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Journal RogueyWon's Journal: Star Wars: The Old Republic - an attempt at balance

I posted a "first thoughts" piece on Star Wars: The Old Republic not that long ago. Since then, there seems to have been a bit of an escalating war of words around the game. Now, admittedly, as with all cases "oh noes, an argument on teh intarwebs", there is a slight air of a storm in a teacup around this. However, if you play the game or if you follow the usual gaming news sites, you'll almost certainly have picked up on it, so I thought I'd set my own views out.

Basically, a couple of gaming news sites - particularly Eurogamer, whose coverage I normally have a lot of time for - have been giving TOR a very hard time, with a string of highly critical articles. At the same time, as is ever the case in flamewars, a large number of fans of the game (and Bioware) have been flooding forums with rabidly worded defences. It's all been brought to a bit of a head by the game's 1.1 patch. In theory, this patch should have been a good thing; it added the some chunky new end-game content and picked up a bunch of bugs.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with MMO patches (and Skyrim patches), it added a bunch of bugs of its own. The most serious of these related to changes to the graphics engine, which caused a series of performance, visual quality and stability issues for quite a number of users. Indeed, I was affected here; the newly added anti-aliasing, when enabled, resulted in the game inflicting a couple of hard-locks (requiring a hard reboot) on my normally extremely stable (liquid cooled but not overclocked) gaming PC. Disabling the anti-aliasing fixed this for me, but other users are still reporting problems with screen-flicker, crashes and much reduced framerates. That said, I do believe Bioware when they say that only a of minority users with specific hardware configurations were affected. A straw poll of 20 or so people online in my guild last night revealed only 3 (including myself) who were reporting anything more than minor framerate issues (though those were more widespread). Bioware do need to get these issues sorted.

The other bugs introduced basically related to PvP - having not gone heavily into this side of the game, I'm not 100% familiar with how they work. It seems that changes that were made to some of the games out-door PvP further exacerbated an existing bias in favour of the Empire faction and introduced some exploits that allowed for the very rapid accumulation of PvP currency. This was actually fixed within about 48 hours, but the response it generated seems to have defied belief. Egged on by OTT coverage on sites such as Eurogamer, there's been some real hysteria about this, with threats to cancel subscriptions and demands for resignations at Bioware.

For god's sake, get some perspective here. This was a bug - fixed within 48 hours - in a newly launched MMO which is in most other respects working very well. In fact, aside from the US launch of Final Fantasy XI (which had already been running for a year in Japan at the time), I have never known a smoother MMO launch. Lord of the Rings Online launched reasonably well, but even that had some significant server issues for the first few months. Aside from scheduled maintenance, I haven't hit a single server problem with TOR in almost a month of regular play. World of Warcraft was, by all accounts, pretty much non-functional for its first couple of months, and even when I quit in April 2010, Blizzard's response to major bugs was slower than that which Bioware have (so far, on the basis of limited evidence) seemed to demonstrate.

Anyway, moving on from bugs and patches, I'm now significantly further into the game than I was last time I posted. I "dinged" level 49 last night and at some point this weekend, I will reach level 50 - the highest level currently possible in the game. This is probably a good time to take stock and - amid all the hysteria being thrown around about the game from both sides - post some honest thoughts on how I've found things. I'll take this in three chunks: "the good", which sets out the stuff I've really liked, "the bad", which sets out the more serious problems I've encountered and "the ugly" - the small and potentially easily resolved frustrations which nevertheless feel a bit odd and undermine the experience a bit.

The Good

The storyline stuff has continued to be really effective. I understand that once you get past chapter 1 (which will happen at around level 25 or so for most players), the class-based storylines start to deviate from each other rather less than they did during the prologue and chapter 1. However, the plot is still effective and rattles along at a good pace. The main plot stands up well as an addition to the KOTOR canon and it's fun to note the little references in there to the wider expanded universe (such as the Thrawn Trilogy, the New Jedi Order series, and even older games such as X-Wing and TIE Fighter). The expanded universe obviously varies wildly in quality (Kevin J. Anderson is a kind of literary fecal Midas - everything he writes turns into crap), but I'd rather that a Star Wars game draw on that than on the prequel movies and the other dross that Lucas had a more direct hand in.

Space missions - a lot of people were disappointed that, for the time being at least, the only space combat in the game comes in the form of single-player rail-shooter missions. I agree that I'd like to see more freedom in space combat in the longer term (and particularly some PvP space combat). However - I love rail shooters! (Yes, I know this puts me in a minority). I find the game's current space missions a really fun break from the more routine questing and just wish that there were more of them.

Flashpoints - for the most part, these are great. They're well plotted (the designers have really thought hard about how to make story sequences work well in a multiplayer setting) and have some great fight design. There's one battle in particular, in the middle of the "Mandalorian Raiders" flashpoint, against a party of 4 enemies. The design of this fight is clever by the standards of WoW's end-game bosses, let alone the tank-and-spank stuff from WoW's levelling instances.

Challenge - I said in my previous post that what I'd seen in TOR is harder than the equivalent WoW content. I still stand by this assessment. Flashpoints can be seriously challenging and even solo plot quests can require a lot of focus. I know that this might put off a few players, but I think that it will prove healthy in terms of player retention as more people start reaching the level cap. In WoW, you could reach the level cap without having a clue how to play your class, resulting in you being locked out of doing any real end-game content for a long time. In Old Republic, most people approaching level 50 will have had to learn at least some of the theorycraft behind their class - even if they haven't actively thought about it in those terms.

Companions - these are great. Not just for the dialogue, though that is often amusing. What these really do is allow you to construct a balanced party for questing - when you're playing solo. This is immensely important. Not only does it relieve some pressure on Bioware to keep tweaking balance at lower levels, it also means that, unlike in WoW, it is entirely plausible to level up as a tank or healer, using your companion to provide the dps. This is going to be massively helpful for the early days of end-game play, as players aiming to play as tanks or healers will already know how those specs work, rather than having to start learning afresh at level 50.

The upgrade schedule - Bioware have set themselves a really ambitious content-addition schedule. If they can stick to it - and the evidence so far suggests they will - then I'm very impressed indeed.

The Bad

While the storyline is good, the quests themselves can suffer from a serious lack of variety. This is amplified by the fact that enemy design and placement is so utterly consistent. You will, whichever planet you are on, find that enemies tend to stand around in clusters of 4-5 normal enemies, or a "silver" enemy and a normal enemy, or a "gold" enemy on his own. With very rare exceptions, once you have learned your optimal cycle of cooldowns and abilities, you will use that for every single fight. I'm not saying that Bioware need to throw in some weird Plants vs Zombies quest-chains like Blizzard did, but a bit more imagination about the actual activities that players do while questing would have been very welcome.

PvP balancing - no, not the actual PvP play itself. I don't play MMOs for PvP and I don't care about it. What I do care about, however, is having my character's stats and abilities constantly changed by the developer because of the need to maintain PvP balance. This was one of the factors that drove me out of WoW and it's disappointing to see that Bioware look like following suit.

The UI - it's not a disaster. In some way's, it's better than the default WoW UI. But until 3rd party modding arrives (and it hasn't yet), you're stuck with this UI. And it's missing a lot. Explaining the concept of "threat" to new players when there's no threat-meter is not easy. The Auction House UI is particularly bad and needs an immediate overhaul to allow for free searches. There's also a desperate need for a matchmaking tool to help players find groups for flashpoints.

The Ugly

Patching and stability - I touched upon this above and was pleading for people to take a more restrained view. However, this game did manage to *hard lock* my system twice, within 24 hours of the 1.1 patch going live. This is a system that does not otherwise hard-lock. Skyrim has had a few crashes to desktop, but then, I gather that's par for the course with Skyrim. Whatever they did to the graphics engine in the 1.1 patch (and I've solved my problem by disabling the anti-aliasing) needs a rapid revisiting.

The crafting system needs a bit of work. The actual end-point crafting stuff is fine, and has some clever ideas (like the recipie discovery stuff), but the crew missions system is slow and pointless.

Spaceports. Ugh. Seriously, they all look the same, they take forever to run through and they're just a colossal pain in the backside. If a guild-mate asks for help with a quest on another planet then, all things being equal, I'd like to help out. But the thought of having to do a spaceport run at both ends is actually a pretty big incentive for me to just sit on my hands. Part of WoW's success was down to its ruthlessness in getting rid of mini-timesinks like that, allowing players to focus on the fun stuff. Bioware need to learn that lesson.

And to sum up...

This is a very solid MMO launch - better than I had expected. Hysterical criticisms and predictions of imminent doom are completely misplaced. At the same time, this is not a perfect product. There are problems in there. Some of these will be easily resolved, others seem to relate to more fundamental design decisions. My inclination right now is to stick with the game and see where it ends up in 6 months or so.
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Star Wars: The Old Republic - an attempt at balance

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