Star Wars: The Old Republic First Look
Star Wars: The Old Republic is easily the biggest MMO launch for ages. EA is no newbie in MMOs as they were there at the dawn of the genre itself with Ultima Online, but since then EA has generally failed at it. They canned UO sequel and once World of Warcraft began printing money, bought off Mythic to get Warhammer Online. Problem is, it flopped pretty hard for simply failing the "WoW Check" - it was very similar to World of Warcraft while being inferior in so many ways that anyone interested in such a game would rather just play WoW. And so they did, with server populations diving quickly after launch. Today Warhammer Online is a little also-ran MMO that is barely staying around. EA has deep pockets and as Blizzard keeps churning out money with World of Warcraft, they are taking another stab at it - so, can SWTOR fare better in comparison?
Well, in all seriousness, EA bought Bioware to take another stab at mass market subscription MMOs. Under development for years and with a budget rumored to be somewhere well north of $100 million, it is a serious bet on the classic subscription MMO model. It has been actually said that should SWTOR fail, it may be the last major, big budget subscription-based MMO. They just cost far too much to develop and with free-to-play games eating up the market, things are not like they were when SWTOR development started. While I personally wouldn't go as far, it is true that World of Warcraft set the bar for paying $15 a month so high that it is hard to get people to pay subscription fees for simpler titles - in that regard SWTOR is a huge and risky bet by EA.
Scheduled to launch officially on December 20th 2011 worldwide, the actual launch is somewhat of a rolling start. Preorders start receiving head start invites starting December 13th and Bioware doesn't guarantee when you get yours (It will be somewhere in between 13th and 20th of December) . While this probably helps keep the servers from melting during the initial rush, it is also bound to generate massive quantities of forum tears as some are playing while others are spamming "reload" on their email inboxes for that message that their account is cleared to jump in. On the other hand, this should keep the early days enjoyable as it helps prevent melted servers and overcrowded starter zones.
The WoW Check: Provisional Pass
But is there any reason to get all hyped up? Now I must first put up a disclaimer - I have not spent much time studying all the various pre-launch material about the gameplay and this preview is completely based on the first impressions during a three-day mass test event. With that out of the way, I would say "maybe". It really depends on how you view the gameplay model of World of Warcraft. There is no getting around it, Star Wars: The Old Republic does the safe thing - in the vast majority of design and gameplay, it simply takes what World of Warcraft has done and proven to work and duplicates it, applying some polish and tweaks in some cases, adding a few twists in others and making it all Star Wars.
Now don't get me wrong, that is actually a good thing - unlike Warhammer Online and many other recent subscription-based MMO contenders, Star Wars: The Old Republic passes that initial unavoidable "WoW Check". If you like MMO like World of Warcraft, at least during the early days of the journey, The Old Republic will not drive you away by being an inferior clone. In fact, it passes the check mostly by improving on a key aspect of a MMO that is often ignored; story and dialogue. While World of Warcraft has recently gone all cutscene happy to buff up the storytelling beyond walls of quest text, SWTOR actually improves upon the questing mechanic of MMOs in an important way. Every single quest 22aa has numerous fully voiced, multi-choice dialogue sequences similar to Mass Effect series - and the dialogue choices sometimes actually matter. There is the familiar light side-dark side system from previous Bioware titles and the quest story can also change based on what you do. Bioware made a bold claim that SWTOR is a story-driven MMO and, at least during the leveling process, it would appear that this is true.
Technical side of SWTOR also pass the basic hurdle, but not with flying colors. The visuals are... average. It may be reflecting long development cycle and the obvious desire to ensure that the game runs on just about anything you can call a gaming PC. In SWTOR's defense, visuals are generally consistent and, once you get used to the art style, they do the job acceptably. Characters look slightly cartoony and decisively fail to impress when games like EVE Online already push towards photorealistic avatars, yet this style is infinitely preferable to an attempt to cross the uncanny valley and end up with something horrible. Sure, high end PCs could already do realistic humans but most gamers don't have high end PCs yet so we'll have to do with this.
After getting used to the visual style, biggest issue I had so far is that the combat animations are not that impressive. They are not universally bad and ranged combat looks okay, but they are inconsistent and melee combat suffers from lack of proper feedback and reactions. Part of it is the simple unfixable problem that a lightsaber simply isn't doing what a lightsaber should be doing - due to game balance - and it makes melee combat visually weak. Not a gamebreaker, but a disappointment.
Framerate is generally solid 60fps if your PC is any good and client responsiveness is almost perfect. A lot of care has gone to the client side faking to hide network latency and in this regard SWTOR does things right - when you do something, you do it right now and not when server decides that you can do it. Server may "veto" events in laggy situations or when there is a client/server disagreement, but 99% of the time everything works smoothly. Yes, the combat is still "press various action keys in form of a combat rotation" - exactly like WoW - but if you expected something else, you can keep on dreaming. MMOs have to work with 200ms+ latencies and with highly variable network conditions and that pretty much rules out "twitch" combat for the time being.
Client and server stability appears perfect - I had zero crashes, zero server issues and no latency issues during the weekend. The only problem I had with the engine is that it draws other player characters often with a delay - so as you run around and turn a corner, you may see an empty plaza which is then populated with characters visibly popping in. Other players may also sometimes warp and rubberband around, probably based on their network latency. The issue is nowhere near as big as it was in, say, Lord of the Rings Online, but it is a blemish in otherwise fairly polished and smoothly running game engine.
So Is It a MMO At All?
SWTOR has been jabbed at for being a "Massively Singleplayer Online Game" but I won't sign that. True, the leveling progress is story-driven, but SWTOR actually seems to support grouping and player interaction during the leveling process much better the than the phased-to-death WoW of recent days does. What I've seen of instances and group content so far, SWTOR seems to be duplicating the good times of WoW - as in having compelling non-solo content during leveling for groups of 2-4 (even if it is all technically optional) that entices people to level up together. Even the dialogue system works perfectly in groups - everyone gets to make dialogue choices and a random roll is made as to which choice is ultimately played out. Go with the group and you may get social points, yet moral choices and the resulting light side / dark side points are handled strictly by your own choices, even if the group decided otherwise.
I also must give SWTOR some credit for the companion system and how it is incorporated into group play. Every character will exit the newbie experience with their own companion and even if every single character of the same class will have the exact same companion, there are some customization options and you get to fully equip these "second characters" yourself. In combat they work like pets and generally have skills and abilities that work in synergy with yours - for example, if you play a ranged DPS character, your companion will have the ability to tank for you. Importantly, companions can stand in for players in groups but won't be around if they are not needed. Group content really is for 2-4 players - should you have a full group, it will be just four players with companions dismissed but should there be empty slots, companions can fill them in a pinch, allowing content made for full group to be done with 2 players.
The only open question at this point is if the endgame content passes the "WoW Check" - the reason why people play World of Warcraft long-term is the complicated and ever-expanding "endgame" gear upgrade / raiding cycle with consistently challenging content. SWTOR does claim to duplicate also this part of the MMO standard and while I could only scratch the surface during the stress test weekend, reportedly in addition to a large number of leveling areas, there is a number "Flashpoints" (Dungeons, 4 man groups) and "Operations" (Raid, 8 or 16 players) but information on these is limited at this point. Supposedly they share WoW-style mechanics with separate Heroic versions that bump up leveling Flashpoints to maximum level for endgame content and offer separate hard modes for Operations. So, in theory there should be endgame content but it remains to be seen how things work wh 208f en the experience bar seizes up and leveling is over and if there is enough content to keep people interested until first content patches ship.