Sunday, April 21, 2019

SW:TOR First Impressions: The Leveling Game

Star Wars: The Old Republic sixty hours post-download:
    • 14 Hours Played
    • 1 Character     
    • 27 Levels           
    • 2 Companions
    • 1 Stronghold
    • 1 Starship
    • 0 Other MMOs played
I'd say the experiment is going pretty well so far. I am definitely having fun. Even two days in, though, I can see where problems are likely to arise.

I sat down early this fine Easter morning to hammer out my first impressions of TOR's gameplay in bullet points. It turned out not to be that easy. For a start, "Gameplay" is a real catch-all category, covering just about everything from combat to crafting, decorating to PvP. I've scarcely scratched the surface so far but already it's plain from the small amount I've seen that most of the main gameplay elements deserve full posts not bullet points.

Added to that, we all know MMORPGs these days have a short wind-up and a long delivery. What we used to call "end game" is now just "the game". Everything that comes before is, at best, an appetizer. The gameplay I'm experiencing in the first few hours is unlikely to have much to do with what I'd have to get used to if I carried on for months. Or years.

That's an issue with many modern MMORPGs but it seems to me that TOR conforms even more to this back-loaded model than most. I'm going to hold off looking at the individual elements that make up the "gameplay" for a little longer and talk instead about my overall leveling experience so far.

At the stage I'm at, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that almost the entirety of the game consists of story. I don't really have a gameplay loop yet. More like a chapter list. Occasionally I find myself wondering whether the whole experience might be not better served by joining all the cut scenes together so I could watch them without a break. We could call it a "movie".

It didn't start out like that. When I landed on Ord Mantell, starting planet for Scoundrels, TOR felt very much like a regular MMORPG. I landed in the middle of a war between the planetary government and an armed insurgency known as The Separatists. As an independent, nominally operating under the flag of The Republic, I would have been very happy to play both ends against the middle, only the very first thing that happened was someone stole my starship. Since then I've been on the back foot.

With my ship gone, I needed to make some quick credits. I was ready to take anything on offer. I ran around grabbing missions from NPCs with markers hanging over their heads. Then I ran around completing them. Then I ran back to do the hand-in. As a set-up for the regular MMORPG gameplay loop of taking quests, killing mobs, getting rewards and leveling up it was a good one.

If the leveling game in TOR has a problem, it's not with the set-up or the execution. It's with the results. I can imagine how, back at launch, it must have felt like World of Warcraft in Space some people said it would be. It doesn't feel like that any more.

The point of leveling up is to become more powerful. The point of gaining new abilities and better gear is to be able to do more. This is progression as we understand it.

As a brand-new player in TOR today you don't need any of that. Neither do you need to prove skill, tactics or situational awareness. You can already do anything you want to. All you need to do is show up.

Games intended for very small children not excluded, TOR is by far the easiest MMORPG I have ever played. Whether this is a good or a bad thing I hope to cover in a separate post. For now, I'm just accepting it as a fact.

Leveling just happens. You don't need to do anything beyond taking missions and killing mobs. I was Level Ten before, entirely by chance, I happened upon my class trainer. I'd done ten levels using the two basic blaster skills I got at Level One. What's more, I hadn't even thought about needing anything else. Those two skills were more than adequate for all the missions I'd been sent to complete.

In retrospect I find the whole "Hot Bars For Sale" controversy deeply ironic. At Level 28 I am still using the single, default hot bar. The game has autopopulated it with various skills but I only use three or four of them: the two blaster skills I started with, an AE bomb and a stun. And I only use the stun because I like watching the animations.

There are probably a whole load more skills I could use but I haven't bothered to look. I think I last visited a trainer somewhere around Level 17. Why would I bother? I don't need any new skills. Everything dies so fast. Often before I even work out what I'm fighting.

If the game was ridiculously easy before, and it was, it became ludicrously so when I acquired my first Companion. I picked up Corso Riggs when I left Ord Mantell for the Republic Fleet. He's a healer. I found it impossible to die before he had my back; now my hit points never even go below 99%. Ok, this one time, on the last boss in the Story version (solo) of The Esseles Flashpoint, I did manage to get to 80% health but it was hard work. Corso is a beast of a healer.

As for gear upgrades, I am, as usual, wearing quest rewards and whatever drops. So far, I haven't bothered to look at the stats let alone think about what they mean. There's an automatic comparison between gear pieces on mouseover; I just glance at that and equip anything where more of the text goes green than red.

Leveling is not just easy; it's fast. Very fast. XP comes in bucketloads. When I started I had rested xp and double xp and then there was a patch and we got holiday double xp as well. Free xp boosters also turned up as rewards from time to time but I left those in my pack.

Examining my XP bar, I saw a lot of text in a very small font about bonuses and how they did or didn't stack and how F2P players did or didn't get them. I didn't attempt to unravel the details because I felt like I was being hosed down with XP already. The last thing I wanted was more. If anything, I wanted less.

At Level 20 I got my wish. There was a pop-up telling me from now on, as a F2P scrub (if it didn't actually say "scrub" it was definitely implied) I could expect reduced XP. If I wanted the good stuff I could either subscribe or spend real money in the Cartel Store.

Speed of leveling did slow down noticeably at that point. It went from crazy fast to just plain fast. It feels about right now. It will be interesting to see what happens when the holiday boost drops but by then I might be 50 already. I'm more than half-way there.

For a good, long time none of this mattered a damn because I was having fun! I ran around killing separatists and rescuing children and making moral choices right and left and I found myself enjoying it way more than I expected.

Apart from how easy it all was, the other overiding impression from my first couple of days was how incredibly huge the gameworld seemed. It's deceptive, because SW:TOR is anything but an "open world" game. The unit of territory might be the "Planet" rather than the "Zone" but all you ever really see is a sliver of each world. Even so, the terrain you cover is immense.

It's made more so by the inordinate amount of running you have to do. I cannot recall ever having to run this much in an MMORPG, something that seems all the more peculiar in such a high-tech setting.

On Coruscant even the gangland areas are like military industrial complexes in their own right. The ceilings are vaulted, the corridors stretch into the distance, elevators shuttle between levels and pathfinding, even with the map, can be a trial. Even the NPCs notice. Corso, trailing behind me on yet another ten minute jog from questgiver to target and back, wondered aloud how a street gang could find the money to fund a base on such a scale.

Yet, for all the running, I haven't been bored. Or frustrated. It feels oddly convincing. The absence of short cuts and fast travel (they exist, or so Tyler tells me in the comments, although I haven't investigated the possibilities yet) adds to the immersion. That, I know, won't last. Enjoyment of slow travel is a function of novelty.

When I moved on from Ord Mantell to Coruscant I was determined not to let the main storyline suck me in. Once again I ran around picking up random side missions. They were all reasonably interesting. They were also even more insanely easy than before because by then I'd discovered that The Scoundrel comes with an in-built cheat mode.

As a rogue class, The Scoundrel gets to sneak. You'd expect that. What you wouldn't expect is for "sneaking" to translate into "infallible invisibility". The abiilty, "Stealth", has no cooldown, lasts indefinitely and casts instantly. Nothing I have met so far, including bosses, sees through it. Once, in the Flashpoint, I encountered some droids that used a kind of ray that would reveal me but they had a huge telegraph and predictable pathing. Other than that, nothing.

In Stealth mode you move at 85% run speed. It's not even enough to notice. I often forget to switch Stealth off in safe areas. By sneaking I was able to do almost all missions without fighting anything other than my specific target mobs. When, as was often the case, I just needed to click on an object or find and talk to an NPC, I was able to complete the mission without any combat whatsoever.

I've played a good few classes with various forms of stealth or invisibility but never anything like this. It's the dictionary definition of overpowered. If it wasn't that the combat it avoids is entirely trivial anyway it would feel like an exploit to use it. As is, it just feels handy.

Eventually I ran out of side missions on Coruscant, just as I had on Ord Mantell, giving me no option other than to return to the main quest. I felt my agency as an individual slip away, subsumed into the pre-ordained narrative.

It's fortunate the story's half-way decent and the voice acting is better than average. What it reminds me of more than anything is watching a mid-season, filler episode of an 80s T.V. show; Magnum P.I, say, or The Fall Guy. Not a particularly exalted benchmark but above the reach of most MMORPGs that aren't The Secret World.

The whole thing is significantly enlivened by the famous BioWare "meaningful choice" mechanic and the accompanying Dark/Light dichotomy. I plan on dealing with that in more detail another time but for now, as a first impression, I'll just say that it's working a whole lot better for me than I ever imagined it would.

Some more recent reviews of SW:TOR suggest it's become little more than a slightly awkward single-player RPG. The suggestion is that, finally, the ill-fated MMORPG has morphed into the spiritual successor of Knights of the Old Republic so many wished BioWare had made in the first place.

I'm not so sure. There's certainly a huge amount of course-correction in place, the game trying its hardest to steer a new player down the optimal path of story, story, story. That, of course, was never  the original intention for the game. As firmly and irrevocably as TOR became associated with narrative, basing the entire game on story was never the plan, not even when BioWare famously or infamously touted their "Fourth Pillar" as the magic bullet that would save the MMORPG genre.

As many people argued at the time, supporting a live MMORPG on story wasn't likely to be sustainable long term. But then, it didn't need to be. Story, after all, was only the fourth pillar. The game also rested on three more: exploration, progression and combat.

I have to assume those still exist at the upper end of the game. I imagine there's the usual MMO endgame of grinding repeatable content (combat) to chase incremental increases in power (progression), punctuated by sporadic updates (exploration). New expansions, like Onslaught, due this Autumn, give a refresh to all four pillars and off we go again.

Down in the bilges of Free to Play, where all we have to sustain us is the original fifty levels, there's precious little sign of the missing three. The fourth pillar looms over everything, casting a long, dark shadow. But there are glimmers of light in the darkness.

I got my starship back yesterday evening. It was a moment, I can tell you. I may have said "YES!" out loud. Air may have been punched.

My next port of call should have been the planet Taris for ongoing narrative reasons. Instead I flew back to Ord Mantell, where I finished up a Bounty Hunt I'd taken on sometime back when I was about Level 18. Now I have my ship, I plan to go where I want to go, not where some NPC tells me I should. I worked damned hard to get my agency back and I don't plan on giving it up easily.

We'll see how long that lasts. I'm used to playing agaisnt the grain in MMORPGs. I have a feeling this time I'm going to get splinters.


  1. If I recall the game changed the leveling process years ago so that you only needed to do the class quests to reach level 50. That cut down on an insane amount of fetch quests...which really bogged the game down around level 30.

    In that lens, the leveling process is simply kotor3 with no difficulty. Then it takes a weird turn after 50 and until the Kotxx expansions hit.

    1. I've never followed TOR closely but I'm sure that's right. I think the entire original leveling process has been revamped and streamlined at least once. As with WoW, which I came to five years after launch, I kind of wish I'd seen TOR as it originally was. Maybe they'll do a Classic server one day. Probably not.

    2. Back in the 1st year there was a common complaint on the game forums that people were doing "every quest" and still coming up short in their leveling. I don't know how, as I'd be so far over-level by the end of Coruscant (or that 1st main Sith planet that I just don't recall the name of) that the following planet would be super easy, and then every planet after that would be literally gray mobs. I was working through each class to get all the stories and I got to the point where I'd skip all side quests on entire planets... sometimes 2 or 3 of them... in order to be merely "at level" on Hoth and even with doing that I'd always hit 50 (the cap at the time) either before or maybe just barely after getting to Corellia.

      If leveling's really as much faster now as I've heard (and you're saying), I can't imagine how it must be. I might just have to re-load and give it another go myself.

    3. Just as a side-note, mobs don't go grey any more. They seem to have done one of those level-sync passes so your character auto-adjusts to be in range of whatever mobs they meet. They all still die when you look at them funny, though.

  2. You can generally go where you want, but there is at least one planet where the intro quest to get onto the planet is (or was) level-locked. At the speed you are leveling you may soon be past that point, though.

    One of the things that I miss is hunting datacrons. Those stat boosts (and the old shards to make a relic) were a lot of fun. Finding the datacrons, and then figuring out how to get to them was a nice diversion. Well, also actually being able to do all the jumps to get to the datacron was a challenge for me. :) With the datacrons being account wide now it doesn't repay the effort to get to them unless I'm helping someone else with a force pull.

    1. I ran into a Datacron in the Justicar area on Coruscant yesterday. I had no idea what it was but it was glowing so obviously I poked it. A bunch of mobs spawned and there was a fight, which iI won, but at the end my inventory was full (there's a surprise!) and I wasn't sure if I'd received whatever reward I was supposed to get. The Datacron had gone inert by then and wouldn't respond to any more poking so I left it. Like a lot of other things in TOR, I didn't really know what was going on so I probably should go look it up...

    2. The datacrons give one of your stats a permanent boost, which you probably have no real need for at this point. I don't think you get an items. I've only open 2 so far.

    3. You'll get the little cut-scene which should have a bit of text saying which stat got boost by +X small amount. (It varies as you level.) If it gave you a matrix shard that will be in your Mission Items inventory. As a help, some of the early planet jumps are easier if you turn sprint off since we didn't get that until level 14 when we were on the Capital worlds. I still have problems with the jumps on the pipes of the Justicar area until I remember that bit.

      You can see that by pressing I (the default key) for Inventory then selecting the Mission Items tab. (The tabs are on top.) Currency is the other tab. Both are easy to miss as they seem to really fade into the background. Well, at least they do for me. :)

      Oh, as a bit of trivia, the datacrons originally had the quest indicator on them to make it easier to know they were little side quests. At some point that got turned off.

    4. I have been having issues with jumping. Unlike almost every other MMO, in TOR, when you run and jump you don't appear to generate any forward movement. Instead of leaping over chasms you just hang there for a second like Wile E Coyote then fall to your death. Two of my three (total) deaths so far have been because of that. I need to take time to experiment with jumping in a safe place to see how the mechanics work because I have 20 years of accrued muscle memory dedicated to holding down "W" and hitting the Space Bar!

  3. The game does seem to have changed in the five years since I last gave it a try. I was definitely feeling the need to run down every side quest to gain levels and I died, several times.

    Then again, I was going down the sith path. Maybe dying was part of the experience.

    1. Reading the Sith post again (I vaguely remember reading it when you posted it. I remember the one shot rule post a lot better) I would say a lot is the same but some fundementals have changed. You definitely won't be dying to any mobs, bosses or otherwise and I haven't seen any of the bugs or zoneing delays you mention. Might be worth giving it another look next time you're scratching around for an MMO to play, if only because that was a very funny post and I think there's plenty of fuel for those in TOR.

  4. I'm glad you are trying SWTOR. Being a big Star Wars fan, I was incredibly psyched when this game was announced. I did have a lot of fun with it but there were a lot of changes through the years that I did not like and slowly stopped playing it. I should go back and check it out. I have a few expansions I have never seen.

    You mentioned all of the cut scenes. The storylines were a lot more spread out because leveling took a while when I played. There were plenty of times where my character was not strong enough to continue the class storyline and I had to go do a few more levels or get more gear to continue. With the accelerated leveling, it probably would seem more mashed together.

    Now that you have the ship, you should check out the space missions. Not too hard or too long. I found them fun to do something a little different in game.

    1. I like cut scenes in MMORPGs in theory. The problem is usually either that they come so far apart, as you suggest, that I can't remember what the context is or, worse, that mobs are still trying to kill me while I'm locked in watching them. Neither of those issues arises here so I'm enjoying them. They're very well done, too, for reasons I might get into at some point.

      I have some space missions but I haven't done any yet. I'll give one a go soon.

  5. When they revamped the game for Knights of the Fallen Empire, one of the big changes they made to the leveling game is they added the option to hide most side quests (dubbed "exploration missions"). I believe it's turned on by default. You can switch it on and off from your map. Now, for most people I'd advise to keep it on because those missions are always just generic kill ten rats quests that add nothing to the plot, but for you having them might actually enhance the game.

    Aside from that, there's not much to be done to mitigate how much plot is the focus. SWTOR is an extremely linear game, and that's going to be true throughout. This is largely why I suspected it would never quite click with you. You've already made it farther than I expected you would.

    If you do want to scratch your exploration itch in this game, you need to change how you think of the term. It's about story, not geography. If you want to broaden your horizons, the best thing you can do is start an alt and experience the story of a different class or faction. SWTOR is incredibly alt-friendly.

    Oh, and Corso isn't a healer per se. Any companion can do any role. You switch by right clicking on their portrait. They're just set to heal by default because that's generally the most useful role.

    1. Oh, thanks for the info! I thought I was seeing all the side missions - certainly I've done plenty that aren't part of the Class or Planetary Story Arc sequences. Looking at the map, though, that toggle defaults to "OFF" so I haven't been getting notifications for everything. I just toggled it on so we'll see what difference that makes.

      Thanks for the detail on how to change the Companion's role. I knew it was possible but when I clicked on the little green arrow next to Corso's portrait nothing happened. I just tried what you said and clicked on the actual portrait and a context menu popped up. I think that's a design flaw, because the mouseover tooltip is attached to the green arrow and there's no mouseover to the picture.

  6. I think you'll be surprised by how far you can get without doing the main story. While the game's story focus is very obvious, the Bioware devs are not as... dogmatic about making people play "their way" as certain other MMO developers. I have quite a few characters who never progressed their personal story beyond the ship acquisition stage, and even that isn't strictly needed as you can get around without a personal ship; it's just very limited and inconvenient.

    The lack of anything not story in the lower levels is largely due to the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion from a few years ago, where they suddenly made that heavy shift towards making it more of a single-player game and revamped the levelling game accordingly. They've since returned to paying more attention to the other three pillars as you call it, but I guess the levelling is stuck as it is.

    By the way, all companions are set to heal by default but their role can be changed by right-clicking on their portrait. Just in case you feel like mixing things up a bit by setting Corso to tank or dps. (Personally I find that setting your companion to anything not-healer makes at least the heroic areas a bit more interesting.)

    I don't think SWTOR comes anywhere close to making you run around as much as World of Warcraft did at launch. (I remember us jokingly calling it "World of Walkcraft" back in the day.) At least SWTOR launched with several modes of quick travel (which have had their cooldowns shortened significantly over time). That said, I agree that especially on your first character, when you're not that familiar with all your travel options yet, it can feel like you're doing a lot of running around. This is (in my opinion) exacerbated by the levelling being so focused on the personal story these days. It didn't feel as bad when you're doing more side content because there were more other things to keep your mind busy than just how to get to your next story guy.

    Your amazement at the stealth mechanics is amusing to me because like so many of the game's features, it's simply a copy of the way rogues/druids work in WoW. I guess you never played/dealt with a stealth class in that game? To me it's always weird how in other games stealth is often little more than a cooldown, though I agree that this makes more logical sense than this level of OP-ness.

    1. WoW stealth is interesting. I'm fairly sure I do have a rogue in WoW but I don't think I got him into double figures so I probably never used the stealth. I have a Druid that I play quite often, though. She's Level 20 on the endless free trial. I can't say I recall using Stealth/Invis with her much and certainly not anything about it being unbreakable.

      I'm much more used to Stealth being proximity based, where if you get too close or stop moving NPCs will get suspicious. Tje TOR tool tip suggests that's how it works there, or something similar: mine says it "increases your stealth level by 15", clearly implying a success range, and that it makes me "difficult to detect", not impossible. In practice I have found it to be infallible so far. I plan on testing it on higher level mobs, if I ever find any. So far I have outlevelled everything by so much I am probably out of whatever detection range they have.

      I probably take tool tips to literally, if I'm honest. I imagine most MMOs are full of inaccurate tool tips that haven't been revised when mechanics changed.

  7. If you get through all the content and want more, I'm told that if you subscribe for a single month, you unlock all the expansions that have come out, and if you then let the subscription lapse, you continue to have access to the expansions. So think of it, I guess, as a $15 package that gets you all the expansions.

    1. Yep, I'm almost certainly going to do that. I want to get one character to 50 as a pure F2P first, though, just to see what it's like. So far I haven't really noticed any restrictions. I've had less storage in plenty of MMOs , I haven't run into any blocked content and having my xp restricted seems more like a benefit than a penalty.

  8. of the most bland and boring planets for me personally. After that it gets much better though.

    About that's pretty funny. I can see why you don't need any new abilities right now when the early game's so ludicrously easy nowadays. There are - or at least will be - many of them though.

    At level 50 and 55, when I still ran operations and stuff, I had four hotbars' worth of real estate in near-constant use (as a Guardian tank). It didn't feel all too different to Everquest II tbh, and you know how many abilities we have to juggle there. :-)

    1. I'm really enjoying Taris. I like the story there and the collapsed high-tech city ruins overun by jungle is atmospheric and visually appealing. It is very evident how few assets they've used - everything looks the same - but the color palette, lighting and the soundscape make up for a lot of the repetition. If that's a bland and boring planet then I'm in for a treat when I get to the interesting, exciting ones!


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