For all my enthusiasm, I have to admit I approached this hands-on with no small amount of trepidation. I'm a huge Star Wars fan (I still play Star Wars Galaxies!), but I fell out of "expert" range on the saga a decade ago. Like many of you readers, I've been wary of the hype and even warier of delusions of grandeur on the part of game companies trying to do justice to the IP. I was really afraid that it wouldn't be as good as I'd hoped and that I'd walk away disappointed.
And given the parts I saw, SWTOR's not as good as I'd hoped. It's better.
Episode I: A first step into a larger world
The first thing I tried to do was throw myself off a cliff.
My demo station was prepped with a premade (sorry, no peek at character creation) Human Jedi Knight character -- well, a Padawan, anyway. He was cute, too! The very first NPC I met informed me that I was on Tython, one of the Jedi Knights' secret training worlds, and that Very Bad Things were happening. I would surely be tested. Right away, I was hit with BioWare's famous dialogue wheel. Ask questions? Commit to heroism? Be a jerk to the only person in the universe I know? The choice was mine. So I decided to throw myself off a cliff.
Of course it didn't work, because the zone designers anticipated my mischief. Instead, I made my way down from platform to platform, randomly clicking on everyone and marveling at how pretty and unique everything looked. The graphics aren't ultra-realistic; they have that chunky-smooth stylized-but-not-too-cartoony BioWare charm that's hard to describe. It's beautiful, and Tython's scenery impressed me at almost every turn.
This was the weakest part of my whole playthrough -- the first 10 minutes. Part of that was because I was a newbie, but part was the way it was laid out -- I felt as if I were stumbling around trying to figure out which NPCs had dialogue for me and which didn't, as it wasn't really obvious. Eventually I broke free of the warren of platforms and hit the questing areas. Relief! I felt back in my element. The early quests were all fairly standard MMO fare, which was just fine with me, especially given the top-notch quest-pointers (standard only in the newest games). I killed my critters, rescued hapless padawans, looted fallen enemies, equipped the good loot and brought the junk back to the vendor NPCs. Occasionally an NPC would contact me remotely and save me the run; I could also hop a speederbike for some on-rails real-time swift-travel (very handy when I needed to visit the trainer NPC, who highlighted on my minimap when he had new skills for me). When I got lost, an NPC terminal could direct me to my destination, or I could thumb through the Codex, a Mass Effect-style database automagically compiled as you adventure. It's comfortable and familiar newbie gameplay nestled in a modernized, intuitive, KOTOR-flavored UI that's easy enough on the eyes that my first urge wasn't to mod it out of existence.
For the people worried that SWTOR is going to be all talking and no fighting, stop worrying. Combat itself was very satisfying. The Jedi Knight is very much a melee class not unlike warrior classes I've played in other games (like WoW or Rift). Smash, slice, spin -- and I am in love with Force-Leap! My Knight even had a focus bar reminiscent of the WoW Warrior's Rage mechanic. I didn't get a lightsaber right off (there's a quest to make one upon leaving Tython and becoming a full Jedi Knight); instead, I wielded a series of melee weapons that sparkled with electricity. The combat sound effects are already fantastic -- very Star Wars. Jumping off of medium heights resulted in my rolling gracefully to my feet. A skill called Introspection allowed me to rest in between fights, replacing a whole tier of regenerative consumables and their predecessors "meditating into a book" and "standing around waiting for your health to come back." Unlike the similar Rest power in City of Heroes, Introspection has no timer, although you must be out of combat to use it and you simply interrupt it when you're healed. Everyone gets a resurrection skill too! And we needed it. Much later, when I was grouped with other players, I found I died a lot. I'd like to blame it on the Sentinel who was meant to be healing me, but we were all new to the game. Presumably, the Knight will toughen up later in the game when he can specialize as a tank.
Overall, it was nice to get to play a Jedi and not feel guilty about it like I would in Star Wars Galaxies. Journeying to Tython's Jedi temple was a similarly iconic treat -- I ran through some Jedi combat trials, met Satele Shan in person, sat in on a council meeting, and was eventually chosen to be the padawan of a grizzled old proponent of the Living Force. All throughout, the music set the tone. Whichever composer tackled Tython, bravo to you sir. On walking into the council hall, I was greeted with a beautiful reblend of John Williams' Yoda theme, not a blend in the unfortunate Shadows of the Empire soundtrack sense, but rather in a "John Williams could have written this" sense. Up until that point I was a little tense about the experience, because the KOTOR era isn't my favorite and it was feeling a bit too Mass Effect to me. The familiar music relaxed me. OK, I thought. This really is Star Wars.
Daniel Erickson insisted that Tython was dense -- and that it was small compared to later non-origin worlds -- but it looked pretty big to me, and several of the areas seemed much larger than necessary. Perhaps I'm trained to expect fairly small, concentrated quest hubs, so a large agricultural/religious village like Kalikori, which had only a few quests (all completable in the same run), seemed a bit weird. Then again, I was relieved I didn't have to linger too long in any one spot. BioWare kept me there just long enough before moving me on. Consequently, I always felt like I was moving forward, rather than like I was doing busywork to pad out my grind at each hub.
And for the people worried that SWTOR is going to be a Star Wars-themed World of Warcraft, you can rest easy too. The dialogue system guarantees that returning to your quest-giver isn't just a mad dash of clicks. Your quest choices actually matter. The NPCs talk to you, and you're going to want to talk back. I never once had the urge to skip the quest text (in fact, I was terrified I'd miss something if I looked away!), and while sometimes I felt as though I were performing menial tasks in between watching a really awesome movie, I didn't care, because it was a really awesome movie (and the menial tasks were amusing too).
When players think of voiceover dialogue, they inevitably think of how it has gone so wrong in past games -- including past BioWare games. But in SWTOR, I knew by the third dialogue session that whatever BioWare spent on this stuff... it was all worth it. The characters are utterly vivid and beautiful, even the "ugly" ones like the requisite tubby Twi'lek dude. They're magnetic. Their eyes in particular just draw you right in. The characters are animated and feel natural; their faces are believably expressive and unique, and the sample I saw drew from both genders and several ethnic groups. The characters don't just stand there woodenly bossing you around -- they interact with you, using their own colorful accents (or translated text, in the case of aliens who didn't speak Basic or droids like T7-01, whose adorable mathematical-equation speech delighted me once I'd quested far enough to acquire him).
The dialogue can be quite funny. More than once, I was given the opportunity to use "You talk stupid" or "You're ugly" as Dark Side responses. At one point, after I'd undertaken a quest to find a missing man, his child asked me, "Where's my father?" to which I was permitted to respond, "In my bag." Gruesome, but I still laughed and wished I hadn't decided to go for Light Side points. If you've played the earlier KOTOR and Mass Effect games, Light Side and Dark Side points are self-explanatory. A red or blue overlay blinks across your UI as you make certain choices, and presumably those choices will have an impact on NPC responses and quests available to you.
One particular quest really impressed me because I was able to change my decision midway through. A pair of Jedi Masters tasked me with determining whether or not their apprentices were involved in an illicit affair. When I confronted the Padawans, I decided to allow them to bribe me to keep my mouth shut about their romance. (I broke character, but I wanted to see what would happen.) The Masters didn't seem to believe me, but they took me at my word. Later when I returned to collect my bribe (a rare lightsaber crystal), I got the option to refuse to accept it, which earned me the loving couple's loyalty. I wish I'd had time to finish the area, because I'd love to see how that turns out (and whether I'd have gotten to use that crystal in my saber). Something tells me it doesn't end happily, except for me as a player. Can you imagine how a quest like that would go in any other game? Click click click auto-complete click next quest. But in SWTOR, I was riveted.
If I was impressed at my experience with solo dialogue, I was blown away by group dialogue. The BioWare folks boosted our characters to level 10 and placed us in groups of four for the Tython-to-Coruscant transition quest. I should say that this part of the game seemed a bit buggy, so much that the team almost didn't let us play it. As Daniel Erickson put it, this area was really a "giant bug with some gameplay elements attached to it." I'm so glad BioWare let us have a go at it, because bugs or not, group dialogue is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in an MMO.
We crowded around the first trigger NPC; once everyone had engaged, we were off and running in a synchronized conversation between her and the group. Your mates don't all respond to the NPC or the event at once; every group member gets to choose his own response, then the game performs a silent roll to determine whose answer is actually used. That part is widely known. But watching it unfold in front of me... that's something else. The interaction is shot like a movie. It's believably cinematic; the camera swings around to focus on whoever's talking, and there's considerable potential to create some tense and amazing scenes (especially when the characters disagree about the correct course of action). I've never really felt like I've been participating in a collaborative movie with my friends before -- PnP and text-based roleplaying just doesn't compare.
I should note here that it is roleplaying on rails. I've got guildmates who would spend their every waking moment free-form roleplaying in a cantina somewhere or playing a true PnP game with a dedicated GM. They're going to see through this three-choice dialogue wheel and realize that they're being limited by what the designers have allowed. It will stifle them, but I don't see a way around it. For all the fun that can be had roleplaying without rules -- by the seat of my pants! -- that kind of play can be pretty exhausting, and generally it's nine parts junk to one part awesome. I'm willing to give up just a bit of my creativity for a professional story that never lets up. I still get to make meaningful choices based on what my character would do, and I'm sure I can find a seedy cantina on Nar Shaddaa stuffed full of hardcore RPers when I just have to play my way. It's worth it when I know that I can return to the main storyline at any time and continue roleplaying rather than take a break from it. In most games, I'd be giving up roleplay experiences for just more of the same combat or one-dimensional questing. Here, I'm seamlessly swapping one form of roleplay for another. BioWare is integrating it right into the core gameplay mechanics and rewarding the roleplayer for doing it. This is what we've been asking for all along!
Episode V: Clear your mind of questions
BioWare's Senior Community Manager Stephen Reid remarked that he could tell me SWTOR wasn't KOTOR 3 but rather KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and he could hold up his hands a foot apart to show how long SWTOR's story is when printed out. Unfortunately, he lamented, no one would believe him. It's one of those things you have to see for yourself. Too many players in this genre have been lied to. They assume such wild claims are merely propaganda.
In general, I don't think that's true of SWTOR. The team obviously has a long way to go to color in the lines of the structure it's laid out (and consequently, I think the game is a lot further away than most of us imagined), but the foundation is in place for this to be a revolutionary MMO -- note that I said MMO, not game. I think Blizzard and BioWare have a lot in common on this front. What Blizzard did so brilliantly with World of Warcraft was replace the "grind mobs to level" trope with something from the single-player RPG genre: quests. BioWare is taking that a step further and replacing the "silent questing" model with a truly interactive quest system, the kind popularized by (and now expected in) modern single-player games. That doesn't mean SWTOR is a single-player game that just happens to be online (especially given how much cooler quest dialogue is alongside your mates), but rather that SWTOR is employing beloved single-player mechanics to fill gaping holes in MMORPGs, holes that formed naturally when the very first designers tried stuffing thousands of people into a MUD/RPG hybrid. It wasn't truly possible to create an amazing MMORPG back then... but SWTOR is one giant step closer.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is finally here, and the Force is with Massively! We've prepared a Hutt-sized feast of class introductions, gameplay guides, lore roundups, and hands-on previews to help you navigate the launch period and beyond. And don't forget our weekly SWTOR column, the Hyperspace Beacon!