the companion is present will impact their affection. It appears as if Vette prefers Light side choices, while I daresay a companion like the Inquisitor’s Khem Vaal will prefer brutality at every turn.
Player housing? Check. Your starship is essentially your little space in the galaxy where you can kick back and do nothing. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to stop off on your ship and relax – it just feels like the right place to do it. You can outfit your starship in much the same way you gear yourself and your companions, and this gear will impact how well it fights on the related space missions. The cockpit provides these missions for you to complete and they’re really not that challenging; they’re just a bit of fun. Once you’ve completed the quest it will disappear from your log, but each one is repeatable if you want to grind some experience while chilling out.
A good way to spend time on your ship is to send your companions off on errands and then do a ship mission while you await their return. There are commendations to be had, just as there are on planets, and these are used to pump up the power of your ship even further.
Add this to a map of the galaxy, a storage container for things you want to keep (but out of your inventory) and a personal space where your companions are happy to chat to you and it’s a really nice little addition to the game. That line between “pointless fluff” and “performing function” has been nailed if you ask me.
So, we get to it. The one place where Blizzard has absolutely dominated the MMO market is in its dungeons and instances (all the more baffling that they’re moving away from them). In many ways, this is the deal breaker for BioWare because if they don’t get this right, then The Old Republic is going to be another piece of driftwood in Warcraft’s wake.
Luckily, they’re off to a strong start. While the Black Talon is far from challenging, it’s nothing more than an introduction to the Flashpoint format and introduces players to the concept of “tank” and “healer”. The first real instance, Hammer Station, sees the gloves come off and the difficulty ramps up a few notches. You can still use a companion in here, but it’s certainly not something a companion can tank or heal safely. When you then move to Athiss, the ante has been upped again and anyone running in here with a companion is going to find themselves dead pretty quickly.
The format of the Flashpoints, however, is pretty familiar. You go in there with three more people, tank what needs tanked, spank what needs spanked and fight to stay alive. The major difference is the sheer extent of the upturn in difficulty from Azeroth to here. Crowd control is hugely helpful, as is aggro control and good targeting. The AoE capabilities of tanks are nowhere close to what Warcraft players are used to, and the combat in general takes longer; unlike Shield Slam removing half of a mobs health, only continuous damage will see enemies fall.
This is also true of healing. It’s not uncommon for tanks to survive long stretches at low health because the healing output is roughly similar to the damage input. This is a strong application of triage which hints at just how big a difference a good tank will make when he mitigates as much damage as he can. It also means strong DPS can make a big contribution to their healers because, eventually, they will be overwhelmed. This overwhelming, however, happens over a two minute period and not two seconds. I could also talk about how awesome I find operative healing, but this entry is already long enough. Needless to say, should I roll an alt, it’ll be a healing operative.
The bosses, however, are a marked improvement on what Azerothian adventurers have grown accustomed to. As opposed to named mobs with a little more health that sometimes hit a bit harder, the bosses to be found in Hammer Station or Athiss are challenging for the whole group and have mechanics that will absolutely kill players if they’re ignored. The final boss in Athiss, particularly, is an epic set piece that sets the tone for a long encounter that’s difficult to complete and easy to love.
Again, a big worry for the game before playing it was how access to dungeons would come across. BioWare are against the idea of a dungeon finder (HOORAY!) and there are also no summoning stones, so it’s a legitimate concern to worry about how long term players of Warcraft dungeons will react to this apparent lack of accessibility. The consolidation of this concern is the fact that the planets are absolutely massive in comparison to the average Azerothian zone, meaning travel time would be a major factor.
But fear not; for BioWare has a plan. While their refusal to put in a dungeon finder or summoning stone seems like an own goal, they’ve actually come up with a very imaginative way of keeping dungeons quickly accessible without causing needless disassociation with the game itself. A major hangar in the Imperial Fleet has access to six Flashpoints all within 10 seconds of each other, with their holoterminals ready to go. The Imperial Fleet is very easy to get to (no more than five minutes, irrespective of where you are), and the success of dungeons in close proximity can be seen from the popularity of places like Utgarde, Tempest Keep or Coilfang.
The only real worry I have is that, come endgame, the conversations to start dungeons might get tiresome. Even if you had the option to skip to the end, you’d still have to wait on those in your party who were making their choices. I hope something will happen before running these Flashpoints in endgame because I think the holoterminals will get pretty old, pretty fast.
Phew. I think I’m done.
While it’s obvious I’m HUGELY excited about how this game is going to pan out, it’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve only been playing a few days and the game is only officially released tomorrow. When compared to a seven year veteran, certain things are going to look out of place when comparisons are drawn so we have to be realistic and accept that my opinions won’t be universally shared. To this point, however, I only really have a few grievances and they can be relatively easy to fix. The camera really needs attention, though, as it’s pretty horrid and has the potential to be very limiting if changes aren’t made. I’m not a huge fan of the unit frames when in combat either, and the lack of any threat indicator is a nuisance. I also don’t particularly like the hotbar setup but, then again, that’s because I’m used to a hugely customised look that I’m sure modders for The Old Republic will be able to create soon enough.
If you’ve stayed to the end, thanks – it couldn’t have been an easy ride. Your reward?
Tell me how you’ve found the game so far!