Posted Thu, Dec 16, 2010 by Ethec
Cue the scrolling yellow text and starry backdrop: things are going from bad to worse in Tython, ancient homeworld of the Jedi. The dark influences that caused the Force Wars long ago seem to have returned, and elsewhere in the galaxy a shadow begins to fall on the Republic.
As early as next year, players will have the opportunity to work through the mysteries of Tython as young Jedi Knights and Jedi Consulars, but thanks to a recent “Jedi Immersion Day” press event at LucasArts in San Francisco, Ten Ton Hammer was able to use our Force Perception for a full 5 hours on a pre-alpha build of this highly anticipated game.
Before we settled in, Lead Writer Daniel Erickson described the two classes; this would be a full-on five hour playsession, so to get the most out of the experience we had to make a choice (this was good training, since making big, permanent choices is kind of a theme with SWTOR). The Jedi Consular as a class that brings a mix of ranged and melee abilities to bear, and the Consular storyline (every class has a unique story, from start to level cap) is much more cerebral than hamfisted. I decided that the mysteries of Tython probably deserved a worthier brainiac than yours truly, so I rolled a hard charging, Midi-chlorian-fueled meleer, the Jedi Knight.
You could get a sense of how the Jedi Knight class plays just by the names of the first six or so abilities you’ll earn – Strike Slash, Force Leap, Overhead Slash, Destruction (a nifty AoE with a cool electricity-crackling effect), and Master Strike. If you detect no lack of verbs, you’re well on your way to understanding the Jedi Knight. This is a middle-of-the-fight, tank / DPS sort of class that’s not for the standoffish or feint-hearted.
Plenty of classes in plenty of MMORPGs aspire to “action MMO” brilliance, but the Jedi Knight delivers more than most, if by no more than how the class moves and fights. The lightsaber might be an elegant weapon from a more civilized age, but even while I was swinging a training vibroblade (padawans earn the right to construct their lightsabers later in the Tython experience), the Jedi Knight moves and fights with a smoothness and grace I honestly haven’t seen before in an MMORPG.
If the weekly burn at BioWare exceed the entire project budget for smaller MMORPGs, as more than one studio lead has lamented to me, than at least the part spent on character animation was well worth it. The Jedi Knight parries, dodges, deflects laser blasts, and even runs well. (It drives me nuts when characters jog unnaturally in third-person perspective games, like a constant itch I can’t scratch, and SWTOR characters have the easy, well-oiled motion of Olympian decathletes out for a fun run.)
Most of the UI elements will be familiar to anyone who has played WoW or any MMORPG; the minimap, hotkeys, chatbox, etc. were standard fare. SWTOR will have its own version of WoW’s Scrolling Combat Text, or “FlyText,” and I found it prudent to turn on subtitles fairly early on (so no important mission details are missed while a guildmate describes a bowel movement on vent, for example). On a more pleasant note, accessibility is definitely a consideration for the SWTOR team. Even in the early builds, a “color blind” mode was available via the options menu.
Enough on the classes, gameplay, and interface. EA and BioWare are selling SWTOR primarily on story, so let’s see if we’re buying.
Starting out, I was happy to find that a sort of Padawan Plus; since I was one of the few trainees with combat experience, Master Orgus Din used me as his right-hand Jedi to try and deal with a surprise onslaught of Flesh Raiders. No, Flesh Raiders aren’t a bad horror & softcore porn fusion flick – they’re huge, clam-headed red shirts in a invasion force that may or may not have something to do with the eventual Sith takeover of Tython (and if I spoiled the surprise by saying that the halcyon days of the Republic are coming to a close, you’re probably not enough of a Star Wars lorehound to care).
The Gnarls is a sprawling fragment of the Tython map covered with gentle hills, streams, and trees – you might call it swampy if it wasn’t so airy and sunlit. Massive Jedi statues in various stages of ruin dot the landscape, and some of these hold lore objects that trigger Codex entries (the Codex is much like the Lore and Legends journal of Warhammer Online – in other words, a collector’s auto-collecting dream). It probably looks quite beautiful when there’s no screams of NPC Padawans dying and Flesh Raiders growling. The landscape is crawling with battles, so I grab a few tutorial quests from my Master and wade into the battle.
Things play out predictably, I fight, enemies die, hapless Padawans are released from captivity, levels are rapidly won, and clues are gathered. Then I receive the mission “The Lost Padawans” and get my first brush with the ongoing SWTOR morality play.
A group of Padawans has gotten separated and aren’t responding to communicator calls, so it’s my job to reel them back in. Upon arriving at the glade where they were last sighted (SWOTR provides map indicators to help you find mission objectives), you find that one of the Padawans was gravely injured in the assault, and the rest of the group is split between carrying on and exacting revenge or taking the injured comrade to safety. You get to make their decision for them, and you can probably tell which choice earns you light side point and which puts you on the path to the dark side.
Nor will picking the light side or dark side choice always be so simple, as we’ll come to see.