I was able to spend two weekends in the open beta prior to the game release in December. Initially I enjoyed my time in the game, but wasn't blown away by it. For me it was a well done, interesting game with nice graphics and some good cutscenes taking the place of written dialog. It wasn't amazing but it was a worthy game and I didn't feel cheated in buying it. On the other hand, I really didn't feel they were breaking new ground in MMO gaming either.
My first major beef with SWTOR kicked in when I unlocked my spaceship at level 15. I actually hit this milestone twice - once in Beta and again on Live. Because the Beta ended right after I unlocked my ship the first time, I decided to hold off judgement until I was able to fully explore the spaceship situation. Once the game was live I created a Smuggler to reach that point again. From the moment your newly minted Smuggler logs into the game, their storyline is focused on their ship. The very first quest has your ship being stolen and you spend 15 levels trying to get it back. So more than any other class I tested, the Smuggler quests build the anticipation for this big milestone. Unfortunately, after you get it you discover that your spaceship is basically a portal machine. You click on a map and choose a planet, then you get a loading screen. When you exit the ship, you are in the space dock on a new planet. Given all the build up, I was very disappointed when I realized this was all my ship would allow me to do in terms of interplanetary travel.
One of the perks of having a ship is that you are able to participate in Fleet missions. These missions are daily quests you can do while on your ship. They're optional, but they do provide a way to experience space combat. Normally I'm not a big "shoot 'em up" type but I wanted to give this a try and see if this helped me appreciate my new ship. After doing a couple of missions and learning the controls, it became very clear to me that the missions are highly scripted. You cannot pilot the ship in any meaningful way. Essentially your ship is "on rails", which means it travels a predetermined path. You can swivel and swerve a bit to dodge other ships and objects around you, but you cannot change directions or deviate from the path. For me this pretty much reinforced my sense of disappointment and so far I've found no way to actually pilot my own ship.
Now I know some folks may feel this isn't a big deal or it's just a valid design decision on Bioware's part. I disagree and here's why: Blizzard set a bar. In 2007 Blizzard set a bar that players can fly in an MMO. We can fly with total freedom. We control the horizontal and the vertical. To implement flying in a newer MMO and make it severely restrictive is just begging for the inevitable comparisons. Because we know it's possible to do better and you didn't get it done. You're a newer game, built on newer technology and you nerfed this feature we've been enjoying for 4+ years? I have a hard time thinking of a valid excuse for this. If the platform you chose to develop your game is so backwater that you can't at least meet the bar that Blizzard set in 2007, then don't draw attention to it by implementing flying. Just leave flying out - no flying is better than crappy flying. Bioware would have been better off using a teleportation system that glossed over the whole flying concept entirely.
Which brings me to my next beef with SWTOR and strangely enough it's also travel related. I've already mentioned that the leveling curve in this game is quite lengthy. In WoW you can hit level 20 in less than 10 hours (not counting the various perks available) and unlock your first travel mount. In SWTOR it took me just over 50 hours to reach level 25 and gain mount access. But after the first 10 levels or so, I started to get tired of running everywhere. Perhaps I'm spoiled by WoW but this really started to grate on me. As a Smuggler, I was able to learn the stealth ability at level 10 and gained a sprint ability at level 14 (+35% run speed out of combat). Even with these smaller perks which allowed me to run a bit faster and move through aggressive mobs without having to kill them all, I started to find questing burdensome.
What added to my angst was the fact that Bioware seems to have designed their quest system closer to the old Everquest/Classic WoW style. There are a lot of "kill 10 foozles" quests. There are a lot of quests that send you back and forth between quest givers and quest locations multiple times. Granted, the addition of voice acting and cutscenes in place of NPC dialog boxes does provide a novel twist initially. But after a while it boils down to a gimmick that doesn't keep the quests themselves any more interesting. On top of this, the zones are designed in such a way that you will most likely have to kill your way in and out each time you are sent on a task. Blizzard learned that this was a crappy way to let players experience their world but apparently Bioware didn't get that memo.
I'm actually fine with expanding the leveling curve and I don't really mind that it took me 50 hours to get halfway through the game. I just wasn't fine with being on foot the whole friggin' time. Blizzard understands that the time sink of WALKING is not fun and they changed their level 40 mount to level 20, moving all the other travel skills down accordingly. They started tweaking mount access back in Burning Crusade, over three years ago. Once again I feel like this is a situation where Blizzard has set the bar. In WoW, you get a riding mount after 10 hours of game time. Making players wait 50 hours for the same perk means that you give them five times longer to get annoyed by that type of drudgery and quit. There's a reason Blizzard keeps speeding up the leveling curve and trickling perks down to lower levels. Because being a noob stops being fun after the first few hours and the longer you make players wait to feel more powerful, the bigger window you give them to walk away and find a better game.
The nail in the coffin of this travel system is the world itself. I kind of had to force myself to push through to level 25 and unlock the speeder (land mount). I felt it wouldn't be appropriate to bash SWTOR on transportational issues without actually reaching the milestone that would theoretically correct the problem. So the first thing I did when I got my mount was hop on it and head for the next town to turn in my quest. I had already uncovered three different quest hubs on Tatooine and was just going to ride from one to the other. Within seconds of passing outside the edge of the hub I was in, I was knocked off my mount and a huge, red "Exhaustion Zone: Turn Back Now" warning message popped up on my screen.
This really troubled me and I did some searches to figure out what it meant. Apparently this is a known phenomenon in SWTOR and there's no official rationale for it. Basically, the space in between quest hubs can be missing or inaccessible. And the map doesn't notate these areas because the map doesn't fill in until you discover a new place. But you can't discover a place you're banned from entering. What it boils down to is that you cannot freely explore much of the planets in SWTOR. If you wander too far past the quest hubs or questing areas, you may find yourself in one of these exhaustion zones. It's my understanding that you actually die if you stay in one, you can't just run through it.
Now I know a lot of SWTOR players are arguing that WoW has exhaustion zones too. That's true, they do. At the edges of the zone map. At the edges of continents. They don't have empty pockets in the middle of a zone, right in the logical areas where players might want to cross from one quest hub to another. To me this just reeks of laziness or poor design. At least put a path through there that we can follow if you don't want players meandering all around that section. Use terrain to keep players from exploring, don't just put big empty holes in your map. They had three years and over 100 million dollars to create this game, there's no excuse for dropping the ball like that.
I really wanted to give SWTOR a fair shake and I really wanted to enjoy it. I am still looking forward to a game that takes WoW as their baseline and adds some truly new and interesting features to the genre. SWTOR feels like just another MMO that strove to equal WoW, not improve on it. You wanna know why Blizzard is still on top? They set out to make a game that was better than Everquest. And for the last 7 years they've been striving to make a game that is better than the expansion before it. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they always make the current incarnation their baseline and look for ways to do better.
Why do competing MMOs believe they will capture significant market share by just adding new window dressing to the same exact game? I'll grant you, voice acting and cutscenes for every quest are certainly novel and it kept my attention for a week or two. But does it make killing foozles more entertaining after a few weeks? No. The game that kills WoW (if that's even possible) is the game that makes core game activities more fun. You can't put lipstick on a dog and get a fashion model. And at the end of the day no MMO will be able to push past WoW until they actually improve on MMO functionality. And so far the only developer out there that actually tries to top Blizzard is Blizzard.
To see Part 1 of this review, click here!