Last week we were invited out to EA Redwood Shores in San Francisco for the latest “Immersion Days” press event. Given the focus of Star Wars: The Old Republic on storyline, it’s kind of hard to fully get a feel for the game in short play periods, even when given anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour at a show like E3 or PAX, so BioWare has put on a few of these “Immersion Day” events to give us an extended look at the game over a period of a couple of days.
We kicked off our first day by choosing from either the Imperial Agent or the Bounty Hunter, with the goal of completing their starting world of Hutta. The most common flak that Star Wars: The Old Republic gets is that it’s not truly an MMO and so I went in with the objective of putting that criticism to test (regardless of its legitimacy). To that end, I invited three other members of the press to join me in a little experiment in playing Star Wars: The Old Republic as a group the entire time.
Before we get into that, I’m going to give those of you who are unfamiliar with the Bounty Hunter a bit of a primer on how the class actually plays. The Bounty Hunter wields a single pistol (or dual pistols with the Mercenary Advanced Class) and has a number of gadgets at his disposal which includes (but is not limited to) missiles, flame throwers, rail-shots, and electro-darts. There is a good deal of interaction between skills as well. For example, Rail Shot can only be fired on targets that are on fire or under the effects of crowd control. Torching an enemy or stunning them with your Electro Dart is a great set up for Rail Shot which packs a significant wallop. The Bounty Hunter’s combat resource is Heat, think of it like the heat mechanic in the original Mass Effect. Each ability generates a certain amount of heat, and if you have too much heat you won’t be able to use certain abilities. Heat can be vented in combat using a special ability on a one minute cooldown, or can be vented while resting outside of combat.
In my time playing, I found heat to be a potentially fun mechanic that needed some balance tweaking as I was overheating a bit too often and with a full minute cooldown on my in-combat vent ability. I can say it definitely impacted the dynamic of a number of fights, forcing me to fall back on my basic Rapid Shots ability (which doesn’t build heat). Again, nothing wrong with the idea of the mechanic, but BioWare could certainly stand to tweak some heat values on the bounty hunter’s abilities or reduce the cooldown of the vent ability.
Getting back to our multiplayer experiment, BioWare did inform us that we could group but noted that it would probably be better to do so a little later on as the early bits of the game are very much focused on your class storyline. Undeterred, we threw around invites and put together our group. I chose the Bounty Hunter for my test, with the remaining members of my group consisting of two Imperial Agents and one other Bounty Hunter.
Things got off to a bit of a confusing start. As the UI is still a work-in-progress, it was a bit of a challenge trying to get everyone in the same places and doing the same things. It wasn’t easy to tell which group member was which on the mini-map and the in-world nameplates weren’t presented in a different color in order to denote group members. I did mention this to BioWare’s Associate Lead Designer Emmanuel Lusinchi who assured us that a lot of the UI elements were in flux and some of the UI issues I mentioned were already addressed in a later build. Since we were all sitting next to each other, we were able to surmount the confusion by simply talking to each other and coordinating. Eventually, after some initial speed bumps, we got into a rhythm and things were relatively smooth sailing from then on.
The Bounty Hunter story is kind of a Wild West tale. You show up on Hutta and get involved with some interesting individuals and unsavory characters while trying to make your way off-world in order to participate in a bounty hunter competition known as the Great Hunt. In order to gain entry to this competition a hunter must be sponsored and one of the local crimelords, Nem’ro the Hutt, just so happens to be capable of doing so. Mako, the bounty hunter’s first companion, arranges a meeting with Nem’ro and Nem’ro isn’t immediately convinced that he should sponsor you, which results in being given a number of tasks in order to prove your worth.
Some of these tasks are fairly brutal as well. For one, I was sent to make an example of someone who’d crossed the Hutt. My task was to kill him and deliver his head to his wife in a sack. Showing up to undertake this gruesome endeavor isn’t a matter of a simple firefight and looting the head off the guy’s corpse, only to return to the some quest NPC and gain an experience reward. Instead, what transpires is actually a fairly brutal cutscene where the bounty hunter clocks the guy over the head with his pistol, presses his knee into the poor guys back while he lays helpless on the floor and pretty much saws his head clean off his neck. While absent of blood, it is still fairly graphic and I was both shocked and impressed to find such a scene in the game.
This simple example really illustrates what BioWare has been trying to emphasize in terms of what their signature cinematic storytelling really adds to the MMO experience. I finished this quest and immediately imagined how it’d play out in any other game, turning in a quest item to a static lifeless NPC giving way to a pop-up text box where the wife screams in horror (via text) and rewards me experience. Instead, I got to watch it all play out as I presented her with the sack and watched her run off screen screaming; I even got a chance to make a callous remark if I were feeling extra evil (and I was!).
Getting back to the multiplayer side of things, it’s true that there isn’t much reason to tag along to many of the class quests given early on. Entering your groupmates’ phases often doesn’t give you much to do as you cannot participate in the conversations. There are a good deal of phases that result in combat and having a friend along can sure be helpful, but without knowing which is which ahead of time your friends are often left basically dancing around waiting for you to finish your conversations should they decide to tag along. If you’re feeling disappointed by this fact, fear not, your starting world is actually a fairly short jaunt that really serves to set up your class storyline and get you used to the game mechanics.
Despite the aforementioned issues, grouping on Hutta was actually still quite fun. Sidequest dialogue can all be done in multiplayer and so you can start earning your Dark Side and Light Side points along with your friends while having to suffer the consequences of their choices if they make a decision you didn’t want to and win the conversation roll. This may sound like a negative, but it’s actually incredibly social and fun; there’s a kind of “party game” element to it. One example involved a side-quest bounty where we were given the option of taking the target dead or alive. We found the mark imprisoned along with a few others, all of whom were wearing explosive slave collars. Refusing to come with us unless we freed the other slaves as well, three of us chose to make use of the whole “dead” bit of the contract and kill the guy, however, one member of the group decided to comply and free the other slaves. Guess who won? While we all lost out, we all laughed it up and found the result quite amusing anyways.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the way multiplayer dialogue works, basically each player involved in the scene selects their dialogue choice (or chooses to skip) and then a roll is made for each player (the roll value for each player is shown on the bottom left of the screen). The winning choice determines who responds and what is said (or decided), though alignment points such as Dark Side and Light Side points are awarded based on intentions and not what actually results. If you choose to kill someone (Dark Side points), and your friend chooses to spare them (Light Side points), you’ll still get your Dark Side points if the spare decision wins out. In addition to Dark Side and Light Side points, players earn “Social Points” for participating in multiplayer dialogue. BioWare wouldn’t get into the sort of things one can redeem with social points other than that they’d be of interest to those who are, well, social!
Another neat feature of multiplayer dialogue is the Holocom, or the ability for players to participate in dialogue remotely; you can basically phone it in. If your groupmate initiates dialogue with someone far away from you a menu will pop up asking if you’d like to join the conversation. Choosing to join in will have you show up as a hologram and participate just as if you were physically there yourself, well, with the exception of being able to take physical action against the characters you are speaking to. In the build we played in, you could actually shoot someone in a conversation as a hologram, but this was unintended and will not be possible later on. I wonder if Force Choking works though? Hmm. We also ended up using this feature to mass turn in quests by sending different group mates to different camps in order to initiate the turn in dialogue.
While grouping we also discovered a number of other surprises, such as the fact you can (currently) only have one companion out in a full group at a time, though there is a proximity factor to this restriction. If you’re grouped with three other people and someone has their companion out you’ll still be able to bring your companion out as well if you’re a certain distance away from your groupmates, and this is important as your companion makes up a whopping 40% of your damage potential. Of course, this is less of an issue when you’re all grouped up and together. Another thing I noticed is that class roles were mostly absent in the starting world level range (roughly 1-8 or so). As a bounty hunter I wanted to tank, but I wasn’t really able to do this either in terms of soaking damage or drawing attention to myself. I actually found that my Agent teammates in cover appeared to be quite a good deal hardier than myself.
Grouping made things go faster for sure, but what was really interesting was the inclusion of Heroic quest content even on the starting world. We discovered a heroic quest that sent us deep within the bowels of Hutta to wipe out some unsavory characters and creatures in the sewers and found that our group cohesion was quite adequately tested. Crowd controlling enemies, target prioritization, etc., were all important for us to get through the encounter, which ultimately culminated with a fight against a robotic mini-boss who was guarding a glowing Datacron. Datacrons are scattered throughout the game world and offer unique permanent boosts to your statistics, however, the one we found in our Heroic quest was different from the ones some of you may have heard about up to this point. This Datacron was actually part of a set, which when completed would offer even more significant bonuses according to BioWare’s Daniel Erickson. Neat!
The heroic content ended up providing us with significant upgrades in gear, including blues, and after fighting such tough enemies we found the remaining content on Hutta to be a breeze. Stay tuned for our next preview where we tackle the first Imperial Flashpoint, the Black Talon.