Monday, November 28, 2011

SWTOR: Weekend Beta Impressions

Like everyone else and their granny, I spent the weekend playing the beta of Star Wars the Old Rebublic. I went into the beta mainly to see how the game looks and runs on my current PC, which is almost three years old now. It runs just fine, but I can also see that I'll have to replace my PC in another year or so if I want to keep playing modern games. In any case there is nothing to stop me from getting SWTOR, I'm going to go ahead and pre-order it this week. Here follows my impressions, organized by topic. For the TLDR crowd, skip to the bottom for some quick likes and dislikes.

What I did:

I played a Bounty Hunter up to level 12, mainly because it's a class I have little interest in and don't plan to play when the game goes live. I also played an Empire Agent up to level 6 to see what playing through the same area on two different classes is like. I'm happy to report that the class quests take up enough of your playtime that even going through the exact same zone back to back, and thus doing the same open world quests, I wasn't bored. Preliminaries out of the way, what did I think?

Is it re-skinned WoW?

If you are bored with quest driven thempark MMOs ala WoW, LoTRO, Rift, ect. this game is not for you. Not to say that SWTOR isn't an improvement over those games in terms of narrative presentation, it really is. The quest givers relay your quests through a cut scene. During the cut scene you make dialogue choices that affect the conversation, and potentially whether your companion's opinion of you improves or is reduced and what quest reward you get. Most quests have at least two different ways they can be completed, one evil d-bag option and one "let's just all try to get along" option.

That's all very well done and a big improvement over the passive wall of text you get in most MMOs. However, in between these cuts scenes you are very much playing a typical quest driven MMO. You have a check-list of objectives off to the right of the screen; usually collect X, kill Y, or interact with Z; and a map that shows you where to go to knock off your objectives. As many others have already noted, in between the interactive cut scenes you may as well be playing a Star Wars skinned version of WoW or LoTRO. If that simple fact sends you into an apoplectic fit of nerd rage or fills your heart with apathy, stay far away from this's not for you.

How much do class quests really add to the WoW questing formula?

In my opinion, a lot. I've never played a MMO that had such detailed class quests as SWTOR. On any given character, you are going to spend roughly 1/3 of your playtime doing quests unique to your class. You'll get to see parts of each zone that other classes don't, and the overarching narrative that motivates you as you work through a zone will be completely different. I'm not sure that you could really say that there are 8 single player Knights of the Old Republics of content on offer, but three or four... definitely. This is a game that will have a lot of replayability.

On companions:

The big surprise for me was the companion system, which I liked a lot more than I expected to. As soon as I got my companion I immediately was much stronger. Fights that were dicey before became almost trivial. Looking at my companion's stats she was nearly as powerful as my main character, with similar base DPS and hit points. She was more of a party member than a pet. She also topped off my health any time we weren't in combat, reducing my downtime considerably. Finally, she had her own likes and dislikes. When I chose dialogue options that sounded cocky [e.g., "Of course I got it done, what did you expect?"] or that indicated we expected to get paid [e.g., "Ahh credits. You used the magic word. What do you propose?"] her opinion of me improved. When I chose options that were Evil [e.g., "Sure I'd be happy to poison innocent children"] her opinion of me went down. That basic system has always been present in the Old Republic games, but it feels much more like a core mechanic in SWTOR.

Is it more of a "Role Playing Game" than WoW?

I'd argue yes. A side effect of the dialogue mechanics is that, more than any MMO I've played, you need to decide what motivates your character and what their personality is like. You are almost forced to do some internal roleplaying just to have some criterion on which to choose dialogue options. For example, early on I decided that my Bounty Hunter completed any contract taken under the original terms, no exceptions. In some cases that led to him doing nice stuff like insisting that a man's son be freed from gangsters instead of taking a bribe. In other cases that led to him doing some real dickish stuff such as murdering a boy's father in front of him. My next character through the zone refused to do any quests that didn't seem to have some bearing on her mission, and always pushed for the outcome that would best reinforce her cover identity. It led to some very different outcomes in some cases. You also need to decide early on whether you care what your companion thinks about you. That will considerably alter the dynamics of conversations and interactions with your companion.

Likes and Dislikes


-very polished for a pre-release game. Only encountered one bug, no crashes.

-combat is fun and fast paced. Nice to be able to reliably take on groups of two or three. The synergy between different combat abilities is nice.

-like that every class can heal out of combat at will. Lets you really push your limits in a fight without incurring much downtime.

-loved the art direction. Definitely very Star Warsy.

-love the narratives and their presentation. Far superior to any MMO I've played, and on par with many of Bioware's offline offerings.

-group content is entirely optional but abundant. Balance of group to solo content very similar to launch LoTRO. Group content yields great rewards, but...requires a group. PuGs were plentiful when I played.


-travel times can get really excessive. Maps are huge, and often an objective is on the opposite side of the map from a quest giver. Speeder bikes or something like them need to get handed out for free at level ten. By level 12 I was spending almost as much time running as doing anything.

-no way, at least that I could tell, to preview outfits on your NPC companion. Left me guessing when I had to choose among gear rewards for her that had identical stats.

-maps are crowded. You often have to wade through a lot of irrelevant mobs to get to a quest objective. You can usually just ignore them and run off their aggro, but it's still annoying.

-the talent trees. They have made the same mistake that many designers make of forcing you to fritter away points on tons of boring talents (that have almost no impact on how you play) to get to the interesting ones. It feels like WoW did at launch in this respect. Imo, inferior to the talents systems in current WoW, LoTRO, or Rift. Big qualifier: obviously at the ripe old age of 12 I was not very far into the system, this is just my overall impression of the trees.

-the community is seemingly going to be very big and kind of WoWish. Expect to see a lot of characters with names like "Fruitloops" being followed around by female companions stripped to their underwear.

-what the hell is up with that orange pixel?


Great game, I will be there at launch. However, I'm not at all certain I'll be still be playing in six months. Issues that seem like annoyances (e.g., travel times, mob density) at first have a way of becoming game killing grievances once the novelty of a game wears off. For me the longevity of the game will likely come down to how quickly Bioware is able to address my few concerns with the game post launch.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On hit points

One topic that seems to come up every so often is that hit points/ health/ morale are kind of absurd. Whether or not you agree with Wilhelm that they are especially absurd when using a blaster, I think we can all agree that the ability to withstand multiple lethal attacks is a fairly baldfaced sacrifice of realism in favor of gameplay. It's one of those things like level based combat and the fact that death doesn't actually kill you that we all just kind of accept as necessary evils.

I've always thought the concept of hit points was a bit silly, even back in my PnP RPG days. In D&D, the maximum damage that a longsword can do, barring strength bonuses and such, is eight points. So if you stab someone in the heart or cut their head off with a longsword (i.e., do as much damage as it is possible to do to someone with it), that equals eight points of damage. So how on earth does anyone get to have more than eight hit points? Gary Gygax explained that all the damage that you take until you get down to your last few HP represents your character getting minor wounds or becoming exhausted. Only once you are worn down do you become vulnerable to a fatal blow. However, that always struck me as a pretty weak-sauce attempt to justify a mechanic that existed purely for (perfectly obvious) gameplay reasons. It also fails to explain how a character can end up with enough hit points to stand in lava for a few rounds.

I used to to mess around with the concept of hit points in my campaigns on occasion. For example, I once ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where most normal humans couldn't ever have more than nine hit points (1d6+3 for a high con bonus). In order to have so many hit points that a single sword stroke from a strong guy couldn't kill you, you had to either be a lot bigger than a human, a magical being, or a individual with some kind of divine power. Player characters were not normal humans (or elves, or gnomes or whatever), they were "annointed" under the protection of a deity that had some purpose for them. As you went up in levels you became literally harder to kill. If someone hit you with a sword for eight points of damage, it would go right through your chest and you would laugh it off like a vampire in a horror movie. All your wounds would heal nearly instantly, at least until you had regenerated all the damage you could take (i.e., used up your hit points). I'm not aware of too many MMOs that have used this justification for health bars. Rift, at least, does something similar.

For better or worse, virtually every RPG online or off has something like hit points. Both PCs and mobs can generally endure multiple seemingly fatal blows (weapon hits for max damage, grenades, lightening strikes, and the like). Further, I don't really see any good alternatives. When I envision a RPG where everyone and everything can die in a single hit, it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. It sounds like a game where you spend more time in the graveyard than playing, and one where a level 70 character doesn't feel a lot more powerful than a level one character.