At this year’s PAX East, I had the opportunity to do something I’d never done before… play BioWare’s upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now I love me some Original Trilogy, and I’m a fan of the IP so don’t get me wrong, but I’m not the hardcore fan that will argue over who shot first in the cantina. I will gladly join in and trash the hell out of Jar Jar Binks when called upon. So it’s probably not surprising that I had no clue what Taral V was when I met with BioWare for my first appointment of Saturday morning. Thankfully, we were treated to a nice intro video before being set loose on the game and the flashpoint (dungeon-like content) that Taral V covers.
The game’s Senior Community Manager, Stephen Reid, greeted us as we sat down to take in a sort of tutorial video. He warned us that for Taral V we’d be hopping into SW:TOR as level 32 characters, and that if we expected to survive on some of the flashpoint’s more difficult content we’d probably want pay attention. Our video host was Mr. Dallas Dickinson (Director of Production), and with his help we got a decent overview of the Taral V flashpoint and the classes we’d be playing as. Once the video finished telling us what each class’ role was, we were ushered out of the video room and put up in groups of four to try our hand at Taral V.
Taral V is for all intents and purposes an Imperial military base. After speaking with Jedi Master Oteg (one of Yoda’s race), we learn that we must go to the planet surface and recover the secret to freeing a Jedi prisoner. But the Imperial forces aren’t all that’s standing in our way on the planet’s surface: plenty of indigenous jungle inhabitants are also a constant threat. After Master Oteg gave us the skinny, we hustled off to a ship that was waiting to take us down to Taral V. All four players in a group must “use” the ships door to signal that everyone is ready to go. Once we had, it was up-up and away to adventure and intrigue.
The four classes we had at our disposal were the Smuggler (Healer), Trooper (Main Tank), Jedi Consular (Caster and Secondary Heals), and Jedi Guardian (DPS and Off-tank). As you can see the set-up is your traditional trinity of roles. Honestly, while I look forward to the days where everyone can fill the healer role as needed, I still fully appreciate the dynamic and I think that TOR is easily working these traditional roles into the IP. After some deliberation, I sat down behind the Jedi Guardian. One of the ladies from Curse Gaming took up the mantle of the main tanking Trooper while a couple of rather quiet and mysterious media folks played the Smuggler and the Consular.
It’s a little daunting to jump into a game in the middle of the leveling process, but for the most part I think our rag-tag group did pretty well. Now we were told that the difficulty of the instance was turned down a little bit, being that we were just thrown into the game midway, but as Garrett (who took over for me about halfway through) found out that “easing the difficulty” didn’t make it a cakewalk. The look of the game, though divisive, is absolutely gorgeous in my eyes. I can value the artistic bend on the Star Wars mythos, and it reminds me of the Clone Wars TV show (which is actually pretty good dagnabit). Note: I don’t think of this as pandering to the younger audience as some might, but rather as trying something that’s a little more artistic while making a game that has a chance to run on a wide range of machines. It looks fantastic in person and I was quite worried going in.
Taral V seems like a fairly straightforward dungeon-romp when it all comes down to it. While it’s presented to you as though you’re on the surface of a large planet, you’re kind of boxed in on a path that takes you through the content. But I mean, it’s an instanced dungeon right? That’s the purpose of Flashpoints in BioWare’s game. They’re nuggets of interactive story-driven group content, and in that case it reminded me a lot of a multi-player KotoR (minus the pausing) which I think is a pretty good notion. Our group hopped off the transport ship and began walking only to watch as some explosions occurred off in the distance and massive jungle beasts charged at us. The whole thing was non-stop from that point forward.
It’s easy to see that BioWare has learned a lot from other developers when it comes to designing interesting dungeon content. The mobs never looked like they were just standing or patrolling without purpose. The Imperial troops interacted with the encroaching wildlife so that sometimes we’d wander to a fight already in progress between the two. Was it on rails? Yes. Did I give a damn? Not at all. I felt like was taking part in a Jedi strike-force and I loved every second of it. Our Smuggler did a great job healing with these little med-pack drones, and the watching the Consular lift massive pieces of earth from the ground and hurl them at enemies was pretty awesome. The trooper looked like a Tank’s dream with heavy firepower and lots of survivability. In fact, the animations for all the spells and effects were fantastic. When I watched videos of the game prior to playing it, I was severely underwhelmed. But playing the title and experiencing the combat makes a world of difference. It’s still fairly traditional stuff, but it’s fun.
The Jedi Guardian was actually a lot more fun than I anticipated. There was a handy little cheat-sheet placed just below the monitor to let me know what my skills were. As a melee DPS class with off-tanking capabilities, the Guardian’s attacks revolved entirely around generating and using energy for my Force powers. I had a buff which boosted my attacks, and several AOE powers for when I was in close on a group of enemies. The key though was the taunt which I had to use more than once when our Trooper was taking a little too much fire. It draws every enemy around to you, and as such I can see how TOR PvE will focus a lot on switching tanks mid-battle. And as a bonus, there really was something awesome watching my Jedi leap into action, whirling dervish of lightsaber and Force energy. It may not be the direct “action” or console type combat some had hoped for, but rest assured knowing that TOR’s action is fast-paced and pretty exciting.
Eventually I felt the looming presence of Garrett Fuller over my shoulder. As he drooled onto my shirt, I thought about continuing to play, but in a charitable spirit I let the man take my place. You can read his impressions here. For my time spent with BioWare’s title, I have to say I’m impressed. Granted it was just a small bit of the overall content, but it’s looking like Flashpoints will be some seriously pleasing experiences for the PvE folks out there (myself included). My only real worry from the demo was the camera and targeting control. Maybe it was the mouse and keyboard setup being too sensitive, but the camera felt extremely loose and it was rather easy to lose a target and not easily click them again to regain your composure. Instead I wound up relying heavily on tab-targeting, which works perfectly. But still, I’m hoping they’ll address the finicky nature of the systems before launch. In all though, much like the Knights of the Old Republic before it, ToR is feeling every bit like Star Wars as I could hope. The sounds, the music, the style… it’s all pitch perfect. If BioWare can deliver as compelling of an experience as Taral V for an entire MMO, there will be a lot of happy people.