YPHM – Comprehensive SW:TOR Review (based on Beta)
Hi, I’m Taix, I’m an MMO elitist, I take my videogames way too seriously, and in this edition of YPHM, I am presenting my extensive review of Star Wars: The Old Republic, based on my beta experiences up to level 33 (through Act I) on a Jedi Sentinel. There is a TON of material to talk about, too much to even list in the introduction (and this is without even seeing endgame content), so I’d like to jump right in. I’ll include the disclaimer that this is based on a beta version of the game and things are subject to change before launch, and will most likely change after launch to varying degrees (as it is with all MMOs). I would also like to apologize in advance for the long read, but I hope that it is interesting and more in-depth than some other reviews I’ve seen so far.
Playing SWTOR feels like everything is right in the MMO universe. High fantasy-themed MMOs have traditionally performed better in the MMO space, and it seems that SWTOR, with its stylish and artsy graphics, is trying to feel much more like fantasy than science fiction. I (along with many others) personally classify the Star Wars genre as science fantasy rather than science fiction, and with all the knights, swordplay, and the Force (Star Wars’s own version of magic) in the Star Wars universe as there is, how can you not? A super-gritty graphical style à la Starcraft or a more realistic style à la Star Trek or Firefly (all of which are definitely pure science fiction) would make the mystical aspects of the Star Wars universe seem cheesy. In my opinion, Star Wars needs to be at least somewhat stylized in order to really feel right. The stylized feel also aids in making the graphics easier for low-quality computer systems to digest. At a distance, the graphics seem like they would have a rather high polygon count given how nice they look, but a close inspection (or playing on a lower-quality system) made me extremely surprised to see otherwise. Lighting effects are done superbly, environments look beautiful, and due to the style, the graphics will continue to look spectacular very far into the future.
I honestly believe that what makes this a Star Wars game is the music. It’s the one feature that stands out above all others that excites me while playing. Going into story phases and Flashpoints (more on this later), Force Charging an enemy pack with my lightsabers swinging away while hearing the heroic music going in the background—it gives me chills just thinking about it. It seems that the game development team composed a great deal of music (which feels Star Wars-like in its own right) to populate the open worlds. You will rarely hear a well-known song from the movies played while questing. During story areas or Flashpoints, however, they pull out all the stops, and you WILL feel like you are playing in an actual Star Wars movie. I’ve also found that during certain tough fights, the music change suddenly when the enemy gets low on health, as if anticipating the incoming victory; another great touch. In the end, when I go to bed after a long session of intense play, it’s the music I’m humming to myself and going over and over again in my head that leaves the lasting impression.
The game’s animations are complete and have a large variety, which is most likely why there are only humanoid races available, so that they can share animations. Mobs may be leaning against a wall or casually pacing back and forth before you engage them, NPCs can be seen talking and gesturing to each other in quest hubs; this gives a nice ambiance to the worlds. Combat animations are different for every ability (the melee ones that I’ve seen anyway), and there is no standard “strike” animation as there is with just about every other MMO on the market. It’s astounding going through the social emotes list to see just how many animations there really are. Your party and companion are fully animated, even at a large distance, which is a really nice touch.
CLASSES AND ADVANCED CLASSES
When initially learning about SWTOR and how there are 8 base classes in the game, with 16 total Advanced Classes, none of which are shared between the factions, I imagined a situation in which it would be completely impossible to balance the two factions against each other (balancing among the classes themselves will continue indefinitely no matter what). What BioWare did, however, is supremely brilliant, and whoever on their team came up with this idea should be given a medal. We knew that each class would have its counterpart on the opposite faction, but what wasn’t clear (at least to me) was that every single ability—what kind of damage it does, what targets it affects, how many times it hits, what range it has—is EXACTLY mirrored across the two factions… but none of the mirrored classes feel the same to play in terms of animations, looks, or weapons used (other than lightsabers). Taking Troopers and Bounty Hunters as an example, the BH’s wrist rocket mirrors the Trooper’s grenade launch, the sticky grenade mirrors the explosive dart, rocket punch mirrors stock strike, and so on. Even the resource mechanic is mirrored, even though it seems unique. Heat dissipates passively like ammo reloads passively, and the rate that the resource regenerates is determined by how much is left (there are arrows on the side of the bar that indicate resource regen or dissipation rate). This design is intelligent in itself, as it offers the option of slow and steady resource management by keeping yourself relatively topped off for longer fights, or burst spam resource use for emergencies at the cost of a lowered regen rate for a few seconds (this long-term regen-focused play vs. burst resource use is also apparent in smugglers and agents). Both BHs and Troopers are also given a fast resource regen cooldown (quick reload vs quick vent, not sure of the ability names), so they can burst their resource down and then instantly recover them back to a high-regen level. Talents are mirrored between the two classes as well, making balancing changes to one affect both classes equally. BioWare said they wanted to create 16 classes, which they did with the Advanced Class system, but what they really did was create 8 types of characters to play, each type having a version on both factions.
It has been known for a while that each base class has five possible skill trees, two for each AC and one shared. What seems to be the case for the Jedi Sentinel (and Sith Marauder by direct extension), based on my experience, is that the two Sentinel-specific trees offer two different styles of DPS: one is burn and damage-over-time-based using the Juyo lightsaber form, while the other focuses on having a flurry of strikes using the Ataru form. These two will most likely trade-off between each other for which has top DPS in a raid environment, much like (in WoW) the arcane and fire trees do for mages, or destruction and affliction trees for warlocks. The shared tree is a balanced tree focusing on Shii-Cho form which is even described in the tooltip as a balanced lightsaber form, giving both % damage mitigation and % damage increase. This tree screams PvP DPS to me personally, as it focuses on making the JK Force powers into heavy burst abilities and adds slows and movement enhancers as talents. The final talent in the tree is a combination of the two, being a heavy burst cooldown and a slow wrapped into one neat package. This means that both Jedi Guardians and Jedi Sentinels will have a viable PvP DPS spec to rely on, no matter what tweaks are made to their PvE DPS or tanking trees. Obviously this shared tree will only be useful for PvP DPS, as PvP healing/support and tanking will have to use the AC-specific healing and tanking trees. I’m sure the other AC-specific DPS talent trees will have a place in PvP for those who prefer different styles of play, but to me it seems that the hardcore PvPers will find their homes in the shared tree. This talent design also aids in separating PvP balance from PvE balance, which will be a big hit among the hardcore enthusiasts of both.
Plenty has been said about the general AC system already without me adding my 2 cents to the issue, so I will simply say that it offers a nice variety of playstyles to those who want to experience the story or the feel of a particular class and still have the option to play their favorite trinity role in the game. I’ll also add another time that the cross-faction AC mirroring was done superbly.
COMPANIONS AND CREW SKILLS
Companion characters are where BioWare really starts to deviate from traditional MMOs and adds their own unique game system innovations. Having a choice of a few companions to quest with lets you pick a sort of leveling style. Running as melee DPS with a healer who can add some damage makes a good deal of sense, but you might also want to run with another DPS-focused companion to make things die even faster. Personally, I actually found running with T7-01, who can off-tank quite handily, to be the best way to go. Running with a healer is another good choice, but every character is given a no-cooldown out-of-combat healing ability (taking the place of food and drinks found in other MMOs) that heals their companion as well, making healer companions not required to solo effectively. Mob packs you find in the open world come in a few forms: (1) 3-5 weak mobs you can usually 3-shot to kill; (2) A “silver” tougher mob all alone or with a single weak mob; and (3) a full elite mob akin to a trash mob in a Flashpoint that are usually impossible to do without your companion’s help. Having T7 off-tank a tough mob while I take out the smaller guys, then swap and kill the one on T7 has been the bread and butter of my leveling so far. If he dies, he loses no item durability and it’s a simple 1.5 second cast to resurrect him. Letting me focus on DPS and not worry as much about my health is awesome for leveling as a melee character, and having the companion allows you to take out packs of enemies very efficiently. I met and ran a few missions with a Jedi Guardian who was leveling as tank spec who kept his DPS companion out at all times, which swapped the roles of me and T7, and he seemed to be doing just fine without a healer as well.
Crew skills, which I’ve written a recent article about, are probably the biggest game system innovation that BioWare is bringing to the MMO table. As I predicted before, crew skills are great for people like me who aren’t hardcore crafters. Since each mission or item takes a long time to craft or run, it is difficult to actually spend a long time on leveling crew skills. The most you can do is setup the tasks for your team of companions to run for the next 10 minutes or so (at a crew skill level of 200ish and level 33, mind you) and go back to what you were doing before. It is possible, and much more cost-effective, to travel around and do the gathering yourself, but it is also possible to have one companion running gathering missions to get needed materials and have another companion crafting things at the same time, while your character does absolutely nothing related to crew skills at all. I would like to add that having the option for your companions to run gathering missions which levels your gathering crew skill revolutionizes the gathering profession leveling grind paradigm. When I got to Taris my gathering profession was only level 40ish since I had all but neglected it thus far. When I saw that there were gathering nodes in the world which required level 80 to gather, I was semi-distressed because I figured I would have to return to the previous planet and run around farming up my skills, which would be a massive pain in the ass and substantially slow down my leveling. Instead, I figured out that spamming gathering missions on my companions allowed me to level my gathering for just the cost of sending them on the missions (which is relatively cheap at lower crafting levels). After about two hours of nothing but gathering missions (and while continuing my normal questing), my gathering was well above the required level for me to be able to gather everything in sight, and I avoided the huge time sink and hassle of returning to lower-level zones to grind gathering skills.
LEVELING AND FLASHPOINTS
Leveling doesn’t feel like leveling… hardly at all. It feels like you’re playing Mass Effect wrapped in a Star Wars MMO package; it feels like a kick-ass single-player RPG with the option to play with friends or just random people you meet. The fact that you’re gaining levels is almost second (or might even go unnoticed depending on your personal interests) to how far along you are in the story of your character. Class quests and world quests sync up nicely, so you are doing the quests of a particular area of the map all around the same time. One piece of advice for questing and leveling is to make sure you leave a planet one or two levels higher than the specified level range. Doing all of the provided missions on a planet along with the bonus mission quest lines at the end will give you an advantage on the next planet you visit and make the much more difficult story mode fights (you encounter these periodically as you run story quests and they can get somewhat difficult on later worlds) significantly easier. Bonus missions aren’t the only source of extra XP; queuing for PvP matches for a good hour or two will give you an extra leg-up, and doing all of the Flashpoints that become available while you’re in the proper level range for them also adds a nice chunk of XP.
Flashpoints are epic. Play one (or watch the TOROcast stream, shameless plug) and you’ll see what I mean. Since the path you take through the level is scripted, they have the ability to synchronize a lot of things, including mob spawns, conversation events, and especially the music, to make it feel like you’re playing through an action-packed portion of your own Star Wars movie. For example, sneaking/blasting your way through the Death Star to rescue Leia and escaping in a blaze of gunfire would be a Flashpoint mission (there’s even an homage to the trash compactor scene but I won’t say any more than that on the subject).
DISLIKES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
So far, I’ve only talked about things which I really enjoy about SWTOR (which is almost everything, to be honest), but there are indeed things in the game that annoy me or that I simply don’t like. The current beta build has no real high-end graphical options for those of us who have powerful gaming rigs. The low-end settings make the game playable on just about every system imaginable, which is proved by the fact that my bad-for-gaming laptop without a dedicated video card can play the game. Keep in mind that much of this will most likely change, but at the moment there is no anti-aliasing (the option is greyed out), no “ultra” settings for textures which is quite noticeable in conversations, and even with shadow quality on the highest settings, the shadows are blockier and lower-quality than WoW’s. The game also has many bugs left to be worked out, which is why testing is very important. The most annoying of them so far (shown on the TOROcast stream the other day) makes entering Flashpoints difficult after having run one or two of them already, as everybody needs to click an option that resets their current flashpoint progress. There are a few conversations where translation text is left out, some where the characters aren’t moving their mouths, things of that nature. The bugs are apparent, but they don’t kill the game, which is nice. I’m sure quite a few of them will be worked out before the game is in its final launch build.
The UI has a nice stylish look to it but lacks a lot of customization options that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. For somebody who loves to spend hours tinkering with their UI to make it just right, having the biggest UI customization option be where your companion’s abilities appear feels cheap. Compared to the amount of abilities that your character gets, there is a surprisingly low amount of bar space. I’ve been able to assign a slot and bind every activated ability I’ve gotten so far, and have maybe half of the companion abilities bound to my mouse’s thumb grid, but my bars are already almost completely full. You can (and really need to) turn on the bar on the left side of the screen, the one on the right, and an additional bar on the bottom, but there needs to be more action bars, and more options of where to put them. Also, if you want the ability to micro-manage your companion’s abilities, you sacrifice an entire bar from the available four to do so.
I find myself (on my Sentinel, mind you) in situations where I don’t know which of the 17 or so available abilities to use next to maximize my damage output, since there are no targeting or practice dummies to test rotations on. And even if I could practice, there is no damage meter to determine if prioritizing one ability over another actually causes more damage overall. It’s also difficult to get a general feeling of how much damage each ability does, since the damage numbers are physically small on the screen, tons of abilities hit multiple times in quick succession, and your companion’s damage shows up in grey right along with yours, causing the damage you do to feel extremely spammy and making it almost impossible to add up in your head before the next explosion of tiny numbers appears. You can read the damage numbers from the tooltips to get a general idea, but that number goes through many modifiers according to the enemy’s armor and resistances before it does its actual damage.
Having the option of testing each ability separately on a practice dummy of sorts instead of on something trying to rip your head off would make it much easier to keep a mental tab on what ability does how much damage and what you should prioritize next. I’ll add here that it is extremely important to plan your abilities 2-3 abilities in advance, something which I have yet to perfect. Since there is no auto-attack or constant form of damage output, if you’re not pressing buttons your character is doing NOTHING. Time spent thinking about what ability to use at the time, or trying to frantically move your mouse around the bars to click the next ability will cause SEVERE drops in damage output, making DPS rotation practice and mouse-turning with key-binds mandatory for everybody wishing to do raid DPS in a competent guild. In previous MMOs, you could think about what to do next as your resource recharged while auto-attacking (as melee), making clickers acceptable in PvE situations if they had lots of practice, but in SWTOR, unless the ability has a cast time, you need to use an ability every 1.5 seconds to maximize your usefulness. This raises the skill cap of DPS, which is nice, but those who wish to become skilled can’t practice their rotations seriously outside of a group boss-fight environment. Things which die in two hits require different abilities to be used from those that die in 2000 hits, so there is no realistic way to practice DPS otherwise. It also doesn’t help that talent trees give little inherent advice as to which abilities can be ignored for other higher-priority abilities, and what talents make a certain skill powerful enough that it needs to be prioritized over others.
I’ll take this opportunity to add in a few minor grievances. You can only add friends when they’re currently online. PvP is knockback and very CC-heavy, making melee PvP very frustrating in general from what I’ve experienced, although I haven’t practiced it enough to be an authority on the subject. Companion characters can influence the way you act in conversations if you want to build affection rating with them. You can still make light/dark side choices the way you want without too much repercussions, but you need to please them during the rest of the conversations to make up for it. Jedi Knights get no companion during the early parts of the game that allow affection to be built while making dark-side decisions, which I found frustrating on my dark-sided Jedi. However, all in all, the things that I don’t like about the game are greatly overshadowed by the things that I simply love, and I believe that BioWare will fix or change a few of the things listed in the past few paragraphs as others start discovering them. Or, they can support third-party UI addons and the community will fix them for BioWare.
I’d like to end with why I feel that SWTOR will succeed where other potential “WoW-killers” have failed. This game is being released at a time that World of Warcraft is feeling very aged and Blizzard is running out of ideas of what to do next, as I’ve stated in my previous article. SWTOR will be a high-quality fully viable gaming option for those of us who are craving a new MMO experience similar to their time playing WoW, but in a completely new yet strangely familiar and comfortable universe. SWTOR adds just enough new and innovative things to the traditional MMO model to keep players interested long enough to become engrossed in the story and dedicated to their characters and new communities, without going overboard and scaring players away.
Blizzard and World of Warcraft succeeded largely because of their business model and the style of their game. Blizzard is a storied video game developer whose games have defined and redefined the genres they occupy. They are backed up by the deep pockets of Activision, who is willing to throw tons of money into the game because they realize that a properly-constructed MMO has more revenue potential than any other kind of game. They (eventually) created a game which is both casual and hardcore gamer friendly, with PvP and crafting options, along with a wide variety of graphical setting options, and graphics which are highly stylized instead of realistic. This satisfied a large variety of MMO players, allowed the game to be played on a wide variety of computers, and have the graphics be visually pleasing for quite a long period of time. Now, read the last paragraph again, but replace Blizzard with BioWare, Activision with EA, and World of Warcraft with Star Wars: The Old Republic, which in my opinion, is an inevitable outcome.
‘Til next time,
Discussion thread is here.