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The only thing that stops the dust is the rain. It’s a sweet reprieve, but there is no middle ground. The land is either as dry as the Betty Ford clinic, or as wet as the ocean floor. Everything can be seen from the ridge overlooking Armadillo as John Marston gently bounces along atop...


Early Hands-on With PvE In Star Wars: The Old Republic

Posted on Friday, April 29 @ 19:31:10 PST by Josh_Laddin

Given my penchant for spending vastly unhealthy amounts of time with the world's most successful MMO, it didn't take too long after I started writing for GR to be known as "The WoW Guy". I don't mind that—it's richly deserved—but the interesting thing is how that one quality ended up in me covering almost every MMORPG under the sun, due to the rest of the staff's penchant for not spending vastly unhealthy amounts of time with such games. The kicker is that I'm really not a big MMO fan; WoW fan, yes, but I honestly don't have any interest in playing any other MMOs with any frequency.

Except for Star Wars: The Old Republic, that is. This is the one new MMO that I would actually spend my own money on to play even if it weren't an assignment (although given Blake's tastes for big guns and roided-out space marines and Nick's tastes for... um, Asian things?... you can bet your ass it will be). So I knew I was in for a treat when I made the trip down to EA's Redwood Shores offices to spend some quality time with the two Sith classes on display—the Bounty Hunter and Imperial Agent.

Chillin' with my homies on Hutta

Both classes share the starting world of Hutta, which you might guess is the dusty desert homeworld of those slimy Hutt gangsters. While they share the same general locales, the questing experience even at the earliest levels is highly diverse, each class getting its own distinct questlines with different overarching goals for both this world and the greater story beyond.

The first thing I noticed was how unbelievably heavy SW:TOR is on quality voice acting. After years of playing WoW and clicking through thousands of pages of quest text from quest givers, it was simply astounding to me how much time and energy went into the quest conversations. Literally every quest in the game is offered through fully voiced conversations with NPCs. As you'd expect from a Bioware game, these conversations are consistently broken up by dialogue branches which can affect your light/dark side affinity and companion affection levels. Even the most basic quests give you five or six dialogue branches where you can choose from three possible responses—and both your character and the NPC have voice acting recorded for all possible choices.

I quickly noticed as well just how immersive the story and quests are. Even though I was just a low-level scrub, I still felt extremely important and engaged in each quest I did. Unlike many other MMOs where there just seem to be tons of banal throwaway quests that ask you to kill ten wolves or collect seven sparkly doodads, all the quests in TOR felt like I was making progress toward my end goals. And even though there are "kill x amount of this, collect y amount of that" quests in the game, they all still seemed important to my character's story.

A quick early example comes from one of the first quests in the game. Even though their intentions are very different, both classes start out by trying to get in Nem'ro the Hutt's good graces. A few hostile NPCs who work for a rival gangster litter the area around the starting cantina and you're tasked with killing a handful of them. Doing so isn't just for a simple XP and credit reward, though—it's a necessary step in getting on Nem'ro's radar and seeking an audience with him. From there the quests begin to diverge, but I'll get to the individual stories in a bit.

Back to the immersion: TOR utilizes lots of phased rooms that are almost like mini-instances. Instead of walking through a portal into a full-fledged instance, phases are marked off with a light barrier, and once you cross it you'll be in your own little version of that room, with no loading times to pull you out of the experience. You're still the only player in the particular room (unless you invite some friends along, and they're eligible to enter), but the greater world outside is still hustling and bustling around you. Most phases are class-limited; for instance, once you're in Nem'ro's palace, the Bounty Hunter is assigned his or her own phased quarters which only a Bounty Hunter can enter, while the Imperial Agent has the same luxury one room over.

I've heard some complaints floating around the interwebs about TOR's gameplay, and frankly I really don't know what these people are whining about and/or smoking. The game is still months away from release, without even an official release date, and already the gameplay is more polished than some MMO's I've seen at launch. It's very WoW-like, utilizing a default user interface that takes a page from many of the more successful UI mods out there. The game isn't devoid of bugs and problems by any stretch at this early stage (the animation and hit detection for some abilities is a bit off, the quest log could use an overhaul to give better direction, etc), but it was still eminently playable.

After finishing the job on Hutta, which carries you through the first ten or so levels of the game, it's time to jet on over to the Imperial headquarters on Dromund Kaas with your first companion. I didn't have enough time to explore Dromund Kaas as much as I wanted to (that is, all of it), but one thing was clear: Your character's story continues in one epic arc through multiple worlds. Finishing Hutta didn't just end with a "mission accomplished" message and some loot. It only meant I had to continue the trail to a new world, where I would find more obstacles on the way to accomplishing the greater mission in a starkly different steamy, wet jungle environment.

Imperial Agent: A cog in the Empire's well-oiled machine

I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I preferred the Imperial Agent to the Bounty Hunter. I settled into my role as a male blue-skinned Chiss operative (expanded universe nerds everywhere just got visions of Thrawn dancing in their heads). My Agent had some interesting gameplay compared to what I'm used to, utilizing a cover system to get a defensive advantage in battle. Since the Agent is more of a long-ranged attacker, the development team was very careful to drop lots of rocks, crates, and debris around the world that he can use to crouch behind and greatly reduce incoming ranged damage. In the occasional instance of being unable to find natural cover, the Agent can drop a portable cover generator, which temporarily absorbs incoming damage with a one-way energy shield. The Agent uses a rapidly recovering energy resource much like a rogue or hunter in WoW; in fact, it wouldn't be unreasonable to liken it to a hunter in its basic form (after level ten, though, all classes can diverge into advanced roles, which further define your playstyle and determine your role in the game like tank or dps).

I really loved the Imperial Agent story on Hutta. A holo exchange with my commanding officer outlined the mission: infiltrate Nem'ro's palace under the guise of a bounty hunter (I was ordered to "drop the accent", because we all know British = Imperial), get into the Hutt crime lord's good graces, and subtly steer him toward lending his considerable resources to the Empire. Before gaining access to the palace I did some quests around town. One woman hired me to hunt down her husband, who was hiding their son to keep him from being sent off to a Sith academy. On my Agent playthrough, I spared the man's life and let him take his son away after he explained how miserable and life-threatening the academy was to his son. Covering for the husband, I took my coin from the wife while telling her I sent the boy off myself, earning some light-side points along the way.

Once inside the palace, I first needed to work through one of Nem'ro's lieutenants who's been in the doghouse due to some botched operations. I settled into my phased Imperial Agent room, which needed to be swept for bugs before initiating contact with my superior and getting further orders. From there the long process began of carrying out the lieutenant's assigned tasks so he could gain Nem'ro's favor again, and me in turn. I won't spoil the rest, but suffice to say that the mission on Hutta leads directly to a greater mission when you take off for Dromund Kaas.

Bounty Hunter: Anything for a buck

My bounty-hunting experience was with a female Zabrak (you might know them better as that freaky demonic race that Darth Maul was). Bounty Hunters play much more aggresively, not using cover, not afraid of close-quarters (though blasting from range is still a good vantage point), and generally using all manner of missiles and explosives to violently dispatch their enemies. They even utilize jetpacks in their attacks (albeit only from an aesthic standpoint so far), hovering off the ground and firing off multiple rockets at a target location. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some actual gameplay in the later levels that allows you to control the jetpack.

Their resource, "heat", is pretty unique as well. Instead of other classes that use positive resources (that is, the more you have of it the more you can use abilities), heat affects the Bounty Hunter negatively. You start with 0 heat and you can use all abilities freely as long as you have the heat capacity for them. Using abilities adds heat, and if you max out you'll have to vent heat (either through a channeled ability or over time) before you can start attacking again.

The story went in a different direction right off the bat; I started by getting the goal from my support team to enter the "Great Hunt", a mysterious and highly selective competition to determine the best Hunter in the galaxy. Unfortunately, I needed a sponsor to come up with the enormous amount of scratch to enter—and that meant getting chummy with ol' Nem'ro again.

Before that, however, I took the same quest from the angry mother, except this time I wanted dark side points. So after hearing the husband's sob story about the evil Sith academy, I blasted a hole in his chest right there in front of his son. I then took the kid back to his mom, who would throw him onto the next shuttle off the planet. She noted that the kid will probably hate her for it, but that's very conducive to developing his dark side powers (hey, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering—but if you can skip the first two steps, why not?)

Spoilery stuff happens really early into the Bounty Hunter story (important characters already get killed off at around level 3), so I don't want to go into it very much. Let's just say there's a lot of anger, blasting, bribery, icy dialogue, and of course, bounties to collect on the way to Dromund Kaas. Plot twists abound, credits get earned, you get tons of opportunity to make sarcastic comments about how you're only in it for the money—what more could you want while chasing the Great Hunt?

So I've obviously seen a lot and have a lot to say about SW:TOR. But even all of this stuff is just a footnote in the epic tale of this huge, sprawling MMO. Check back with us soon, because we've got even more coverage for the game coming down the pipe.
Related Games:   Star Wars: The Old Republic

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