Where to begin with a first impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic? There is a lot riding on it for Bioware, a developer synonymous with in depth RPGs and branching storylines. But combine their experience with the Star Wars licence and an MMOG and that is surely a recipe for success. Right?
Not quite. There were a couple of things that struck me first about SWTOR at the Eurogamer Expo. The first was that the booth was surprisingly small, with Alienware laptops setup in two circles just in front of the over 18’s area. Queues were predictably long and so the demo time was quite limited (around fifteen minutes).
Thankfully, my press pass gave me the luxury of gaining access straight to the demo so I managed to play the game a good few times over the course of the weekend. Disappointingly, the character creator wasn’t available (though I suspect this was more to do with ensuring players didn’t waste valuable time) and so a predefined list of ready made characters was there for you to choose from. Like everyone else, I’m a huge fan of lightsabers but ranged combat is always something I’ve preferred in MMOGs, so I chose Sith Bounty Hunter.
I was pleasantly surprised with the games graphics. I don’t consider they have as much character as World of Warcrafts or are as beautiful as Guild Wars 2’s, and I’d even go as far as to stay it falls far short of WildStar, but, it does suit the clinical feel of Star Wars and more particularly Clone Wars. Lighting was significantly lacking and animations were often stilted, but the starting area seemed well designed, if a little devoid of any feeling.
The opening cutscene, rendered in game, is a great way of introducing your character and the cast and reminded me very much of Guild Wars 1 in how gameplay and predefined cutscenes push the storyline along. In terms of voice over work and scripting, much has been said about Biowares mythical budget into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and if it is one area that they excel and where the money has obviously been spent, it is definitely in the voice acting. Characters aren’t only convincing, but are flawless in delivery and whilst the script may never be Oscar worthy, it is pitched at exactly the right level; not too long and completely entertaining. If there is one thing that lets these cutscenes down it is yet again in the animations, where characters express themselves clumsily or awkwardly which tends to shatter the illusion somewhat.
After the cutscene ended, I decided to head out into the game world to explore and jump into combat. Unfortunately, this is where my excitement began to crumble. Undoubtedly the similarities between SWTOR and World of Warcraft are glaring. For anyone to tell you otherwise has no eyes. Down to the smallest of details Bioware have shamelessly replicated all that World of Warcraft has to offer (whilst pinching a few bits from other games). The user interface is the most prominent similarity and is identical to World of Warcrafts in almost every way but is a distractingly grotesque colour, in an awful neon blue. That isn’t to say it isn’t functional, because it is, but having played Guild Wars 2 for an hour before, I realised how uninspiring and clumsy it was.
Having left the confines of the starter zone, I actually encountered three huge bugs to the horror of the booth staff. The first was becoming stuck on a tree and instantly dying (I brushed passed it). The second was being killed by an invisible enemy without the ability to respawn and the third was the game crashing entirely for no apparent reason, resorting in me having to restart back at the beginning. Perhaps I was just unfortunate, and it is difficult to tell what build of the game the demo was, but it doesn’t instil confidence in a smooth launch.
These bugs aside, the game plays exactly the same as World of Warcraft or Rift or any number of replicas that have launched in the last five years. Combat against NPC’s is a case of targeting the enemy and hitting one of your skills to await the global cool down or skill specific cool down. Though this is fine, combat is incredibly slow and does not in any way encapsulate what Star Wars is all about. The inability to dodge incoming attacks or attack swiftly just demonstrates how stale the genre has become as a result of copying the World of Warcraft blueprint. Encounters were dull and monotonous as I stood stationary watching my auto attack roll by (I use this term as a reference to the generic skill 1 you repeatedly use), knowing that to move was entirely pointless as it had no impact on your ability to avoid damage.
What was even more frustrating was how Bioware have failed to learn and address fundamental lessons from World of Warcraft. Having replicated the game in so many ways, it is inevitable that by doing so they have pulled with them some of the same serious flaws Blizzards game contains.
The first of my major concerns is the fact that although classes have a minor heal skill (Recharge & Reload in the bounty hunters case) you have to remain stationary to use them. Many will be used to this from similar games (ala World of Warcraft), but it completely ruins the flow of the game. To kill an enemy and watch my health recharge agonisingly slowly or to remain entirely stationary whilst my heal animation plays out was incredibly frustrating and entirely unnecessary. Increasing the rate at which you heal out of combat, and implementing a single heal skill that could be used whilst moving, for all classes, would completely remove any need to stop players in their tracks. Some might argue that is what the healer classes are for (to help you along quickly) true, but the ‘holy trinity’ and reliance on others as a heal crutch or damage sponge should have died a long time ago.
My second concern was skill progression and the purchasing of skills. It has never been a good idea for players to purchase skills. Even in World of Warcraft it was a terrible idea and in SWTOR, years and years on, Bioware should have known better. To be unable to buy a new skill because you don’t have enough money, in some circumstances having returned all the way back to town, is yet another way of creating a time sink for the player. Would it be so difficult of Bioware to make it so when players reach a certain level they automatically unlock said skill, that them becomes available for use immediately?
Thirdly, quests are boring. Entirely boring. I don’t know about the rest of the MMOG community, but I am sick of kill and collect quests and unfortunately, SWTOR is full of them. Some are hidden a little better than others, but fundamentally are all the same regardless of how Bioware have sexed them up. Sadly, I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience a ‘Flashpoint’ so cannot comment as to how these pan out, though I don’t have high hopes.
There are other concerns; the lack of pace in combat due to it being dictated by global cooldowns, the complete lack of necessity to be mobile whilst taking part in combat as well as the lack of movement from enemies or the ability to dodge incoming projectiles and attacks. Sadly, these are all due to the fact that Bioware have copied a formulae that was popular (and still popular) five years ago. When Bioware began to create SWTOR it was undoubtedly at a time when World of Warcraft was at its height and when there are hundreds of millions of dollars being earned by your competitors, there is no wonder they sought to replicate. And so, in that respect, I can understand why Bioware stayed so close to the World of Warcraft blueprint; for fear of alienating an entire player base.
What I cannot forgive, is the fact they have failed to recognise the fundamental flaws in the design (and wider genre) and have ploughed on with a game that plays more like a mod than an independent product. Shoe-horning class archtypes into Star Wars is agonisingly dumb whilst using a combat system the same as World of Warcrafts is even worse. Star Wars combat needs to be involving, fast, frantic and to make the user feel powerful, instead SWTORs is devoid of any emotion and feels pitiful. Drawing influence from Age of Conan’s combat system (a far from perfect game) would have been far more rewarding and in keeping with Star Wars than the lifeless uninspired skill system they’ve implemented. Who wouldn’t want the ability to swing their lightsaber in multiple directions to make contact and cut down, multiple targets at once?
As I’ve said previously, it isn’t all bad (well, mostly it is). The cutscenes and acting are great and the world looks fantastic, but yet again the product is kneecapped by World of Warcraft’s influence, where character progression through a carrot on stick approach is going to define the game and where zones are just a tool to see you progress from one level to the next, rather than to be explored or enjoyed.
Having played Guild Wars 2 before SWTOR, I wish it had been the other way around and I sense then I would have had a better word to say for the game. As someone who has grown tired of World of Warcraft and its archaic gameplay, SWTOR is not for me, as it is so irrefutably close in design to World of Warcraft that it feels years old already. For those that love World of Warcraft still, you will absolutely find a home here, that is unquestionable. For people seeking innovation, originality, fluid combat and a game structure that removes questing and the level grind, you really need head to the door marked ‘Guild Wars 2‘.
I wish Bioware well, but they deserve little praise for what they’ve achieved. Blizzard did all the hard work, after all.
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