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PvP Hands-On Preview

Michael Bitton Posted:
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Let’s get something out of the way real quick: PvP in Star Wars: The Old Republic is awesome.  If you’ve been following our coverage of the recent Star Wars: The Old Republic “Immersion Days” event you’ll know that we chose to use our two days with the game as an experiment to find out how group friendly the game was. While there were a few issues, PvE turned out to be a pretty solid group experience. But what about PvP?

Our PvP demo was set for our second day at the event, and following a successful day grouping with some of my colleagues in the press I decided to approach the rest of the group with a new plan: beat the developers at their own game. Let’s face it, they were tossing us into the deep end here with PvP and this is probably the only time the developers will be better than the players as they know their game and the Warzone better than we did. So, why not rob them of this small pleasure and add a little competitive twist to the demo?

Before we got into our matches we were given a short presentation to familiarize us with the various classes, Advanced Classes, and roles available to players in PvP.  BioWare also took this time to highlight some of the interesting things they are doing with PvP, including what they are doing to address some of the stand-out issues that tend to plague PvP in most MMOs.

Click the image above to watch a Warzone video

The first issue has to do with tanks. As most MMO gamers know, tanks traditionally have a hard time finding a place in PvP when it comes to doing their job of protecting their allies. After all, aggro and threat have no function in PvP. To address this, taunted players attacking a tank’s allies in The Old Republic will instead suffer a significant damage penalty, encouraging them to focus on the tank to make full use of their damage potential. If the enemy decides to attack the tank’s allies anyways, the tank still wins as he’s still protected them by allowing them to take less damage, and if the enemy focuses on the tank, well, mission accomplished! Additionally, tanks will also be able to be able to Guard a designated player, which allows the tank to share 50% of the damage being taken by their guarded ally. Both the aforementioned approach to taunting and the Guard feature worked excellently in Mythic’s Warhammer Online, and I was glad to hear that these features will be part of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s PvP experience.

BioWare is also attempting to address the issue of crowd control in Star Wars: The Old Republic. This issue actually turned out to be a little bit trickier to deal with than it already is in most MMOs due to BioWare’s focus on creating a cinematic combat experience. To address the issues of crowd control, BioWare has implemented a “Resolve” bar which appears underneath your character’s HP bar and fills up as you are subject to crowd controlling effects; once the bar fills to maximum the player is immune to all crowd control effects for a full eight seconds before the bar resets.

If you’ve watched many of the gameplay trailers released up to this point you’ve probably noticed that enemies tend to react a lot to what’s being done to them, especially in lightsaber combat, and this does a great deal in helping BioWare achieve that cinematic combat they’ve been striving for. The problem arises when they had to consider how this would work in PvP combat. The team struggled with balancing the desire to have PvP combat look as “Star Wars” as the PvE combat, and ultimately decided to keep the animations. The compromise was that basically any action that removes control of your character now counts as a crowd control effect towards your Resolve meter. This means things like short knockbacks, or channeled lightsaber attacks where you are stuck reacting to the blows also count as CC.  The amount the bar fills up by is completely determined by the severity of the CC being used on you, a brief pushback will only fill the bar slightly while a hard stun might increase the bar by a significant chunk.

In addition to the issues addressed above, BioWare intends to treat PvP as a fully viable leveling track as they don’t want to put anything in the game that would give players the impression they’d better spend their time doing a different activity. If you enjoy doing PvP, you’ll be glad to know you will earn experience points, credits, and even tokens towards an entire line of gear and consumables created specifically for PvP. PvP gear will be appropriately aggressive looking as well; even your peace-loving Jedi Knight will look like a battle-hardened badass when fully decked out in PvP gear.

A ranking system known as “Valor” will also help set the better players apart from the crop and even factors heavily into the game’s matchmaking system for Warzones. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s matchmaking system will attempt to match players of similar Valor rank, try to create balanced teams with healers and tanks, and most importantly, separates the solo queue from premades. No one likes getting stomped by premades in a pick-up group and BioWare’s definitely heard you there.

Finally, a Commendations system, which was described as a kind of “mini-achievements” system, awards players for their accomplishments throughout a Warzone match (and even announces the achievements to other players). Players can earn commendations for all manner of actions including killing other players, teamplay activities such as securing objectives, and even tanks and healers get some love. Indeed, the game’s scoreboard actually tracks damage taken as well as damage dealt so tanks that do their job really have something to brag about. At the end of a match players can also award a single commendation to another player on their team that they felt did a good job (no, you can’t award one to yourself).

With the presentation over we went ahead and took our seats at the same stations we’d played at the day before, and each station was setup with a premade level 20 character to play with. I ended up with a dual-wielding Sith Marauder (DPS Sith Warrior), while the rest of my party consisted of a Sith Sorcerer (Healer), an Agent Sniper, and I believe either a Bounty Hunter or Agent healer. True, we were lacking tanks in our little group, but the Alderaan Warzone we were to participate in was an 8v8 and so there were four other players who would join us on our team.

The setup was a best of three (Press vs. Developers) with a warm-up match to get used to our characters. The Alderaan Warzone we participated in was the original Warzone revealed at E3 last year, and is probably best compared to a Titan match in Battlefield 2142 (though there is no final assault on the ship itself). Players spawn in their respective warships and fly down to the battlefield atop speederbikes. The objective is to secure three turrets, with each secured turret firing on the opposing team’s ship depleting its hitpoints and eventually destroying it. Naturally, the more turrets you hold the faster the enemy warship is destroyed. The ship even visually reflects its damaged state and once the ship is destroyed it will actually crash down into the ground in a massive fireball. Unfortunately, that cutscene wasn’t ready at the time so we didn’t get a chance to see it for ourselves.

While playing our warm-up match we focused on working as a group and applying what we’d all learned playing together in heroic content during our PvE experience on the previous day in order to improve our chances in PvP. This meant proper communication, healing prioritization, and making tactical use of crowd controlling effects, something especially important with the new Resolve bar as you have to keep in mind where and when you use your crowd control. Hitting a dangerous player with a near maxed bar with some hard CC can often work against you as you pretty much give the guy a full eight seconds to go crazy on everyone. As a sidenote, Resolve proved to be a very effective way of dealing with crowd control effects as I never felt like I was being taken out of the fight for too long, and communicating on who we wanted to take out of the fight and at what moment turned out to be key in winning a number of important skirmishes. There is also an Unreal Tournament/Quake vibe to the matches as there are a number of powerups scattered throughout the map, and so knowing map layouts will be especially important for competitive players. For example, I made use of the damage and speed powerups to quickly get to far away turrets under siege and to give me that extra edge in turning the tide of battle once I got there.

Unfortunately, we lost our wam-up match to the developers as we weren’t really paying much attention to the objectives, opting to instead turn the match into a team deatmatch of sorts. My warm-up match also woke me up to the awesome raw power of the Sith Marauder, who turned out to be an absolute wrecking ball on the battlefield in the right hands. I went 21 and 0 during our warm-up, and this was really only the beginning of what was to come.

During our first real match my groupmates and I applied everything from our warm-up while also paying close attention to the objectives, leading us to a very satisfying victory. We were a crack team focused on securing two of the three turrets and defending them with all we could muster. My Sith Warrior was an absolute menace, to the point of having the developers yelling and swearing at the mere sight of the guy. I also picked on Daniel Erickson a lot as he was a Jedi Consular and so I thought he was the healer for a while. Whoops!

For those of you interested in the Sith Warrior, I can tell you that a pissed off Sith Warrior is really something to fear; if you know what you are doing there is simply very little way to escape his wrath. In close combat he has a number of high damaging abilities including an awesome Impale move and a heavy bleed DoT. At range, the Sith Warrior can Force Choke his enemies stunning them during the three second channel, and then Force Scream at them for a one-two punch of CC and high ranged damage. This proved very useful at dealing with runners, but if that’s not enough your charge is extremely effective as well.

In fact, the Sith Warrior’s charge doesn’t work like you’d expect it to in your typical MMO; height isn’t an issue. You can leap up and down several stories to your selected target, which makes for some amusing situations with players who think they’ve gotten the upper hand by finding high ground to attack you from. For example, one Trooper thought he was slick shooting at my team from an elevated platform with no way to get to it other than to basically run around a large portion of the map. This was no problem for my Sith Warrior; I stood underneath him taking some blaster fire in the process, put on my best “Challenge Accepted” face and just leapt right up to him, tearing him to shreds. There is one caveat though: you cannot charge targets who are taking cover, which is understandable, as this would really limit the effectiveness of Snipers and Smugglers.

PvP combat in The Old Republic felt visceral, fast-paced, and most importantly, tactical. I could even take on multiple targets and survive if I used my abilities correctly. At one point, I’d gone over to a turret that Daniel Erickson’s Jedi Consular was in the process of stealing away from our team. Alone, I almost felt bad (almost) as he groaned knowing the beating he was about to catch, however, two of his lightsaber-wielding brethren soon showed up to save his bacon and by this point I’d built up a reputation for being a total menace so I didn’t want to give them the pleasure of exacting their revenge upon me. I stepped up to the challenge of trying to kill all three of them myself (which sounds suicidal but I was feeling cocky at the time), and with some sound choices I was able to take out two of the three before my teammates showed up to ensure our victory and secure the point. 

We decided to up the ante in round two by spending our earned PvP tokens on powerful consumables such as speed buffs, but I also opted to make use of a “thorn shield” consumable as the BioWare team had enough of my shenanigans at this point and made serious effort to focus me down. I figured I’d give it to them back a bit as they’d actually gotten me to die a few times. Speaking of focusing me down,  my Sith Warrior’s rampage was largely enabled by having an awesome team, with GameBreaker.tv’s MikeB (yes, there are two of us) and Curse.com’s Kody providing some excellent healing support. More interestingly, the other MikeB, who was playing the Sith Sorcerer often either tied me or inched ahead of me in kill count, all the while keeping the rest of us well healed, so those of you thinking you’ll just be playing whack-a-mole with health bars can rest assured: beating ass as a healer is definitely possible.

Ultimately, we swept the BioWare team in our best of three, but it wasn’t just the shutout that made the experience exciting, it was the ebb and flow of each skirmish; there was never a feeling that we were snowballing them even when we ended up winning out. Showing up with more people wasn’t a guarantee for victory, this wasn’t a zerg game. Making tactical decisions during each and every skirmish was rewarding, and a bad situation could easily turn around with some good communication and proper execution.

As a former heavy roleplayer turned bloodlusting PvP player, I can tell you I live and breathe for a solid PvP experience nowadays.  Content, no matter how good it is, eventually runs out, and you want to do something with all that sweet gear you’ve put together so PvP is definitely my activity of choice. What especially stood out to me is the fact the game worked well both when I was tightly working with my groupmates and during the times I’d decided to lone wolf it and take an objective alone. Some games put either too much or too little focus on the group dynamic, often resulting in either a team of lone wolves paying no attention to teamplay or an experience where you feel absolutely useless when trying to excel on your own or carry a team. Obviously, I cannot speak to the larger picture of PvP in Star Wars: The Old Republic (especially the open world aspect, which will allow for companions, Warzones do not), but the small taste we got of level 20 PvP in the Alderaan Warzone was probably the most fun I’ve had doing PvP in quite some time. I can only hope that BioWare manages to retain and somehow improve on that experience in the months leading up to launch.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB