Hands-On SWTOR Impressions from E3 2011

Ten Ton Hammer travels from Los Angeles to the Republic stronghold of Alderaan, to Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tattooine, and even to the remote prison planet of Belsavis to bring you the latest on Star Wars: The Old Republic!
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 Republic.

Castle Panteer, UI Changes, and Group Dialogue

First 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.

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The demo group was composed of a Jedi Knight (specced with the Guardian 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.

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Inside, Bouris Ulgo awaited, and the first group dialogue of the demo began. As Ulgo japed, the team decided, individually, how to respond. Each response got a value of 1-100 and the highest score become the team’s response. This was the lowlight of the demo – I had hoped that 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 Choice

It 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.

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As a Jedi Knight, we’d defeated a Sith – Lord Praven. Kneeling, with his head bent, Praven commends you to take his life. The player is presented with three options, one dark side (“As you wish.”), one darker side (“Die, Sith scum.”) and a light side option (“No, there is good in you still.”) The dark side options are obvious, and make an end of the matter. But should the player choose the light side, Praven eventually becomes a Jedi.

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 Operation

To 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.

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The setting was Belsavis, a planet in the ninth quadrant that interned the most ferocious prisoners of the ancient Infinite Empire. Inside the Belsavis prison, an unwitting scouting party has opened the Eternity Vault and allowed some majorly bad, Force-infused juju to escape (my words, not theirs). The Republic wants to seal the vault for all time, while the Empire is intrigued by its possibilities. So, while the two factions will never compete directly for the prison (it’s PvE only), they’ll experience the content in far different ways.

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: Tattooine

The 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.

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I immediately hopped on my vehicle, a shortened version of 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.

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Dying was actually a good thing – it introduced me to 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.

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Bounty Hunter though I was, I couldn’t seem to stop making light side dialogue choices. First, finding a mortally wounded Darth Silthar inside a Sand People cave with information about a hidden camp with powerful artifacts, I refuse to release him to death. Then, I opt not to vandalize the Sand People mural which shows the location of said camp. These decisions earned me bonus “affection” points with Mako, interestingly, and Daniel took the opportunity to point out that 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 Back

And 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.

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It’s increasingly banal to talk about story in 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.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Star Wars: The Old Republic Game Page.

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