Testers were presented with a set of new pre-made characters, one of each class at the start of the tutorial story arc. When I figured out how to get into character creation, a nervous employee quickly canceled the process and informed me that I had to use one of the pre-made characters. Considering that the game is due for launch in just three months, I found the fact that character creation isn't ready to show to the public was more than a little worrying.
More of the same
While some players did get a chance to join an arranged PvP warzone match, most were given access only to the tutorial area. The fully voiced storyline at the start was a nice touch that brought some initial immersion, but I felt as though my responses to the chat didn't really make a difference. Surely I was going to be given the same quest to proceed with the tutorial regardless of dialogue choices. The occasional voiced chat with quest NPCs was great, but the feeling of being immersed in a story within the Star Wars universe always seemed to fade once the conversation ended and I went off to kill 10 space-rats.
I found myself invariably falling back into the same old MMO pattern of checking quest objectives and killing lists of monsters, which provided a comfortable familiarity at the cost of immersive gameplay. The difference in immersion between the story portions and the traditional MMO gameplay was so large that the game felt like a Star Wars-themed World of Warcraft punctuated all too rarely rarely with BioWare's typically high-quality storyline. It's possible that the tutorial area doesn't really do justice to the story and fully voiced dialogue at the core of SWTOR. If that's the case, though, then BioWare missed a massive opportunity at Eurogamer Expo to showcase the parts of the game that would impress people most.
Gameplay and controls
The biggest gripe I had with the game was with swordplay and force powers, which have been shoehorned into a classic MMO spell system. To perform sword attacks, I had to click an enemy, get into melee range and press number keys repeatedly just as I would in World of Warcraft. I can understand developers wanting to keep controls familiar to ease the transitions of those willing to switch games, but even as a long-time MMO junkie and WoW player, I still found the controls clumsy. While I didn't necessarily expect BioWare to innovate on basic MMO gameplay, the controls didn't really feel right given the game setting.
The key thing to remember is that MMOs have always used a select-and-cast ability targeting system for reasons of technical and financial feasibility. Standard MMO combat mechanics were designed to reduce the number of server calls and calculations required for a given action to the bare minimum. Those feasibility issues no longer exist on the current generation of server hardware, allowing developers to explore alternate gameplay options that would better suit their setting. Guild Wars 2, for example, has a large array of aimed abilities and real twitch-based evasion mechanics. The fact that Star Wars: The Old Republic didn't do something similar for lightsaber combat and force powers is almost baffling.
Given how much money is being thrown at Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was genuinely surprised that BioWare had stuck with the WoW gameplay model down to the last detail, even when it didn't work very well or suit the setting. If all you're looking for is a new Star Wars-themed MMO with familiar gameplay, then SWTOR is sure to be a big hit with you. I personally left the demo at Eurogamer Expo distinctly underwhelmed and a little bit disappointed.
The announced release dates of December 20th and 22nd are sure to put SWTOR on a lot of people's Christmas wish lists, but given how little content has been released to the public I'd be surprised if the game will be playable and polished by then. Part of me refuses to believe that BioWare would knowingly set a launch date less than three months away unless the game were ready for release, but after the demo at Eurogamer Expo, the rapidly approaching release is setting off some alarm bells. The first wave of beta invites have already gone out, and I'll be following the game's development with interest.
End of Nations raised interest as it's coming from RIFT developer Trion Worlds. The established AAA development team has joined forces with Rise of Immortals developer Petroglyph to create a truly global MMORTS. End of Nations' game map is literally a map of the entire earth, with zones across every continent. Commanders can join forces to conquer objectives in any region, which contributes to an overall campaign for control of the area. Once a campaign ends, all players who participated in it are given rewards appropriate to their contribution.
Trion was at Eurogamer Expo to showcase End of Nations and convince players to register for the game's newsletter by handing out free copies of RIFT in exchange for signups. I found End of Nations' map interface confusing at first, and it took me some time to realise there was a battle raging in Australia that I could join. Once in the fight, I found the gameplay to be pretty intuitive and standard for any RTS game. Where EoN innovates on standard RTS gameplay is in the superpowers and abilities units have. These are tactical abilities that can turn the tide of a battle but have long cooldowns or cost a resource to use.
The big difference between End of Nations and a standard RTS is that co-operation with other commanders can make a massive difference. Coordinating use of superpowers with other commanders makes their use much more effective, and players can design their armies to complement each other. With some maps featuring up to 50 commanders in one battle, the ability to coordinate a massive offensive will prove much more influential than each individual player's level or equipment. I didn't get much sense of the scale of End of Nations' conflict, but I doubt we will see that until the game releases to the public.