This is not a review (Gamasutra does not really do reviews), this is a look at what works and does not work in SWTOR. "Wait a moment..." you might think, is this not what a review is?
Yes and No! A Review is a non-objective (subjective) look at a game/movie/product and informs you if the reviewer thinks it is worth playing/buying and this will help you the consumer evaluate the product before getting it..
This article aims to be objective, and does not give an opinion of whether the game is worth playing or not. This means I can not give my personal opinion and anything negative must be balanced with a positive. (sometimes called constructive criticism), and I thank you for wishing me good luck with that...as it is nearly impossible to be fully objective, so if I slip up now and again please forgive me for that. I have also made it a point to not use lazy writing like "I've" and "It's" and "I'll" and "I'd" and the list goes on and on, instead I will use full proper words, gotta strut my writing skills. (However lame they might be, and I see that I need to work on my parenthesis use as well!)
In lieu of 15th of November 2012 (today) when SWTOR goes fully free to play, I have been taking advantage of the old level 1 to 15 trial a few days before that.
I have 6 out of the 8 characters up to level 11-15 and two at level 1 (at the time of writing this), I have one character per class so I could experience each story "path".
I would love to see BioWare do a Post Mortem of SWTOR in the future, but in the meantime maybe this will reflect some of the issues?
Let us start at the beginning then...
A few days ago in the very same galaxy as you, I downloaded the SWTOR installer. The installer worked OK. Unfortunately it was insanely slow, considering I have a 70mbit / 10mbit line there is no reason why the download of patches (via the game launcher) runs at a speed of 300KB/s (about 2.4mbit). After reading about a little "trick" on the net, I paused and un-paused the patch download (sometimes multiple times), and that suddenly changed the download speed to 4-6MB/s (32mbit-48mbit), at one point it even had a peak at 8.875MB/s (71mbit, maxing my downstream).
If you have not tried SWTOR you might wonder why I am complaining about patch download speed, but if I also tell you that the SWTOR installer is only around 30MB big and that the game launcher then need to fetch over 20GB of "patches" you can image speed is vital.
This is starting to sound like a review...
So let us be constructive then, how can this be fixed? My first thought was, why is there no "big" installer I could download? (With various download mirrors around the world for improved speed and redundancy.) And later I realized that the SWTOR launcher uses some form of torrent or swarm or peer to peer (P2P) system, but it has peer support turned off in the config file. (turning it on changed nothing either, so I am slightly confused now)
I am not sure what to say, I wish the launcher at the very least had a more consistent speed and that the ETA (military term, meaning Estimated Time of Arrival, or how long something would take) would include all patches needed and not just the current one. There is a "overall" progress bar. But again it is a poor clue as to how many patches are left and how long it will take. (should one come back an hour or a day later?) The pause/unpause trick should not be needed. It is also illogical. By doing that I cut my patching time from overnight (10-12+ hours) to a mere 3-4 hours, clearly something is amiss.
And then the journey starts...
Or not! I need to point out one caveat first, it may be me/my system/something, but me and Bink video have a hate/hate relationship, nothing against the guys at RAD Game Tools, but pretty much every game I have played that has had issues with cutscenes has been Bink based (from black video to system crashes). That is not say that all games with Bink cutscenes fail, I am just saying that those that have failed used Bink. And I have no idea what causes it. Over the years my hardware has changed (3 complete PC's in parts, 3-4 motherboards and CPUs and RAM and GFX cards etc. Different makes and brands.) so that can not be it.
I have noticed certain (usually older) DirectX games choking on my multi-monitor system, as my secondary monitor is to the left of my primary, so screen coordinate 0,0 is top middle of total screen/desktop area, that "might" trip some software up. But that is a programmer mistake that should not be that difficult to fix. (Blindly using the desktop resolution for your games screen setup can backfire, please take note you coders out there!) So is it BioWare's coders fault or RAD Game Tool's fault? I honestly do not know (and yes, my video drivers are up to date).
And before anyone asks, playing the Bink video directly using RAD Game Tools player from their official site works fine.
So what was the issue I experienced? The cutscenes where all black. I could hear the sound, and I luckily could skip the cutscene by pressing the Esc key. And if during a cutscene I used Alt-Tab, then it allowed me a 1 second glance at the cutscene (which looked otherwise fine) only to flash with big blocky green stripes and then go all black. Now I know nothing about the game engine for SWTOR, but the Star Wars Crawl should easily be doable with any modern (and not so modern) game engine. Just join two polygons and tilt, then scroll text over it. (I know, it is a tad oversimplified but you get the point I hope!)
And the rest of the cutscene? Now that gets difficult, some of that stuff would need not just a great game engine (better than any current MMO I have seen so far) and it would need pretty beefy hardware. But the text crawl and the "camera pan" that Star Wars is so famous for is easy. So what about the difficult visuals. Well Bink is not the only solution. Today I would recommend using WebM which is open and license free and it is the new web video standard. For audio the new Opus codec would do well. And for still images I would say use WebP (lossy and lossless capable).
And yes I know, back when SWTOR was created these where still not ready. But at that time Ogg Theora (video), Ogg Vorbis (audio), and PNG (images) was available. Then again the issue may not even be Bink, just that so many developers implement Bink wrong? I have noticed a resolution/screen change whenever a Bink video cutscene kicks in or tries to play. I also suspect that RAD Game Tools will support WebM, WebP, Opus as Bink codecs in the future so this is really important. Maybe RAD Game Tools just need to school game developers on proper implementation of their tools?
The annoying thing is that while the crawl and the camera pan at end could be done using the game engine, the big visual Star Wars reveal might not. Each class (8 of them) has their own Star Wars crawl, and a big visual intro or "side" reveal. Myself I would rather have gone for game engine text crawl, pan, and used the player character look for in-game intro cutscenes instead. I have always been a huge fan of using the game engine for everything (including cutscenes) as it keeps a consistent look (asset reuse as well) and you can use the player characters look in them.
To boldly go where thousands have gone before...
Character creation is mostly fine. Getting the balance of enough-and-not-too-many sliders is a tricky thing to do. But it never hurts to have more eye colors, hair, beards, tattoos, more races. Only thing I felt was missing was be able to zoom/in out gradually on the preview character. Body or face was it, or at least I could not seem to get upper body view working. Sometimes to judge a face change you might need to take a small step back. Choosing a side or a class was fine as well. I did miss a advisory of the kind "For new players the ... may be a good start if your play style is ..." but if all classes and sides are well balanced then all should be fine whether newcomer or not so that is not really a negative.
It is once you start playing that a few things stick out...
The voice acting is awesome, BioWare may have ruined the world of MMOs forever as this is truly the new standard. High quality full voice acting on all characters. Sure it will make games more expensive to produce. But the bar for quality got raised which is a huge positive. The downside is that in SWTOR even the smallest incidental NPC (Non Player Character) no matter how brief their appearance Are, has a better voice acting performance than the lead player character in many current AAA titles out there. The only other game with this caliber of voice acting quality I can recall easily is The Longest Journey and Dreamfall by Funcom. The negative to this is that if BioWare ever release a game with bad voice acting it will stand out that much more in contrast.
And with the story off to grinding do we go...
As if the full voice acting was not ambitious enough BioWare created 8 full stories. This is like KoTOR (Knights of The Old Republic) 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Or is it really? I noticed certain issues while playing.
First of all, all classes start on a "Starting World" and the game seem to be paced to let you level up to about level 10, then you move to the "Capital World" of your side where you level 10-15. This is fine, for the most part. There are several issues though. The most damning one is the Smuggler class I am playing right now, even though he arrived at the capitol planet as a level 10 or 11, right now he is a level 14 I think (I really should have scribbled these details down somewhere) and he is getting his ass handed to him by level 11 mobs (mobs aka mooks, or monsters, or enemies) something that did not happen with the other classes so far. In fact the Sith classes and leveling them seem easier somehow, is the Republic side supposed to have a tougher time on the Capitol planet?
That is not to say there are no issues with the Sith side either, but nothing that jarred that heavily for me. Could it just be the Smuggler that is gimped? Or did I make a really bad build? Level 1 to 10 felt fine compared to all the other classes so far. But all classes share one common issue. One that a lot of MMOs suffer from. And one of the reasons I never really play MMOs at all any more. Grind, grind, grind, oh the eternal grinding.
"Grinding" is simply explained as something you do again and again, not because you want to do it, but because you have no other choice. It is a means to an end. A necessary evil if you will. And it is hardly if ever fun at all. And where does the word grinding come from? No idea. But maybe referencing a miller grounding the flour in his mill? And if you need me to explain that particular reference go to wikipedia or read a historybook please, sheesh.
SWTOR is not ambitious enough...
I am not joking, they should have made this even bigger. The class stories suffer a lot by the overlaps, and induces grinding instead. I understand that BioWare did this for cost reasons, I just wish they had not. Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior share the same start planet, Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter share the same start planet. Likewise Jedi Consular and Jedi Knight share the same start planet, and Trooper and Smuggler share the same start planet. Once you reach level 10 it is time to head for the capitol planet of your side. Coruscant for the Republic and Dromund Kaas for the Empire.
The grind issue starts quite early on the start planets. Take Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor. Although their stories are different and they have different story missions/quests, they still have to grind through the exact same mobs/areas to get there. Sure the feeling of familiarity (for the terrain/location) might be nice. But when you sometimes have to double back with the current character, and then go through the whole thing again with the other character class you start to get really tired of it.
This gets even worse when you get your characters to level 10+ and end up on the capitol planet. Now 4 of your characters will be traveling through the same areas. With only small variation for each class story. There is one positive though, and I am not sure if this is intentional or not. You can sneak around enemies when going from A to B, you can many times avoid actually fighting.
If your character can do stealth it is even easier. Sneaking around may sound tedious as you move slower. But not having to fight every 15 meters is nice for a change and surprisingly faster as fighting can easily take up to a minute, so sneaking turns out faster. After a while you start to rush through things, especially once you get your second character on the capitol world. And that causes an issue, as you then start to level slower since you start to skip the more tedious quests you did with the other character(s).
With a rebel yell she cried, more, more, more...
What BioWare should have done is to separate the story quests even more. That the starting planet shares hub areas between characters and classes is fine and I like that. But where it is a struggle is when you fight through the same area. If it is vital that both stories culminate in the same place, then a better approach is that there should be almost two opposite approaches with no overlap. Another way to do things is to cut a world in half, like the Sith Inquisitor could end up doing most of the class story stuff on the right side of the map, while the Warrior on the left side of the map, there is also no reason why they both have to have the same start planet, there is certainly nothing in Star Wars lore that dictates this.
Side quests are not part of the main quest...
They are not, and it is silly if you need to do side quests to level up for the main quest. Ideally simply following only the main quest should level you appropriately, it should set the pace. This is not true as my poor Smuggler can attest to. He did the main quest on Ord Mantell, the side quests and mini quests (mostly fetch quests) and bonus quests (kill x amount of this or that), and did the HERO2 and HERO2+ (the HERO quests usually need 2 or 2+ characters of a certain level, usually intended for player+companion or teaming). But once my Smuggler reached Coruscant he hit a performance wall, some of the side quests turns out to have enemies so tough that he can not progress further in any quests. If this was a single player game I would create a trainer/cheat to "fix it". With a MMO this is not possible.
The main quest of such a story focused MMO need to be such that one can solo it by just following the main quest. And instead allow a companion character to help make it easier. And any side quests instead allow faster leveling. As soon as a companion is required or that side quests are required, then they become required and restrictions need to be placed. Thus making the side quests part of the main quest. Or making it not possible to go further until you and the companion is high enough level. As it stands, I may or may not continue the Smuggler class story, which is a huge shame, I would rather not go on Youtube to see how things turn out. (It would not be "my" journey anyway!) And there is no way I am camping out in the street to kill 600+ mobs to level up so I can level up enough to finish a side quest that is 2-3 levels below my level.
Logic processor not properly calibrated...
That is what a droid might say to certain things in the game. A Sith Warrior slaughtering things on his path to somewhere do not seem to odd, but even a Sith would not always do that. But a Jedi Counselor just cutting down wildlife (albeit hostile) just seems out of character. Would not a Jedi avoid, or even try to calm such a creature instead of killing? I wish they had been more bold and stuck closer to the lore here rather than typical "kill all wildlife" style that pretty much any MMORPG has.
Other things that does not compute is travel. All planets have a taxi. But if you go and try to take a taxi you find there are no destinations, you first have to travel there on foot. Only in a few cases (Jedi starting planet being one) are there destinations on the taxi travel map. One would logically assume that a taxi network knew where to go without the passengers having to tell them how to get there first. And why can one not "steal" a speeder bike? That seems very Star Wars to me, it happen in at least one of the movies.
The hidden holocrons are a nice idea. But some of them are placed in odd places (surely a holocron in a spaceport would be found by a cleaning crew?). It would have been much more fun if you could come across a treasure map that some shady guy on the fleet station cantina tries to sell you, and then you start traveling around the galaxy to "collect them all", instead I Alt-Tab to my browser for a holocron location map which is not as much fun, and by the time I started my third character I started ignoring the holocrons, I will just gather them up when I am higher level and the mobs are no longer a "hinderance".
Another issue is re-spawn. Too many times have mobs re-spawned right under me. This is a MMO issue. But other MMOs have dealt with this by not having mobs spawn while someone is are standing in the spawn area, that is the public areas. But even worse is when you die, and you chose to be resurrected where you die (with not full health). The mobs are full health again. Even worse. Mobs you defeated earlier may re-spawn during your fight. And now I am talking about player only areas, as that actually happen to be during a quest.
Sure you are invisible for a few seconds when you are resurrected, but that wore off by the time I got to the exit. At which point the suddenly spawning enemies killed me. And best of all. If I choose to be taken to the med center instead, I get the joy of running all the way back to the quest area, through all those mobs I have killed.
And then there is the resurrect waiting timer that keeps increasing each time you die, and that your gear get really damaged each time you die. Did somebody forget here that if a player keep dying that they are actually struggling, so why are you rewarding their persistence by making it even more difficult for them? How about spawning 1 level lower mobs instead at this point?
This is not a issue with SWTOR alone. I could easily do series of articles (with lots of Gamasutra viewer/reader help) of installents named "Top xx-xx illogical things in games!" as there is that much of it out there, games are even inconsistent with their own lore.
What the hell do they feed these creatures...
Loot drop is a constant annoyance for me, and this is not a SWTOR issue nor a MMO issue. Any game that drops loot has this issue, with very few exceptions.
Why would a wild beast drop credits? Sure if it had eaten a glove or two I might not be too surprised. Some of the stuff you find on enemies are just silly as some are just too small to contain them. Likewise, if you kill an enemy I expect to be able to take their weapons, gear and armor. Sure, them laying (or vanishing a moment later as they do) with nothing on besides their underwear may seem weird, but no weirder than their weapons magically turning into air when they die currently.
Light side vs Dark side...
Oh boy! I will cut this short, moral stuff like this is worth a article or even article series with multiple authors. Let us just say that certain dialog choices gives dark or light side points, but it is not always clear which will do which.
And sometimes when a choice seem good, you companion views it as a bad choice, which makes me question my companions sanity (as the choice seem to be exactly the stance the companion is supposed to have given their behavior so far). And this is a issue I have with most "morale" systems. BioWare is yet to solve this, and they are the ones with the most experience on this like with KoTOR, and then Obsidian introduced a lot of "grey morale" in KoTOR2, and in Mass Effect BioWare evolved this to a gentle or tough approach to issues, and SWTOR retain some of this as you can be a Jedi or Sith but still do good and/or evil things, which is something I find to be great.
As I said, this is a huge topic. And I have my own methodology for my own CRPG core rule-set for dealing with this in a "correct" way. I may or may not post about that later on Gamasutra. To quickly explain. Evil or Good is how others perceive you (it is subjective after all). A Good person can do evil things, and a evil person can do good things. And if nobody saw you do it, then nobody knows about it, very logical really.
The Evil/Good tracking should be trifold. Internal alignment affecting your physical power, external alignment is how the world sees you affecting your social power, and companion alignment(s) affecting your relationship with them. As far as I can tell SWTOR only tracks physical power and companion relationship. KOTOR did the same. Mass Effect used external alignment (but restricted your dialog choices which was odd) and companion relationship (loyalty it was called). Dragon Age only kept the companion relationship. So it will be interesting to see how BioWare will tackle this in their next game as they clearly are not done experimenting with this stuff. (please try the trifold approach guys)
And nothing ever changes...
An great opportunity was missed, it would have been interesting (or hilarious at times) if side quests on worlds was once per player. By that I mean, if your Sith Inquisitor did a side quest on the starter planet, and then later your Sith Warrior stops by and the quest is not available. (since it has been done, story-wise) The hilarious part would be if the quest giving NPC stated "Oh, you are here about that job are you? A Sith Inquisitor just did that earlier...".
Other possibilities would be if the actions of one would impact the actions of another.
For example. If a Sith Warrior plants a bomb as part of a quest on some world. Later a Jedi Knight might get the task of disabling it. And if the Jedi Knight got there earlier, they would disable a bomb, but the Sith Warrior would instead get the mention to "re-arm" the bomb as some pesky Jedi Knight had disabled it earlier. And through the in-game mails the names of the other characters (of the player) could be referenced. This would help make the story of all the characters you play feel like their stories are really interwoven.
Main story Quest NPC: "Some pesky Jedi disarmed our bomb, so we need you to re-arm it again, details on your mission has been sent to you!". And then when you check the mail you might see a mention of a Jedi Knight, and if you where "spotted" by surveillance maybe the name of your Jedi character. This would not be difficult to do nor implement ("everything" is tracked anyway in a MMO), but it would have required more design/planning time for the game.
26964 letters and only the surface is scratched...
This article/post is getting rather large so I will round off now. And I know I said that this was not a review. But if you have not played SWTOR and are wondering if you should, I do have an answer to that question. Now that SWTOR is going free to play, allowing you to complete (level 1 to 50) the main story for each class, it is a huge resounding yes. If you loved KoTOR and KoTOR2 then you should like this as well. And with Disney having bought Star Wars (Who the hell saw that coming? It certainly blindsided me!) a KoTOR3 may suddenly be a possibility, and the right developer for that is BioWare in co-operation with LucasArts, alternatively Obsidian in co-operation with BioWare and LucasArts (only this time make sure Obsidian gets enough development time). I also suspect a Star Wars live action TV series may be finally on the horizon as well (please let it be for a mature audience only).
But back to SWTOR, it may be the same amount of work as almost eight KoTOR games, but it is not eight single player KoTOR games sadly. If SWTOR had happen a year after KoTOR then SWTOR would have been bigger than WoW (World Of Warcraft) I am sure. And while full high quality voice acting, and 8 great character stories may be cutting the edge today, the rest of the game is not. The rest of the game is just a MMO.
Maybe if BioWare had made the main story a single player only experience, and let the MMO stuff be separate (kind of what Funcom did with the Conan MMO "intro" levels) things would be better. So far I have soloed SWTOR. I only "teamed" up a few times accidentally, as I and someone else was killing the same mobs on the same roads leading to/from a quest. I never actually teamed though. If anything the MMO part adds a odd surrealism when you see "the population" running by with names like MrSnuffles (I just made that up, but I am sure somebody are actually named that, even on the RolePlay server.) Autodeny option of teaming requests is a brilliant feature though, so thanks for that though BioWare.
In all seriousness I hope I mostly managed to keep a balance of constructive-criticism here. But we really need a post-morten from BioWare on this, as there is a lot of speculation on my part of certain things. What BioWare tried to do had never been done before. Is trying to merge singleplayer and multiplayer a good idea? No! At least not in my eyes, the logistics of it is just a pain, the pacing is different, and the story immersion suffers.
Did they succeed? No! Did they fail? No! But they have come the closest so far to actually re-inventing what a "MMORPG" can be, but not in the way the majority thought they would.
BioWare showed the world that not only is it possibly to do a game with high quality voice acting and with 8 full class stories but do it in the form of an MMORPG as well. Future MMO games now have to hear "BioWare did it..." and Future FPS/TPS/RPG games have to hear "BioWare did it 8 times over in single a MMO..."
I just wish they had been even more ambitious, and done a few of the things I pointed out in this article, and a few things that I am sure people will point out in the comments (And I know, I know, objective article, Haha! I failed pretty miserably with that huh?).
Roger Hågensen considers himself an Absurdist and a Mentat, hence believing in Absurdism and Logic. Has done volunteer support in Anarchy Online for Funcom. Voicework for Caravel Games. Been a Internet Radio DJ with GridStream. Currently works as a Freelancer, Windows applications programmer, web site development, making music, writing, and just about anything computer related really. Runs the website EmSai where he writes a Journal and publishes his music, ideas, concepts, source code and various other projects. Has currently released 3 music albums.