Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta - First Impressions and Screenshots

I have been in MMO Open and Closed Betas such as World of Warcraft, Champions Online, Allods, Rusty Hearts, Victory and more. The most recent is none other than Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta and since the NDA has been lifted, I now share with you my First Impressions and a bunch of Screenshots!

Without giving away any of the actual story itself (and a few other limiations I believe still in effect) I will discuss the graphics, gameplay, how it performs, the setting, audio, mechanics and more. I believe that anything more than that is still not allowed at this time, and I wouldn't want to spoil 'too much' of the game for you regardless. I attempt to utilize screenshots and video that does not give away any important storyline aspects. If any of this coverage oversteps any bounds of the Game Tester Agreement, anyone, please let me know and I will correct it so as to honor the Agreement.  
Not from the movie, from the game.

 First of all, the main source of all the hype and excitement, this is Star Wars we are talking about. STAR FRICKEN WARS. You can't get much of a better licence than that these days (except for maybe Star Trek (nerd fight (including myself) incoming)). At the helm of the Frigate is Bioware, developer of Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic. Taking in all of that and especially the last one, it makes sense that they are doing SWTOR. A proven track record and most of all, making fun games, you just know before even touching the keyboard that these Canadians are going to create something great. You just know it.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is no exception, from what I have seen thus far. Many elements of their past games, from Neverwinter Nights to Dragon Age, are present in this game. Without listing them all in this Mini-Review, the most notable is the '3 Choices' game mechanic. Before even that, I have to mention that every NPC that has to do with Quests is voiced. I mean they talk and tell a story. In a cutscene (animated with the game engine). Most games have a few 'main' NPCs that have a paragraph or two of voiced acting and the rest are just a "Hello" with text that you read yourself. Not here. Every single NPC with a thingy above their head that has to do with giving, helping or receiving quests has a voice actor and is animated in their own cutscene. That alone already has my clothes off. The '3 Choices' of previous Bioware games is here, with the ability to use the mouse or the keyboard to choose your reply to their questions or assignments.  
Example of the 3 Choices game mechanic, similar to other Bioware games. Click to see Full Size.
Differing from what I have seen and played of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, your replies actually make a difference. Not only are their differing responses from the NPC, depending on the choice you make, you will get Light or Dark points in the The Force, which you use for your Force Powers in the RPG portion of the game.

You can choose your reply 1, 2 or 3 with the keyboard to create suspense and see how your choices are judged by the game and NPCs, or you can mouse over the choices to see which response will give you Light or Dark Force points, ahead of time. The way you choose and grow is up to you. 
Ruins in the forests of Tython. Click to see Full Size.
As you can see already,  to compare to some other MMORPGs out there, the graphics style is more World of Warcraft and less RIFT/Aion. It has more of a stylized cartoon-y nature than highly detailed realism. I suspect this choice was made to lighten the load on game rigs and open the game up to older systems with less horsepower, thus encouraging more players/subscribers. It turned me off at first, but after you get used to it (much easier for people who have watched The Clone Wars animated series) it actually does a good job of representing Star Wars. The robots and ships suffer from oversimplification the least, then the architecture and environments, then the character models, which seem like rounded versions of The Clone Wars Series. Despite the simplified models [possibly for future console gameplay/games?],  from the very beginning of character creation and you see your character class story in a Yellow Text Crawl in space, you really feel as though you are entering the Star Wars Universe.

The Republic's Trooper Class selection screen. Click to see Full Size.
Imperial Officer in a Space Station. Click to see Full Size.
NPCs wear proper attire for the time period, and buildings, ships and droids all have a primitive-empire/republic look to them. Even the friggin sounds of engines, weapons and droids are slightly less 'clean' than the movie versions if you listen carefully. Wonderful.

Hallway in a Sith Academy, with Droid. Click to see Full Size.
A Taxi on Tyhton. Click to see Full Size.
The simplification of the graphics does seem to help the gameplay. On the system I played on, a couple years old now, I was able to get 40-70fps for the most part (120+ if you are looking directly at the ground) and it went down to about 25fps in more complicated/heavier areas and in battles. Not bad at all. With that and less than 70ms latency from Central North America, I did not feel like it was stuttery or laggy, and the loading times between each zone seemed fine at about 10-15 seconds. The zones have a lot to do in them and aren't too small, so you shouldn't be loading a lot as it is. I can't distinctly remember how many times I have seen a loading screen, other than at the beginning/logging in.

A Sith Loading Screen. Click to see Full Size.
The areas are literally packed with Quests. Everything you see and pass by has some use, even if it isn't by you. I wondered what some ornaments were as I ran by sometimes, only to find out when I tried another class they were now my Quest Objectives. NPCs sometimes feel spread a little thin in spots, but there are ample numbers running around performing their tasks, whatever they may be. You can pause awhile and watch Recruits around you run to their classes, meditate, or spar in practice battles. Imperial Officers hassle bystanders. Drunks wobble around in front of Cantinas, which yes, have Twi'leks and performing bands inside. Nothing absolutely ground-breaking perhaps, but it does have the desired effect of making you feel like you are part of that world, that things are going on around you; but not so distant from you that you lose interest. 

See if you know what this is. Click to see Full Size.
The Quests themselves do have standard MMORPG fare (Kill X of Y, Deliver This, etc) but it is not all the time and even when they occur, they certainly don't feel like it. Again, each and every Quest NPC has a game-engine cinematic with full voice. With this, you are pulled further into the stories and world. Not all interactions have a Light/Dark Points question, but the conversations are definitely not left boring. Each NPC has various responses based on your choices, so even if you make a couple of characters in the same area (2 classes share a starting area) you may still not eventually see all of the responses, even if you make different choices each time (there are three options per choice for the most part). There is an ability to see and hear your party members' conversations and interactions, and they in yours, during Quests. You can even 'roll' to make a reponse choice when in a group. When starting a conversation, there is an option to wait for other party members, or start the conversation for yourself. If your party members are not in the immediate area, they can join by Holocall and will show up as a hologram next to you, ready to engage in the conversation.
Party members can join in NPC conversations and roll to make choices as well via Holocall. Click to see Full Size.
Even when a Quest may be simply "Kill This Person" or "Retrieve This Item", there is always a story, always a mood, always a character that will all be a part of the Quest and the result is that even if you run into two of the same archetype of Quest back-to-back, you won't mind it. To run into a lot of similar Quests, you'd have to go out of your way, anyway. Quests felt varied and interesting. The presence voice acting at every turn is a huge difference in feeling enveloped in the game, coming from MMOs where NPCs are standing around and if you click on them you only get a paragraph to read and start you on your Quest. Here, every NPC has a story (which you can skip through faster if you want, you don't have to listen to each part, if you desire) and each Quest in an area felt different. One would have you find someone and bring them back, another would have you kill someone, another would have you collect an item, and all the while, within each Quest there are choices to be made. Do you bring the person back if they don't want to go? Do you kill the person? Do you take the item to someone else, or sell it yourself, or do your job and take it back? Not only these, but how you respond and go about these actions, as Conversation Choices, all add to the engulfing atmosphere and stories and universe - and this is the Star Wars Universe we are talking about.

Republic Loading Screen. Click to see Full Size.
Just attempting to think about all the movies, books, games, Expanded Universe and more, there is a huge amount of material to be pulled from. If this game is successful, you can pretty much be guaranteed Expansion Packs for the next decade. From what I've seen and how I've heard those who have played talk about it, unless Bioware/EA pulls some crazy, huge, insane mistake or change of some sort, this game is pretty much guaranteed to be successful as is. Based on how Bioware seems to be listening to what people are saying and how they have looked at past games and listened to what people want, it is going to be a long, wonderful ride.

A Taxi on Dromund Kass. Click to see Full Size.
You want Mounts? I saw Level 20's on vehicles (trying to play all the classes, I did not get to 20, hah). You want Sidekicks/Pets/Companions? You get them before you are Level 10. You want PvP? Starting at Level 10, you got it. Requeuable (automatically join again after the round is over), from anyhwere (don't need to go to a certain area/NPC), solo or group join and you're in. I only played a couple games of PvP in the Arenas. MMO Player Versus Player is usually a slower pace, with things such as Auto Aim, when compared to First Person Shooter action type games, but it was fun. Voiced instructions for each Arena and Play-By-Play Announcers of what is happening in the Arena are just two more things to add to the List Of Things That This Game Does That Kicks The Asses Of Other Games. It's a long list.

The Pit, PvP Arena. Click to see Full Size.

And Now... More Screenshots!

(At this time, with an NVIDIA videocard, there seems to be no way to enable Anti-Aliasing (helping filter out the stair-stepping effect that occurs when the game attempts to represent a straight line at an angle, usually along the edges of shapes, etc.) even forcing it in the Nvidia Control Panel in Windows, or editing an ini file or any other way)

This is sort of a Game Tips And More Blog Screenshot Exclusive - as it's not normally something you would see in the game. When I took a shuttle to an orbiting space station, what was supposed to be the docking bay walls and windows, took a little bit to load. In the meantime, I got this great view of the planet below and hit the Capture button. After I did, the docking bay loaded and all you can/should see is the moon after that and a little bit of the planet in a much more restricted view out the bay doors. I just thought it was a pretty view and wanted to share it with you.  Click to see Full Size.


My New Wallpaper. Make it yours. Click to see Full Size.

See you in there!