I wanted to sit down and put my thoughts on paper about the condition of Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR) and simple comparison of this game to other MMO's on the market.
First, after playing through each of the 4 starter classes on the Republic side and 1 on the Sith side (just ran out of time) in last weekend's beta, I can testify that the game has way more to offer than has been given credit by the Giant Bombsquad (namely our lovely Jeff). I will list the attributes that stood out to me most over the weekend.
1. Difficulty and skill.
The difficulty curve is reminiscent of my favorite MMO's in their heyday, with variable difficulty for the games instances. The fights feel challenging if you are not prepared, and precise even if you know what you are getting yourself into. If you are a fan of games that are "easy to get into but hard to master" this could be a great game for you. The complexity of the MMO genre as a whole has increased since EQ1 and the Bioware team has taken advantage of that to create a game that involves complex systems that are used to drive the player towards a far harder endgame if they so choose... Then again there are always the easy modes that anyone can generally learn and play through... Like my wife.
The storyline is amazing, a huge applause to the Bioware Dev in creating a game that carries on the KOTOR legacy in terms of storytelling. team and a great deal of flexibility in the classes. Jeff was fairly critical of Bioware in saying that SWTOR was Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) 3, 4, and 5, but I believe he simple misinterpreted what they were trying to say. The PR department of Bioware was making a statement of volume and scale, meaning that if you were to compare the storyline length of SWTOR to KOTOR you would have FAR FAR more game than ever previously delivered. To give an example of this quantity (that is also highly polished) it took me a good 7 hours to play through a "starting zone" of 1-11 watching every "cut-scene" (this game has far more scripted quests that don't really qualify as cut-scenes) and completing every quest in the zone. This plays into my next point...
The Bioware team has done a great job crafting a world that is both believable to the viewer and enjoyable to the player. The reason I separate those two things is that they are VERY independent of one another. Ask any WoW player their feelings when they first walked into Stormwind or Orgrimmar and I am sure you will get a very awestruck response, because those areas were so huge! But as a long-term player they quickly became frustrating and tedious due to the inconvenience of traveling to 5 different locations to do simple things like crafting, auctioning, and banking.
In SWTOR the dev team has taken user feedback into account, and dropped all vendors into marketplace-styled areas, as well as trainers, banks, and auction houses. These areas are ironically confusing at first because of their compact nature, but once you get the navigation down to where your own stuff is, the entire process literally becomes seconds instead of minutes.
As far as questing goes, they have also done a fairly good job at making the questing areas logical to get to, and easy to navigate. The important part of this design is that, with properly managing my teleport cool-down (like a Hearth Stone) and utilizing the fast-travel options at each major questing hub, I was rarely running around where I felt I was wasting my time. Of course you have to actually get to those fast-travel points, but generally there is some sort of quest or activity you can do along the way (like managing your companion(s) for the games crafting system, which can be done remotely.
4. Game systems.
There was a deliberate design decision by the Bioware team in making a game that was fair and balanced regardless of which side or faction the player decided to join. Any old-school WoW player can tell you about the days of segregation between Paladins and Shaman, the former being Alliance only and the latter being Horde only. This system (plus it's abolition) was the topic of many forums rants and debates about the state of WoW, but in the end it made sense from a general balance perspective, a game with unique classes and abilities on either side takes a lot of time to balance, and such time and effort could be better spent elsewhere. That does not mean that the player has a lack of choices, with 4 basic classes that expand into 8 advanced classes on both sides there is a class for everyone.
SWTOR has also embraced the idea that it should be feasible to level as a non-traditional spec, ie. a single-target tank or a healer, which has not generally been the case in past MMO's. Because the game likes to throw groups of enemies at you whenever it can, they have given each player a companion at roughly level 10 which is a huge boon to those who like to play solo and not feel compelled to play a certain way or else spend forever leveling. Because you have a selection of companions at your disposal and they have different strength's and weaknesses, you can choose the role your companion plays, which greatly changes in turn how you play.
There is a lot more that can be said about this game to bolster it, but there are also some more critical pieces that deserve mentioning.
Though the game is not in it's final state, and will obviously change substantially after it releases, it is missing some of the key systems that will be needed to keep the game thriving after the 90-day mark. I will call this my MUST-HAVE list.
SWTOR is lacking the advanced LFG systems that WoW (and more recently Rift) have implemented, an innovation that players are demanding, and rightfully so. Though not crucial on release day because of the ease of getting a group if you simply stand next to the quest-giver and raise your hand, this system is on my list because it has changed the way MMO's have been received by players of all skill levels. It makes grouping for instances far quicker once the surge of players has generally surpassed the level of that instance or quest, and makes it feel desirable to actually play a tank or healer since you are always on demand.
To be clear the dev's at Bioware have already acknowledged that they will include the capability to mod the game at some time in the future, they just want to ensure they are launching a stable product at first. I can't complain with that. But because it will not be in the game upon release day I can see some people having an issue with this one. Oh well, they have created a good UI that generally does a good job at doing what I want it to, so I imagine that once they release the ability to Mod the game they will ensure the quality is there as well.
3. Cross-server grouping.
This was a huge invention for past MMO's because it greatly expands the pool of potential group members. Once again I do not see this as an issue at launch for reasons stated above, but I include this because, at some point in the future, it will be very important. The question is, when?
Well that's about all I have in me right now, I was given Beta access for this upcoming weekend again and I will be testing the level 13-20 content extensively with a good friend of mine. Feel free to either send me direct questions or post on here with your questions and concerns and I will be happy to answer them. I am hoping to have a feed running on Twitch if my computer behaves tomorrow morning, so stay tuned for a BETA stream around 1PM Central time tomorrow.