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On the whole, I’ve stayed away from the SW:TOR and GW2 hype machines. Seeing as TOR is getting very close to launch though, it felt rude not to pop in and try the game for a weekend… as did over 700,000 other players, apparently. That’s a hellaciously big beta test and must have generated some useful stress test data for Bioware. Everything seemed robust, and while there were some pretty long server queues I didn’t experience any problems once I got past them, and new servers were added over the weekend so I could get around the queue by rolling a new alt on a different server.

First impression is that the storytelling approach WORKS. Sure, the actual quest objectives may boil down to the old kill X / go click on Y / talk to Z staples, but then again I’m struggling to think of how you can build quests that DON’T ultimately break down into those components. However, instead of clicking on a dozen NPCs, ignoring a wall of text and then checking a to-do list of objectives, you get relatively few quests each of which feels like part of a proper story. Bioware have employed some decent writers and pretty capable voice talent who have delivered some conversations that are a joy to go through at their own pace.

Secondly, apart from the storytelling (which is a pretty gig ‘apart from’) there’s little here that really advances the MMO genre in terms of technology or game mechanics. The graphics do the job perfectly well, but fall short of Rift. The class and combat mechanics don’t have anything new or wildly different. Hit point bars, mana (sorry, Force) points, tanking and healing are all pretty much as expected. In terms of what happens when you aren’t talking to NPCs, this is a DIKU game in the classic mould, and anyone who has played Everquest or WoW or LotRO or Rift will find their feet very quickly here.

Thirdly, combat seems well tuned to make the player feel heroic. Opponents typically come in packs of three or four, or else one tough opponent with one or two weaker minions, and even at level 1 you can charge into a pack and lay waste to them. It’s not pure faceroll time – pull a couple of packs together and you will be in trouble, and by the time my Sith Warrior completed the first part of his story and left the academy I’d been in at least three fights which were genuinely challenging and I actually felt the results would have gone the other way if I hadn’t played to the best of my ability.

Fourth, the companions. Comparing them to standard MMO pet classes is like saying that a Bengal tiger is a domestic cat. The companions are tough, to the point of being equivalent to having another player at your side, and the AI seems impressively smart – at least I’ve had no problems with them on the pathing front or on using their abilities smartly in combat, even though I never give an order. I’d rather have Vette, Khem Val, T7 or Mako (the four companions I got to ‘test drive’ over the weekend) at my back than some of the guys I’ve pugged with over the years… actually, I trust Khem Val to tank better than a number of guildies I’ve known 🙂 Plus, when I’m in the middle of adventuring I can send my companion to sell all my grey loot for me and he or she will be back a couple of minutes later with the cash. There’s loyalty that money can’t buy!

Fifthly, PvP – I tried one of the PvP battlegrounds for one match. Yup, it’s exactly the same sort of instanced scenario as pioneered by WoW and then developed by WAR and copied by Rift. The one I played was a perfectly serviceable member of that species. One point I did note was that even though I entered as a brand new level 10 who hadn’t trained my Advanced Class yet I still held my own fighting other players, so the level bolstering effect is enough to make lowbies more than mere cannon fodder. This is the first game where all the jumping around and strafing done by melee characters actually looks like it makes sense because hey, Sith/Jedi lightsaber duel! Using Force leaps to close the distance, I didn’t feel too disadvantaged as a melee character. The rewards seemed to be given out based on participation, there was a very short timer to leave the safe respawn area after each death, and being able to vote on a Most Valued Player at the end of the match was a nice touch; all of those points together seem to discourage the AFK leeching that is rampant in some other games’ battlegrounds. I can’t recommend SWTOR as a ‘serious’ PVPer’s game, but if you’re there for other reasons it looks like the occasional PvP match will be a fun diversion.

Sixthly (or maybe Sithly), I may have fallen a little in love with the female Sith Inquisitor’s voice. Please don’t tell my other half 🙂

Overall – very impressed, and I’ve placed my pre-order. I think with TOR we’ve got a game where levelling up and experiencing the character’s story is actually something you want to do for its own sake, instead of a means to an end such as access to raiding or PvP. The ‘endgame’ for a lot of players could well be more about continuing the adventures of that character and their companions than competing with other players over who has the most purple pixels in their inventory. SWTOR struck me, based on the last weekend, as being a game aimed squarely at the Socialiser and Explorer Bartle types rather than the Achievers and Killers catered to by WoW and EVE respectively. If someone goes in looking to play SWTOR like a hardcore WoW player, they are going to get frustrated at having to click through all those talky bits and are going to find the game a ‘sub-WoW’ with no Dungeon Finder and no add-ons

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