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As I write this, beta for Star Wars The Old Republic has come and gone with mere hours remaining before the game’s first pre-release Early Access invitations are emailed out. For those who were able to play the game, what transpired between then and now has been different things to different people. Some became so infatuated with SWTOR during playtesting that they found it difficult to remain focused in whatever current MMO they are playing. Some are just patiently waiting to play it when it comes out. While others are vehemently bashing the game for not replicating the one they are used to playing.

I had the opportunity to rack up close to 120 hours of playtesting during beta. That’s not exactly record setting, but it was enough time to obtain a fairly solid grasp of what the game is and is not. While some chose to grind one or two characters all the way to end game’s threshold, I chose to play a variety of toons on both sides to see how they worked and meshed. I focused on small group balance in Flashpoints, map exploration and questing. Knowing that the characters would disappear after beta, I played the game with no career goals in mind. I experimented with everything I could get my mouse on, so leveling for me was slow.

BioWare has campaigned for months that SWTOR would be a groundbreaking story-driven MMO that uses collaborative decision tools and voice acting for quest interactions with NPCs. So I was most interested to see how big a part storyline played in character development, how closely or loosely class storylines were interwoven with each other… and whether or not the whole thing was as unique and robust as advertised. Well… if the smoothness and polish of the beta product is any indication, then the game is well on its way to becoming what they hoped it would be.

One thing must be clarified: Star Wars The Old Republic is not World of Warcraft in space. Granted there are minor similarities within some core UI elements, as well as aspects of talenting and character movement. But much beyond that, TOR is its own animal. WoW is the MMO market’s 600lb gorilla, so forum debates comparing the two during beta were enevitable and often peppered with flagrant flames coming from the WoW lifers.

I have played both Knights Of The Old Republic and The Sith Lords titles, as well as Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2. So I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and was not disappointed. The voice acting was a truly immersive experience that I could feel good about replaying over and over the same way I rewatch movies or reread books I enjoy. But there are opposing positions on this, and I can see how not everyone would share my opinion. I can see how this voice interaction quest system could create a polarizing effect for some down the road.

For the Fail Attitude Hardcore WoW set (FAHCW or simply FA) acquiring a disdain for voice acting only took a couple of days. They eventually fell into “ya… ya… enough of the voice acting role play crap already. Just gimmie my damn quest and let me go so I can flash grind XP, blow through levels and focus on my gear.” In TOR that’s easy enough to accomplish when soloing – just hit the space bar to exit the scene. But what if someone wanted that voice acting experience while playing in a group that didn’t? The game is set up for group decision making and NPC interaction – even in Flashpoints. So if one player doesn’t opt out then they all have to play through it. That could be an instant deal breaker for impatient grab’n go quest types.

What these same FAs ultimately figured out is that soloing precludes them from level-appropriate group Flashpoints due to a lack of survivability. To do Flashpoints meant they had to subject themselves to the voice acting desires of others in a party. FAs absolutely despise not being in control. So they bitched about having to solo to get away from the voice acting, then they bitched about having to group up for the instances based on a likelihood they’d have to participate in voice acting. Bitch…bitch…bitch…

This just in… the emphasis on voice acting and group decision making for quest interaction has been BioWare’s most prominantly marketed feature for SWTOR since its inception. They aren’t going away and will likely become even more integrated as the game matures. Two thumbs up!

The other topic that generated considerable angst in the SWTOR forums was whether or not mods should be allowed in the game. Holy jeezus… and I thought the FAs got their panties in a wad from having to sit through voice acting. The debates rapidly deteriorated from legitimate discussions among adult gamers to pubescent WoW lifers publicly flaming those who preferred not to have them.

Ignoring a select few who gamely attempted to screw things up for the rest of us, mods are in fact a legitimate topic for discussion. Allow me to begin the elaboration by stating two facts. First, the initial release of SWTOR will not have mod hooks activated. They are present in the code but will be turned off at release. No active mod hooks means no add-ons from the get go. Second, dev has stated that allowing mods down the road is a genuine consideration. But before that happens they first need to know exactly how they would affect game balance. The developers are fully aware that some mods and add-ons may do just that, so mimicking how other games implement theirs to appease a minority is not a design consideration … thank God.

A popular defense in the forums for mass implementation of mods in TOR was that they help the development teams improve the game by providing feedback they would not otherwise have. Uh… guess again. Do these folks really believe the developers are so stupid that they wouldn’t have already built a parsing system into the back end of the game’s multi-million dollar infrastructure to monitor and quantify metrics in real time? I know of no legit engineer who would welcome skewed data.

However I am still in favor of some low impact mods being built into the game. Other than the preservation of game balance my only wish is simply this… that mods not be integrated to the extent that they become a tool for determining who goes and who goes away. Add-ons don’t drop bosses, players drop bosses. All add-ons do is automate functions of gameplay. Players who drive a stick shift shouldn’t be disallowed from participating in a race because everyone else is driving an automatic. Besides… real racers don’t drive automatics.

So here’s my rundown of typical add-on genres and their affects (perceived or otherwise) on SWTOR gameplay:


Damage Meters
Functionally DPS meters have a place in any game where combat determines character progress because they do make for excellent practice tools. An epic FAIL byproduct is their adolescent use for comparing penis sizes. More often than not a player’s DPS is low for one of three reasons: (1) the player is either missing a cue / using the wrong abilities at the wrong time, (2) their level and/or gear is too weak for the encounter, or (3) all of the above. A DPS meter doesn’t display what a player did incorrectly, it only displays their ouput totals. Damage meters teach nothing outside of what can be learned with a target droid. So having a generic one built into the game’s target droids could make sense.

Combat Logs
Combat logs are THE most important end game progression tool as it records all combat activity. Combat logs allow players to see exactly what happened and when, then learn from any quantifiable mistakes they find. Being able parse a combat log into a pop-up window would be killer. Yes, yes and hell yes.

Threat Meters
Unless there are multiple tanks who need to monitor each other’s threat during trade-offs, threat meters are insignificant. If a threat meter indicates that an assassin crit-pulled aggro off the tank … then it’s already too late because a threat meter’s ability to monitor player aggro during combat is rendered moot in SWTOR. Practically all damage in this game is superhero huge. We’re talking about AoE knockbacks that are so spectacular they will send players and mobs alike flying completely off the screen and out of view. This is about blasters, hand cannons, rocket launchers, light sabers and force lightning blasts that do massive laser-quality “weapon” damage against leaping and darting supervillains wearing space age armor – not the mundane dink and dunk 20k nominal unbuffed sword & sorcery dps grinds against stationary bosses with 80 bazillion health. Threat meters would be out of place in this game.

Boss Monitors
I have taken a ton of heat for my stance on this, but… keep Deadly Boss Mods out of the game – completely. To begin with DBM has become a cheat code that tells the party in big fat flashing screen text what a boss is going to do and then counts down until the boss does it. This is the quintessential dumb down tool that allows uber-on-the-brain gear whores to blow through loot drops faster. With DBM, early boss fights became so predictable (read: idiot proof) that end game got eaten up quicker.

Hard core end gamers who became reliant on it took to whining incessently first about how quickly end game bosses became farmable loot pinatas, then about how slowly expansion content was being released to satisfy them. This forced dev to deliver new stuff at increasingly faster rates that compensated for the cheats with overly complicated crap that had nothing to do with anything but beating the add-ons. The Lich King fight is a prime example of this. It was a huge disappointment because the fight mechanics were superfluously unrelated to who the Lich King was, or what powers he historically wielded.

Newsflash… Arthas will be appearing in reprints of Necronomicon as the Sumerian god of Defile Oil Slicks!

World of Warcraft has taken a granny seat to the mods that drive it. Think I’m crazy? Pull the plug on DBM and HealBot for the Kung Fu Panda expansion then tell me there wouldn’t be end game mutiny. Hard core raiders would feel betrayed and it would be Blizzard’s own damn fault for pandering to them to begin with. It’s their problem – they can keep it. Add-ons like DBM are gameplay mechanics killers and have no place in SWTOR. Those hooks really need to remain locked down.

UI Mods
This is one of the few add-ons I wholeheartedly endorse for game screen customization purposes. One size does not fit all – ask anyone who plays on a 42″ HDTV or with multiple monitors. The ability to individually resize and relocate elements on the screen would be a godsend.

Economy Mods
I’m kind of on the fence with this one. An Atlas Loot isn’t really necessary as sites like TORhead and DarthHater can be used for item research and gear planning. I know, I know… linking items in chat is kinda cool. But I’m not sure it’s cool enough to warrant the CPU horsepower it would hog. Speaking of hogging resources, Auctioneer and Auctionator type mods would make determining FMV on the GTN much more intuitive. If BW can figure out how to get the primitive functionality of Atlas Loot and Auctioneer built into the game without creaming CPU overhead I wouldn’t mind those at all.

Quest Mods
Add-ons like QuestHelper and Carbonite are simply microwave dinner luxuries that minimize exploration time. Well, exploration is a large part of any MMO and SWTOR is no exception. So their use is unnecessary to anyone who is not in a rush. If you’re in that big of a hurry, play a round of Peggle. The only segment I can see where being in a rush is accepted as part of a modus operandi is PvP, and PvPers have no realistic use for automated quest help.

Voice acting and modding were easily the two topics of greatest contention on the forums during the waning weeks of beta. After three workweek’s worth of playtesting, my overall observation is simply this and it bares repeating: Star War The Old Republic is not World of Warcraft in space. By design it is different, and in many key aspects it is WAY different. Wanting SWTOR to be and play like any other game is absurd, and wishing so will do little but diminish the enjoyment of playing the game on its merits – and it has many.

So if you’re looking for a truly immersive Star Wars MMORPG experience in the KOTOR tradition but only deeper and broader, then you will absolutely love this game.

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