Saturday, April 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Old Republic: First Impressions (The Basics)

Since downloading and installing Star Wars: The Old Republic on Thursday I have played for just under eight hours. My first and so far only character, a Scoundrel, is a few pixels shy of Level 22. I've acquired my first Companion and a Stronghold. I know it's very early days but it's never too soon to give an uninformed opinion. This is the Age of the Internet, after all!

Download and Installation

Flawless. Seamless. Painless. Really, this is how it ought to be. As a Free to Play player you don't even have to enter an email address. All you need is a username and password and you're done. The game will prompt you later to add an email address for security reasons (the pop-up appeared for me around Level 17) but you can play until Level 20 without one, which should be plenty of time to decide whether you're going to hang around long enough to care.

You have the option to start playing immediately while the main game downloads behind you. I chose to let the whole thing install first. Once that was done I took a look at

Character Creation

Slick. Intuitive. Simple. First you choose your Faction: Republic or Empire. It's hard to imagine anyone coming to SW:TOR without prior knowledge of the baggage attatched to these generic labels but there's a short description just in case. I thought it was instructive that neither is described in terms of "Good" or "Evil"and both include negative descriptors ("chaotic" for The Republic, "rigid" for The Empire). I chose Republic, mainly because it uses a blue theme and I prefer blue to red.

After Faction comes Class. There are four, split into two sub-classes, so really eight. There's a short description of each but a series of much more detailed drop-downs gives you full disclosure on abilities, expected roles, gear and even storylines. I confess I completely missed this when I made my first character. It could be better signposted. Or I could pay more attention. Either one.

Next comes Race. SW:TOR has a lot of races. There are a dozen to choose from but for F2P players the choice is made a lot easier: you only get three. I chose Cyborg, which is not even a "race" in my book. More of a lifestyle choice. The limited racial options for F2P might rankle more if it wasn't that all playable races are basically "human with a funny head". For a science fiction IP Star Wars has always seemed astoundingly conservative to me. The extreme prevalence of bipedal aliens who look like guests at a "SciFi"-themed fancy dress party is a big part of the reason for that.

Each race gets a "Social Ability" which, apart from looks, appears to be the only practical difference. I didn't even notice this when I made my character. I doubt it's going to matter. Especially since I don't plan on being social. Again, though, it could be better highlighted.

Finally you get to pick a gender. The choice is simple. Male or Female. I do wonder how much longer games are going to be able to get away with that. It seems archaic. You might imagine a Science Fiction IP with galactic reach would be a tad more forward-looking. It is what is, I guess. For now, at least. I chose Female.

Now comes the fun part: sliders. There are nine, covering the basics from Head and Body Type to Scars and Skin Color. They aren't real sliders, though. They just move between presets. There's enough choice to suit me although I doubt it would satisfy the kind of player who downloads pre-launch character creators and spends weeks trying to get the exact look down to the last freckle.

With all that done it's time to choose a name and a server and enter the game proper.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

User Interface

Clean. Clear. Comprehensible. Also enormously flexible. I didn't fiddle with the UI at all because it was already laid out pretty much exactly how I like it. Hotbars bottom center. Quest tracker on the right. Chat on the left. Most of the screen clear. There's an interface editor that allows you to move anything anywhere as well as make any number of other quality of life tweaks.

Couldn't really ask for more, although I don't doubt the default UI is widely derided and I'd be considered a noob for sticking with it instead of some Mod or other. Don't care. I like it.


Traditional. Comfortable. Classic.  One of the reasons I've been holding off playing TOR is the control system. Not because I thought I wouldn't like it but because I knew I would. These days it's getting harder and harder to find WASD, tab target, hotbar MMORPGs in the style World of Warcraft span out of EverQuest but that's the style I crave. I'd been saving TOR because who knows when, or if, another one like this is going to come along.

I realize this will be seen by some as one of the very reasons TOR didn't do as well as it should have. Many developers have explained in very convincing detail how this kind of control system hugely limits appeal and how badly most gamers struggle to adapt to it. MMORPGs have largely transferred to an action rpg style for sound commercial reasons.

I don't care. I like the old version. I like full control of my mouse pointer at all times. I like to point and click. As I've said many times, I'm perfectly capable of using the other control systems; I just like this one better.

TOR's controls work exactly as you'd expect them to. No surprises. I was as familiar with them in thirty seconds as I am with the controls in games I've played for years. Keys are all fully bindable with a huge range of otions. The defaults are what you'd expect - "M" for Map, "I" for Inventory and so on. No-one's tried to make a name for themselves by reinventing the wheel, for once. The only thing I changed was the screenshot key.

Those "textures"! Those "colors"! Help me!


Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie, dear. For the first dozen levels I thought SW:TOR was probably the ugliest AAA MMORPG I had ever played. I had to go check when it launched because it looked about ten years older than I remembered. It probably didn't help that the planet where the Scoundrel starts looks like a cross between a 1970s out of town shopping mall and a municipal dump but mostly it was the textures. Or so I thought.

I fiddled with the settings a little. I put the Textures to "High", the only option other than "Low", where they'd defaulted, but I couldn't see much difference. I switched off some, then all, off the nameplates. It helped a little. Not a lot.

What happened then is telling. In other MMORPGs I've played, where the graphics were really off-putting, I've usually ended up digging through all the settings, trying everything, then googling for suggestions. In TOR I kind of forgot about it. I started doing some quests and a couple of hours later it was time to log and I'd done nothing about the graphics. Next day I played for another hour and a half or so before I thought about doing something about it.

Now that's more like it!

When I finally did go to the web and search I immediately discovered I'd completely missed a whole macro-level of settings, where you can simply set the overal graphic quality in a six preset range from Low to Ultra. Once again I hadn't seen that, even though I had used the drop downs on either side of it. I really can't blame that on the game. I'm an idiot.

With that arcane knowledge revealed I simply set my graphics to Very High and everything changed almost out of recognition. Even Ord Mantell, the starting planet, began to look vaguely bearable. Coruscant was amazing.

Although it was entirely my fault that I missed the options, I find it strange that the game itself defaulted to the lowest settings. Pete, who has just returned to TOR and has his own returner's impressions post up, said "It’s an old enough game that when it detected my graphics card it said “Gosh I have no idea” and set everything to “low”. Which is fair enough if you have a state-of-the-art whizz-bang graphics card but I have a GTX960 that was barely mid-range when I got it several years ago.

While there's an obvious problem if a game tries to do things the player's hardware isn't up to handling, there's an equal risk in downgrading everything to the bare minimum. Especially on a F2P title. You don't really want to give people an opportunity to opt out and really ugly, low-rez graphics as default are that opportunity. The game didn't even default to the correct resolution, which is something many games fail at and which completely mystifies me.

Once I'd got everything settled, the graphics seemed more than acceptable. It's no Guild Wars 2 or Black Desert but it doesn't burn my eyes.

Space. Contrary to popular belief it can be surprisingly noisy.


Atmospheric. Varied. Immersive. Sound is very well used in TOR. As I write this I have my Scoundrel stealthed in the Justicar quadrant on Coruscant. As well as the incidental music, I can hear the sound of vehicles in transit down the metalic corridors and the static crackle of distant announcements. It feels authentic, by which I mean filmic.

Interacting with computer terminals makes a satisfying bleeping sound. My footsteps slap and echo on the metal walkways. My blaster pew pews like a good blaster should. Even the combat music, when it kicks in urgently, doesn't make me reach for the controls to turn it down.

TOR looks good with the settings properly tweaked but it sounds great straight out of the non-existent box. And sound design is extremely important, or it is to me. It's always puzzled me that anyone can play with the sound off, let alone with other music playing instead. In the days when MMORPGs required you to pay attention to stay alive, I got so many cues from the sound that kept me from being ambushed or surprised. These days that rarely matters but much of my sought-after immersion comes in via my ears, not my eyes.

The Basics: Conclusion

SW:TOR has all the basics down. It's a Triple-A game from a major publisher and you can tell. It's also had over seven years to iron out the wrinkles and stamp on the bugs. Everything works, everything it where is should be and getting started is all made very easy indeed. I haven't had this seamless an introduction into an MMORPG for a while.

Next up: gameplay, questing, leveling, travel, housing. All that good stuff!


  1. Nice to hear that your first impressions so far have mostly been positive!

    There isn't actually that much "UI elitism" in SWTOR, probably because the game doesn't allow mods. So while people will still swear that their personal setup is superior for one reason or another, everyone's working with the same basic building blocks.

    The graphics thing is interesting. I've often heard people complain that the graphics are terrible, and I also cringe every time I see someone play on low - but at this stage, hardly anyone should have to. It never occurred to me that it might simply be the default and people might not think to change it.

    1. That's really what I think the danger is. Mrs Bhagpuss, for example, who has been playing MMORPGs for twenty years, never touches any of the settings in any game. Whatever the default is, that's what she plays with, unless I go in and tweak it. She *could* change things, she knows how to do it, but it literally never occurs to her. I think there an awful lot more players like that than we generally recognize and when you have a F2P "trial" that's hoping to encourage them to stick around, you really need to get those defaults right.

    2. Honestly, I never think to change any of the settings, or the UI. I've done it for EVE, but only when CCP announces a graphics change. Now I'm wondering what my graphic settings were when I played. I know when I played a scoundrel, I changed my character from male to female because the mustaches looked so cheesy. Note, I think Bioware really meant for scoundrels to be male, but didn't want to gender lock the class.

  2. I'm with you on sound. I've never understood how people can game with the sound off or while listening to outside music. I think this is a huge part of why I loved TSW so much, and I'm surprised I never hear other people mention it. That game had the most amazing soundscape. Some about the ambient sound effects just made the game feel so incredibly real to me. SWTOR is not on the same level, but you're right that it is above average.

    It is slightly ironic but at this point not surprising that the things you like about SWTOR so far are my least favourite things about it. Namely, that it's so traditional. Often I complain about MMO combat being too easy, but in SWTOR's case I'm happy for it to be as easy as possible because I find the moment to moment gameplay so unpleasant that I want combat over with as fast as possible so I can get back to the story.

    1. I'll get to difficulty tomorrow or the day after but I think it's not an exagerration to say that, when it comes to combat, TOR is the easiest MMORPG not specifically aimed at small children that I've ever played. Obviously this only applies to solo play during leveling but it is insanely easy. At Level 27 (nearly) I have yet to die from anything other than falling into lava or off cliffs while trying to get to places I shouldn't be. Even the "Boss" fights are mindnumbingly easy. The toughest one so far got me to 80% health, msotly because I couldn't be bothered to step out of his red circles.

      On the other hand, it has literally the most running I have ever seen in any MMO. I would estimate I spend at least ten minutes running for every single minute fighting. Maybe double that, actually. It's very odd. I'm not at all sure it wouldn't work better if they just strung all the cut scenes together and called it a movie!

    2. It's an absurdly easy game. That much is true. A lot of it's due to the companions being so godly overpowered nowadays. You could honestly beat most of the game just by setting your companion to tank and letting them do all the fighting for you. It'd be slow, but it'd work.

      There is a lot of running around, but you can mitigate it a lot with various travel perks. Fast travel should be used often -- there's a Legacy perk that will eventually let you remove the cooldown on it entirely. Then there's Sprint, which is an out of combat move speed buff that the game is pretty much unbearable without. It's level locked (or not available at all?) as a totally F2P player but available at level one if you're Preferred (which is anyone who's ever spent money on the game). And there's mounts, of course.

  3. One neat little thing I kind of stumbled on is that there are pre-sets for the UI. It's one of the tiny widgets next to the hotbar, on the left side. You don't HAVE to use them of course, but as I got more and more abilities I find it really handy that I could just pick "Advanced" and up came some extra hotbars laid out in a way I felt pretty comfortable with.

    And like so much else, I don't think the game ever tells you about this and it is a TINY little widget... I found it while looking for a way to open a 2nd hotbar.

    1. Thanks! Hadn't spotted that. I'll have a look when I log in. After all the controversy over hot bars for sale, the ironic thing is I barely even need the single one I've got. I have a ton of skills and abilities but half of them I haven't even trained and 95% of them I don't use. Combat consists of me throwing a bomb, using two or three blaster skils and, er, that's it. To be honest I probably could just use the default blaster attack and nothing else and still win every fight.

    2. I have a vague memory from back when I played in the 1st year or so that while I had enough skills to fill 2 hotbars on the bottom for "regular use" that all the rest of the more situational or out of combat things could easily go on the sides and quite frankly never get touched. Sounds like that hasn't changed at all.


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