A certain point of view: Jef's hands-on with SWTOR's beta

Star Wars The Old Republic - Trooper with BFG 9000

Hey Star Wars fans, what say we recap my recent beta experiences in The Old Republic? I know what you're thinking (because it's the same thing I thought after BioWare's marketing folks sent along an unsolicited invitation): Here comes a giant anti-themepark rant and zomgwtf call someone who cares!

Surprisingly though, I had a decent time. I managed to get a Republic Trooper off the Ord Mantell starter planet and firmly entrenched in a few Coruscant quest lines, and I logged over 10 hours of gameplay in the process (in the comfort of my own home, mind you, and not under the watchful eye of a PR droid at a convention).

To be frank, TOR's not half bad. It's had a lot of money thrown at it, there's a ton of what passes for modern-day MMO content, and if you're into that sort of thing, you'll no doubt enjoy yourself for a time.

Star Wars The Old Republic - Trooper grouping with silly Jedi

If that's not exactly the ringing endorsement you were hoping for, consider the source. I'm a sandbox guy, and rarely titillated by MMOs that stick to the straight and narrow. That said, I do enjoy linear diversions (you're looking at Massively's go-to Age of Conan scribe for well on two years now), and few titles do that better than TOR. Let's get the bad out of the way first, shall we?

The dark side of story

So how's the story? After all, story is what BioWare has been beating us over the head with for the last three years, and we should know by now that story is the fourth pillar, the chosen one, and the one who will bring balance to the MMO force. Well the story is there; of that there can be no doubt. In typical BioWare fashion, it comes complete with a few morally dubious dialogue options and plenty of A-list voice-acting (well-traveled gamers will recognize Cortana and a kinder/gentler Solid Snake, among others).

After months of listening to how MMO story is the second coming of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Anakin Skywalker, though, I guess I expected something a bit more... rapturous? I mean, fierfek, BioWare puts its writers through some sort of elite prose boot camp that only the most battle-hardened and worthy authors manage to survive, and writers are game designers dammit!

Yeah. Unfortunately the Trooper's origin story simply isn't all that.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed seeing how the various light side/dark side dialogue choices panned out (even if they didn't amount to anything gameplay-wise). Also, to give credit where credit is due, TOR's story is more enjoyable than anything George Lucas has burped up since 1983.

If you're the type who ooohs and aaahs over the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels (or your average Dungeons and Dragons paperback), you'll probably have a similarly high opinion of TOR's story. If that's not your thing, you'll probably roll your eyes a few times while searching for a way to skip the dialogue and pick up the inevitable kill 10 Separatists objectives. And when you get right down to it, every single quest that I encountered (and its associated cutscene window-dressing) was a FedEx or a kill.

In BioWare's defense, this is more of a limitation of the themepark medium than a poor design decision, but it's still a bit sad to realize that half a decade and 750 bazillion Republic credits later you're still fetching cooling parts for a quest dispenser or assassinating Separatist leader NPCs (who are conveniently marked on your map and who will conveniently respawn for the next savior of the cosmos). The story is meant to camouflage (or at least augment) these tired mechanics, of course, but it's only occasionally successful.

Star Wars The Old Republic - Trooper on Ord Mantell

The good news on the story front is that the game takes itself pretty seriously. As a result, it features adult situations and thematic material and is mercifully free of the kid-friendly Clone Wars crud that's been crapifying the Star Wars IP for the past decade. Feel like threatening an orphan to make an Ord Mantell medicine-thief see sense? Go right ahead. Ditto for facilitating the local spice trade.

That said, I couldn't get past the fact that I'm playing a pre-destined BioWare avatar as opposed to my own character, and to be honest, if I wanted to passively consume content, I would watch television. When I sit down with an MMO, I want to play someone unique who can affect the world and the other characters around him, and in this respect, SWTOR simply isn't an MMO (or at least, it's not the kind I grew up with and wish to play past the free month).

More problematic is the fact that SWTOR has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to deciding whether it wants to be an MMORPG or a single-player RPG (and I'm sorry guys, but the two don't mix very well). The game's blending of single- and multi-player conventions is jarring, notably when you're seeing dozens of identical Corso Riggs companion pets running around and when you're one of a gaggle of people talking to the same quest NPC. The cutscene cameras take over and render your character alone with said NPC before reverting back to the "real world" when the dialogue is done, and while the faithful will no doubt call that a minor detail, I called it distracting when it came to giving myself over to the narrative.

I'll probably get some flak for saying so, but the bull-headed focus on story makes TOR a single-player game in many respects. Some people will love that, but I was left shaking my head at what might have been. Various BioWare luminaries have been quoted as saying that TOR is the equivalent of Knights of the Old Republic III through XIII -- or whatever the actual numbers were, I forget. That raises the question of why they didn't simply make III through XIII as the single-player RPGs that the company is famous for.

The answer is recurring revenue (i.e., it wouldn't be forthcoming with offline sequels like it will be with a quasi-MMO). Like everyone else in development circles nowadays, BioWare's decision-makers see MMOs not as virtual worlds but as the logical next step in their quest to monetize absolutely every aspect of a title.

Star Wars The Old Republic - Wide shot

The light side of gameplay

What about the gameplay, though? Happily, this is the part of the article where I get to be a little kinder. I do have to report that the combat is as bland as you've heard. Tab target, spam your specials, watch the mobs die (eventually). We're all experts at this point, so there's no reason to continue flogging that horse.

The good news is that there's a lot of quest content, and your path through it feels just about on pace. The starter world of Ord Mantell boasts a huge playfield, and though there is some zoning (mostly when entering rooms for your class story missions) it all manages to feel pretty seamless. You'll be traveling on foot until you ding 25, and I spent a good four hours or so just getting to level 7 (all without straying far from the very obvious beaten path between one quest hub and the next).

Star Wars The Old Republic - Trooper concept art

If you're so inclined, there's a decent amount of exploration to be had, and thank the maker that the mobs aren't crammed in shoulder to shoulder, forcing you to fight every five seconds. Immersion is actually quite good if you ignore player names and general chat. The HUD is appropriately Star Warsy, and many of the UI staples that prevent you from losing yourself in a fantasy setting seem quite natural when the trappings tend toward sci-fi.

There are also some nice touches like the in-game map, which fades just enough for you to see both your route and your actual character moving underneath it whenever you hold down one of the WASD buttons with the map covering your screen.

Visually, the game is a treat despite the fact that BioWare has designed it to run on the Commodore 64 collecting dust in your attic. The locales are fairly diverse, and there's not a lot of interior repetition as far as I could tell from the starter worlds. Also, I admit to a bit of a fanboy squee when I stepped onto a Coruscant balcony (and took an air taxi through the city) for the first time.

Speaking of aesthetics, I should take the opportunity to poke fun at BioWare's absurd cloak-and-dagger routine when it comes to SWTOR's beta. In addition to being sworn in on a lengthy PDF file with a huge list of don't-write-about-this-or-we'll-kill-you directives, I was forbidden to use my own screenshots for this article, which is really short-sighted because the game is quite attractive. I don't particularly care for the avatar styling (it's much too prequel-trilogy-perfect and not nearly grungy enough for my original trilogy sensibilities), but the full game manages to look fantastic regardless.

The Star Wars sound suite is also out in full force (and though much of the music is new, there are still snippets of John Williams' seminal score in all the right places). Uber Star Wars nerds will enjoy the many opportunities to decipher the aurebesh that shows up on everything from recruiting posters to terminals to vid screens. For the lore-addicted, there is the occasional point-of-interest clickable, and examining these objects gives you XP and adds an interesting entry to your codex (which is basically a lore-focused journal shamelessly pilfered from the Mass Effect series). That's a good thing, by the way, and I hope all future MMOs pilfer it too.

At the end of the day, TOR surpassed my expectations a wee bit. I loved the world design and enjoyed the leveling gameplay for what it was, but I found the story elements unnecessary at best (and downright distracting at worst). Ultimately the early portions of the game are well-made and it's likely going to keep Star Wars nuts and themeparkers happy for a while. For those of us who realize that MMOs were meant to be more than casual combat games, though, I'm afraid Sir Alec Guinness said it best when he said this is not the MMO we're looking for.

Star Wars The Old Republic - Trooper on point

And now, your Highness, we will discuss the location of your hidden Rebel... er, no. What I meant to say was: And now, because SWTOR is so frickin' huge, Massively is bringing you a two-pronged attack when it comes to the day's beta coverage. Click on the button below to read a different perspective courtesy of Larry Everett, aka Massively's resident SWTOR expert.

Larry'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!