Thursday, October 15, 2015

Trying Out Star Wars: The Old Republic

I've been meaning to try Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) for some time now. It's been around since late 2011, and has had a free-to-play option since late 2012. I decided this week to finally give it a try. I only have a few hours of playtime thus far, so don't expect any deep analysis of the game. Just first impressions.



I'm not a huge Star Wars fanatic, but I know as much as any self-respecting sci-fi nerd who grew up in the 1980s. Love the original trilogy, read some of the comics and books in the '90s, was greatly disappointed by most of the prequel trilogy...the usual. I also played a bit of Star Wars Galaxies, the previous Star Wars MMORPG that shut down in 2011, but I never really got serious about it.

Registering and downloading the game went as smoothly as such things can, which is to say it took a half-hour or so of entering info and walking through the setup, and another few hours of waiting for downloads. I appreciate that the designers spent the effort to make the starting areas of the game playable while the bulk of the download finishes. I still waited about 2 hours to get to the point where I could start; fortunately, I expected that and left the download to finish while I went about my business elsewhere.

One note for the security-minded: SWTOR does have the ability to do two-factor authentication, but it's not particularly user-friendly. You have to download their own app to your iOS/Android device, rather than using something standard like Google Authenticator. There's no option to skip the 2-factor step when logging in from a known IP address, so you have to execute that extra step every time you log in. You do get a bonus (100 cartel coins for the in-game store) if you use it, though.

Immediately upon entering the game on a free-to-play account, it's made abundantly clear that getting your money is a priority. The second choice you make in character creation (after Republic or Imperial faction) is race, and most of the options are hidden under little dollar-sign icons. This is a recurring theme. Now, I've played a lot of free-to-play games and I get the concept...it's in the designer's interest to remind you regularly that the game will be so much better with a little cash outlay. But I've rarely seen one that's so in-your-face about it as SWTOR. Every time you walk into a cantina or other resting location...pop-up, saying only subscribers get the benefit of rest XP. Take a look at your character's outfit...there's that dollar sign, saying you can only hide your helmet in cut-scenes if you pay. Open a vendor window...reminder, subscribers pay less! I'll have to play a lot more before I can tell if the game is effectively pay-to-win, requiring you to spend money to get through, or if it's possible to ignore all this stuff and still make reasonable progress. But one thing is for sure, it's seriously annoying. I'm not averse to spending money on games I like, but I'm stubborn...I won't do it just to get ads out of my face. In fact, that just means I have to like the game even more to overcome the annoyance factor before I'll consider paying for it.

SWTOR has the Bioware label, and if you've ever played another Bioware game, the story aspect will look very familiar. Conversations are via cut-scene, with your character given lots of opportunity to select various conversational branches. I appreciate that all the characters are fully voiced, adding to the immersion effect, although I still have to turn on subtitles to make sure I catch everything that's said. In just my first couple of hours as an Imperial Bounty Hunter, I've already had my crew murdered, made a deal with a Hutt, sent some hapless kid off to the Sith academy, and allowed myself to be bribed by a trophy hunter who wants to kill off the native aliens for sport. I did have some opportunities to be merciful, but where's the fun in that? Pretty much exactly what you'd expect from an evil money-obsessed Imperial!

There's plenty of Star Wars in the world design, as you'd expect. Plenty of aliens, quick travel by speeder bike, droids rolling around the city areas, a Hutt gangster boss complete with slave girls, a nearby spaceport, and so on. The backwater planet where my bounty hunter is stuck for now is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Plenty more of the universe out there.

The combat is pretty standard MMO button-mashing, at least at the low levels that I've seen to this point. Shoot, stand there waiting while your skill recharges, shoot some more. No dodging, cover, or other combat tricks. Maybe some of that shows up later. I actually hope it doesn't, because combat maneuvering isn't the easiest thing. I've already had some trouble lining up for melee skills, ending up out of range due either to lag or my ineptitude with the very coarse control scheme. Not a big deal for a blaster-happy bounty hunter, fortunately.

I haven't yet tried to interact with any other players. Judging from the various restrictions that have been popping up in the tutorials for free-to-play accounts, such as limited chat options, I may just stick with the solo approach. That's my preferred method to explore MMO worlds, anyway. Go through the story alone, learn how things work, then worry about finding groups to do more difficult content.

There's a whole lot more to SWTOR than what I've seen in a few hours, of course. I look forward to exploring it, if I can stomach all the cash-grab advertising long enough. The story aspect is by far the best part so far, and I see no reason that will change any time soon. It's a Bioware game, after all, and the story your character builds through the game is the core of every Bioware title I've ever enjoyed. Looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

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