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.
The Jedi Consular and Jedi Knight
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.
The Cave Entrance
The Blood Raider incursion could be traced to a nearby cave, so Master Din had me go spelunking. Cave access was gated by a red or green forcefield – presumably to prevent anyone from prematurely entering the “story area” – a solo-only experience or, in this case, a proving ground. Flesh Raiders a-plenty roamed the cave, but that didn’t prepare me for what came next. Now, most of us that played that other Star Wars MMORPG remember our first meet-up with a dark Jedi… and how badly it went.
Cue the Dark Jedi, Callef, the troublemaker who’s martialing the Flesh Raider forces locally. Callef is one seriously tough fight for a level 5. In addition to two henchmen, Callef wields knock back powers and a lightsaber. but fortunately his lightsaber doesn’t slice through my training vibroblade. I had to down a health potion early in the fight and then run out (literally, run out) the cooldown timer to down another potion and barely survive the encounter. As is always the case, Master Orgus Din showed up a moment after I’d downed Callef and used Force powers to close the cave. We’d won this battle, but the war was just heating up.
The Jedi Temple
As Orgrimmar is to WoW’s Orcs and Trolls, so the Jedi Temple is to Tython’s Knights and Consulars. Padawans train against bots in the courtyard and sit in classes inside the massive stone structure, vendors and trainers offer their services on the sprawling mezzanine, and the Jedi Council meets behind closed doors to discuss the unsettling happenings.
I was invited to one such meeting, and chose Master Orgus Din formally as my Jedi Master for old time’s sake (a female Master was available, and I’m fairly curious as to how the story would have changed had I chosen her). Din sent me to a nearby Twi’lek pilgrim settlement that had been hit hard by the Raiders to do what I could to help.
While storyline missions typically involve NPC questgivers to maximize on the cutscene potential, many missions are handed out via a Directory Terminal, which doubles as a resource to help you find your way around. Speaking of travel, in lieu of mounts, your mode of fast travel planetside is speeders - a one way, point-to-already-discovered-point trip (similar to how mounts worked in Dark Age of Camelot) that will cost you a few credits. Players will come to appreciate those speeders, because the seamlessly integrated play areas in Tython felt huge. Huge, that is, without wasting space or providing plenty of otherworldly eye candy to make your first-time journey by foot enjoyable.
Kalikori Village had a Directory Terminal and a Republic Speeder stand, which came in mighty handy since I dinged more than a few levels here. The Village served as a trailhead into the Flesh Raider infested mountain trails, and Raiders found these Twi’leks easy pickens.
Technically, this was an illegal settlement – the Republic felt that the Twi’leks weren’t strong enough to live on such an inhospitable planet and banned the pilgrims. So naturally a gulf of distrust existed between the Jedi and the Twi’leks; one that the player will have to heal before the Jedi and Twi’leks could present a united front against the Flesh Raider incursion. One mission had me participating in a ritualistic one-thousand steps timed mission, which had me climbing a path teeming with Flesh Raiders to light and protect a string of beacons.
After I’d earned their trust, a scout informed me that a Flesh Raider weapons cache had been discovered. This led to the first tricky morality mission of the area – should I sabotage the weapons so that they kill their handlers, or take the weapons to arm the villagers? I had initially thought that sabotage was the Light Side choice (since the weapons would have to be used to cause harm), but the reverse was true – self-defense trumps trickery in the Jedi code.
In the weapons cache, I happened across my first companion, a droid called T7-01 (every movie star Jedi has to have a droid friend, apparently, and I’m not complaining). If there’s one thing that the Star Wars movies taught us, it’s that aging, discarded droids often have holographic records that prove of interest to Jedi Masters, and T7-01 was no exception. Master Din, who has a habit of stealing away with all the fun toys I uncover, spirited T7-01 off to the Jedi Temple.
Ruins of Kaleth
The holo indicates that something is rotten in the ruins of a nearby city that dates to the Force Wars, so Master Orgus Din has me searching for clues. On the way, another Master confides in me that he suspects his Padawans might be in love – a Jedi no-no. Since Spanias and Moracen, the lovebirds in question, are known to rendezvous in the ruins, I decide to go ask the hard questions.
And just like that, I stumble into my toughest morality mission yet. It’s not because my job is to break up the happy couple – Jedis lead a hard knock life – but because Moracen offers me a sweet crystal for the lightsaber I hope to build soon. In return I’d simply go off and tell the Master that was nice and passion-free again. Grimacing (in real life), I stuck to my guns, imagining I’d just turned down one of the rarest of rare color-changing disco crystals.
Rogue droids stalk the ruins, powerful Force Wars remnants weakened by the centuries to the point that a level 7 Padawan is a match. I pushed past the droids, into a cave filled with elite Flesh Raider Ravagers, and finally encountered the Flesh Raider Ravager Chieftain. I was expecting just another Ravager, perhaps with an extra helping of toughness, but then the Chieftain warmed up the Force powers, starting with a throw, and I knew I was in for a fight.
Soon the area was secure, and Master Satale Shan advised me to put monitoring devices around the area to ensure that the Flesh Raiders didn’t return. At this point, I had some unfinished business at the Flesh Raider camp. I was on a speeder when Daniel called time. It felt like the past five hours had passed in a parsec.
Earning a Lightsaber
Since only one of us nerfherders had made it all the way through the Padawan experience on Tython, Daniel took a moment to describe how players construct their lightsaber from the components we’d been gathering along the way. As with previous Star Wars games, the lightsaber is a personalized, constructable weapon, and it’s immediately put to good use as a Flesh Raider boss mob attacks. This is, what, the third boss encounter before level 10? The fourth? I’d lost count.
The Hyperspaceway to Coruscant – A Quick Look at Group Content
Help is urgently needed on Coruscant, so Master Satale Shan puts me on the next flight (since I don’t have my spacecraft / base of operations yet). Since a long, uneventful journey is the stuff of reality, not ofgames, we were attacked by an Imperial warship hunting a spy, Vyn Asara, along the way.
While the gameplay was definitely pre-alpha and the session was too brief to really get a handle on group dynamics, this opportunity gave me an important glimpse into how group decisions are made. Not only that, but how Light Side / Dark Side points are assigned. The process is democratic , meaning everyone votes, the votes are tallied, and the winning choice determines how the content plays out. (I’m not sure what happens in case of a tie and EA BioWare wasn’t telling – my guess is that it’s determined by how quickly everyone answered). But if, say, your group goes with a Dark Side decision and you personally picked Light Side, you get morality points based on your decision.
Put into practice, in one part of the story, the passageway to the bridge were sealed shut and only a reactor vent would rapidly reset them. Unfortunately, that would also sweep the entire reactor control team out into space. Vyn Asara is begging for us to retake the bridge before it’s too late, but the engineering officer pleads that he can get the passageway open with a little more time. I’m more than a little suspicious of Vyn and I guess I’m a softie, because I vote to let the engineer have some time. My groupmates probably realize that this is a throwaway opportunity to see some guys get vacuumed out of an airlock, however, so out they go. I get Light Side points, they get Dark Side points.
A New Hope?
Like many others, I was on the brink of writing Star Wars: The Old Republic off as an irredeemable, perhaps MMORPG category-maiming mistake – in short, a failure one of truly Galactic proportions. Our hands-on sessions at the 2010 GDC and GamesCom were heartbreaking – the game as presented at those points in time just wasn’t fun or laudable in any aspect. I was prepared to not enjoy SWTOR in San Francisco, write a lukewarm preview for the diehard fans still clinging to the promise, and anticipating review day, when we could finally say how far and how long we’ve seen the good ship SWTOR blown off course.
But with Jedi Immersion Day, BioWare presented the game in its element, presenting us with the beautiful, full-featured world of Tython and letting us find our way. I found the change of pace unsettling at first - I wanted to keep clicking past the cutscenes - but grew to enjoy the cinematic experience as time went on. BioWare won back my confidence, and even though the game has a long ways to go - Daniel is fond of saying that BioWare isn’t designing KOTOR 3, they’re designing KOTOR 3 through 11 (meaning, every class is almost an entire game) – they’re on-track to create a new, compelling, and... yes, story-driven, type of MMORPG experience. Let’s hope the Force continues to be with them as they move toward a possible release next year.