SWTOR: My Final Review, Part 2

First, I should qualify my time in SWTOR and disclose that I spent around 20 hours in the open beta, and another 60+ hours in the live game. I leveled a Scoundrel to 25 and a Jedi Knight to 9 in the live game, and a Jedi Consular to 15 in the Beta. I feel like I got a pretty good taste of the leveling game with more time invested than a typical trial user would be able to spend. You'll notice that for all the hours I put into the game, I didn't get to the end game. I spent over 50 hours on my Scoundrel character and she barely hit level 25. That should give you a rough idea of the time investment needed to reach the level cap. This was mostly done with bonus XP as I did not race up to level 25, it took me about a month of casual gaming.

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!

17 comments:

  1. I feel the same disappointment. Game designers need to make a game that they themselves would like to play. Players with similar interests will follow.

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  2. I think you're right about that and Minecraft is an excellent example of that type of game design. I just wonder whether they listened at all to the feedback during the Beta. Because I'm sure some of these comments were made, I saw them on the forums.

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  3. I can't say I agree. I love the game. The story, the missions, the immersion are great. The things are not great are numerous, but for me, the game is awesome, and I plan on playing it til I run out of content.

    Secondly, I disagree with what you say about Blizzard setting a bar. The bar was set back in 1997 and then a bit later in 2004 by Star Wars Galaxies.

    Ultima Online from launch allowed players to mark a rune with a location, and then go back to that location at any time cheaply. Imagine for 50-60s being able to go to any point in WoW to any other point instantly and w/o a cool down. Exploration didn't die, it thrived, but it thrived because people wanted to do it, not that they were forced into it.

    Secondly, SWG had a very open ended space game that ultimately ended up boring for two reasons. The missions were boring, and the chance of seeing an actual player in space was very small. But you had complete control and could go anywhere you want.

    I admit I was disappointed when I heard what BW did with space. And I'm not very happy with it. But it can change. I'm not willing to nix my enjoyment with TOR for that.

    Now to be honest, I'm not surprised many WoW players don't like SWTOR. SWTOR is a strongly story based game. People play WoW for mechanics and killing cool things, not for things like story.

    So in that sense, I think that based on games like ME, NWN, KOTOR, and even JE, that Bioware *has* created a game they want to play.

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  4. Anon: Glad you're enjoying SWTOR, I certainly don't begrudge anyone who likes what Bioware created.

    As for my views on the bar being set by WoW, I was really just referring to the specific features I mentioned. Clearly SWG set the bar for crafting systems and has yet to be topped almost a decade later. Earlier games obviously pioneered features that WoW then borrowed. I was just saying I feel that Blizzard set the bar for sure on flying and arguably on land mount usage as well.

    As for the story-driven nature of their game, I have a friend who said he felt that SWTOR was really a single-player RPG posing as an MMO. I think there's some validity to that argument. Not all of us play WoW for mechanics and killing, but I would suggest that story is probably not enough of a feature to build a WoW-threatening community on.

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  5. Assuming Bio was shooting to create a game to be better than WoW, does not mean they should wait until they have it before releasing it. I.e., you can't release a buggy game and it has to have enough features at launch; but I am not sure it makes sense to push back a release date to get every feature in - customers expect updates in MMOs. E.g., space combat is clearly an exogenous mini-game; does it make sense to delay the release of 1.0 until that gets fleshed out? Probably not. My opinion is the long term success of TOR is unknowable at this point; it depends on what they release over the next year or so. Can they match Trion's development speed or will they be even slower than Blizzard? By the time a game is in open Beta, there is very, very little that can be changed prior to launch that can get coded and tested prior to launch without slipping the ship date.

    But I think that, unlike Rift, TOR is not going head-to-head with WoW. Obviously, WoW is too huge to be completely ignored. The Star Wars and the BioWare IP allow them to get a number of new-to-MMO players. Whereas I assume that Rift's "you're not in Azeroth anymore" advertising was assuming that new players were coming from WoW. My guess is many/most contented WoW players will stay with WoW. OTOH, I certainly would recommend someone who has never played an MMO try TOR instead of WoW.

    My personal opinion is that Cataclysm proved how very wrong @Mark is. If you want to make a niche game, you can and should make what the developers want to play. But if you want a mass market AAA MMO with several million subscribers, you can not make a game that targets game developers.

    I love CCP's goal that everything in EVE Online be produced by players. Alas, a system of that complexity will never make a mass market game.

    The exhaustion zones were quite annoying. But my somewhat limited experience was I only saw them on Tat. Perhaps they are just crude "reserved for future expansion" placeholders.

    Perhaps the Tobold scenario is what plays out. TOR does better than anyone familiar with WH/AoC/Aion/Rift could possible expect. But still falls far short of WoW's profits, so investors are disappointed.
    Even WoW can not keep to WoW historical profits, and continues to decline. So no investor group is going to be willing to fund a new AAA MMO for the foreseeable future. Will WotLK be seen as the zenith of MMO gaming?

    I will continue to subscribe to both, but 99% of recent play time continues to be in TOR.

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  6. Sadly, I also fell into the SWTOR trap, and in fact I bought a 6 month subscription and I pre-ordered the game thinking it would be so awesome.

    Why am I even back on this wow crafting blog? Because after exactly 1 year off from WoW, I decided to come back, with 5 months left of my subscription for SWTOR.

    I was seriously about to quit when I hit level 20-24, I couldn't stand the mindless running just to talk to someone? I mean seriously this is set in the future and there is no way to pickup a phone and call someone? I'm not talking about fed-ex delivery quests either, I'm fine with those. However, there are a ton of quests that are simply cut scenes between two people.

    The game had a lOT of potential but in my opinion it just didn't live up to it.

    Now, I'm back here trying to figure out what I missed over the past year.

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  7. Hagu: Don't get me wrong, I don't want SWTOR to fail and I'm sure there are folks who will enjoy playing the game. But the CEO of EA publicly stated that they wanted a leadership position and a big chunk of the WoW market see here. In my view they focused too much on story to the exclusion of other sticky features that would appeal to a wider range of players. In the case of flying and land travel, they actually developed the mechanics for those features. I didn't list all the features they left out that arguably should have been included, like a dungeon finder. I tried to focus primarily on the features that were in the game, but poorly implemented.

    I'm not sure I would recommend TOR over WoW to a newbie because in my view TOR fell too much into the "old school" style of leveling: slow progression with large time gaps between milestones. I would probably only suggest TOR if I knew the person was a SW fan or they were predominantly interested in storytelling.

    I would agree with the idea that the future is unknowable, it's quite possible that SWTOR will shore up their weak points through patch content. For me personally, I know they cannot patch the things I disliked so I chose to move on. I don't feel cheated, it was a solid game that delivered a reasonable number of hours of entertainment.

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  8. I only played until level 4, no joke. I was already seeing some of these things. It felt ver, very non-sandbox, even more than wow. I would much rather have been told to kill 10 boars. I paid 60 bucks to level a smuggler to level 4. I guess I could always go back and play some more, some day.

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  9. Personally I think ToR suits me better then WoW, I'm played WoW since release until early december 2011. What you write about ToR now is fairly close to exactly what people wrote and myself thought after the first few hours of WoW. I thought WoW was pretty sweet, you needed to get to 40 to get a mount then, and it was pretty had to get it at that level as well as it was pretty expensive. Unless you was a hunter which got "aspect of the cheetah" at 16, or was it 20, I don't recall exactly which level any more, you ran around until then with no luxury like sprint which all classes get at 14.

    You would play a lot more hours then 50 to get any sort of mount. Also to mention the killing your way in and out, I haven't really noticed you needing to do that to any real extent. If you want to skip mobs you can mostly do so, follow the roads and you hardly ever get bothered either. You very often get bonus kill quests or in some cases area quests which unlock when you enter the area as well. I see no difference in that aspect or either game at all, perhaps you felt that way since you're perfectly comfortable with mob distances in WoW and unfamiliar in ToR? I can only speculate, but as said, I see no difference overall.

    Ended up with much more as well, but I only have 4096 characters to play with, so the rest is in my own blog over at gamegoblin.

    http://gamegoblin.blogspot.com/2012/02/thoughts-on-swtor-against-wow.html

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  10. Lhel, get back to us in a year or so after you've leveled a few alts in SWTOR. Sorry, it sounds great at the start, but when you want to level an alt quickly to max level? It's a bad system. It was one of the reasons I left RIFT. If people want to spend days leveling that's fine, but find a way for those that don't. Otherwise, you find burnout. Burnout means drops in subs. Drops in subs means less money to work with.

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  11. Why would you want to level an alt quickly? So you can raid and do end game? It's already been stated that the legacy system will be used to allow for that in the future. Since I'm sure you would know, how long did it take before WoW started to hand out XP bonuses left right and center or introduce account bound items? At least if my memory serves me right those came with Northrend, aka Wrath expansion, which was 3-4 years or so into the game. Before then you had to level all your characters with no such aid. Should every game let you breeze through 90% of the game so they can spend all their efforts at "end-game" If there is anything that burns out a player it's the end-game not the leveling.

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  12. Lhel, I notice that you keep comparing SWTOR and Classic WoW. While it may be true that WoW originally had those features, that version of the game doesn't exist anymore. Blizzard changed those things because most players don't care for long content grinds. I'm not sure you're helping the case for SWTOR by comparing it to a 7 year old MMO. In the current MMO market, these features are no longer considered favorable. I agree with you that SWTOR is similar in some ways to the original version of WoW. In my case, however, I do not agree that this was a good model for SWTOR to follow. I think it was a mistake that they chose to copy some of those things and I think they ignored six years of progress and gamer feedback when they made those decisions. It's unfortunate because it's a quality, polished game in many respects. But they needed to bring something new to the table and sadly they didn't.

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    1. Classic WoW was a very long time ago, there was good things then as well, but how I compare the two I really don't see. The games have used different ways to solve the world. Space wise they would be not that different. You don't have zones however, you have planets. You don't have subzones within those zones you have some areas of the map which you access as they are relevant. The idea is the same, just Azeroth is one planet only, Star Wars consist of many planets. Should they have done the same as WoW they would need to create a WoW sized map with quests for every single planet and then some. Now that would be an impressive amount of travel time. Not to mention traveling between planets, come back in a week and you'll be on the next planet... That wouldn't have worked.

      BioWare needed to create a galaxy to travel in and I would say they did a fair job at it, perhaps not like some would have liked, but a good one which would cater to most takers.

      I really don't think ToR "copied" classic wow, it has taken good elements from WoW, it has introduced the companion system, also a crafting system which has similarities to WoW, but also takes elements from other games like EvE Online with time based missions and offline mission progress.

      What I assume you must be talking about when it comes to my comments before about mounts and such, but I was saying that WoW used to have a very long time before you had access to any kind of mount. Not really saying they are the same. ToR does take a little while as well, but you really don't need to travel any great distance until then anyway, if you did that's as much your own choice as anything else. I found that I could travel quick and easy using the quick travel system and speeders on each planet and your ship between planets. It isn't the same as taking a bird/wyvern/bat/griffon/drake or whatever to the next zone, but it does do the same in the end. The time you need to get your very first mount/speeder is a little different, but the time you use to level from 1-50 in ToR or from 1-85 in wow isn't that much different in the end. I enjoy the amount of time which is put into each quest and that the game medium is used in a much more solid way in ToR then WoW.

      Most I have problems with people going to ToR and expecting that it will be built up in the same way with one planet and x zones with some air based travel in between.... Just like WoW.

      For my part I will perhaps have a look at WoW again when Mists come out, but so far I like the continent and the idea, but well... I guess I'll when the time comes.

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  13. I understand your frustration on spending most of the game on foot, but Blizzard didn't lower the level bar for riding mounts for the reasons you state. They lowered the bar because if you increase level caps then it makes it far more difficult for people just starting out to catch up to those of us already there. They did it in hopes of helping new players reach end level content a bit faster. And most of WoW's changes are for this reason - to make it easier for a new player to catch up.

    I personally don't see the quest issue that everyone refers to, but I also figured out that if play your 'quests" right and time them properly, then all of the quests in your log will be in the exact same area. I never find myself being sent back to an area. Like I said, maybe I just figured out some timing.

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  14. Actually, Blizzard has been reducing XP requirements for leveling since patch 2.3 in BC, which directly affects the speed at which new players can catch up to end-game players. Since they have and regularly utilize a direct method for helping players level faster, they wouldn't need to change mount access to correct that problem. The main reason to improve access to mounts is to improve travel time, which greatly reduces the annoyance of getting around a large world like Azeroth. The effect on the leveling experience is just a happy bonus.

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  15. You shouldn't feel like you are spending most of your time running from point A to B to C to A to D to A...etc. And that's how I felt. Perhaps it was because the environment wasn't that interesting to me (perhaps I don't know much about the SW universe to appreciate it). I quit playing after investing only a few hours because of it. Hearing that it only gets worse only bolsters my decision.

    Also my computer lagged and that never makes for an enjoyable experience.

    MMOs no longer disappoint me, instead they are a letdown just as I expect. Eventually I'll quit donating my money to them.

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  16. All your points are valid. Travelling in TOR is a chore. I really think what they made is a SW version of classic WoW with novelties like voice acting and better graphics. Most additions that improved life in WoW are missing in ToR. No Dungeon or Raidfinder, no dualspec, no flying. You even have to get the PvP daily at the space station and turn it in there. Patch 4.3 just blew the wind right out of ToRs sails for me. Imho that was the best patch I have ever seen. (didn't play during WotLK) Oh,and crafting turned out to be even more boring than in WoW.

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