Before biting into the meat of this article, I would like to mention that I may be looking at this with a bit of fanboy-ism. I want SWTOR to be a success. I also like Star Wars a lot as a genre. BioWare also makes some of my favorite titles. However, with this fanboy-ism comes a high level of expectation. Star Wars was mind-blowing when I first saw the movies. And Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect games changed the way I looked at single-player RPGs. So while I may want this game to succeed, there is also an expectation level that balances everything out.
The second thing I would like to point out is that nothing I mention here is completely new to the gaming industry, nor is it new to the MMO genre. But like most games, SWTOR takes the existing mechanics and adds a twist that makes it stand out a bit. It's like taking a standard pair of jeans, adding a couple of pockets and loops, and -- bam! -- you have carpenter jeans. Sure, they're still jeans, but they are different enough to exude a unique feeling.
First, I'd like to talk about what I'm going to call the energy bar. This is the bar just below your health bar that determines the amount of points you have to spend for special attacks. The Trooper's grenade, the Inquisitor's lighting, and the Knight's leap are all examples of this. It did not occur to me until today that there is actually a uniqueness to the function of this mechanic.
As you know, there are eight classes -- four classes per faction. As far as mechanics are concerned, the four classes of one faction are mirrored in function and in role in the other faction. For instance, the Jedi Knight and Sith Warrior perform the same group role of tank or DPS, and they also share similar special attacks. The similarity also holds true in their energy bar mechanics. (Note: The information here is based on reports from PAX Prime and Jedi Immersion day and may not be exactly the same in the final release of the game.)
As I mentioned on Gamebreaker, Bounty Hunters have to vent heat in order to recharge their energy bar, just as the Sith Warrior has to attack for his bar to fill back up. The twist with SWTOR is that even though the function of the bars is essentially the same, the recharge methods are different. Consulars and Inquisitors regenerate automagically (I'm assuming based on a stat number). Sith Warriors have rage. Jedi Knights have focus, and as I mentioned, rage and focus are accumulated as the player attacks and decay when the player stops attacking. Smugglers and Agents have a Rogue-like regen. Troopers reload ammo, and Bounty Hunters vent heat. Taken individually, these mechanics are not really new, but hopefully you can see that each of these classes will have a different playstyle based on how they are able to spend and recharge the energy bar.
This is probably the most unique system in SWTOR. I can understand why Smuggler was the first class BioWare released for gameplay. The cover system is a defense buff like you would see in most MMOs, but it's unique because it invites new strategies into gameplay. A player has to think about location and line of sight while determining where to provide DPS cover fire or stealthy healing.
On the opposing side, there are anti-cover mechanics. We know that the Trooper has a grenade that will pop an Agent or Smuggler-spec'd NPC out of cover -- a debuff, if you will. Granted, debuffs are not new, but like he does with the defensive side of the mechanic, the player has to think about location as well as timing for the offensive debuff. This is also a buff that you can actually see an opponent perform. Most of the time, the player would have to look at a hot bar or watch for some unrelated particle effect. to know when a specific buff is being performed. I hope all the buffs, debuffs, heals, and other special attacks are as visually unique, so that I am looking at the action on the screen and not staring at a bunch of bars moving up and down with little flashing icons.
I am going to mention this only briefly here, but I did go into more detail in a previous issue of the Hyperspace Beacon. Like it or hate it, the Crew Skills system is unique to The Old Republic. I cannot think of a game that handles crafting the same way. There are comparisons you can make: missions are similar to resource harvesters, and crew crafting is like factories. However, the system as a whole is very unique in its perspective, and therefore, the strategies players will have to take will differ from those in other MMOs.
I credit Gamebreaker with saying this, but it may have been another one of the podcasts I listen to -- I'm sure someone will correct me: It is as if BioWare has a whiteboard in its office with "STORY" written in big letters at the top. Whenever a developer comes up with a new idea or mechanic, the leads check it against this whiteboard, and if there is no story element, even in the smallest mechanic, they send it back to be reworked. "Sorry, John, your user interface doesn't have enough story in it. You're going to have to rework it until it relates back to more lore."
As a final note, I want to thank you for reading this article. I know you don't have to; I know there are many other resources for SWTOR information. Perhaps in the comments below you can mention a couple of reasons you read or shoot me an email at email@example.com. I want to hear what keeps you interested so I can provide more of that. Thanks, again, and may the Force be with you, always.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!