Hyperspace Beacon: Testing the SWTOR waters

Hyperspace Beacon: Testing the SWTOR waters
If you didn't know already, just over a week ago three writers from Massively, including me, traveled to Seattle, Washington for PAX Prime. During that time, besides catching the flu, we were able to catch a glimpse of some of the games that have yet to be released. We were able to play games like TERA, The Force Unleashed II, Guild Wars 2, RIFT, End of Nations, and many, many others. Some were pretty good; others, not-so-much -- but most seemed very polished and perfect for presentation.

Of course, you all know I was there to see Star Wars: The Old Republic. I caught a lot of it. There were six of the eight classes available for demo at the gorgeous LucasArts booth. (BioWare did have a booth there, too, but the team was displaying some small game it was trying to get off the ground called Dragon Age 2.) Visitors had a chance to try out the smuggler, trooper, agent, bounty hunter, and both Sith classes. Because of the enormous lines that constantly encircled the booth, I was only able to play three of the classes: smuggler, trooper, and Sith inquisitor.

For this edition of the Hyperspace Beacon, I will give you my impressions of the gameplay for those classes. However, I want to take a slightly different look at them. At E3, Massively's editor Seraphina Brennan was able to give her impressions of the smuggler class -- she covered the mechanics and so on. Although I will touch on the combat mechanics, I have decided to focus on some of the features BioWare is famous for: cinematics, character development, and overall storytelling. Follow after the break, and I will give you an honest breakdown of how SWTOR measures up to its predecessors.

First impressions
The first class I was able to play was the trooper. She was a Zabrak, and immediately I recognized the voice of the female Commander Shepard, Jennifer Hale. She was having a conversation with her commanding officer, and a few seconds into the conversation the transport was shot at, presumably by Separatists. At this point, I'm not sure whether I missed the instructions because of the noise at the convention or those instruction were not said clearly. In either case, I had no idea what to do next, yet the transport was on fire, and I had to somehow get out.

The Sith inquisitor quest was a little more straightforward; some slugs were nesting in the temple, and I was tasked with taking out some of the eggs. Again, this character was a female Zabrak, although not voiced by Jennifer Hale. I did not recognize this character's voice actress, but I loved her red skin and the dark tattoo on her face. As Alyson Bridge, who was standing next to me, put it: "She looks ready to kick some !#@$." And she did.

The smuggler mission obviously had the most polish The opening cinematic was great. In fact, I was so busy absorbing the cinematography that I missed most of was was being said. The camera angles and focus were beautiful. The facial animations and body language were precise and appropriate for the dialogue. I don't believe I need to mention the voice-over; BioWare has always been the master at finding VO talent. It definitely did not fail this time.

Needs improvement
I completely understand that this version of the game is not completely polished, but I also think this is a good time to offer some constructive criticism.

Obviously, I want to mention the first part of the trooper quest. It took me a bit, about 30 seconds or more, to figure out that I was supposed to pick up the fire extinguisher, not because it didn't make sense to pick up the extinguisher, but because I didn't see the extinguisher for a while. I am not exactly sure why that was; it just didn't stand out to me. I wouldn't really make mention of this if this were the only time something like this happened. The smuggler's quest was to disable signal jammers. So I sneaked into Separatist territory to slice these things. Now, my character, being a cocky smuggler, would know exactly what these devices would look like, but I, the player, had no freaking idea. Although it took some time, I eventually figured out which they were, but it was not immediately evident.

Warping and lag are probably the next areas that need a bit of improvement. I'm not sure where the host servers were, but I didn't expect there to be lag on these machines. I would like to preface this by saying the lag was not by any means game-breaking, but it was there and caused some visual bugs. The first bug was warping NPCs. There was one warp which made me smile a bit. There was a Separatist who was standing behind some crates firing at me while his friend ducked behind. The one standing could not seem to make up his mind whether he was sanding behind the crate or on top of it. There was no animation to indicate how he was climbing up or down. I can only assume this was because of latency. The next latency issue I noticed happened on both the inquisitor and trooper. There was a latency pause in the action as my character was drawing her weapon and animation did not quite finish correctly. For an extended period of time she looked as if she were holding an invisible weapon with the real one still strapped to her back.

More of this, please
There are so many things this game did right that I really don't have time to get into it all here. I will highlight a couple of my favorites and maybe some that people hadn't thought about before.

This is a bit out of the scope of this article, but I really, really liked the overhead map. The map was all blue with light blue lines running through it. The map showed the elevation of the land as well as the buildings in the area. I realized this is a small thing in comparison to the rest of the things I could cover, but it seems that some UI perks, such as an overhead map, are implemented only as an afterthought in some games. However, the BioWare team seems to have taken time to think about how the player will navigate the world.

I know there have been some complaints on the official forums about the running animations, but I am going to have to say that this does not apply to animation as a whole. The body language of the characters is superb. I am going to assume the team is still working on perfecting the facial expressions, but that aside, the hand gestures and the way the rest of body shifted with speech really captured the emotion of the character. I particularly noticed this in the smuggler. Just because of the way my smuggler carried herself, the roleplayer in me couldn't help but be confident and sarcastic. Originally, I had not planned on playing a smuggler, but after PAX, I may have changed my mind.

I know BioWare really shouldn't score points for this any more, but I have to mention the dialogue. I was stunned. The VO work was, of course, incredible, but so were the dialogue choices. Traditionally, BioWare games made it completely obvious that you were to choose one phrase to be good or choose another to be bad. I noticed, especially with the inquisitor dialogue, that it was not exactly that black and white. I loved it. I heard Daniel Erickson say in the booth that the team is really looking to find that gray path for the characters, which is a new thing for BioWare. If the inquisitor's dialogue is any indication of this, then the devs are definitely off in the right direction.

What I took home
I will be honest: Star Wars: The Old Republic is not some messianic return or revolutionary take on MMO mechanics. However, it is a very solid, very polished MMORPG. In fact, the greatest thing SWTOR is doing is truly bringing the RPG back to the MMORPG. For that reason alone, I would play this game, but that's not the only thing. I spoke to Blaine Christine briefly in my interview about gameplay. He said, "First and foremost we want people to feel immersed in the world of Star Wars: The Old Republic." Based on this little taste of about an hour's worth of play time, I believe the designers have a good start, but I also believe they are going to need every minute until spring next year to get the game to a place where it is polished enough that I can completely feel that immersion.

Stay tuned to Massively for more news on SWTOR and your other favorite MMOs, and keep your navi-computer tuned to the Hyperspace Beacon so you don't go flying right through a star or bouncing too close to a supernova. This ain't like dusting crops, kid.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is finally here, and the Force is with Massively! We've prepared a Hutt-sized feast of class introductions, gameplay guides, lore roundups, and hands-on previews to help you navigate the launch period and beyond. And don't forget our weekly SWTOR column, the Hyperspace Beacon!

This article was originally published on Massively.