Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Long Time Ago...


So with the last beta patch and play, Bioware has unlocked restrictions on being able to talk about it, so I’m going to let you all know about my experiences so far. Just as a fair warning, this is a non-EVE post. And it’s not for lack of EVE things to talk about. CCP has been doing a remarkable job on this upcoming expansion and it looks better and better with each new dev blog that comes out.

This makes me wonder wtf they were doing all this time. All of these advancements in the game we love in what, 2 months? You’re kidding me. How baddass would this expansion be if that’s what CCP was focusing on THE ENTIRE TIME.

But that is really a discussion for another time. There have been so many good things coming out of the land of CCP I haven’t even attempted to write about them here in my blog. Really they don’t need analysis. It’s all good. If you want to read about what someone else thinks, read some of the other very well written EVE blogs that go into depth.

For the moment though, let’s talk about Star Wars: The Old Republic.


As some of you may or may not know, I was invited to the beta a few weekends ago. I was of course really excited about this, as I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Not only am I a huge Star Wars fan, but I loved the KOTOR games, and I couldn’t wait to see what Bioware was going to do. And it’s not like they don’t have the pedigree to pull something off like this. After all, KOTOR, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age all come from the same magical RPG factory that did all those wonderful D&D games like Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights I grew up with back in the day. This was not going to be Star Wars Galaxies. There was a chance Bioware was going to pull off something special.

But…

Bioware wanted to do something radically different to the MMO community. They didn’t want to make just another WoW clone. They wanted something different, something… unique. After all, they are Bioware. They wanted a story. A good story. And they wanted to tell it, with you choosing how it ended.

But it was a MMO. MMOs traditionally don’t have story. They have BACKGROUND. But the story part is a bit lacking. At least as far as the player characters go. When important NPC asks you to undertake a super important mission to hunt down some artifact a bear swallowed, it’s handed only one way. In traditional MMOs, this meant you got the quest from important NPC that has 15 other players standing around him. You got the quest to collect 15 bear asses and get the ultra rare drop of artifact and bring it back to him. Typically, you don’t even read the quest text because, well, you don’t care. You run out to said questing area, find 5 or 6 players busy killing and collecting bear asses. You kill and collect your bear asses and find your important artifact in some bear poo. You run back and turn in to the ultra important NPC that sent you and a million other players on his ultra important unique quest and he gives you a reward. Huzzah.

That’s how it’s done, they said. To do anything else just cannot be done. And when Bioware announced it was going to be an MMO with a story that would make you care about your character, everyone said “It can’t be done.”

Oh, but it can. And it has.

Droids Make Terrible Storytellers

Bioware has done some very interesting things to put the focus back on the story in the MMO. Some of the things they have done are genius in how they help the focus and flow of the story. Others are not, and the break you out of the very story they are trying to weave.

First of all, you always talk to the quest givers. There is no click and collect without “reading” the quest text. When you click on a guy with a quest, you are forced into a conversation, and like the KOTOR games you have to pay attention, because things happen on how you answer. Like combat starting early, the chance for light/dark side points, and whether or not your companion (when/if you have one there) approves or disapproves of your tone, thoughts or decisions.

By default, the subtitles are turned off. The only time a subtitle will come up is when you are speaking to an alien that doesn’t or can’t speak common, like you know, big walking carpets. They can be turned back on in the options, but being off by default forces the player to really pay attention to what is being said so they don’t screw up on those choices. It is an interesting design decision.

Even more interesting is the fact you can’t “skip” the dialogue. At least not any way that I’ve been able to figure out. If you are doing the quest for the first time, expect to listen to the dialogue. Repeatable quests however do seem to have the ability to skip an entire conversation though so you can get the quest and move on. Thank god. But if you haven’t done the quest, expect to sit there for a few minutes and be entertained.

By doing this, Bioware has made me pay more attention to what is actually going on. In other MMOs, like WoW, Rift, and hell even EVE I don’t pay attention at all to what I’m accepting. Click on the guy, click on accept mission or quest as fast as I can, and run out to do it. Hell I leveled a character in Rift just recently to 50 and never read a single quest. The only thing I ever looked at was my map for where I needed to go and the quest tracker for how many bear asses they wanted me to collect. EVE is the same way. Talk to the agent, accept the quest if it was something I was looking for (remember, at the time we had to actually screen our missions, sometimes you got a mining one in your combat cereal), look it up on the web, fit accordingly and go forth and conquer. I didn’t read the text. I didn’t care. He could have been asking me to club 50 baby seals and cut off their flippers for all I knew. Cause I didn’t. Nor did I care. The only thing I was interested in was how much XP for clubbing a baby seal, how much I was getting when I turned it in, and how much money I was getting for this deed.

But Bioware takes this a step further. They understand when you are the ONLY Sith Apprentice to a powerful Dark Lord, you don’t want to walk in for a conversation with your master to find 15 other players gathered around him. You’re supposed to be the ONLY Sith Apprentice to this guy. Who the fuck are these other Sith Apprentices and why are they here?

To do this, Bioware sets up an “instanting” system that is actually quite ingenious. When you get into the game, you’ll see one of two “forcefields” or “portals” over certain hallway arches that lead to important story areas in the game. Red means it’s not for you, or it’s not for you right now. Green means there is an important story area ahead, and once you go in you are pretty much on your own except for your party members, if any. The transition is seamless. It’s not like WoW or Rift where you jump into an instance “portal” and go to a loading screen. You walk in, own the story area, and keep walking like it’s no big deal. You turn the corner and there is your Master, all alone and looking at you with a scowl on his face. Awesome.

And the story. Oh my, the story. After a couple of days on my first beta experience if you would have told me I was playing a single player game, I would have believed you. It plays JUST LIKE KOTOR. I was engrossed in the story of a young Sith prodigy, summoned as a pawn in a deadly dance of Sith politics. I was enthralled at the story of a tough Bounty Hunter who was jockeying for position among other Bounty Hunters for a chance to compete in the Great Hunt. I found myself playing as much and often as possible, not because I wanted that next level or item, but because I wanted to kick someone’s ass that crossed me or just wanted to find out what happens next. What happens next…. I never would have thought I would have cared about my MMO character. And yet, I did. And I wanted to know more.

To be honest, in most MMOs, the level grind is exactly that. A grind. A grind you have to do to get to top level where the real action is. In TOR, the level grind IS the game. It isn’t even a grind. It’s a delightful, engrossing experience that leaves you wondering why this hasn’t been done before.

But it’s not all sunshine and lollypops. There are a couple of jarring moments in the game to remind you are playing a MMO and not a single player game. By far my biggest story-block was the companions. While I really like what they did with them, it’s a bit jarring when your Bounty Hunter’s only backup is this cute, wet-behind-the-ears hunter named Mako – And when you are standing in the Cantina with 3 other player Bounty Hunters, there are 3 Mako’s. Awkward. I knew what we were talking about. But what do 3 of the same person talk about?

Secondly, there are the quests. And while you complete significantly less quests to get to a higher level then you do in a game like Rift or WoW, you still have that feeling when you are sent to poison the water supply and someone is already ahead of you doing just that. But with the advancements they made, I’m willing to overlook a few things. And I’m not an RP guy, so I really don’t care. But it does have a tendency to jar you out of the story immersion Bioware is so known for.

Join Me!

In another way to remind you this isn’t a single player game, TOR forces a very MMO-like mechanic on you. Grouping. Some times, you have to group to take down the bad guys. Even the toughest bounty hunter is going to need a hand from another. But instead of enlisting the help of NPC’s (besides your companion, if you are in a group of exactly 2 players), you are enlisting help from other players.

Your character in Star Wars will occasionally come across a HEROIC quest. It comes across your quest log exactly like that, all caps. Sometimes you can do these by yourself. Sometimes you can’t. And you don’t have to “zone-in” anywhere usually. Sometimes the heroic mobs and quest objectives are right there in plain view. Other times you’ll “zone-in” using that fun portal mechanic that will ensure your group will be the only one at the meditation stone.

Eventually your character will come across what other MMOs call dungeons. Except in TOR they are called Flashpoints. Basically, they are bits of story-driven-by-your-decisions in a group setting where you beat bosses and get loot. They can be re-run, and you have a chance to do something different the second time around. Different as in your random decisions can have an effect on the story or what bosses you face during your time there.

I’ll give you an example. But I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’m going to speak about it in very general terms. The first flashpoint your Empire character will come across is called Black Talon. In it, there is a decision you make (among other decisions) that will have a direct result on the story. This particular decision is the killing of a rather important NPC. Kill him, and you get one story and have to kill a droid boss. Let him live, and you get a different version of the same story and kill a not-droid boss. Near the end, your decisions about the very reason you are in the place you are have a direct effect on the end of the story. It’s a marvelous bit of story telling that can ensure you don’t see the exact same flashpoint twice.

However, your chances of doing it are a bit random. And by random I’m talking about the other players in your group. It’s one thing if you roll in with 3 other guys you know, and your party members are trying to steer the flashpoint down the different paths to see what does what. It’s another all together when you have 3 random guys in there to help you out.

Usually you can talk to any quest NPC by yourself if you want, even if you are in a group. But when you are in a flashpoint, you no longer can do that. Each player must make it to the NPC and everyone has to be ready to participate in the conversation. The NPC will speak, and then wait for everyone to respond before moving forward. However, the game doesn’t let EVERYONE speak. Instead, there is a random roll by the group portraits that will determine whose answer is the one that speaks for the group.

This is an awkward mechanic sometimes, by virtue of the random number generator. For example, in my first time running the Black Talon flashpoint my character literally said NOTHING the entire time. I was growing annoyed by the end as everyone else did all the talking and decision making for the group. Furthering my annoyance was the fact that one of my group pretty much did ALL of the talking. However, my second run was much better, and the “talking” for the group seemed to be better spread around. My character even got to say a few things (yay!).

Also, light and dark side points are awarded for certain conversation options, just like outside in conversations by yourself. Points are awarded to the characters who make them, even if it’s about to have an interesting twist on your flashpoint. So don’t worry if you choose to save the guy and everyone else chooses to kill him. Even if you don’t win the roll, you’ll only get light side points at the end, and not the dark side points of what actually happened.

There is a timer, so if you don’t pick your conversation option fast enough it will just skip you and you don’t get a roll. This is nice, since you want the conversation to flow and not wait on the guy that left to use the bathroom. In all, it’s a well thought out approach the bucks the traditional trend of dungeons in other MMOs.

That’s Two You Owe Me, Kid

As story jarring as sometimes the companion is, he/she/it does several important tasks that really make you go “how was this not thought of until now?”

First on this list is your companion serves as your friend/slave/indentured servant/confidant. It’s another voice adding to the story of your character as you talk to the NPC’s. Sometimes they are exceedingly useful bringing forth important information to assist you in your quest. Other times, they can get you into some trouble. But everyone should have a buddy, and your companion fills that niche nicely.

Then of course is combat. The companion helps you smite your enemies with their own powers, allowing you to do some pretty impressive feats of strength. Some companions do great DPS allowing you to focus on tanking. Others heal. Some do the tanking for you. Bioware has done an excellent job matching a companion with each class, especially initially, to get you through the beginning level content.

Topping my list of “how was this not thought of until now” is the ability to sell and craft items. Here’s a scenario we’ve all encountered a time or two. You are out in the middle of your questing area, happily blasting/slicing your foes. They are dropping everything from magical items, to quest items, to what we in the MMO world refer to as “vendor trash” stuff that has no value but to sell it to a vendor. You are halfway through all your quests here in this area when it happens. You loot the guy you killed and the error message flashes on your screen “Inventory full.” Fuck. And you still have to collect those bear asses.

So you weigh your options. Do you stop the grind, run back to town and sell the junk? Or do you start tossing random crap out of your bags in hopes you are tossing stuff that doesn’t sell for much and continue? Well in TOR, you no longer have to fear this moment.

In TOR, you can send your companion to sell those grey “Vendor Trash” items. Just simply click a button in the crew window and off he/she goes. A minute later he/she returns with credits for your trash. It’s simple. It’s elegant. It’s not random and clumsy like a blaster. There is no reason now to leave that loot on the bodies. Pick it up, when you get full, click the button and magically 1 minute later your companion returns with your credits. All the while you are never forced to stop playing the story or continuing with your quest.

This brings me to the negative about having companions. They talk. A lot. All the fucking time it seems like. Not just in the scripted conversations where you would expect them to. They talk in combat, out of combat, standing around, etc. And if listening to your own worrywart Mako wasn’t bad enough, you can hear every other bounty hunter’s Mako you happen to be within earshot of. Or Vette. Or Kallim. Yeah. All of them, all the time. Every time one of them opens their mouth for a battle cry, or whine, or boast before doing something in combat you get a message in your chat log and you hear their voice.

It’s really something Bioware needs to address. It should be that only you can hear your companion speak. I mean, it’s bad enough I have to see 3 other Vette’s along with my own, but to have to listen to them all whine about haunting me if they die is just a little much. When you get in and start playing you’ll understand what I mean. You don’t notice it when you are the only person in the area, but as soon as you join a bunch of other players in a questing area its gets old, fast.

Thank the Maker

The crafting system is excellently thought out as well. And even better, it uses your slave, errr companion’s labor so you don’t have to stand at a workbench and pound out 10 belts you’re never going to use to level it up. Crafting is accessed on the crew window. There, all you crew skills (TOR’s equivalent of crafting skills) are on display. Click on one to open the window to see what you can do.

Like any other MMO, there are basically two types of crafting skills. Gathering skills simply harvest materials for other professions to use. Crafting skills actually make things your character can use like weapons, armor and mods. You are only allowed 3 skills, so choose them wisely. All of the crafting skills are set up with a one craft skill, two gatherer skill mentality. Of course, you can select 3 crafting type skills, but without the ability to gather materials it will be expensive to procure the stuff needed to craft.

Each skill has a codex entry that describes exactly what the skill does. It also recommends what gathering skills to take, so that you can have an easy time getting the materials. For example Armortech is the equivalent of Armorsmithing for non-force users (Force-users use Synthweaving). There are two skills you’ll want to take to make it easy on you. The first is Salvaging, which salvages metals from scrap. The second is Underworld Trading, which allows you to get some of the rarer materials needed to craft the more top of the line armors.

For some gathering skills, you can actually harvest materials out of things like nodes and from fallen enemies. For example you can Salvage metal components out of junk piles that are lying around as well as some droids you blow up. All gathering skills when you click on them in the crew window show “missions” you can send your companion on. These missions cost credits and take a certain number of minutes to complete. A successful mission will have your companion return with whatever random reward type in a quantity based on the yield of the mission. An unsuccessful mission will have your companion show up empty handed, credits poorer and time wasted.

Crafting works similarly to running missions of the gathering professions. Simply open the crafting window, select which item you want to craft, and hit the send companion button. Low level stuff takes a minute to craft. Time increases based the rarity and level of the item.

But wait a minute, I can hear some of you say, how is this better then banging out 10 belts in a minute for my 10 points?

Well, when you put it that way, its not. However, sending your companion out means you are not standing in front of a workbench to do it. Which means if you wanted to get some mats while you are killing mobs for a quest you can do that. Or if you are running around town or to the next quest area you can. The point is, you don’t have to go to an assigned area and slave away yourself. Your companion does the work, and you are free to do other things elsewhere. Plus, sending your companion to make that belt doesn’t net you 1 point, it nets you 2. And more importantly, you can use the belts he makes to try and figure out better versions of the same belt.

Say what?

When you take a crafting skill like Armortech, you can use the reverse engineer ability to break down armor into base components. By breaking down that armor, you have a chance to discover a recipe for a better version of the similar pattern. For example, you send your companion out to make several Heavy Assault Belts. He returns after a while with the belts. Using the reverse engineering, you turn those green belts into mats. Each time you seem to have a chance to find a better recipe based on the original recipe, like a Redoubt Heavy Assault Belt, a blue item with more armor, same stats but the addition of some points in the defense stat.

That’s right; you can actually craft items you will actually use. The crafting of items for points then the breaking down of said items to find a better version is actually an awesome way to make the crafting skills relevant. Because no one ever replaces a blue item with a green item unless that green item is grossly better. Now using crafting you can hunt for specific blues with the base pattern on the type of armor you are looking for. It means at no time are you ever really wasting your time, like you do on traditional MMOs with crafting. You have a chance to make something really cool and relevant. It’s refreshing to have a crafting system actually well implemented and thought out instead of tacked on at the last hour.

There is a bit of a nasty bug with it that I hope Bioware irons out before release. When you send your companion out you can do anything you want to pass the time EXCEPT get into a conversation. The second you get into a conversation, the companion unsummons and you lose the time you invested. For gathering skills, you lose the mission itself. Note it’s only the time and mission, because you regain the mats if it was a crafted item, or you get your money back if it was a mission.

This is just doubly annoying when you send your companion off to craft something or mission for 6 minutes, then get into a conversation immediately afterwards that only takes 2 minutes of real time. By the laws of time and space, that means you should get out of the conversation with 4 minutes left to go. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and you get out of the conversation to find your companion has been unsummoned. When you resummon him, your regain the mats and money he took with him.

And while this isn’t that big of a deal at the beginning because most stuff doesn’t take that long to do/craft; I foresee angry people when you have to craft something for half an hour and you can’t be in town collecting the next round of quests. This is just something that shouldn’t happen. If I talk to someone and he’s gone, he should still be gone when I get done. If he comes back when I’m in conversation, he can wait until I get done, then give me the item. There is no reason he should unsummon himself if I dare talk to someone when he’s not around.

Because this is a Star Wars game that Bioware is doing, modding is back. You can mod weapons, armor, lightsabers…. This is an incredibly cool mechanic that lets you really invest some time and money into your gear. And if you get a better shell, you can strip your current mods from the armor/weapon you are using and put them in the new armor/weapon, so you are not wasting money re-acquiring epic mods.

I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie

This is a Bioware game so romance is on the table. And I’m not talking about two strange RP nerds sequestered off in nowhere having cyber either. I’m talking about romancing your companion. It can be done, but be prepared to work for it.

I didn’t get to experience it, but I’m told it is possible. In order to lock lips, you’ll first have to get the approval of your companion. Typical Bioware, you expect the goods, you better wine and dine them first. You can increase your approval based on, you got it, your choices made over the course of the story. Alternatively, you can give your companion gifts as well in order to win them over.

The gains are not large. Typically expect a gain of 15 for a conversation option the companion approves of, a larger gain of 50 for big story type decisions if they approve (those usually involve light/dark points) and of course, gifts. The amount you get from gifts varies based on whether its something that character would like. You can find out what makes your companion tick in their respective codex entry.

If you do or say something they disapprove of, I never really saw a drop of more then -1, but I didn’t really go out of my way to piss my companion off anyway. So it’s theoretically feasible to really get some negative points, although I never saw it.

According to the guys in the upper echelons, in order to trigger the romantic conditions you have to max out their approval. Their approval bar maxes out at 10000. You start at 1. Good luck.

Oh and no word on same sex relationships. I knew that was the only thing you really wanted to know.

Yaaaaaaaa-hooo!!!!

Above all the game is fun. It’s just fun. I found myself giggling with delight as my Sith Warrior force leapt into a group of dirty rebels and ground pounded them out of their miserable existence. I was amazed at how fun having all the tools a bounty hunter had at his disposal really was as I flew up in the sky with a jetpack and rained missiles down. I cackled as I channeled my inner Emperor when my Sith Sorcerer threw force lightning all over.

There are of course a few bugs, but it was beta, so I was expecting that. I hope they finish ironing those out in the next 3 weeks before release so it’s an excellent game from day one. I hope they especially kill that crew skill bug that unsummons your companion.

Bugs aside, I’m really looking forward to it. The beta served as a taste of how good this game is going to be. The one thing I worry about is the endgame. The story has to end eventually… But that will be another worry for another time once I get there. For now, I can’t wait until I can sit back and enjoy the ride. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts kid.

4 comments:

  1. This is the most detailed breakdown of the game play experience that I've seen. Thanks for writing it all out

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  2. One thing missing though, PvP! Is there any? Did you experience it? Is it zone based, like battle-grounds, or area based, similar to EVE?

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  3. Nice article, thanks for the information.
    Anna @ rental mobil

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