For my part in our Star Wars: The Old Republic bonanza today, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks playing The Smuggler. There are some pretty strict rules for this partial NDA lift for press outlets: we can only talk about the Republic side, we can’t talk about anything beyond first getting our ship (around level 15 or 16), and we can’t post screens or video of our own. All the exclusions aside, there’s still a whole lot of game crammed into the first 15 levels or so of any player’s life in SWTOR. Mike covered most of the ins and outs of the entire game (and what we’re allowed to talk about) in his overarching impressions earlier. I’ll try to give you a briefer, but still informative look at the life of a Smuggler in the early days of SWTOR.
Solid BioWare Storytelling
Needless to say, despite all the hubbub surrounding the game and whether it’ll be worth the wait… I want a time machine. I want to jump forward to 12/20 (or whenever early access begins) and I want to dive into the story BioWare has crafted for real. Awhile back, I wrote that SWTOR’s Story Would Change Questing Forever. I absolutely still believe this, now more than ever. Playing SWTOR is like playing one really long, massively multiplayer version of any BioWare RPG. The acting is top-notch, the visuals are fantastic (though perhaps an acquired taste), and the music and sound effects make the whole thing feel like one of the films. If you’re not sucked into the narrative the team is crafting here, then you probably just don’t like Star Wars. I can’t think of any other reason. I don’t know… maybe you don’t like things that are fun and engaging. It’s you we’re talking about, so you tell me!
Be warned that spoilers are ahead.
There are still “kill this” quests. But they’re not the main bulk of what you do in SWTOR. They’re in essence, “bonus quests” that are given automatically as you go through the campaign. Let’s say for instance you’re tasked with going into a separatist base to retrieve some information. You’ll make your way through hordes of enemies, with the main goal to obtain said info off of a hostage there. You don’t have to kill all of the enemies and many can be avoided. What will likely make many a player attack the red-names though is that each story missions usually comes with a bonus objective to kill this many of that. You don’t ever have to do these quests, and in my experimentation, I noticed that skipping them didn’t affect my ability to level up or progress the content. They’re entirely optional. More of an achiever’s or killer’s function than a requirement of playing this MMO.
And that alone is a godsend.
What really makes questing and playing SWTOR interesting, at least this early in my experience is the way quests are presented to you. Everything, minus a very few sort of “Hero for Hire” missions obtained off of computers, has voiceover work and full dialog options. Like KOTOR or any other BioWare game, you may have to be a certain kind of player to get a lot from these. As a fan of classic RPG gaming, I absolutely adore this feature. It makes an MMORPG feel like it’s finally catching up to the storytelling ability of PC RPGs that has been the norm since the 90s. You will get engrossed. You will meet actual characters, get attached to them, hate them, be suspicious of them, and they will react to how you act. The best part of playing a Smuggler so far? It’s not the shooting, or the duck and cover… it’s the flirting with all the pretty alien ladies.
BioWare has done an excellent job of making the Smuggler storyline feel like it was ripped from Han Solo’s biography, and I mean this in a good way. You begin the game just trying to deliver some goods to a settlement and are quickly wrapped up into a universe spanning plot because (why else?) some frakking punk steals your ship. You’ll work with the seediest of the underbelly of the galaxy, and you’ll bump elbows with politics willing to give your less than reputable ways a chance to help them in their goals. And, I have to stress this again; it’s all done via glorious voice-acting and plentiful in-game theatrics.
The story of SWTOR is definitely light-years ahead of every other MMO out there so far. There is no competition here. The only thing is whether that’s important to you or not as a player. For me, it is. And while I worry that my fun will stop once I’ve taken a class or two through the game, I still can’t wait to play through it all. God willing BioWare will have enough foresight to keep the content flowing at a good pace, and without it just being another raid grind, but saying more than that right now would be pure speculation.
Oh right… that’s all just the story. How does the actual game play?
Doing Deeds as a Bad Mamma Jamma
I mostly found myself doing the “Light Side” options in conversations and quests with my time in SWTOR. Not because I felt I should as a Republic Smuggler, but because some of the stuff you’re dealing with here is heavy. Daniel Erickson said at out NYCC Panel that there will be times when some players stop playing the Dark Side options because they really do test just what you’re willing to go for in a videogame. I could tell I was getting into my role as this brash and likeable rogue because I found myself not thinking as I chose my dialog options. I just reacted. I was playing that role. I was Captain Kieron, human male of great charm, great facial hair, and a seriously quick trigger-finger.
Pulling the Trigger
The combat of the Smuggler starts off a little slow. You have basically a few blaster moves (no rifles or anything like that) and a couple grenades. Plus you can take cover behind many an object in the environment, increasing your accuracy and your defenses. You’ll quickly learn to love the ‘F’ key as it takes the nearest cover (and uses a portable cover shield that you unlock around level 6). The entire lifeblood of the Smuggler is in using this cover, which will probably suck for PVP, but I didn’t have a chance to get into any Warzones with the Smuggler, so wrapped up I was in the story and finding my damned ship.
The class is all ranged DPS, so you will be squishy at first. In fact, and I don’t mean to draw any more comparisons than this, it reminds me of the early Rogue levels in WoW. You’re good at killing, but can be killed easily and only get stronger as you grow. By level 10, when you choose your Advanced Class, if you go Gunslinger (which I did) you’ll be able to dual-wield blasters and have access to a whole slew of performance- enhancing skills. Your goal as a Smuggler isn’t to withstand or outlast… it’s to kill as quickly as you can and without prejudice. He works on energy that recharges quickly in battle, there is no auto-attack, so when you need to recharge energy you’ll be spamming the ‘1’ key to fire regular shots of your blaster. It’s probably a much less mobile combat dynamic than the other classes, by nature of the cover mechanic. So if you prefer to plant your feet and raise some hell, the Smuggler’s likely for you.
By the time you get your first companion, a commando class character who will gladly hold most of the agro, you’re really starting to get your groove. So for any hopeful Smugglers out there, don’t be discouraged come launch day when you feel the class is a little week at the beginning. It just takes time. At least for PVE. For PVP, I can’t comment.
The ‘tutorial’ portion of SWTOR lasts about 10 levels. You’ll share your starting planet with the commando, and once you’ve wrapped up the first planet it’s off to the greater wide galaxy… or really to Coruscant, land of flying taxi-cabs and really, really big government buildings. In my short foray with SWTOR these past couple of weeks, I can’t recall a time when I felt like I was “a noob”. By this I mean that BioWare has done an excellent job of thrusting you into the narrative and the action immediately, and making you feel powerful from day one. You’re not off shooting womp rats in the corner. You’re taking out violent protestors, angry gangsters, massive droids, and huge alien beasts within the first couple of hours.
But there is a bit of a learning curve still. Items are in their similar raiment of quality, but learning what stats do what will take you a little time. It’s not too hard though, as the best advice is to equip gear with whatever stats are highest by nature on your character. You’ll learn about item modifications, which are basically inserts to weapons and armor that allow you to keep (potentially) your favorite weapons from level 5 or 10 all the way until the end-game so long as you’re consistently upgrading the modifications. By the time of this writing, my Smuggler had two named blasters I wouldn’t mind holding onto, and I’ll definitely be looking more into the system of mods as we hit launch in a couple of months.
There are some noticeable issues at hands so far with the beta. There are a good few placeholder textures on some of the NPCs, but it’s not widespread. Additionally, even on my nice new Sandy-Bridge machine the loading can seem to take an eternity at first “Enter”, though it’s much faster once you’re in the game initially. My framerate was really poor on my GTX 460 until I installed the beta drivers for BF3. Then? Boom, magical. But that probably goes without saying. New game? Check for new drivers.
What other issues did I take with the beta? There aren’t many. I really think there’s a lot to love about SWTOR, so long as you’re looking for a deeply crafted and guided story in your MMORPG. If you’re looking for a sandbox, go elsewhere. If you’re looking for something that does a ton new with the mechanics of the genre, this isn’t it. But if on the other hand you’re looking for the kind of RPG that you’ve come to know and love from BioWare, set in the KOTOR timeline and with pitch-perfect MMORPG elements, then you’re probably going to be really happy with The Old Republic. Questing really never will be the same.