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Well with the servers down for the rest of the night, now is a good time for me to dicuss what I personally think about the game. I've always been a fan of World of Warcraft. I often find that many MMORPG developers seek to emulate the success of WoW but either do it shoddily, or they fail to fully encapsulate all of what makes WoW so successful. Being a huge Star Wars fan since I first got the movies (the original original trilogy) for my 5th birthday, I've always thought a traditional MMORPG set within the Star Wars universe would be something amazing. When BioWare finally announced The Old Republic, I was ecstatic. Knights of the Old Republic is one of my favorite games of all time and an MMORPG version of KOTOR meant that I could now combine two of my favorite passions into one activity. All previous beta experiences aside, after playing through level 26, I can now say that I am very pleased at what BioWare has given us; however, I'm not so naive as to say the game is flawless. In fact, that is far from the case. The Old Republic has a number of issues that will impact one's ability to enjoy the game if they aren't already fans of the source material.
For starters, the quests and cutscenes are all very well done. If you can stomach sitting through cutscenes and heaps of dialogue, those additions really change the way you think about questing. No longer are you running to faceless camps filled with NPCs all in a nice line with exclamation marks over their heads with nondescript stories telling yout o go out and kill 10 rats. You engage in a dialogue with every quest NPC which gives them life and a character not seen in any other MMORPG. While some quests are fairly standard, many side quests are tiny self contained stories with moral choices similar to those found in the main story. Most of the standard kill/collect quests are in the form of bonus quests which you get in each area. They are totally optional to progression, and after the starter planet, I skipped them entirely. Every planet has a large amount of group quests which, in some cases, are like miniature flashpoint instances that take place within group phases. Given that the main story quest is the one questline which pushes you from area to area, you are not required to finish all sidequests in a linear sequence in order to progress. You may chose to entirely ignore certain side missions if you have made up the XP loss in PvP or if you simply are ready to get off a certain planet. Occasionally, new quests will pop up in old areas which reference your past deeds which you may miss entirely if you don't know where to look. Each archtype has its own storyline, so each side has a total of four main stories. Of course, all side quests are the same for each respective faction.
While the main story for each archtype class is different, the fact that all side missions are the same per faction may pose an issue when leveling alts. I would like to experience all the stories, but I'm not sure I want to be bothered with grinding through the same plethora of side missions over and over and over. As a result, more than anything, I'm tempted to role a member of the oposing faction for an alt. Of course, if I do that I won't be able to be in contant with my guild or anyone on my buddy list, and after I finish a character on the opposing faction, what then? SW:TOR and all new MMORPGs need multiple leveling paths even if it's just two potential zones per level range. Going through each zone is fun the first time, but repeating the same content so soon after completing it the first time is going to get old.
One thing though -- the running. Oh my goodness, the running! Contrary to the beliefs of most people, I feel as if BioWare got it right with the scale of the starter planets. They're the perfect size for the quests you must complete. Every planet after that is needlessly big with nothing but filler hallways or (in the case of planets like Tatooine), empty space. You'll constantly get quests telling you to go one direction and another from the same quest hub telling you to go somewhere across the map. I wouldn't have an issue with this if the planets were fun to explore, but as a matter of opinion, the planets are all relatively generic. Once you step foot on the planet, you've pretty much seen all there is to see. The rest of the planet is just the same generic tileset spread out over 2, 3, or 4 different maps. It's almost as if BioWare heard the cries of jaded sandbox fanatics and decided to make every planet after the starter worlds large just for the sake of having large worlds. Of course, you do get a spring skill at level 14 and a speeder at level 25, but the running is still annoying and it reaks of old school WoW. In regards to the speeder, riding training is expensive and harkens back to the days of WoW where you had to save up tons of money at that level in order to afford a mount. I did not like that then and I don't like it now. While people are saying they're leaving the starter planet with upwards of 25k gold, I have to question what they are doing. Having never purchased a single bag upgrade, I've only had about 31k even at level 26, and I don't usually have that much for very long due to skill upgrades being so frequent and so expensive.
The cutscenes are storylines are BioWare's major innovations, but that could be an issue. For those of us who are drawn into the game through the cutscenes, this is nearly a genre changing feature; however, not everyone cares so much about storylines and quest NPCs with personality. I'm sure there's a lot of players out there who are wearing out the spacebar as I write this, and for those people, I wonder if SW:TOR will truly hold their interest for a long period of time. Perhaps it's easy to say that the game simply wasn't made for them, and perhaps that is exactly the case, but it could create a problem for BioWare if most of the players currently clogging the login servers are the ones that love spamming the spacebar. The problem is that when you take out the voice acting and when you take out the cutscenes and story, you're leff with World of Warcraft ,minus a few key exceptions, in a Star Wars setting, and I can't imagine those people sticking around very long.
A couple of the key exceptions I am refering to are companion characters and crew skills. I find these phenomenal additions to the WoW formula. In SW:TOR you have three major "crafting" skills. You can gather materials and craft items using those materials, but you can also send your companions on certain "missions" which bring materials, credits, and rare loot drops. Your companion characters can craft, do missions, and gather materials all while you're adventuring, making this a huge step forward in traditional crafting mechanics. Taking a page from KOTOR, most items have slots where they can be modified with additional loot items. In theory, you can take a statless piece of gear and make it entirely equivalent to some of the best equipment in the game through modification. When a companion character is running errands for you, he, she, or it is fighting by your side akin to a henchman from Guild Wars Nightfall. You can even outfit your companion with armor and weapon upgrades exactly like you do your player character. Add those two things to the WoW formula and would that make the difference for people deciding whether to stay or to go back to WoW to await the panda invasion? Only they can say.
Space combat is another exception to the WoW formula, but it's such a minor part of the game that I doubt people will judge whether or not they stay or leave based on how great it is. Honestly though, I enjoyed the on-rails space combat. Panzer Dragoon II is another one of my favorite games of all time, and Star Fox is one of the most widely acclaimed video game franchises in history, so I'm not sure where all the hate comes from in regards to the space mini-game especially when you consider none of the KOTOR games ever had spaceflight. All they had was a turret minigame. That said, I honestly believe on-rail shooters present cinematic action better than a flight sim or even a more arcade style space flight game like Rogue Squadron ever could. Complete more than just the first mission to get a real feel for how fun it is. The battles are intense and all look phenomenal. In fact, space combat is probably the best looking portion of the entire game. You can earn badges and purchase equipment upgrades for your ship in order to more easily complete additional missions as well. I look forward to seeing how much BioWare expands upon this mechanic.
So far, I have completed every flashpoint for my level at least once, and so far, they are all extremely fun. The first flashpoint had a hefty amount of group dialogue and cutscenes which, I think, caused a lot of people to think all flashpoints would be that way; however, that isn't the case. Think of the first flashpoint as an introduction to the fun that is multiplayer conversations. The rest of the flashpoints that I have completed weren't all that different from what you would find in WoW or Rift, though I'm sure future flashpoints do have additional story content. Bosses were appropriately challenging and required strategies similar to what you see in WoW.
Quest and dugeon rewards are largely appropriate. At times, I feel as if they throw too much at you where I'm constantly asking myself "Ok, do I upgrade my own armor, do I upgrade companion 1's weapon, do I take this new chestpiece for companion 2, or do I take this commendation so I can buy something really nice later?" I would prefer if companion gear upgrades were given in addition to gear upgrades for youself. Speaking of commedations, badge grinding starts early in SW:TOR. Every planet as commendation badges which you can loot of random mobs, gain as quest rewards, or obtain from flashpoints. There are commendation merchants for gear and for modifications and the gear quality is at least the equivalent of blues in WoW. I enjoyed the flashpoints, but I foresee an issue with the way they are set up. Currently, all flashpoints are accessed through a singular location -- the fleet center which is basiclally the closest thing SW:TOR has to a faction capital. It's a great idea; however, it can be a pain getting together a group for a flashpoint unless every person who wants to run it is also waiting around in the fleet center. There's no galaxy wide LFG channel, and most players see fit to grind out the levels on the individual planets rather than wasting time trying to form groups in the fleet center. if there's not going to be a dungeon finder in the near future, BioWare should at least add a galaxy wide LFG channel to facilitate locating groups.
In terms of graphics, I'm not quite sure what's going on with SW:TOR. The textures in-game look low resolution and pixelated; however, the graphics in cutscenes are as smooth and vibrant as we've seen in all the screenshots. Given that BioWare has made no official statement regarding this, many people believe that this is how the game is supposed to look, and perhaps they are correct. While trying to examine this issue, I turned my textures from high to medium and noticed absolutely nothing happened whereas a change from low to medium required a re-load. This leads me to believe that high quality textures are, for some reason, missing from the game or at least disabled except for when in the middle of a cutscene. Why this is the case is anyone's guess, but I would assume there's a problem with the game engine. SW:TOR is a resource hog when it shouldn't be. There's a nasty trend where many MMORPG developers sacrifice graphics quality to allow the game to be played on a variety of systems, yet World of Warcraft remains pretty much the only MMORPG released without some game engine related issue. Playing this game using two different video cards at different occasions, SW:TOR causes the cards to run much hotter and if I'm not mistaken, a day spent in Taris nearly caused me to overheat. Framerates are all over the map. In some cases, I'll get around 30 FPS then rotate the camera ever so slightly and suddenly be upwards of 60. I would assume many of these issues are related to why we can't use the high quality textures in normal play. Because of this; however, the game can go from looking acceptable to good to downright awful depending on the area you're in. Certain areas tend to highlight the ugly textures more than others, and to make matters worse, an option foranti-aliasing has been removed and this game is in real need for it. While it can be enabled via an ini file tweak, this may cause additional graphical issues.
Aside from that SW:TOR has numerous tiny issues that have been eating at me lately. For one, it isn't polished. It's actually incredibly buggy. I haven't encountered anything game breaking, but the number of graphical glitches are astounding. Many times in a cutscene, the camera will randomly shake as if the planet is in the middle of an earthquake. Strange neon green lines jot out from the ground and shoot across the map in certain areas along with some red lines and other glitchy graphics. It's doubtful this is just my system as, once again, I've encountered these issues across two different video cards, and for the green lines at least, many players in an earlier beta reported seeing them as well. While I haven't gotten stuck in combat yet (the bane of Rift), my character and my companion are often stuck with our lightsabers on as we run across the map for several seconds. On occasion, a mob will slam my companion into the ground and she will stay there, magically teleporting next to me face down in the dirt as I move through the area as if I was playing Everquest and dragging someone's corpse. In Tatooine, I ran across a valley where nearly all Sand People were glitched where I could only remain in combat with them for about 3 seconds before they would revert back to full health. I'm sure there are others, but they are numerous and tiny. It would be difficult for me to recount every instance of a glitch given that I haven't exactly been keeping a log. Secondly, SW:TOR is fresh out of the box without numerous features that I consider to be standard for MMORPGs. The UI cannot be resized. There are no guild banks. There is no add-on support. There's not even little icons beside the quest tracker for when you need to use an item for a quest. Like in oldschool WoW, you have to manually place that item on your hot bar to use it. In my mind, the biggest offender is going to be the lack of a respec option. This isn't such a big deal for me since all I have are DPS talent trees, but for classes who can spec between tanking/dmg or healing/dmg are going to hate this system. Certain skill trees are better for PvP when they may not be entirely viable for PvE as well. Sure, there are respec NPCs in fleet centers, and the first respec is free, but the price for a respec ramps up quickly, and I doubt it will be viable to continually switch between specs. I'm not sure what BioWare was thinking with this, but that sort of omission is truly unacceptable. Other players have other issues as well, and perhaps I do, but because none of them are coming to me at the moment, they must not have concerned me as much as the lack of the features listed above.
I think, however, at the end of the day, whether or not SW:TOR is a huge success is going to depend largely on how many people buy into the BioWare formula within an MMORPG. Millions of people logged thousands of hours into KOTOR, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age; however, this is an MMORPG not a single player game. Will it become a problem for people going from quest NPC to quest NPC listening to the traditional BioWare style dialogue system? At what point will players get bored with this and begin treating it as WoW with lightsabers? Will they ever? Honestly, I don't think any of us can say at the moment. SW:TOR is a great game and is most likely going to be a success if for no other reason than the fact that it gives Star Wars fans a new MMO to call home. After all, if all those people can play the garbage that was NGE SWG for all those years, surely they can play and enjoy SW:TOR for a long time to come. Additionally, it's probably the most well funded MMORPG on the market outside of WoW published by a developer of considerable reputation which will draw an audience. If BioWare can sell SW:TOR's playerbase on the game's story mechanics, if they can fix the numerous bugs, and if they can add all those common features found in other recently created MMORPGs, I predict the game will be a success. If not, at the worst, I feel as if this game will perform similarly to Rift, LotRO, and EQ2 all who posessed and continue to posses a healthy subscriber base for quite some time.