While much of the pre-E3 SWTOR
excitement revolved around the opening
cinematic - in which the Sith
return in force to their home planet of Korriban - BioWare shifted the
focus to Alderaan for the E3 presentation and then to Tattooine for a
hands-on demo of Star Wars: The Old
Castle Panteer, UI Changes, and Group DialogueFirst up in the presentation, we were treated to a bit of group content centered on Castle Panteer in Alderaan. A Republic team was dispatched to the temperate planet to deal with Bouris Ulgo, who had recently taken advantage of the strife connected with the Siths' return to usurp Alderaan’s throne.
advanced class, taking the role of tank), a Jedi Councelor (a Sage / the healer), plus a Smuggler (Gunslinger/DPS), and a Trooper (Commander / DPS). The mini gun-wielding trooper and the dual-pistoling Smuggler were remarkably true to their representation in the Blur trailer, right down to their out-of-combat posturing and combat flair animations.
After the surprisingly nuanced animation, the second thing I noticed was that the UI had been gutted and replaced with a minimum of decoration. The change was a direct response to player feedback, according to Lead Writer Daniel Erickson: "One thing our beta feedback told us was that MMO players don't like a pixel of screen real estate wasted." Happily, this change included a new, flowing font – a definite improvement over the previous free-to-playish sans serif typeset.
The group easily moved through the blast-pocked castle, winning through to the throne room as the Guardian used his signature force pull and the Trooper tossed area-of-effect grenades. The throne room was a huge “story area” – meaning it’s only accessible to players who have a certain mission or have completed certain objectives. Additionally it’s an instanced area for one player and their group – no outside help can come in.
SWTOR would use a weighted scheme – meaning dialogue options got the percentage chance, not the player. As it stands, one player could pick the dark side option and the other three opt for the light side, and the dark option stands an equal chance of winning. That said, players are assessed dark and light side points based on their individual choice, regardless of the group’s action. Still, I’d like to see the popular option stand a better chance of winning out.
In any case, there were no dark or light side points to be had with Ulgo – it was just a bit of chest pounding before the battle. The team took out four shield generators protecting Ulgo, but left the outcome of the battle in question. We would have to decide Ulgo’s fate when we reached that encounter in the live game.
Impactful ChoiceIt wouldn’t be a SWTOR demo without the BioWare team reinforcing the SWTOR ideal of impactful choice. In a brief encounter on Tattooine, an area of the game never before revealed to the public, but a desert planet familiar to Star Wars fans as Luke Skywalker’s homeworld.
A cutscene from later in the game showed Praven giving thanks. Whether or not this leads to other good things – Praven helping you out on a mission or some such – is yet to be determined, but at least lighter side players can get a warm fuzzy feeling.
The Belsavis OperationTo close the presentation, BioWare offered us a quick glimpse at Operations, the SWTOR equivalent of raids. How many players Operations will allow is still in question – “All we’re saying now is more than one group,” Erickson noted – but footage put me in mind of those too-few epic moments from the first three Star Wars films where hordes of Jedi and Sith fought alongside their blaster wielding brothers and sisters. Only the PvP Warfronts footage has, as of yet, evoked similar feelings of sheer combat scale.
The footage showed the group assaulting massive turrets Normandy Beach-style, confronting a massive robot straight out of MechWarrior, and then venturing inside the Eternity Vault to find a massive, ancient something (it defied description, sorry) protected by increasingly ubiquitous golden shield generators. Though brief, it was reassuring to see something of SWTOR’s endgame at long last.
Hands On: TattooineThe presentation ended, and we were ushered to a nearby room full of demo stations. We had two options: play a new character and enjoy the first few levels, or jump into Tattooine at level 25. Naturally I picked Tattooine, jumping into the shoes of a Bounty Hunter specced for Mercenary - a more offensive, missile-launching, ranged fighting take on the class than the defensive-minded Powertech.
Star Wars’ trademark speeders (“We wanted to do full-size speeders,” Daniel explained, “but things just got too crowded in town.”) Nonetheless, the SWTOR speeder looked cool – sort of like a modern day racing chariot ridden in a Ben Hur squat with tons of instrumentation and no horse, of course – and, just as importantly, sounded cool with a low tingly pulse.
Speeder activated, I was bound for Anchorhead, that wretched hive of scum and villainy. Daniel said I was welcome to try, but that that area was currently under Republic control. Getting guard stomped was not the experience I was looking for, so I moved along.
I found myself with a mission to find Darth Silthar – an archeology-minded Sith who’d been poking around the indigenous Sand People’s caves. The Sand People, hostile as ever, were linked in groups of three, and I suffered a death or two before Daniel showed me how to bring out one of my fighting companions.
SWTOR’s new death mechanic. Inspired by single-player RPGs, in which you only load a quicksave on death, SWTOR allows you to revive in place after waiting 30 seconds for a MedProbe to arrive. It’s similar to Rift’s soul walk system in that you have a short time to stealth walk to safety, except that you can use it much more than once an hour. Daniel noted that if you die several times in a short period of time, the waiting time starts to lengthen from 30 seconds to, say, 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Or, you can wait ten seconds and respawn at a medcenter (seemingly the only option when you die in a story area).
Learning about some of the unique companions available was one of the biggest joys of my hands-on time. Each profession had one unique companion, but I got the short end of the stick with Mako, a healer full of sassy one-liners. To her credit, Mako also fought ferociously, but for sheer comic relief she couldn’t hold a candle to Blizz, a jawa (little hooded guys, yellow eyes, remember?) ranged tank whose highly irritating taunts could only compare to his natural cowardice.
Or Scorpio – a HAL-like, weeping angel statue-looking killer droid whose fondest wish is to be release so, you guessed it, she can kill you. Scorpio brought back memories of HK-47, a KotOR counterpart, or more recently, GlaDOS. Either ones cold, outrageous dialogue is still welcome in any party of mine.
SWTOR companions have their own quests, stories, and just about anything else you could expect from a Dragon Age-style companion.
I killed a few more Sand People to complete my somewhat genocidal bonus objective and returned to the Imperial base, where the local commander despaired to learn of Silthar’s death. Just then, some frightening power released by an artifact took control of several Imperial personnel, turning them into zombies! Well, sort of, they were under the control of some unspeakable desert power, but they certainly looked the zombie part. Sadly, just when things were getting really interesting, it was time for me to run to my next appointment.
BioWare Strikes BackAnd that’s how every SWTOR playsession has been for me; it might take a while to reel you in, but when it does, you can’t get enough.
SWTOR, but the fact of the matter is that Star Wars is probably the most comfortable yet compelling fictional universe ever created. We knew BioWare could interpret that fiction better than any other developer in existence, and now we’re seeing good (if not mindblowingly original) gameplay come to life around that shared story.
I still have some niggles – how shared decision-making works, the ultimate “impactful” effect of light and dark decisions for two – but with the care and responsiveness to player feedback I’m seeing in the latest build, BioWare has regained one editor’s trust to take a beloved franchise to the next level.
So, suffice it to say that if there’s a bright center in the MMORPG universe, Star Wars: The Old Republic is definitely moving toward it.