Hands-on: Lifting the SWTOR beta curtain
Many of my friends in gaming media have speculated as to why BioWare has allowed some media outlets to report on the heavily veiled Star Wars: The Old Republic beta, but frankly, I don't care. It doesn't matter to me that BlizzCon happens to be tomorrow or that there is a possible connection between the start of that event and the lift of this embargo. All I really care about is that I can finally tell you about actual gameplay for this new Star Wars MMO that I've been personally following for over three years now. However, it will be extremely difficult to contain all my experience of SWTOR within the confines of this one article. However, I will do my darnedest.

Over the past couple of weeks, BioWare allowed us access to the Republic side of this highly anticipated MMO and pretty much set us free. We can report on nearly every gameplay aspect within the first two planets. Two weeks -- that's enough time for me to run more than one class! And that's exactly what I did. Originally, I wanted to run through two classes that weren't going to affect me much when the game goes live. I accomplished this goal with the Jedi Consular. However, when I started to play the Smuggler class, I just could not stop. I was completely engaged in the story.

Jump past the break and I'll tell you all about that -- and more.

SWTOR: Jedi Consular vs. Flesh Raider
Examining the fourth pillar

The tagline that has been beaten into our heads since BioWare first introduced Star Wars: The Old Republic is "the fourth pillar is story." BioWare claims that MMOs have nailed the pillars of combat, exploration, and progression but have fallen short in the area of personal story. Anyone who has played a BioWare game knows this great group of creative individuals is probably the best in the industry at concocting a compelling story. But have these writers truly won me over with this fourth pillar? Unfortunately, the answer is yes and no.

I intentionally played the class whose story I was least interested in, the Jedi Consular. It was selfish of me, I know. I didn't want the most interesting stories to be ruined for me just yet. For me, the Trooper and Consular appeared to be the class stories that most fit that bill. As it turned out, the Consular story was uninteresting to me.

If you don't want any spoilers, you'll want to skip the next paragraph.

My first quest on Tython was to recapture holocron data from four terminals just outside the starting zone. The flesh raiders were attacking, and of course, the Jedi did not wish for these foundational pillars of the Jedi Order to be destroyed. As it happens, one of these holocrons had gone missing. Of course, it was the holocron of the "fallen" founder of the Jedi Order (think Slytherin from Harry Potter). Despite this part of the story being a bit predictable, the characters I ran into while searching for this missing holocron were interesting and a bit more than two-dimensional. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that I eventually found the holocron before I left Tython. However, the plot point that compelled me to go to Coruscant was yet another search for more missing Holocrons. By the end of Coruscant, I was holocroned out, and I had to move on to the next class.

SWTOR: Consular in a Tython village
On the other hand, the Smuggler was more than interesting to me. As I said, originally I was not going to play the Smuggler because I didn't want anything to be spoiled for me at launch, but I had to at least start it so I could see the changes to the cover mechanics since my Taral V playthrough at PAX East. But once I started playing, I could not stop -- hats off to the creator of the Smuggler storyline. I found the majority of characters to be interesting and surprisingly unpredictable at times. The most unpredictable character was mine! Some of the best lines weren't delivered by the "funny" NPC, as is the norm, but by the snarky, condescending mouth of my own Smuggler.

Spoiler alert, again!

The plot bridging Ord Mantell and Coruscant made sense for the Smuggler, and in fact, it was a single continuing story that flowed together without an abrupt break. About 15 minutes into the game, my ship was stolen by a character I believed to be a friendly -- or at least a trusted -- associate. As it turned out, he was working for the enemy in more ways than one. As I inched toward recapturing my vessel, he was always one step ahead of me. Eventually, I caught him making a deal with the Empire, however, and even though he escaped that encounter, I did get my ship back!

SWTOR: Smuggler Scoundrel
Combat, crafting, and companions -- oh my!

I can't end impressions of an MMO beta without talking about mechanics. Three overall mechanics made a lasting impression on me: personal combat, crew skills, and companion control. I enjoyed each for its own merits, but I also had reason to hate each one as well.

Personal combat was interesting to watch, especially at the beginning of the game. I'd learned a limited number of abilities and could easily watch the action of my character engaging the enemy while tapping the first three or four number keys. Was it "fast-action combat"? Not really, but it wasn't so slow that it was unbearable, either. What I did find unbearable at times was the UI. I have mentioned multiple times that I like my MMO UI a specific way to allow me to see the cooldowns on my abilities while I'm watching the action in the center of the screen. Unfortunately, even though parts of the UI are customizable, it's not possible to move the primary toolbar from its static position at the bottom of the screen. This inability to truly own my UI caused me to pay less attention on the animations that BioWare spent so much time on making interesting. I found myself practically staring at my toolbars, carefully watching my cooldowns to make sure I could actually fire off the next ability.

SWTOR: Smuggler cantina shoot-out
For those who have not heard, BioWare labeled the SWTOR crafting system Crew Skills. The developers believe that having your crew do all the menial work makes your character more heroic, and I agree. When gathering resources, I could send a companion, Qyzen Fess or Corso Riggs, to gather materials or slice safes while I engaged the enemy. Then he would join me in the fight when he was done. On top of that, if I was going to spend time in a relatively safe location or if I was logging off, I could send him on mission to gather materials, loot, or even Light Side or Dark Side points. Unfortunately, I did not have time to do actual crafting during my playtime, but I promise to do some shortly and report about it in the Hyperspace Beacon.

I don't have many complaints about the Crew Skills system, in general. In fact, I am not a crafter normally, but I will definitely be one at the launch of this game. If any BioWare developers are reading this: It would have been nice to have some crew missions that lasted a bit longer or maybe a queue of stacked missions. Most missions were short enough that they didn't get in the way of active gameplay, but they were definitely not long enough to make it worth my while to send my companion out every night before I logged off.

SWTOR: Jedi Consular and Qyzen Fess
Lastly, companion combat was both fun and frustrating. Both of the companions I adventured with were tank classes, which helped against the general squishiness of the Consular and Smuggler. Although Qyzen behaved for the most part by not aggroing crowd-controlled mobs or running up to enemies before taunting them, Corso seemed to hate me. Smugglers use cover as their primary defense. This basically works as a cone of mitigation. If an enemy is in front of me, I get protection, but if he runs up behind me -- which some enemies did -- then I had no additional protection against his attacks.

Corso is a ranged tank. His role is to keep the attention of the mobs while I lay down DPS or healing. However, one of his signature moves is a grapple line that pulls an enemy toward him. This would be perfectly fine if his default location weren't just behind my left shoulder. Every time he used this ability, he pulled the NPC into my defenseless zone, and I took the brunt of every AoE attack. Worse, half the time the ability would bug out, causing the target to fall through the floor, so I couldn't hit him because he was out of my line of sight... but that didn't stop him from hitting me for some reason. All the Smugglers I talked to in beta turned off Corso's grapple ability as soon as they figured out how to pull up the companion toolbar.

I have much more to say about these first couple of planets, but I have other outlets like the Hyperspace Beacon column to go into depth about different aspects of these first 15 or 16 levels. Massively's Jef Reahard, a huge Star Wars fan in his own right, also got some hands-on time over the last few weeks, so check out his impressions for comparison!

Jef's SWTOR Beta Hands-On

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.
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