Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ninety Minute Agent

So yesterday I had the privilege of attending BioWare's UK Community Event and got a chance to play Star Wars: The Old Republic for what turned out to be close to ninety minutes.

As I noted in the previous blog I was a bit dazed during the event, in the I-can't-believe-that-I'm-playing-The-Old-Republic-OMG-that's-Daniel-Erickson-watching-over-my-shoulder sense. As such I completely forgot to take pictures (though we weren't allowed to photograph the screen anyway) and though naturally an introvert wasn't particularly communicative with the developers walking around (I completely forgot to thank them properly). As a friend told me afterwards, I make a particularly lousy reporter. Even so I'll do my best to give an accounting of my experiences.

I happen to work about a ten-minute walk away from where the event was held, so after work I casually strolled towards Piccadilly Circus and still arrived early. But I'd counted on that as it gave me some time to have some fast food for dinner. Though the fast food was a lot faster than I anticipated (and not really that tasty) so I was still ready twenty minutes early. I knew that Gamerbase was inside the HMV store, so I went into the store to browse movies to pass the time. Doing so I noticed a door leading to Gamerbase, which was closed. I expected it to open later though.

But when it was time the door stayed closed. So I waited and five minutes later still nothing. I asked one of the HMV personnel about it (they told me Gamerbase was closed until I told them I had an invitation) and they pointed me to an entrance around the corner (technically outside the store). And indeed, very obviously the entrance to SWTOR's event; I should've looked around more.

There was already a line of people waiting to get in and I joined the queue, patiently waiting as well. Only it turned out that was the queue of people who had already checked in. Once I figured that out (thanks to Mr. Stephen Reid helpfully asking if anyone else needed to check in) I approached, showed my invite and passport (no I didn't fly all the way from The Netherlands as I live in London) and joined the queue again. At 7pm sharp (we were asked to arrive 15 minutes early) they let us in, leading us through a space-y looking hallway to, surprise, Mr. Daniel Erickson at the end of the hall (the red wall in the picture). I shook his hand and, where most people turned right, I turned left to find a computer to sit behind. I didn't realize at that point that right meant Republic and left meant Empire, but that didn't matter that much to me.

Read on after the break for an account of my play experience.


We were told beforehand that they couldn't guarantee what faction we'd get to play (I take it that of the 50 computers 25 were set to Republic and 25 set to Empire) so I'd decided that if I ended up playing Republic I'd play a Jedi Consular and if I ended up playing Empire I'd play an Imperial Agent. As I noted above I found myself behind an Empire computer so when picking one of the four pre-made characters (we weren't allowed to go into character customization) I picked the male Chiss Imperial Agent.

Before I continue I should note that I will talk about the starting quests a bit, which some might consider spoilers. Though considering that it's the first 30 minutes at most of a game that should last months at least, I don't think it's really spoiling anything at all.

I was expecting the game to start with Star Wars fanfare, yellow scrolling text and trumpets blaring over the words "Star Wars", followed by a pre-rendered cutscene or such. As such it was a bit disappointing that all I got was static yellow text against a starry backdrop and "press space to continue". Perhaps they'll add that intro later, or perhaps you get that before going into character creation (maybe you only get it on a new character). Not that important, but something I noted. It did start off in a cinematic conversation though with the hologram of your handler among Imperial intelligence (or such) telling you what the situation is and what you're supposed to be doing.

I had some trouble picking up on the details of the conversation (again, dazed). I recall there being a number of terms mentioned casually which didn't connect in my mind and made it tricky to follow (names I didn't recognize and such). This makes me wonder how this'll be for people who know little more than the Star Wars movies (I know at least some of the wider lore). I did get out of it that I needed a cover identity though.

The conversation ended and I found myself facing a wall, which at first I thought was a door (but it didn't open). Even the radar seemed to indicate that I needed to go in that direction, but after some looking around (and changing the options to invert y-look as I kept turning myself upside-down) I found a side exit. Thinking back I can't recall seeing any doors in the game; all buildings and such have just openings. I didn't realize this while playing though and only found it notable after the fact.

So finally on to actually playing.

Lag

It is somewhat unfortunate that my first real experience in the game was also the biggest problem I had: lag. I left the (very small) private instance I started in and entered the public area. I noted some NPCs with an icon over their head (which I later deduced is SWTOR's version of the quest exclamation mark) and tried to initiate conversation. But no matter how I clicked them nothing happened. So instead I just went outside, thinking there was no interaction with them. To the left I noted another player being engaged with some mobs, but my quest marker led to a small building to the right.

When I approached the building, suddenly a cinematic conversation started. This startled me some, but what was worse was that after the NPC had his say, and clearly waiting for me to respond, I couldn't do anything. I didn't get a dialog wheel, pressing space or escape didn't do anything either. Though I could see the NPC moving, it seemed frozen. I thought "oh dear" and flagged over a BioWare employee. As he walked over though it suddenly kicked my out of the conversation again. When I told him what happened he told me that it was probably lag, the area being quite crowded because Bounty Hunters started there too and were somewhat popular. The connection thingy in the UI also flashed red now and then, indicating lag.

While that was the biggest issue I had because of lag, I noticed other issues as well later. Often I would walk into an area (like a room) to find it completely empty, with several seconds later having the NPCs suddenly pop in. And some of my attacks, the sniper shot in particular, seemed to lag behind a bit as well (the snipe channel bar would fill up, when full the mob would wake up from the flashbang I'd applied earlier, but nothing would happen for a second until I got the shooting effect and the damage was applied). I've no idea what caused the lag, for all I know it was due to Gamerbase's connection, and I'm sure that they'll fix that before release. But with only 50 people playing, at most 25 on Hutta, even if connecting to a server in Austin that's definitely a problem that needs fixing.

[EDIT] The developers have noted that they're aware of the lag and that they are working to resolve it. I have every confidence that they will improve this and the lag I experienced should not be taken as an indication of how good or not the game is.

With the unpleasantness out of the way, everything else was almost entirely positive.

Dialog

I'm sure that you've heard it before, as I had, but it's hard to convey how much of a difference the dialog truly makes. The combat (which I'll get to in more detail later) is fairly similar to that in other MMOs. With just that and standard quests it would feel like most any MMO (like WoW, LotRO or Rift) I think. But the dialogs make it feel like a completely different experience. To me it makes it feel like you're playing a single-player game, while you're playing an MMO (and no doubt about that).

Often you'll go into a private instance for these dialogs. Not only are these instances really small, a room or two big (they really seem to exist purely to avoid players clustering around important quest NPCs which would break the immersion), they also seamlessly connect to the world. You get this green, transparent veil to indicate where the instance starts, but beyond that the instances are part of the world; no loading. Felt really natural; you're hardly aware that it's an instance at all. Was quite impressive. All of the main class quest I experienced was in these instances.

There are also quest NPCs outside in the shared areas. I can imagine that you might see multiple players gather around an NPC there, though I didn't see any of that (I suspect most were too eager to try out the combat and skipped the quests). Talking to one of those also gives you full cinematic dialog; not sure how it deals with other players standing in front of the NPC during those.

I must admit that I was dreading the dialog wheel a bit as I really don't like it much in the Mas Effect games or in Dragon Age 2. Luckily (and I've no idea why they don't do that in those other three games) you can select dialog options with the number keys as well. So 1 for top-right, 2 for middle-right, etc. The placement of the options doesn't always seem to be consistent as I got Dark Side points once from a top-right option, but in general I like that you have to evaluate the options and can't just blindly always pick the top-right one knowing that it'll be the 'good' choice.

[EDIT] Since writing the above I've learned that dialog options are ordered, they're just ordered based on 'class appropriateness' instead of Dark/Light. So having a Dark Side option in the top slot makes sense; it's just something I wasn't expecting.

A bit more problematic is that it's hard to tell what the result of a choice is going to be. During my playtime I got Dark Side points twice, and Light Side points once. The first time I got Dark Side points I knew I would (as I opted to kill someone who threatened to blow my cover; I wanted to see how it would transition into combat). The second one though, from picking the option, I had no idea that it would be worse than anything I'd picked before (I tended to be fairly business-like and try to be professional). The Light Side points also came as a bit of a surprise, mostly because I could come up with various motivations for picking that option that weren't good. For a moment I thought that they might do a Dragon Age 2 thing where it shows an icon in the middle giving an indication of the type of response, but not only would that not work with the keyboard selection, I also didn't see any of that.

[EDIT] Similarly to the above edit it seems that they do show Dark/Light icons, but only when hovering over the options with the mouse. The time I tried there probably just weren't any Dark/Light options. I'm not altogether happy with this as I greatly prefer choosing with the keyboard and this feels like it's forcing me to use the mouse instead. Maybe they'll add an option to color the dialog choice instead (so that blue responses are Light and red responses are Dark or such).

Don't get me wrong, in general I like not being spoon-fed what the good and what the bad options are, but I also don't like to be surprised by something that I thought was good turning out to be evil.

For the rest I really liked the conversations and would have enjoyed them more if I wasn't playing with time-pressure (and wanting to see as much of the game as possible). I did find myself skipping through alien dialog (with space, esc seemed to cancel the dialog altogether), mostly because I knew I had limited time and I could read the subtitles much faster than the voice took. The voice acting was quite good far as I could tell, to the point of the Imperial Agent changing his accent to better fit his cover identity. As a whole the conversations felt like those in any single-player game, making you feel like you're part of a story instead of just grinding quests.

Quests

After the lag problem mentioned above I went into the building my quest indicated, another instanced room. There the npc pointed me to another building where I had to pick up my cover identity and eliminate all witnesses, though I only realized that latter part after I killed the two hostile mobs in the (instanced) area. I returned and was sent to the hangout of a certain Hutt to infiltrate his gang.

When going from one (generally instanced; yes there were a lot of those and all of them small) quest location to another you travel through the shared world. There are hostile mobs, as well as other npcs (merchants, trainers, quest npcs, etc) spread throughout. Though I managed to avoid most of them (I did get into combat a lot more later, on that more in a bit). A lot of the quests seemed to be "go here, talk to this npc, then go there, talk to that npc", but that's fine; the more dialog the better. I was, in fact, somewhat surprised at how little combat the quests involved so far (though I realize that it's just the starter planet and will probably pick up a lot more later). You have the odd fight here and there, but I was expecting something more along the lines of a brief conversation followed by your traditional slogging through hordes of uninteresting enemies. Happy surprise there then.

One quest I found particularly fun was after talking to the Hutt I had to contact my handler from the Hutt hideout. But to do that you first had to sweep the room for bugs. To do that you had to click on objects to 'search' them, until you clicked on the three objects hiding a bug. Sure, it's just "clicking glowies" as you have so often in MMOs, but I liked that the objects didn't glow, forcing you to explore the room a little to find the objects you could interact with instead of just making glow disappear. And it fit the theme of the Imperial Agent quite well. If BioWare can keep that a little more imaginative quests up then it bodes quite well for the game.

I did pick up a couple of side-quests, but didn't complete any of them. I did notice that you could click on the quest in the quest tracker to open the quest log with a detailed description. The main quest location is also clearly marked on the map so that you know where to go. I didn't notice any of the side quests being marked, though in fairness I didn't look very hard.

[EDIT] I remembered after writing the above that I did complete one side-quest. An Evocii gave me a quest to deal with some bullies, which were located in the same work camp my main quest led to. In fact, that's where I got my second Dark Side points as in talking to the bullies I had two options: threatening them in the top-right slot and saying it's no problem i the bottom-right slot. I thought that the second one meant that you'd tell them it's alright to bully Evocii and the first was just doing as promised, so it took me by surprise there.

After going back to talk to one of the Hutt's lackeys (and getting Dark Side points for killing that guy threatening to blow my cover on the way) I went to a campsite to help out an Evocii (where I got the Light Side points). But since I'd hardly seen any combat yet at this point (I think I had a total of four altercations) I started to get antsy to dive into that a bit more. So having done quests for forty minutes I decided to spend the last twenty (which turned out to be closer to forty-five as they let us play half an hour longer) going off the beaten path and just fight random mobs. I'm generally not really one for combat, but I felt that I probably wasn't going to get more information out of more questing.

Gameplay

To anyone who has played any of the fairly recent MMOs the general gameplay is going to feel quite familiar. You look around with the mouse (keeping the right mouse button pressed), walk with the WASD keys (or by pressing both mouse buttons at once), etc. You target enemies either by clicking on them or, as I prefer, targeting nearest with Tab. And you use the number keys to use your skills, most of them a variety of attacks doing damage to your target.

The drawback of that familiarity is that none of it really feels innovative and new. That was, in fact, part of the reason that I picked the Imperial Agent; I wanted to see the cover system which promised to be a truly new thing. In the beginning I had a hard time figuring the cover system out. Just by running around there is no indication of where you can seek cover. You do when you're in combat, but by then it's too late (at least for setting up opening sniper shots) and pressing 9 in the middle of combat to get into cover is a bit awkward.

But then a friendly BioWare employee suggested that I could get into cover by pressing Shift+R. After experimenting a bit (and dying once as a result) I found that just pressing Shift will show you the cover points and just pressing R will get you into one. From that point on using cover became easy and the combat finally became easy.

As such I do think that they could do with a good tutorial though to explain this. In fact I don't recall seeing any tutorial prompts (nothing on how to walk, how to target things, etc). This is fine for MMO veterans (beyond the cover system), but those newer to MMOs or even new to games will have a hard time without it. I suspect though that a tutorial simply hasn't been implemented yet.

Beyond that I must say that the cover system doesn't work as smoothly as in a game like Mass Effect 2. In there you can pretty much use anything, any wall or obstacle, as cover. But in SWTOR it seems that the cover points need to be explicitly mapped. A fair few times I ran across something that I thought could be used as cover, only for there to be no cover points or for the cover points to be on the wrong side. The only cover there seemed to be are these waist-high walls and crates and rocks, so far I haven't seen any standing cover behind the corner of a wall or behind a tree or such. Combat often consisted of seeing a group of mobs and then running around them looking for the nearest cover.

While in cover your skill bar changes to show cover-specific skills. A few skills are shared (such as the flashbang skill to daze mobs), but most were unique. You can only snipe while in cover (though in fairness I haven't tried dragging the skill to my out-of-cover skill bar). Melee opponents can be tricky as they negate cover, so usually it became a matter of flash-banging them and then taking them out first before they could close in. When they do get close get out of cover to take them out with your melee attack (Skiv) and then get back into cover to take out the ranged guy.

Another nice thing, and a tactic I used a few times as well, is that you can run-and-gun. That way you can keep some distance between yourself and melee foes while continuing to shoot at them (occasionally closing in for a Skiv once it is off recharge). And another thing I liked was that there isn't an auto-attack (and I could find no way to make one of your skills auto-attack either). If you don't press any buttons then nothing happens. Which can be helpful as then you can recharge your energy for the more powerful skills.

In general I found energy to be more of a limiting faction in spamming skills than cooldown was. A few skills had noticeable cooldown (like Skiv; when you're in melee you kinda really want to keep using your melee attack), but more often than not I had to wait for energy to use my sniper shot or my other more powerful attacks (like Suppressive Fire, which is a very nice AoE attack that I didn't use nearly enough). Sniper shot has a short, but noticeable, casting time before firing. If you get hit during that then the casting bar jumps back a little again, making the casting last longer. Even so the shot is fairly powerful and usually worth the cost (at least at the low level I was playing).

During my 45 minutes of combat I died twice, once while I was experimenting with the cover system to try and get the hang of it and once when I was blind-sided by an enforcer droid I hadn't noticed (standing behind a tree). I was level four by that time with the droid being level six and a few before had given me some trouble as well even when I fired the first shot from cover, but this one caught me in the open. Even so it was really close.

As such I found the game to be a nice challenge. Oftentimes it would be fairly close and after each battle I had to use my recharge skill (pictured above). At one point, while I was still level two I think and figuring out the run-and-gun system dealing with a few melee enemies, I realized that Daniel Erickson was watching me play. Once I defeated the enemies he remarked that I was playing "way out of my level range" as I had just taken out three level five guys. He was expecting me to die. I hadn't even realized (hadn't noticed the level indicator for enemies yet and was just fighting whatever I came across). I liked that. :)

Of course it was still the origin world (and as such the tutorial area); I don't know whether they've tweaked the difficulty of those since PAX East (where, as I understand, they felt that the origin worlds were too difficult).

The two times I did die I just respawned at the nearest point (which happened to be the Evocii work camp in both cases). I didn't notice any death penalty of need to recover my corpse or anything like that. Of course it was still low level (and MMOs often forgo the death penalty until a higher level) and I honestly didn't really pay much attention to any death penalty.

Various

A few other bits that don't really fit anywhere else. I noticed a speeder bike travel NPC who I briefly tried. Doing so gave me the message that I'd unlocked a travel location, but I'm guessing that because it was my only point so far I couldn't really go anywhere (I didn't really try further). At least it seems that quick travel works similar to how it does in games like LotRO. I'm not entirely happy with that; in LotRO I'm constantly clicking the travel guys because I keep forgetting which I already unlocked and which not. I think that it would be better to automatically unlock one when you're relatively near (as in within sight of one).

I leveled up a few times during play (I think I was about level four, level five by the end), but only visited the trainer once at level three. New skills are acquired by visiting a skill trainer and you have to pay (ingame) credits for them, much like it works in a lot of MMOs. Was a bit tricky finding a skill trainer until I figured out how to display skill trainers on the map (seems that it was turned off by default). But I got the flashbang grenade skill like that (very useful for temporarily stunning a group of enemies) as well as an AoE attack (Suppression Fire or such). Also quite useful. When you're out in the field and have gained a level your powers window shows you what skill is available (and that you need to visit a trainer to unlock it). When I got to level four it showed me some poison dart skill or such was available.

At various times, often just by entering a new area, would I get a message on screen saying something about a new codex entry being unlocked. However, I haven't been able to find said codex yet (I briefly looked for a button to open it). I take it that this is similar to the codices in other BioWare game, basically a sort of ingame encyclopedia. Perhaps even something similar to the Tome of Knowledge in WAR, tracking all your stats and progress and being used to unlock titles and such. One can hope. I did run into one glowie that didn't seem to be quest-related, an Evocii Totempole or such, which after clicking on it also unlocked a codex entry.

[EDIT] Based on developer comments I now think that the glowie I clicked actually starts a Bonus Quest as I do recall seeing a "1/6" appear (I just thought it was referring to the number of related codex entries; I'm sure it also unlocked a codex entry). I didn't notice the quest in my log or tracker or map or anything as I was pretty much ignoring quests by this point.

Another pleasant little thing is that using Shift and right mouse click would automatically loot all from corpses. Not all games include something like that so I was glad that SWTOR does. Now, if they can also include Rift's auto-loot all near (not that I had a situation where it was needed) then that would be even better. For the rest I stayed away from the inventory for the most part beyond briefly looking at it and right-click equipping some new boots I had found.

A brief note on the graphics as well (which I realize I haven't even mentioned yet; a sign of how important it is to me perhaps). I must say that I still don't really like the character graphics. The heroic proportions just aren't to my taste and playing a character who doesn't wear bulky armor makes it more visible. That said it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would either and I can see how with longer playing I might get used to it enough to not really notice anymore. The environment graphics I liked a lot better, even though Hutta is probably the (purposely) ugliest planet they have in the game all green and drab and slimy. There was no real moment where I just stood there to marvel at the view, but I can see how I might on a more lush planet (such at Tython perhaps). I'm not altogether convinced that starting people on an ugly planet is a good idea, but at least can only go up from there.

I didn't get any Companion yet so no comment on that. Also no crafting or such. And I didn't try any grouping either. It was hard getting a feeling of the size of the planet, but I did get the impression that I'd hardly scratched the surface. As BioWare noted during the event as well, even from playing an hour you still have no idea how massively big the game is. I can definitely believe that. Of course any game still feels big when you've spent only an hour in the tutorial zone.

Impressively, beyond the lag issues already mentioned, I didn't notice any bugs.

I'm probably missing a few things to mention, but that's all I can recall.

Q&A

At 8pm Stephen Reid had to tell us something and, since that was an hour in, I thought he was going to tell us to stop playing. But instead he said that in fifteen minutes they'd have an impromptu Q&A session (while we could keep playing) and fifteen minutes after that it was over and we'd have to leave.

There weren't that many people asking questions, I think most wanted to keep playing as long as possible and/or couldn't think up of anything to ask. I couldn't think of anything either as any question I could come up with I already knew the answer to or I knew they weren't talking about yet. And most of the questions they got fell in those two categories (such as whether they have an overt/covert system like Star Wars Galaxies, to which they replied that there are no cross-faction guilds). They did confirm the existence of titles though (when someone asked about the "Darth" title), but didn't go into any details beyond that.

They also confirmed that all the planets that they've revealed (as listed on the Holonet) are all the explorable planets and they don't have any more planets to reveal. This is of course outside of planets for Flashpoints (such as Taral V) and the space combat and such.

Conclusion

And then, regrettably, it was time to stop. We were all given a poster signed on the spot by a few BioWarians, giving us the choice between a Republic poster and an Empire poster. And we also all got a t-shirt, again with choice between Republic (blue) and Empire (red). I picked Republic on both counts (what can I say, I'm a goody two-shoes).

I wanted to thank them for hosting the event and giving us the opportunity to have some hands-on time with the game, but they were busy signing and handing out goodies and on top of that I'm shy and was still somewhat dazed. So Instead I'll just do it (again) through my blog. My deepest thanks to all those involved in getting all this set up, particularly Stephen Reid who, I can imagine, must've had his hands full with all the invites and everything. A thank you to all those with helpful advise (that Shift+R tip really made a massive difference). And a thank you to all the BioWare developers who have been working so hard all these years to make the game. I can definitely see a lot better where it's going now.

Overall I greatly enjoyed my time and I quite enjoyed playing. I still have questions, I still wonder about the longevity of the game. But right now I can't wait to play more and try some of the other classes as well (and some other places; Hutta is too drab for my taste). Keep up the good work and smooth out the issues (such as the lag) and I have little doubt that this can be a big success.

[EDIT] On the official forums one poster called me out for my blog post being too negative (while I said that my experience were overwhelmingly positive). So I wrote a reply to him(?) highlighting the things I particularly enjoyed. If you, after reading the above post, feel my post is somewhat negative then perhaps you would to read that reply post as well as I had no intention of being negative. I'm just trying to be critical. :)

7 comments:

bendrui_nibrighid said...

thanks so much! You've shared a lot of good information.

Ayane said...

Thank you, I'm glad that you liked the post. :)

Also note that I added a couple of paragraphs (each prefixed with "[EDIT]") based on some additional information I learned since writing the post.

Sungil said...

Great post! Thank you :)

Jbradley said...

Hey mate,

Fantastic post there. Really great. I was on the 9pm session and we were told that the lag/latency issues we were all getting was due to them have to use the Northern American servers since the EU ones weren't operational.

I've also posted some audio from the 9pm Q&A session if you want to take a looksie at it:

http://www.doghousegamer.com/multimedia/5thApril/gbqa.html

Jono

Another player. said...

Nice review!

Deewe

Ayane said...

Thank you all for the comments.

And thank you JBradley for that Q&A log; there's some really good information in there (loved their explanation of the accents). I don't think our Q&A was quite as informative as that.

As for the lag issues, I hope it's not (just) playing on NA servers. At least I've played a fair number of MMOs on US servers and it was never quite this bad (outside stress tests). And depending on how/whether they'll allow it I might want to play with some US friends sometimes too.

But as I said I'm not worried about the lag much. Fixing issues like that is usually nearer launch; after all that is what stress tests are for to help fix.

shawn said...

Worst reporter ever