Sunday, October 18, 2015

SWTOR: Fifteen Levels, Two Planets

When I decided to pick up Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) a few days ago, I had no idea that I had timed it just prior to a big expansion release. Apparently there will be a full day of downtime on Tuesday October 20th to update the game, with full release of the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion a week later. It'll be interesting to see how much things change. I've now gotten through the first 15 levels and visited two planets. I know that's only a tiny part of the entire game, but I have a good idea how the basics work and expect to see some differences.
The game can use some changes. Besides the huge amount of in-your-face advertising for microtransactions, as I talked about in my last post, many of the worst aspects of MMO play are present. Here are some of the worst offenders (in no particular order):

  • Unnecessary open space: A lot of open world games have this problem. There are wilderness areas, and those need to be big and have some empty space. There's a lot of other areas in the game, though, and they don't all need to be like that. For example, to get from the speeder quick travel point to my main story contact, there are several big empty rooms and hallways. That added space serves no purpose beyond showing off how nice your world design is, and I've already been suitably impressed aesthetically by the areas outside. Running through it repeatedly adds nothing but boredom and frustration. This has been the case on both planets I've seen thus far (Hutta and Dromund Kaas), and I have no reason to think it'll change further along.
  • Poor handling of group missions: I'm mostly playing the game solo to this point, but I did join a group to try one mission labeled as Heroic (which means the mission is meant for multiple players). At first I was impressed, as I could see which group members had which missions on my map, and objectives from the leader's mission were clearly marked. But after doing the whole mission, when I tried to turn it in, the contact wouldn't speak to me. Somehow I didn't get credit for any of it. Now, it's possible I did something very simple wrong and I could easily fix it...if I knew what it was. Nothing ever indicated to me that I wasn't making progress - even the objectives on the map were updating as I went along. That's a really bad experience for the player.
  • Lack of open world objective sharing: It's inevitable that multiple players in an open world setting will end up going after the same objectives. Whether it's trying to kill the same rare enemy, open the same box, or farm the same set of easy enemies, you're going to have two or more players doing the same thing somewhere. Most MMOs now have worked out ways to handle this, usually either through putting objectives in instances (every player gets their own) or sharing the credit for completion among all players in the area. In SWTOR, there are some story instances, but otherwise things are first come, first served. First person to shoot an enemy "tags" it and no one else gets credit when it dies. First one to click a objective gets the result, and everyone else has to wait until it resets. I've already had several occasions when I've had to wait for an objective to reset because someone else had already taken it, and in one case I even had to complete reset a mission when someone else killed off an enemy that I needed to progress. There are solutions to this sort of thing in modern MMO design, but SWTOR isn't using them.
  • Visiting Trainers: Leveling up increases some stats, but to really get the benefits of your new level, you have to visit a trainer for your class. This has been standard practice in MMOs for a long time, but it's beginning to go away in newer designs. In SWTOR you have to visit the trainer both to learn new skills and to get upgrades to existing skills. I can sort of understand why you'd want players to be in a safe area and focusing on only the leveling process when getting a new skill, but there's no need for that with upgrades. There's no reason that my character's existing attacks shouldn't be more effective right away, especially when the level-up occurs far out away from a city while in the middle of a bunch of mission objectives.
Now, I don't want to sound like the game is all bad. So here's some of the things I'm enjoying, again in no particular order:
  • Mission design: Pretty much all the missions are designed around progressing a story, rather than just completing a task. Sometimes the stories are kind of cheesy (do we really need to provide a Rancor pet for a Hutt?), but at least they exist. You won't have some random person sending you to collect 10 rat pelts or kill off a dozen thugs. You actually will do those things, but the game cleverly adds them as bonus objectives to the main mission. It always feels like progress is being made toward a goal, even while you're just beating up those thugs.
  • Companions: Like many Bioware games, you're not alone in the world. I got my first companion before level 10, and I expect more will come along in the future. The companions are characters in their own right with their own personality, goals, skills, inventory, and so on. They'll fight for you as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to my companion almost as much as I am for my actual character.
  • Star Wars references: You'd expect to see a lot of familiar sights from the movies in a Star Wars game, and there is no disappointment here. From Hutt gangsters to spaceports to Force-wielding Sith Lords, it's all here. Sometimes they lay it on a little thick, like when my bounty hunter was hired to rescue a carbonite-frozen dude from a Hutt palace, but even those over-the-top reminders are fun to see.
I'm enjoying the game enough to keep going, primarily because the main storyline is keeping me interested. Plus I'm interested to see what sort of improvements come with the Knights of the Fallen Empire update. For now, that's enough to put up with the negatives.


  1. Hi Skip, just wondering if you have given Neverwinter a try?

    1. I did try it for a short time, but that was back in 2013 shortly after release. Haven't touched it for about 2 years. I couldn't really speak to it now, since these online games change so much in that kind of time period. Might be something to put on the "go back to someday" list!