The SW:TOR weekend beta ended Monday night for me. After four days of playing, encountering only a few minor bugs, I have to say this is one of the best MMO’s I’ve ever played, whether in beta or full release.
First off, BioWare’s work with Mass Effect shows throughout SW:TOR. From dialogue choices in the quests, to companions (and earning their affection), to lightside/darkside options and even navigating the galaxy map, all heavily influenced by Mass Effect. Unfortunately, the combat system was not influenced by ME, which is a shame to me. I’d have preferred a more action oriented shooter type combat system (maybe something like Tabula Rasa), but given all the cool light-saber animations Star Wars requires, I can see why they opted for a more traditional MMO-style combat system.
The game is pretty much a full-on themepark ride, which is par for the course these days in MMO design. While I preferred Star Wars Galaxies’ sandbox approach (later changed to a sandbox/themepark hybrid with the infamous NGE), SW:TOR comes much closer to capturing the Star Wars experience than SWG ever did. Usually themepark MMO’s start to bore me pretty quick. But SW:TOR’s story oriented missions are done so well that you often forget you’re trapped in a themepark. Likewise, the standard MMO quests are in there (Fed Ex, kill this, retrieve that, etc.), but the stories do such a good job of pulling you in you don’t feel like you’re doing Fed Ex mission #93, or the retrieve 100 rat tail missions #34. The voice acting and mini-cut scenes for each mission help a great deal with the immersion. The generic kill missions aren’t even given out by quest givers; they start automatically when you enter an area and kill one of the bad guys in it. And they upgrade as you proceed, usually with three or four stages.
I played a Trooper up to Level 19 and managed to get my first starship. The starship serves as a means to travel about the galaxy quickly by interacting with a galactic holo-map. Just choose the world you want to travel to and you go there, paying a small fee for fuel costs. The map also shows space battles, which you may travel to and participate in (and get quests for). Space combat is an arcade style rail-shooter, which is good and bad in my book. On the good side, it allows you to focus on blowing crap up and admiring all the cool space scenery, without having to worry whether you’re traveling in the right direction or if you somehow missed an objective. It’s also a very cinemeatic experience, flying around capital ships or space stations duking it out with one another. On the bad side…it’s a rail shooter, with all the limitations and constraints that implies. I enjoyed the few missions I played, but will they continue to be interesting the 10th or 20th time I play them? I’m not sure. There’s also some ship customization but I didn’t really get a chance to play around with it too much; from what little I’ve seen though, ship customization in SW:TOR doesn’t seem nearly as detailed as SWG was. While I found it enjoyable, if you’re looking for a detailed space fighter simulator you’ll likely be disappointed with SW:TOR’s space combat.
One other area of importance to me in an MMO is crafting. Again, SW:TOR pretty much mimics the standard MMO crafting system, long established by WoW. It’s a fairly simple system: get resources, get recipe, spend resources to make item, skill improves so you can get better recipes; rinse and repeat. The two minor twists on the system are 1) your companions do the actual crafting, which frees you up to do quests while they do the ‘grinding’ and 2) you can reverse engineer the items you make to get schematics for improved versions of the item, and a few of your resources back. You can also reverse engineer loots that relate to your crafting skill (i.e. weapons if you have armstech, armor if you have armortech, etc.). Not sure if RE’d loot items give schematics though. Compared to SWG’s epic crafting system (still the best of any MMO I’ve played or heard about), SW:TOR’s system is completely uninspired, but I can’t say I’m surprised. BioWare is in many ways travelling the road WoW paved, so they weren’t likely to blaze a new path in crafting, especially when the bulk of their players are more likely to be interested in living out their Jedi fantasies than being the best weaponsmith or armorsmith on their server.
However, that aside, SW:TOR is primed to be a big hit. Every time a new major MMO comes out everyone starts talking about whether it will be the “WoW-killer.” Well, if any MMO can kill WoW, it will be SW:TOR. The bar for themepark MMO’s is about to raised a few notches.