Star Wars: The Old Republic – An Update from PAX East 2011

If any vestiges of late 2010 hate over the future of Star Wars: The Old Republic remained at PAX East 2011, not even an Imperial probe droid could detect
If any vestiges of late 2010 hate over the future of Star Wars: The Old Republic remained at PAX East 2011, not even an Imperial probe droid could detect a trace. BioWare held a commanding presence on the show floor, offering demos, Q&As, and t-shirts at the top of the hour and hands-on demos, limitless cosplay, and t-shirt tosses in between.

Space Combat – First Look

You had to be either lucky or good to catch a demo of TOR space combat at PAX East 2011. Every hour throughout the day had a demo or Q&A of some kind on the SWTOR stage, but the dev team only got their pew-pew on once or twice a day. That said, it was obvious that this isn’t just popcorn content to Producer Cory Butler, who I caught up with after the demo was complete. “The Star Wars fantasy isn’t complete, in my mind, without the ability to get in your starship, fly around, and kind of have those Han and Chewy moments.”

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Your companions and SWTOR omnipresent voiceover work will help deliver the story flavor, but don’t expect to just laugh it up, fuzzball. Cory explained that the content scales up quite aggressively: “We do have dogfights with interceptors, but you also come up on some Imperial cruisers with big turrets firing at you. There’s a really great cinematic moment where you’re going through an asteroid field. You’ll fly past two large asteroids and suddenly see this massive cruiser just waiting for you. It’s pretty fun – you’ll get a bonus quest out of that to destroy the cruiser’s turrets."

That said, Space combat prowess won’t be required to progress in Star Wars: The Old Republic, but Cory feels its something players will enjoy. “It’s a supplementary experience to the game.  If it’s not your thing, you’re not going to have to do it to hit your max level, but it’s certainly something we feel people are going to like to do.”

Not to mention that space combat seems like the right blend of Star Wars feel and casual appeal. “It’s a tube shooter,” Cory explained, “so it’s a little wider than on rails, you have a lot more room to move around. You also have a lot more enemies flying at you and lots of different types of enemies, and also lots of missions where you can work with friendly AI.”

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Just not do together. “It’s a solo experience,” Writing Director Daniel Erickson explained. In terms of interactivity you’ll hear companion voiceovers, but these are just “flavor” – companions don’t add any sort of accuracy or damage increases. During the demo (video below) Daniel explained that players will be able to loot or create better shields, propulsion, and armaments for their ships which are unique to each class (except for the Jedi and Sith, who share the same ship type for authenticity’s sake).

During the demo, Cory used the Galaxy Map to find space combat hotspots and then dove into the dogfight with a mouse click. But will players be ambushed as they travel, similar to travel in other BioWare games like Dragon Age II?  “We haven’t talked a lot about the details on how that’s going to work,” Cory explained, “but if you’re familiar with Mass Effect and how ships work there, it’s a similar experience.”

Space Combat Demo from the show floor:


Taral V Hands On

TOR was easily one of the hottest hands-on demos on the show floor at PAX East 2011, rivaling such big-budgeted titles as RAGE and LA Noire. Or, at the very least it it seemed that way, given the lines. SWTOR demos lasted an ungainly 45 minutes and, worse, were cloistered into teams of four.

These factors conspired to make the SWTOR line the slowest in the facility, but Producer Cory Butler didn’t mince words about how less-than-ideal playing SWTOR on a show floor is. “It’s not really something that’s designed for 15 minute hands-on sessions. It’s not that you have to play for longer, but once you do, the hook comes in. 15 minutes will get you through your first conversation and on your way to your first quest. A good day of play will get you hooked.”

So our hands-on experience was just meant to give us a feel of group dynamics in a level 32 flashpoint, got it. But what is this flashpoint we speak of? “Flashpoints are highly story driven multiplayer instances.” Cory explained. “Like everything else that BioWare does, story is very important to us, so we want to showcase that in everything we do.”

The story so far: Master Eteg assembles a crack team of you and three of the nearly 70,000 PAX East attendees to free a Jedi from her captors. The multiplayer conversation doesn’t play out as rule by majority as we previously thought, but by a random roll by all group members, winner responds. Before the Jedi can be located in the Maelstrom nebula, a computer must be stolen from an Imperial facility in Tyral V, a heavily fortified Imperial planet.

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A Trooper laying down some firepower.

The four Republic classes selected for the mission were as follows:

Trooper (Advance Class: Vanguard) – The tank of the group with heavy armor and a reactive shield, also having various “taunt” abilities and heavy armor, plus cryogrenades to slow enemies and sticky grenades for area-of-effect damage.

Jedi Consular (Advance Class: Sage) – A ranged class that can deal lots of damage, the Sage can have a tough time limiting aggro if not careful. The Sage can also act as a backup healer.

Jedi Knight (Advance Class: Guardian) - The DPS of the group, the Jedi Knight has fairly decent armor and can act as an off-tank in a pinch. The Guardian’s ranged attack consists of a lightsaber throw.

Smuggler (Advance Class: Scoundrel) – The primary healer with some crowd control and utility abilities.

Since I selected the Scoundrel, I can tell you a bit more about this particular advance class. The scoundrel has an energy pool that refills at about one of a possible five ticks every few seconds. From this pool, he can attach low-cost “slow release medpacks” which stack up to three times, or select a medium-cost medium heal or a high-cost high heal. This is all pretty standard, except for a special healing ability that essentially detonates the slow-release medpacks stacked on a friendly player at no cost, offering a burst of healing. This was very useful when the primary tank suddenly took a big hit.

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A smuggler is always cool.

The Scoundrel also had a number of ranged attacks which drew from the same energy pool, the ability to deploy a portable shield and work from natural cover. The Scoundrel also had a Lucky Shots ability (crit rate increase), a buff that increased the group’s Presence (each of the classes has one group buff), a set of utility abilities like Surrender (threat decrease) and Cool Heads (energy rate increase).

After an early near-wipe, things progressed smoothly. The Taral V creatures, such as Jungle Crawlers, River Lurkers, and Vicats, attacked Imperial units and our group equally. Nice atmospheric elements such as crashing spacecraft and lightning strikes added to the fun.

Things rose to a fevered pitch when our group met Captain Shemonek in the Imperial Base. The good Captain spawned a massive River Lurker named Ripper. The key was to have the Vanguard tank Ripper while the Guardian off-tanked Captain Shemonek. The healers split up as well – I watched over the Vanguard while the Sage healed the Guardian, supplementing his damage when possible. What caused our group to wipe the first time was a cluster of adds which we got a little too close to.

We might have won out even then, but my chief complaint against SWTOR from the demo is how hard it is to discern who has aggro from where when most of the enemy units are firing laser weapons.  It was clear that groups will need strong communication skills and role diversification to get through flashpoints like Tyral V, and if the rumors were true, only a handful groups succeeded at the challenge. As to whether or not our group brought down Captain Shemonek and Ripper, I can’t say definitively, since I have a pact of secrecy with my counterpart at Zam and the group’s Vanguard. Let’s just say it was close.

For the official walkthrough of the Taral V hands-on: check out this post.

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The Jedi Consular in action - poor robot.

Advance Guild Registration

The rumor at the show was that 21,000 guilds were created in the first 48 hours of SWTOR’s innovative demos. Most of these, if true, are one-man “name it and claim it” operations, but the response from the fans on the floor was overwhelmingly positive.

A few current and future guild leaders we talked to expressed concern over the uncertain time gap between now and launch – as in, what’s there to do now except make campaign promises and badmouth the competition. Yet Cory was bullish on the concept. “There’s a lot of strategy behind the guild program. We wanted to let the fans get in and start playing with it early.  To me, it’s an exciting opportunity to get in and start recruiting and taking applications and also pick a name for your guild.”

While naysayers may continue to bemoan SWTOR as a highly traditional MMORPG in Jedi robes and criticize TOR’s slightly chunky graphics and UI in comparison to the sassy sleekness of Guild Wars 2, dyed in the wool Star Wars fans could find a lot to love at PAX East 2011. The character models were spot on, dodging fears of overly caricatured Clone Wars builds, the pageantry of a Star Wars universe is in full effect, and BioWare is certifiably making big strides in storytelling and social outreach, if perhaps less so in the gameplay or graphics department.

Thanks to Cory Butler and Daniel Erickson for their time, and may the Force be with BioWare as the game ramps up towards an undisclosed release date.

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

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