SWTOR reflections, 3 months in

Been playing SWTOR a lot in the run up to our subscription expiring. I was given a 3 month subscription as a Christmas gift from my employer, and had started up after that employer had been dissolved by a rather familiar publishing house. For a good portion of that subscription I wound up not playing at all; my other half was more involved than I was. Toward the end though, I guess I realized I wasn't going to be playing after the sub, at least unless we decided to come back later, so I am pushing to get my Bounty Hunter to level 50 in the time I have left.

Then comes the news, long foreseen, about SWTOR clipping on a free-to-play model. From what I understand, this will include pretty much all the stuff that I actually enjoy in the game. The stories, the conversations, the different narrative paths for each of the classes seem to all be included. They will naturally try to limit exposure to these things somehow, the details aren't clear (and maybe they're still working out the details) but to me it seems like my playing style may not be affected much at all. Which is a bit crazy, but I guess my profile may be exactly the kind of person they're trying to keep around.

There are limitations to SWTOR that, when you compare it to the KOTOR games, are a bit pronounced, but if your primary goal is to experience a Better Star Wars, like KOTOR allowed for many of us, it's good. I wish I could say I love it, but I'm not sure it's precisely my kind of game. I still love exploring environments to find hidden objects, I like advancing the class stories, and I actually engage in some multiplayer, which I usually don't do. The community is in general fairly helpful, so I've managed not to enrage anyone as I bumbled through Flashpoints I hadn't seen before (Flashpoints are fast-paced mini stories used to get better items, quick alignment gains and things called social points). When I got to about level 25 I started to burn out, partly because I felt like the game was merely adding to my list of chores rather than giving me a new compounding of interesting things. It may be the pressure of trying to finish up, but that doesn't bother me much anymore, and I'm not very close to level 50, and a planet away from finishing my class story.

Understanding the system and what it has to offer helped me appreciate what there was. I'd avoided flashpoints for a while because of their multiplayer component; they still give me performance anxiety in a way that grouping up to do a mission rarely does, in part because they often involve more puzzle combat and prior knowledge of the scenario to optimize play. But with flashpoints you get a good chunk of interesting mini-plots, like about the fate of that murderous HK droid, Darth Revan, and the Exile from the KOTOR games. Many of the characters we recognize from the old games are referenced, and I think that's where the game tends to be more fun. Some of the very basic side quests in the main game tend to be a bit un-heroic, and the Imperial side pushes distasteful for me, often being about murdering the locals. Still, what I do appreciate is that, thematically, the Republic is filled with its own corruption and dissent, and the shades of gray that help enrich what is admittedly a thin universe is much appreciated. My Bounty Hunter is about as good-aligned as you can be for any character class, although I do occasionally punch jerks in the face and sass Sith lords.

If I was a big fan of SWTOR this might read more like an advertisement, but I still feel that a lot of my game-engine choices are merely nuanced versions of the same things. My current build means I'm strong in defense, but can get higher critical damage (important because I get automatic criticals on railgun blasts). Yet when I'm modding my equipment I feel like I'm getting only slightly better, rather than a big leap in functionality that you'd feel in the KOTOR games when you uncover a goofy looking but very useful pair of goggles. Appearance is a lot more important to the designers of SWTOR, although that's a bit of a relief. You can often have a certain look translate all the way up to level 50 without it changing if you don't want it to, if you have gear that can be modded. I still wish the mods were more like in the old games... here they're just extra ways to push stats in a certain direction.

Those who enjoyed how skills were used in KOTOR will find SWTOR's approach to be very different, often geared more toward creating better-than-level gear for yourself and your companions, and your companions don't really contribute to your three chosen skills except in crafting; in the field, you can sometimes access objects if you have the right skill, but your companions share your skills with you, rather than contributing unique, contrasting abilities. They're primarily there to provide combat and story stuff.

The companions are definitely spice in the mix, and it's always nice to hear what a new character has to say about an old place, although I find I run into the same problem I have with most Bioware games in this regard, since I CAN'T have all my companions with me at once, I wind up just wondering what the others would have said. Despite my being better at the game, and probably capable of racing through it on a replay to hear what one character would say in a situation, I don't think I'll play through as the same class too often. The companions are also fairly contained within the game system. Sure, there may be lasting story consequences for a given character, but you will always have access to them; they're too integral to your ability to make stuff, to have a fling, or to guard your back when you're on a mission. They're less-than-characters in that way, always subordinate to the main character's progress. Very versatile, very flavorful pieces of equipment.

And every time in the story they reference something I specifically chose it's great, but more often than not it's a very Bioware-level of narrative control, with dialog options leading to the same result (and some voiced dialog repeating itself) except for the major decision gates. There ARE references to what you've done later, though the gameplay impact of these specifics is usually not terribly pronounced. And because it's a shared universe, the turrets you blow up regenerate after a while, the caged prisoners you DON'T free by the time your quota is filled are still stuck there, monsters pop back into existence (and so do treasure chests) if you wait long enough. The encapsulated stories feel final enough, but the game feels more permanent than your choices do. You have to already be enjoying the story for its own sake, I think, rather than testing the limits of its reality, because it's pretty clear this game is more about experiencing things within a relatively versatile game engine than having a strong narrative where unpredictable and devastating things can happen.

What I do get out of it is the grandeur of a given location, the wealth of little details, and the sense of ownership over my character. I DON'T miss KOTOR's repetition in terms of environments and NPC designs; SWTOR is thankfully leagues more varied. So much so that it's frankly a bit weird to see others' characters of the same class and sex speaking with the same voice as mine, since it feels like only MY character should be using that voice. I like the stories for the most part, even the ones that feel a bit rote are still fun to follow through to the end, though, like I did with the Jedi Consular, I just watched someone else play (who explored nearly every dialog option before committing). Watching someone else play, I also get a sense that the battles are often quite dynamic and interesting to watch in a way that you're not always aware if you're busy pressing buttons. The game is quite generous, flaws and all, and it helps me to appreciate it even when it annoys me.

I do think this game is unfairly maligned, probably because of its initially reported price tag. Now that it's going to be open to whoever wants to try it, I guess it'll live or die on its own merits as a game and an experience, which to me seems fair. When the game's machinery are laid bare it can feel a bit rough to continue, especially if you're not into the environments or the story. About halfway through my character's advancement I felt pressured to always have the best equipment and to jump through a bunch of hoops to do it. Some of the criticisms of SWTOR are justified, in that I still feel like the time it takes to do something is stretched with less interesting bits in a way that the KOTOR games didn't have to worry about. I do miss that dynamic element at times, though in other ways I feel like it's an incremental improvement of KOTOR, especially how dialog is handled.

As far as my own SWTOR experience I got over the hump, I guess. I'm enjoying it enough to keep playing now that the mechanisms are clearer to me. And now that what is apparently ALL of the stuff that I enjoy is going to be free, I guess I might still stick around even if I don't manage to finish my Bounty Hunter's story before the subscription lapses.

It DOES help to have people to play alongside, whether it's a casual meet-up or people you know well, and my experience was probably better for that. As much as it supports single player play, it's more fun with others. There's something about waiting to see if your group will make light-side or dark-side choices in a flashpoint that is still suspenseful, even if you've done it a bunch of times already. Though there's always the occasional asshole, people are willing to explain stuff and tell you the best way to do things even if you're not in a group with them, which makes learning the system a bit easier for people like me who prefer to be told what needs to be done rather than read about it or hope that a random internet site knows what it's talking about.

I'll go back to playing now. Maybe in a few days I'll be able to say whether or not the Bounty Hunter's story had a satisfying conclusion...

Any questions about the game, or criticisms of and reflections on your own experiences, are welcome.