The past two weekends were spent by many gamers perusing the worlds of Star Wars: The Old Republic though 'beta' invites distributed by EA. The term beta applies loosely, this was more of a server stress test than anything else, with the floodgates open to just about anyone to get in the world and create a Sith, Jedi, or otherwise. Invitations were given away liberally; with just about every major gaming website having thousands to throw at its faithful, so you know BioWare and EA were in straight up 'COME AT ME' mode.
Both weekends found the servers to be thoroughly slammed, as you can imagine. Many servers were open for the first weekend, and most of them had queues of up to 45 minutes before entry, or so we were told by the server information panel from within the client. A server I found which stated to have an 11 minute wait let me through the turnstile in under a minute, so take those queue times with a grain of salt. The second weekend's invites, which I believe were randomly distributed only by EA, featured about a quarter of the servers that were available on the first weekend, and what I would assume to be a quarter or less of the players invited to play during that initial weekend, though the servers were still heavily populated. Despite the sheer amount of players allowed to brandish blasters and lightsabers, the game experience was not adversely affected. Lag was minimal, crashes and server boots were non-existent, and the game zipped along as well as it possible could on my severely dated PC.
Multiplayer conversations: fun and competitve
The Old Republic is very well polished, as it should be a mere two weeks from release. As MMOs tend to go, SWTOR borrows much of its core basics from World of Warcraft, the gold standard of the genre, but makes many noticeable improvements. The most obvious, and well documented change, is the strong focus placed on storytelling. Cut scenes grab you and don't often let go, as the mix of character expressions, superb voice acting, and dialogue choices do well to keep the player involved. Of course if you're in a rush, you can hastily move these scenes along by tapping the spacebar, but why would you want to do that? There is much to learn about the deep world of the Old Republic, so take your time and enjoy.
As mentioned, the voice acting is a pleasure to listen to, and cut above much of what I've heard from any game on the market let alone an MMO. Most if not all NPCs are voiced, and I don't know if I heard the same voice actor twice between quest NPCs. To put this in perspective, a game as massive as Skyrim (which I've been a slave to in the past few weeks) has a total of maybe 20 unique voice actors. Though I'll never understand why the Empire's denizens have snazzy English accents, while most Republic characters are unaccented. Oh well.
I would like to speak on the graphics, but I'm running a 3-year old GPU and CPU on a like-aged motherboard with 3GB of RAM. Crippled much? Third time is certainly not a charm when it comes to PC tech. Though despite my elderly specs, The Old Republic ran respectably, after turning most graphical sliders to the lowest setting, of course. Even still, the game ran smoothly without looking like Rancor feces, so fear not if you're in dire need of a system upgrade. Just be sure you have the latest drivers for your video card, as my neglect of driver update was a source of frequent BSODs before I realized what the issue was. Enough tech talk though, let me tell you a bit about the characters I had the pleasure of playing.
Body type and hair style customization options suck, but who cares when you can look like this?
My first character was a human Smuggler, chosen to play alongside my roommates Soldier. There's no job a blaster can't handle, right Han? The Smuggler combines an interesting mix of cover-based play with big firepower to handle opponents. I didn't encounter many melee opponents, which would be a Smuggler's bane, so the class seemed a little overpowered in the early going. The cover system is supposed to allow you to avoid incoming blaster fire, but I don't know if that's 100% the case. Whether it be bad timing, latency, or pre-launch blues, I'm pretty sure I took damage more than a few times while hiding behind cover. Certain attacks - many of the powerful ones - can only be launched while in cover, so the Smuggler is assed out if he's caught in the open; not good if an enemy gets the jump on you in PvP.
The Smuggler's early quest line revolved around chasing down and recovering his stolen ship, which is the Smuggler's second best friend, next to credits. It was an interesting chain of quests, and quite fun to play a morally 'bluish-gray' character without feeling bad about it. This was the only character I was able to take to the advanced class, available at level 10. I chose to be a Scoundrel, who has the help of stealth and meds to survive many a tricky situation. I feel as if Gunslinger, the more firepower driven advanced class, would have been more fun, though perhaps I did not play deep enough into the Scoundrel to appreciate his wide range of abilities.
Sing-along with the Sith Inquisitor
My second character was a pureblood Sith Inquisitor, played in part by my girlfriend who logged more time in The Old Republic than any other game not named Civilization. The Inquisitor mixed a bit of melee with dark Force powers, clearing enemies with a couple of lightning attacks when the vibroblade just wouldn't cut it. While I was able to successfully solo groups of same-level enemies with the other classes I played, the Inquisitor didn't quite seem up to that task. In addition, the class quest line seemed to move noticeably slower than other classes. For these reasons, I chose to cut my experience with the Inquisitor a bit short, though I was later assured that the Inquisitor becomes a powerhouse with an excellent story a bit later in the game, so those early woes may pay off if you stick with it.
Third was the Chiss Bounty Hunter, a class I really enjoyed using in brief at New York Comic Con earlier in the year. Much like the Inquisitor, the Bounty Hunter seemed to have a case of early level blues when it came to combat. Granted he survived much longer than the aforementioned Sith, his early combat options simply were not compelling. A few of his precious abilities at the low levels were damage-over-time, attacks that I personally choose to avoid at all costs unless fighting higher level competition. This meant using the same few attacks over and over again, in addition to the standard auto attack: it wore thin. Though with experience playing a later level Powertech - a Bounty Hunter advanced class - I can say that it gets better. Though at what point, I'm not sure.
The Bounty Hunter's quests may have been the best of the bunch, with a couple of early twists and some Mandalorian chasing to keep things interesting. In addition, the Bounty Hunter may have the best of all companions I was able to sample. You see, companions are NPCs that assist you on your journey, making life easier in a plethora of ways. Help in combat, crafting, and selling goods when you're overburdened, companions are a game-changing addition. The Bounty Hunter's initial companion, Mako, is a stark difference to the hunter. A bit more animated and bubbly than you're used to seeing in scenes that feature Boba and (the vastly inferior) Jango, Mako adds a fresh voice to the Bounty Hunter's daily operations, without becoming annoying or overbearing. The early worries I had with the Bounty Hunter's combat shortnesses was remedied by his awesome story.
Never negotiate with a Bounty Hunter
Finally, I dabbled with a Miralukan Jedi Consular, the Republic's parallel to the Inquisitor. In comparison, the Consular seemed much more powerful than the Inquisitor from the start, with a few beefy melee attacks to go along with some short-ranged Force powers. Ripping a chunk of rock from the ground to hurdle at an enemies face was quite pleasing. Also, for whatever reason, I received a shocking amount of green loot upon defeating enemies, which means my Padawan looked a bit more respectable in the early going, as opposed to the 'crazy guy in pajamas' look. For these reasons I enjoyed doing battle with the Consular. Unfortunately, I can't speak much on the story arc for this class, due to my time being cut short. It was a busy pair of weekends outside of my self-contained gaming den, which sadly limited my time with The Old Republic. Though at the point I had to bail, it seems like the Consular's quests were moving in a great direction.
If I didn't already pre-order this baby back in July, I would be pre-ordering right now. I came away from my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic extremely impressed; it's one of the primary reasons I'll be upgrading my ancient gaming rig in the next month or so. I planned on using this stress test as a field to reap my primary character of choice, though I still can't make a decision. Each class feels exciting and nuanced, and each have a unique and dynamic string of quests and companions to keep the game fresh, even after you've created 5 other alts. Early access begins on December 15, with the game releasing on December 20. I'm frothing at the mouth with anticipation of the date.