Weekend SWTOR Beta Experience Highs and Lows

I've spent a shameful amount of my life playing EQ and WoW (yay raiding! right?), and I'm looking forward to playing something fresh. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the first MMO since WoW launched that I've had the slightest interest in playing (ignoring that brief stint where Giant Bomb made me think I needed Star Trek Online). This weekend I was invited to their weekend beta stress-test, so I spent a good chunk of my weekend playing a Sith Warrior up to level 18 (edit: 20!). I'd guess I probably sank somewhere close to 30 hours into it.

Things I liked!

  • Right off the bat, the most obvious ace up BioWare's sleeve here is that all the quests are voice acted. I hardly ever read quest text in WoW. It's impressive how much BioWare can elevate the experience of "go there, grab that, come back" when the time it taken to make a show of it.
  • The presentation of quests incorporates BioWare's signature dialogue wheel. Listening to what NPCs have to say and choosing a response appropriate for your character is classic BioWare RPG fun. The Light and Dark alignment system is back from KOTOR too, and you're frequently presented with those kinds of choices during dialogue sequences.
  • There's a ton to do with companion characters. Companions have their own equipment, they can be sent off to a vendor to sell junk items Torchlight-style, they react to your dialogue choices, and you can send them on mini-missions to collect trade skill stuff. If I take a 10 minute break to eat, my companion can be off leveling up my Archeology skill. There's absolutely nothing like companions in WoW. 
  • Star Fox!  The game has on-rails space battles like those in Star Fox.  Your ship has equipment slots that you can upgrade too.  It's a fun diversion from the standard, on-foot questing.
  • While questing through a zone, you'll sometimes find "(Zone Name) Commendation" items that act like a kind of currency. In town there's a special vendor that sells high quality items in exchange for those commendations. I bought a few great items that way. It beats the piss out of finding "Silk Trousers of the Whale".
  • Every quest rewards you with items you can use. Even if the items offered aren't upgrades, there's frequently also the choice of taking a commendation token instead. Sometimes you're rewarded with gear specifically for your companion, and it's fun to gear them up too.
  • Each class has its own unique story thread that goes from the beginning of the game till the level cap (I assume). Class-specific quests in WoW are extremely rare, but SWTOR embraces them. This has incredible potential to keep the game fresh for people who love rolling alts.
  • There's no downtime. Maybe this is the classic EQ'er in me who used to have to sit around staring at his spellbook, but I think it's worth noting. My Sith Warrior had an ability called "Focus Rage" that simply would quickly heal me to full when out of combat. I could get in a fight that would take me to the brink of death, Focus Rage, then be right back in it.
  • Lots of trash creatures out in the open world are in small groups. It's a ton of fun to leap into a pack of them, smash the ground with an AoE attack, and generally wipe the floor with them. That's something I should be able to do being a goddamned Sith Warrior.

Things I didn't like:

  • There's a learning curve to the trade skill system that I haven't even come close to hurdling yet. I was prompted around level 10 to pick up some trade skills and so picked up three random ones not knowing really what they were for. I picked "Bioanalysis", "Archeology" and "Underworld Trading". I collected a ton of stuff for these and never did anything with them, I still don't know what they're for. I'll have to spend some time reading things outside the game to figure it out.
  • On that note, there's a lot of stuff the game has that isn't adequately explained. I spent too much time tinkering around with the interface trying to figure out where everything was. Can I change my character's Advanced Class choice? What do I do with these commendations?
  • The graphics are terrible. WoW covers its modest engine with an excellent artistic style. SWTOR just looks like The Sims. I understand their desire to have the game be compatible with as wide a range of PCs as possible, but they gave up too much in the process. For a game being released in the last few weeks of 2011, SWTOR completely fails graphically.
  • I heard a rumor that it might make the launch, but the beta did not have any kind of automated LFG tool. Spamming General chat looking for group members is terrible. Having a group member quit mid-instance and being SOL is worse.
  • Group members will quit mid-instance because some of the bosses we encountered were way too complicated for new, casual players. I know there's a demographic of gamers who love a challenge, but there's more people who will quit at the first sign of failure. Small group content, especially low level small group content, should be easy.
  • I hated threat management in WoW, and it's back in SWTOR.
  • I'm tired of talent trees. SWTOR has huge talent trees full of small, incremental choices. I don't want to spend my time analyzing what the best talent build for my character is.

I could probably think of more bullets, but I'm getting tired. Overall I enjoyed it, if nothing other than as a simple, single-player, Star Wars RPG.


Notes on Dragon Age 2

 I posted this earlier on Reddit in a thread called "Is Anyone Else Really Enjoying Dragon Age II?"  The thread mostly comments on how much negative criticism the game has received from, what I believe is, a vocal minority.  For the sake of preserving my thoughts on the game, I'm putting what I wrote here:
If you go into this game looking for things to hate, they're there. These are my complaints:

  • Repetitive environments. Once you've been in one cave, you've been in every cave. Is this a necessary evil of a 50 hour game?
  • Enemies almost always ambush your party by spawning out of thin air in a circle around you. While this isn't a problem on Casual or Normal difficulty (because the game is a cakewalk), it gets annoying on Hard and Nightmare. I frequently had to park my team, run ahead and trigger the ambush, then pull them back.
  • The game's difficulty curve is reversed. The game gets significantly easier as you level up and improve your equipment. The Ancient Rock Wraith is light years harder than the game's final boss. Origins had the same problem.
  • They needlessly removed the tactical view from the PC version. This makes it harder to move your party around the map and target AoE abilities.
  • Hawke can't be a dwarf
  • Importing your DA:O save is almost meaningless.

That stuff said, I love the game. I played through the whole thing on Hard in 46 hours. It was a blast. I've made this list before in similar threads, but here's what I like:

  • More Sandal
  • Hawke having a voice and the dialogue wheel makes every conversation infinitely more enjoyable than Origins. I love Origins, but so much was lost when my Dwarf Commoner would blankly stare at people. The game is also frequently funny if you play Hawke as "snarky".
  • I enjoy that the game's story isn't the cliche "save the world" story that is so incredibly overdone in video games. I didn't know how the game was going to unfold. My choices resulted in things I didn't see coming, which made the game immersive.
  • While it's hard to be cooler than Shale, the companions in DA2 are great and I enjoyed their quests. Varric is a complete pimp, I hope he's somewhere in the eventual DA3. I love that they hang out at their houses/jobs instead of at a generic campsite. Also, unlike in Mass Effect where the DLC characters seem tacked-on, they did a good job of incorporating Sebastian into the main quest.
  • I was bit in the ass frequently with the consequences of my earlier actions.
  • The game is littered with complex boss fights. They remind me of raid bosses in World of Warcraft. The Ancient Rock Wraith was a grueling dance keeping my party alive while we slowly chipped away at its health. Killing it was a pure rush. YMMV
  • Combat is more enjoyable than it was in Origins. Besides having like 100x the eye candy, cross-class combos are needed in the latter half of the game and are fun to pull off. Watching a brittle boss explode into dust after being hit with a well-timed Punishing Lance is grossly satisfying.
  • As I said before, it took me 46 hours till I saw credits. I wish every game I bought gave me that kind of bang for my buck.

So anyway, yes, someone else is really enjoying Dragon Age II too.


An inexcusable mess

I finally wrapped up New Vegas tonight.  While I barely touched a good handful of the game's factions, my patience with this game reached its limit.  The fight for the Hoover Dam was in sight and I simply went for it rather than wrap up loose ends.
Now that I have the game on the shelf, I have to say that it's the most disappointing game I've played this year.  There are flat-out worse games for sure, but New Vegas nails the term "squandered potential" in a way no other game this year can approach.  I can't recall a game I've ever purchased with as many bugs as this.  Fallout 3 and Oblivion ran like silk in comparison.  Here are my top three grievances, beyond all the small things like clipping issues and full-on crashes (I had the game completely freeze about four times):

  1. In a previous blog post I mentioned my companion, Veronica,  that glitched in the Brotherhood of Steel bunker.  She would walk up to the first intercom in the entrance and repeat the phrase, "See you out," over and over again.  After that I couldn't interact with her at all.  I couldn't even fire her and get a new companion.  I thought I was stuck with her for the rest of the game, but mercifully the game reset her back to where I originally recruited her after a while.
  2. After I obtained Power Armor Training from the Brotherhood of Steel, I looked up the location of Remnant armor.  It's on a corpse in an area packed with extremely strong Deathclaws.  These Deathclaws have to be the strongest enemies in the game, and there's dozens of them.  I slowly worked my way through the area, drawing them out and picking them off, until I got to where the body was supposed to be.  I spent the better part of two hours combing every pixel of that area for the armor, assuming it just blended in with the environment and I wasn't seeing it.  I went back online to get a better guide, and it turned out that the game just sometimes fails to load the body correctly.  I had to save and restart the game.  Once I reloaded, the body was suddenly there, but so were all 20+ Deathclaws I had previously killed, now surrounding me.
  3. The longer I played the game, the longer and longer load times became.  I wanted to pull my hair out on some.  The simple act of going to my suite at Lucky 38 involves:  1. A load screen to fast travel to The Strip's gate, 2. A load screen to enter the strip, 3. A load screen to enter the Lucky 38, and 4. A load screen to take the elevator to my suite.  These load times can sometimes be snappy, but as the game draws out, this many loading screens becomes insufferable.

Now just a list of things that irk me about the game that I want to vent:
  1. As I mentioned, there are way too many loading screens.  Why can't I fast travel directly to my suite at the Lucky 38?
  2. The quality of the moment-to-moment gameplay is awful.  Besides the loading screens, the missions you're sent on are uncreative and boring.  Very little content amounts to much more than your average MMORPG quest.  Most of the time I was just sent to kill people and collect things.  The finale at Hoover Dam just made me shake my head as I realized the whole game should have been that epic.  Spelunking vaults is about as interesting as this game gets prior to the finale, and that's not that fun.
  3. The factions are shallow.  I wanted to rise through the ranks of Caeser's Legion and usurp him, I wanted to become Head Paladin of the Brotherhood of Steel.  It just doesn't work that way though, like it does in Oblivion.  In Oblivion I could become the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, but in New Vegas my service to Caeser was barely acknowledged.
  4. The only companion I ever ran across through normal gameplay was Veronica.  After that, I had to look up the location of Raul.  I never ran into any of the other six companions.  Why are these people hidden?
  5. The crafting system is a complete joke because I never had enough spare weight to load up on junk parts.
  6. As far as I can tell, the Karma system only influences one line of dialog during the end cinematic.  What's the point?
  7. The game overall has too much meaningless, side content at the detriment of a compelling center campaign.  The game completely runs out of steam after the Platinum Chip situation is resolved.

Fallout: New Vegas, a diamond in a turd

I've been spending quite a bit of time with Fallout: New Vegas.  Fallout 3 and TES4: Oblivion are a few of my favorite games of all time, so no amount of bad press was going to keep me away from buying New Vegas.  I'd read reports of games being buggy in the past, and most of the time those bugs didn't affect me.  For example, Civilization V was apparently buggy around its time of release, but the game ran smoothly on my computer.  I expected a few bugs with New Vegas, but nothing game breaking.
Yet I have run into the worst bug I can imagine having.
New Vegas has a ton of companions.  In Fallout 3 I didn't use them, but Obsidian made a big deal out of them in their preview coverage, so I wanted to get one.  After I was about 17 hours into the game, I finally ran across one: Veronica Santangelo.  She was just standing around some trading post in the middle of nowhere and was eager to join up with me after just chatting a bit.  She revealed to me that she was a member of the Brotherhood of Steel, which was cool, so I gave her some Power Armor.  Unfortunately she didn't compliment my melee-focused playstyle with her own melee attacks, but whatever, I figured she was better than having no companion at all.
At this point in the game I was doing missions for the Brotherhood of Steel, going around the wasteland finding missing patrols.  When I found the final missing patrol, I fast traveled back to the Brotherhood's bunker.  When I descended into the bunker, the bug happened.  Veronica walked up to the intercom next to the door to the bunker and got stuck in what looks like a script loop.  She just stands next to the intercom and repeats the word, "Zero" (I think).  At this point I can't talk to her anymore or bring up her companion wheel.  She just stands there repeating, "Zero... Zero... Zero... Zero..." She doesn't even follow me anymore, she stays in the bunker.
Then I made it much worse by clubbing the shit out of her with my Super Sledge.  By doing that, I broke all her limbs.  I was hoping I could maybe kill her or break her out of her script loop, but no good.  Now, despite the fact that she never leaves the bunker intercom, every three minutes or so I can hear her say, "I could really use some new limbs."  I can't heal her.  I can't talk to her.  I can't leave her and I can't kill her.  I even looked up the location of another companion and tried to sub her out and that didn't work.  I'm now stuck with a bugged companion that does nothing but repeat, "I could really use some new limbs," ad nauseum for the rest of the game.  This is just a kick in the dick.
It's a pity because Fallout: New Vegas, underneath the bugs, is better than Fallout 3.  I'm having a ton of fun running around with my Super Sledge, more so than I ever did in Fallout 3 with my Hunting Rifle.  While I miss Liam Neeson, the faction gameplay in New Vegas is a huge improvement on Fallout 3.  I want to love the game but "I COULD REALLY USE SOME NEW LIMBS!"


What was I expecting?

So I'm about nine hours into FFXIII and I finally had my breaking point.  I had read that the game didn't get good until ~20 hours in, but I had assumed that was from the perspective of a non-RPG gamer, from the perspective of a Call of Duty/Madden gamer.  Over the years I've played tons of slow RPGs, RPGs that were too heavy on story and too light on gameplay, but that didn't keep me from enjoying them.  I thought while the first leg of FFXIII might be slow, I didn't think it'd necessarily be bad.
Boy, was I wrong.  The game is just awful.  FFXIII might as well just be a giant movie because the game gives you no choices.  You move forward down a linear path, battle enemies, watch a cutscene, and repeat.  Video games are supposed to be all about creativity, choices and consequences.  The only time I get to make choices in FFXIII is during battle, yet the battle system in the game isn't fun enough to support the game on its own.  I might have kept playing if the story was any good, but unfortunately (yet unsurprisingly) its just as ridiculous and trashy as ever.  It's complete nonsense filled with unlikable characters.


'09 will be great

A quick and dirty top 5 games I'm eagerly anticipating for '09:

1.  StarCraft 2
2.  Dawn of War 2
3.  God of War 3
4.  Heavy Rain
5.  Alan Wake

I assume neither Diablo 3 or Half-Life 2: Episode 3 are on the table for '09, otherwise they'd be on the list.