Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Could benefit from AA.
With the NDA recently lifted, this is a blog about Star Wars: The Old Republic, commonly referred to as SWTOR. An up coming MMORPG set to release in December by Bioware, EA, and Lucas Arts. So if you don't know what I'm talking about, aren't a gamer, or aren't a geek... you can go ahead and skip to the next blog and save yourself a lot of time and confusion.

Lets start with character customization. This is a good foundation of any game review and all games. On a scale of one to ten, one being severely lacking (example: World of Warcraft) and ten being super fantastic (example: All Points Bulletin), I'd give this game a hopeful three. Hopeful in that it will improve before you get your hands on it. Both graphically and when it comes down to options.

At current your options are quite limited. There are nine races total all of which are basically human. Such as human with spikes (Zabrak), human who is blue (Chiss), human without eyes (Miraluka), human with cybernetic implants (Cyborg), human who is pale (Rattataki), human who is green (Mirialan), and human who is spiky but their spikes are covered in flesh (Sith). The most nonhuman you can achieve is tentacle-head human (Twi'lek). And not all races are created equal. Some have way more options than others, even if unnecessary or uncharacteristic. You can pick through fourty-seven shades of beige for a human, but only seven colors (way less if you remove choices which are the same color but a little duller) for Twi'lek -- a race renown for coming in every pigment in the universe. Um, what? That can't be right.

Not that you won't see other more alien-looking races as you're playing. You will. There are a number of Trandoshan, Rodians, Ithorians, and other such iconic Star Wars species peppering the world. You just cannot play them as a race. Why? I don't know. I would have loved to play an Ithorian, but oh well.

Once you've chosen your race you can change their hairstyle provided they have hair, their eye color provided they have eyes, their skin color and their face. Some races have tattoos, piercings, or various head-dress to select from, but often only if they lack another trait to customize (i.e. hair, eyes). There are about twelve faces total, four Caucasian-looking faces, four African-looking faces, and four Asian-looking faces. There are no sliders to further refine individual facial features such as your nose, or cheek bones. What you see is what you get. There are four body types total to choose from. The first is anorexic looking, the second is your standard build, the third is meathead and the fourth is rotund (which is not actually all that fat).

Also, for some unknown reason, all men have strangely protruding chests which, from a distance makes them all appear female. I have no idea why this is, but it's very off-putting and will undoubtedly cause more than a little confusion.

Class is restricted by race, which I dislike. If someone told me I couldn't be an astronaut because I'm part Irish, I'd be livid and probably become an astronaut just to prove a point. Not that I'm honestly comparing video game racism to real life racism; having dealt with both personally. It's also not that I dislike racial tension altogether. In a story arch it can actually add a lot of depth. But in character creation it's just mechanics and wholly unnecessary. There is no discernible reason why Jamie the Chiss shouldn't be able to do what Quinton the Mirialan can do. I don't care what thinly veiled excuse Bioware tries to sate us with. Quite simply it's bullshit, especially when race offers no benefit that would somehow make one choice superior to another. Choice of race is entirely aesthetic.

The character models themselves are somewhat dated. Similar to those found in Dark Age of Camelot: Catacombs, even if higher res. Which says a lot considering Catacombs was released in 2004. Of course I could also do the more obvious and compare them to Star Wars: Galaxies character models, but that isn't much better given those are dated even earlier at 2003. This is 2011; we expect more. But I can let a game slide by on has-been graphics so long as the mechanics are entertaining and the plot is good. While the mechanics aren't anything fabulous, average by all accounts, the story is entertaining enough.

I experienced a lot of framerate issues playing on a decent laptop even though the game is less graphically intensive than several others I play without incidence. So I don't know what's going on there. The likely culprit is a memory leak, even though you'd suspect that kind of thing to be fixed by now (during the final stages of beta). I had to turn all of my options to minimum for the game to even be playable, so to those of you playing with older computers (even if they function fine with other current games) will probably need to upgrade as well. If you normally play on a laptop, I'd recommend a desktop PC anyway. That said, even though every server was at cap population every day, the server lag wasn't bad at all. Hardly even noticeable at prime time.

The game world seems nice (if smaller than anticipated), at least on par with other titles on the market. I wouldn't consider the game particularly visually impressive by any means, but it isn't abysmal either. It can hold its own. The scenematics however are remarkable. Seriously. Graphically, musically, emotionally, it's all captured spot-on. Which is impressive for something completely computer animated. Most times animated people just come off as strange and unnatural looking, but not here. Mouth movement, facial expression, all very thoroughly thought out and executed. I would high five the animation team if I met them on the street.

The music is one of the things that really set SWTOR apart. It is far superior to that found in other games, particularly MMORPGs. Some you'll recognize, some you won't -- but all of it is suiting and helps to immerse you in the world you're adventuring in. At times it got stuck in a loop which quickly became annoying, but such bugs should be fixed well before 0 hour.

However where the game really stands apart is in the questing. Each quest is completely voice acted and well done at that. When you talk to an NPC you are pulled into a cut-scene where you don't just mindlessly nod to everything the NPC is saying only to click an [accept quest] button at the end. You are presented with dialogue options. How you answer could effect the outcome of the quest, or even the tasks you are sent to do. You may even offend the NPC so much that they attack you or refuse to offer you a quest at all. It's entirely in your hands. Sometimes you may even encounter reactions to your dialogue that surprise you, which hasn't happened to me in a game since like 1999.

That, I found magical. There aren't many MMO's on the market where that sort of control is offered. In fact, I can't think of any other examples. While you are questing, the game feels very much a single player RPG, but you aren't sitting alone in the dark all by yourself like some recluse. You can play it with friends. Lots of them.

Much to my dismay, there doesn't seem to be a lot of role-play potential. As it exists right now, you cannot sit in chairs or lay down and many of the emotes do nothing at all. Interacting with the environment is exceptionally limited, and by limited I mean you cannot interact with it whatsoever. That said, WoW has existed as long as it has with those same faults and yet if you look hard enough, you can find role-play there. So, it's not without hope. It would certainly benefit from a couple official RP servers, if nothing else.

In regards to servers, during beta there were twenty US servers, nine of which were PVE and eleven of which were PVP. Two additional servers existed for UK players, both PVE. I'm not sure why European gamers didn't get a PVP server, your guess is as good as mine.

For veterans of Star Wars: Galaxies, you will encounter many familiar sounds and songs in the game. Particularly the chirping of mouse droids (MSE-6). Without noncombat professions however, the cantina scene will be nothing like you're used to. I hope cantinas will become social hubs, as they were in SWG, but without much reason to go there except to log out for rested experience, I somehow doubt they will be. There also doesn't seem to be any indication that there will be player housing. Especially not Open World player housing. This, in my opinion is a rather blatant mistake.

One of my larger concerns is that this game's longevity will rest largely in the hands of former SWG players (read: people who like Star Wars a lot). Bioware and EA should be attempting to offer more options than the game's predecessor. Not less. When you take a franchise license from one company and hand it over to a new one, you should really try to exceed previous expectations.

All in all, I would recommend the game, even if only to discover the stories therein and then cancel. If you've played a year, you've gotten your money's worth. I pre-ordered, but couldn't justify the added expense of the collector's edition or even the premium edition. Especially considering the collector's edition will burn a $179.99 hole in your pocket and in return you only get a handful of swag.

tl;dr: The good: cutscenes, quests, music. The bad: customization, graphics, features.

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