The Old Republic January 16th, 2012
My wife and I have played World of Warcraft for 6 years. This past weekend we tried out the new Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, courtesy of my mother-in-law’s unused account. I think it’s safe to say that both of us are hooked, we both bought our own copies. Here are my observations about SWTOR, how it improves on the MMO genre over WoW, and areas it could use further improvement itself. I’ll be updating this post as I continue to play the game and find more things of note.
Improvements over WoW
- The “corpse is lootable” effect is significantly more visible than WoW, even from 50 feet away. A bright pillar of light shoots out of the corpse and up into the sky, there’s absolutely no missing it.
- The effect is colored to indicate what kind of drops are on the corpse (white for money & grays, green for gear, yellow for quest items).
- The loot screen always moves to your cursor, and positions itself so that your mouse is over a “Loot Everything” button. This was one of the first addons I ever installed on WoW, they should really pay attention to this.
- They also added Area Looting, a feature common in other newer MMOs, where you can loot every corpse within a certain range at once.
Instant Travel (Hearth)
- In WoW the hearthstone is a fixed destination. There are innkeepers in every town that you can speak to to set your hearthstone destination. You only get one destination, but it can be anywhere in the world.
- In SWTOR, innkeepers have been replaced with a landing pedestal (I don’t know the official name for it). Whenever you find one you interact with it and it unlocks for you. When you active your Instant Transport (SWTOR’s hearthstone) a screen pops up showing every pedestal you’ve previously interacted with. It makes hearth significantly more useful.
- I assume this is limited to the planet you are currently on (I’ve yet to level high enough to leave the starting planet). If it works across planets, I’ll be blown away.
From level 1 your character is a badass. In the early levels of WoW you feel like a lowbie; you have very few abilities, not a lot of health, and all the NPCs treat you like fresh fish. In SWTOR, the opening cinematic introduces you as a total ass kicker; You’re being brought in because someone needed a job done and you’re the best man for the task. I have to remind myself some times that I’m only level 7 and there’s much tougher enemies out there.
- The HUD has a range finder by default. Simple, I know, but it’s taken WoW years to have a reliable means of determining target range.
- The HUD tells you if you are near an aggroable mob.
- Player and Target health & portraits are at the bottom center of the screen, directly above the action bar. Every UI pack for WoW makes this change and even Blizzard is realizing that having them so far away from the center of the screen is a bad idea.
Quest text is replaced with dialog cutscenes that are directed by the user via an interaction wheel. This is really neat for several reasons:
- It forces the player to actually pay attention to the “quest text”, so they absorb a lot more of the lore (this is why players keep saying they feel more connected to the story).
- It defines the character’s personality, bringing the RP back into MMORPG. No matter which faction you choose, you can still choose if your character will be a good guy or a total asshole.
- It slows down leveling. I’m sure this will be very annoying in a year when I’m just trying to get a character to max level as fast as possible (thankfully audio dialog can be skipped through by pressing the spacebar), but for the moment it makes the experience much more pleasurable. You’re not focused on just getting the missions done and getting your XP (I barely even acknowledge when I level). I played for over 5 hours yesterday and didn’t even hit level 10 yet (the first specialization opportunity). In WoW you can hit level 10 in half an hour.
- You feel like you’re part of the story. You aren’t just being handed missions to accomplish, you’re actually shaping the world. This is a false sense of importance, since you really aren’t making a difference, but the placebo is still there. This is my wife’s favorite part of the game, she loves just how deeply involved you can get with a role.
When a player is involved in a cutscene an icon appears over their head indicating that they are not available for interaction. WoW needs this so badly, currently players in a cutscene either vanish or just stand there like they are AFK.
Questing Phases are always extremely visible and clear, you know with absolute certainty that you are entering a phased area thanks to a green portal effect on the entryway. Phases are instanced to every character, and you have to choose to bring party members into a phase with you.
Kill quests, where you’re told to kill X number of mobs, are always optional bonus quests that popup while you’re doing something else, and the count is usually pretty low. Most of the time you complete these quests automatically during the course of finishing other objectives, it’s just extra XP. This helps a lot with reducing the grindy-ness of the game.
Heroic Zones. These are parts of the map that have an increased difficulty level. Upon entering a heroic zone the player is warned that they’ve entered an area of increase difficulty. Heroic zones always contain Heroic quests (the equivalent to WoW’s elite/group quests). I find this system preferable to the way that WoW handles elites, as there’s no risk of just bumbling into a mob that is going to kick your ass.
Combat. I have a love and hate relationship with SWTOR’s combat, and I’ll name my negatives later, but here’s the parts I like.
- No Auto-Attack, you have to hit buttons to do damage, resulting in more player involvement.
- Cover is a core mechanic, and is readily provided in the environment. Some abilities can only be used from behind cover, and damage blocked by cover shows up on the battle text (or FlyText as BioWare calls it).
- Enemy AI actually exists. Targets duck and dodge, moving to try to gain better ground or get behind cover. This means you actually have to move during combat for reasons other than getting out of fire.
- Blaster attacks fire as barrages, and not all shots will hit their target (Star Wars bullet accuracy, lol).
- All of this results in ranged combat that feels like actual combat, despite the target lock that the genre uses. In comparison, WoW’s combat system feels like Revolutionary War battles where everyone stands still and shoots each other in the face.
Maps. SWTOR’s map system is extremely informative. Both the minimap and the world map can be set to display just about every friendly intractable NPC type, and quest objectives are clearly marked. If you are running while the world map is up, the map becomes translucent so you can still see where you’re going.
Death, while annoying, is fairly painless. Upon death you are presented two options: Call a medical drone, or return to nearest medical station. Medical station works just like graveyards in WoW, but medical drone will revive you right where you fell (giving you 10 seconds of invisibility to get to safety), and has a cooldown that increases every time you use it. This is awesome as it gives you the option of running back, or just getting up and getting a drink while you wait for the drone to cooldown. Alternatively, I think any player can “revive” you just by clicking on your body (I’m unsure if this is restricted by combat). Just like in WoW, death results in durability loss on gear.
Crafting and Gathering Skills. Unlike in WoW, crafting is never done directly, but rather is always performed by your companion. You queue up items to be crafted (up to five) and your companion goes away and does them. While those are being done, you don’t have access to the companion for combat or quests that require their presence (thankfully every character gets a crafting only companion around level 15). Gathering skills also have little missions that you can send them on which they return from with items, in addition to the gathering that you do in the world. This is nice because you can have your companions leveling your skills while you keep on questing. The downside to this is that you can’t start crafting until you get your first companion, which is fine since there are no crafting trainers available to you until you reach level 10 and head to your faction’s fleet station.
Space Missions are lots of fun. They’re basically short third-person shooters on rails, much in the same style as the old Panzer Dragoon game for the Sega Saturn and later the Xbox.
Companions can sell all your gray loot for you when you’re out in the field, returning 60 seconds later. This is awesome when your bags are full and you’re no where near a vendor.
Areas that need improvement
SWTOR is lacking a lot of polish. Consequently some of these may seem like little nitpicks, but they’re areas that have bugged me enough to be memorable.
Lets start with the game launcher:
- The launcher takes a long time to load. Most of the time I tab over to Chrome and surf reddit while I wait for it. This is just sloppy coding, there’s no reason such a simple window should be so slow.
- There’s no indicator that the launcher window has focus, so all the time I end up typing my password into the wrong window when I think I’m typing into the launcher.
- It forces you to login before it checks for downloads, and then makes you click Launch again once it’s done with that.
- Because the login happens before the game actually launches, there’s no way to bypass the launcher. You don’t really think about how innovative it is for WoW to have their login screen in-game until you see the alternative.
- SWTOR requires passwords contain at least one capital letter. This isn’t so much a launcher issue, but I’m reminded of it every time I login to the game. Password restrictions suck and don’t do anything to improve security. If anything they make services less secure because then people have to write down some non-standard password they can’t remember.
The game engine itself also has lots of little bugs.
- As with most of my games, I have SWTOR set to run windowed fullscreen, but for some reason the game always launches in non-windowed first and then switches over. This makes all my screens wink out for a second while all the resolutions resize back and forth.
- Any time you’re in a large space there are graphical glitches in the distance, especially things involving vegetation. This game does some weird stuff with tree branches.
- NPC during cutscenes sometimes appear to be clipping on themselves, with weird moving patterns forming on their faces.
- The shadow engine gets very confused at times, creating weird outlines on the ground that don’t actually relate to the terrain around you.
- Interrupting a bit of dialog will sometimes make an NPC walk out of frame, even walking through a solid wall.
- Quest dialog scenes are supposed to be isolated, but every so often another player will just show up, walking between the camera and the characters.
- Every time you board your ship, there is a cutscene if you taking off. Every time you exit your ship, there is a cutscene of you landing… Why can’t I use my ship in the hanger?
Then there’s the game’s color palette and Character Silhouettes, or lack there-of.
Like many modern 3D games, SWTOR’s lighting engine results in environments that have very uniform color palettes. Everything is a shade of some hue, resulting in views where objects kind of bleed together. This makes spotting NPCs extremely difficult in dark areas, especially for someone like myself with a mild case of color blindness. If the minimap didn’t tell me they were there I would walk right past vendors. Note that this is improved significantly by turning on NPC Nameplates, giving you bold primary colored floating names to identify the presence of an NPC.
For all the crap people give to WoW’s graphics, their color scheme gives NPCs an unmistakable contrast that is visible from a long way off. In general, WoW is far more colorful than SWTOR.
All players are bipedal humanoids of equal size and shape, the only difference between races is the shape of the head and/or skin color. There is slight variation between armor types (light, medium, heavy), but from a distance they are indistinguishable. This all results in a system where your only means of determining a players race and class is to mouse over them. This is further exacerbated by the player ability to choose body type, varying from short and skinny to tall and chunky. With the dozens of alien races in the StarWars universe, wtf are players limited to humanoids of all the same shape? (Trick question, it’s because they’re easier to code for).
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what race someone is because Racial Perks seem to be limited to little bits of social flair, silly actions that have no impact on battle. There is no reason to pick one race over the other besides aesthetics.
I guess that was important because Character Customization feels only as good as WoW, not better. The addition of body type is nice, faces are very diverse, and there are probably double the number of hair choices, but some of the ornamental choices feel woefully lax in options. I should note that my wife hates me for this opinion and strongly disagrees. She thinks the character customization is awesome, and spends hours deciding on the look of a new character.
Lootable Objects. Where corpse looting is massively improved over WoW, quest object looting is a step backwards. The only indication that an object is a quest item is a slight blue tint that becomes more obvious when you mouse over it. If the object is small, good luck finding it. There’s been several quest items that I only knew they were there because the map pointed them out for me.
The Inventory window isn’t very user friendly. I have to mouse over items to tell what they are and the item icons are not very informative. It’s nice that you can buy more inventory space right there in the window, but it’s surprisingly expensive (5000 credits for the first 10 rows, 20k for the next 10). I’ve also been unable to figure out how to split a stack of items, none of the usual key combinations work. Oh, and here’s a question, if my companion can figure out what items in my inventory are gray, why can’t vendors? Where is my “sell all junk” button on the vendor window?
Part of these gripes may be because I really miss my ArkInventory addon from WoW, which grouped items by type. I haven’t used WoW’s default bag UI in 4 years.
UI windows don’t always open in the same place, and you can only have two open at a time. If I’m at a vendor and have my inventory open, opening the character panel closes both. Those three windows should be usable at the same time. There’s also no control for adjusting the overall scale of the UI, so toolbar buttons that could only take up 32 pixels on my screen actually take up 64.
Settings are specific to every single character. For some settings (like action bars) this is nice, but for most it’s a pain. Social settings have to be reset every time (including turning off profanity filter), keybindings have to be reset every time (SWTOR defaults to WoW’s keyboard turning setup, and the extra action bars are unbound by default). Thankfully video settings are remember across characters.
Classes. Initially the game has 8 classes, technically there 16 as each class has two “Advanced” Classes, a specialization that you choose at level 10. However, while both faction’s classes are unique to that faction, each class has a matching equivalent on the other faction (Sith Warrior = Jedi Knight, Imperial Agent = Smuggler, etc), meaning that really there are only 4 classes and 8 advanced classes in the game. Each class has uniquely named spells, but they do exactly the same thing as their matching class’s spells in the other faction. It feels like a half-assed attempt at creating diversity between the two factions.
The game only seems to have four play styles:
- Slicing things with a big sword while using force abilities
- Slicing things with TWO big swords.
- Shooting things with pistols
- Shooting things with rifles.
You call this variation? Healing spells seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought.
The classes also can’t seem to decide what play style they want to be. Jedi Knights and Sith Warriors are clearly melee classes, yet they also have healing spells? Jedi Consular can’t decide if it’s a caster class or a rogue. Imperial Agents and Smugglers’ base spells are all ranged and some even require being behind cover to use, but they’re given an advanced class (Operative) that focuses on being directly behind the target to get the biggest hits, but then has to run away while those melee abilities are on cooldown.
This leads in to Specialization. Every class has two “Advanced Classes”, a specialization that you choose at level 10 and which dictates what spells you will receive as you level and what roles you can fill. This is rather innovative, and does have the benefit of doubling the number of classes, but the differences between the advanced classes are not large enough (at least in the lower levels) to feel like a big deal.
Once you’ve chosen your advanced class, you also have three different specialization talent trees within that AC. At a time when WoW is getting ready to abandon talent trees, this system feels very outdated and kludgy. SWTOR’s trees suffer from all the problems that WoW’s trees experienced at the end of WotLK: too many points. With 40 points to be placed, the trees are full of talents that simply increase stat X. That’s not fun, it’s boring; spending points feels like a chore.
Very few options for questing locations. Characters must level in the start zone for their class and have very little choice about what planets they can go to after finishing each zone. Following up on my previous point, once you choose an advanced class you’re stuck with it. If you change your mind later you have to go through the entire 1-10 experience again, which is no short task. With two classes sharing each start zone, you quickly get sick of those planets.
Cantinas. Just like how you gain rest state for logging out in an inn in WoW, SWTOR gives you rest state for logging out in a Cantina. However, cantinas seem infrequent, each planet only seems to have one. Thankfully they all have quick-travel nodes so you can jump straight to them before logging out. You also gain rest-state while inside your ship, but the docking stations are usually a five minute run away from the nearest taxi.
No pet class. Every player in the game gets companions, up to five NPCs which follow you around and serve in different capacities. You only have one out at a time, and not all companions are suitable for combat. They work much like the companion system in Skyrim, basically you have a mule. Every player in combat has their companion out (you’d be stupid not to), so there’s nothing special about them.
Some default options kinda suck and aren’t obviously changeable, such as the existence of captioning on cutscenes. The options exist, but you have to dig through the interface settings to find them.
Combat. I said I’d be getting back to it.
- For all the dynamic that ranged combat in SWTOR provides, melee combat feels retarded.
- Melee vs Ranged Mobs, the targets stand there and shoot you like dumb cattle while you slice them to bits. Sometimes they’ll jump around to find a new vantage point, but mostly they just stand still.
- Ranged vs Melee Mobs, you feel extremely exposed and vulnerable and most of the time end up running away.
- Melee vs Melee Mobs feels no different from playing WoW, where both parties smack at each other until one dies.
- Combat engagements always swing from frustratingly difficult to annoyingly easy, there’s not a lot of balance in between.
No Addon/Mod Support. This is both a blessing and a curse (heh). On the plus side, people can’t add things like damage meters and gear score calculators that promote player arrogance. On the down side, you can’t fix the areas of the UI where Bioware has failed. I hate the SWTOR UI color scheme and would love to see someone mod it with more earthy/metal tones. Bag management addons would help SO much, and the SWTOR version of the auction house is pretty much unusable as far as market analysis is concerned.
The lack of addons is an even bigger concern because there is no healing UI. Healers have to click on targets and then cast their spell. You can’t even make mouseover macros because the game has no macro support. It’s like healing in ultra-vanilla WoW, but worse!
The game is huge. The installer downloads over 10GB and the default installation sits at 25GB before it applies the first content patch. When WoW launched it was a measly 4GB, and after six years of content patches it still only sits between 30-40GB (and the next patch will be making that smaller). All that quest dialog audio must really add up.
No Mac version. Doesn’t affect me, because I do all my gaming on my wintendo, but I know other players who would love to have a native version for their Macs.
Please note that most of these complaints are not show-stopping issues by any means. The vast majority of them are simply annoyances. I’ll continue to update and refine this post as I play the game. You are currently viewing the second revision of this document.