Monday, June 27, 2011

Old Republic Beta Diaries: Sith Marauder Level 1-20

Yes, I am extremely lucky to have gotten into this Beta; it is a timely boon considering I don't know how much time I will truly have to invest in the finished produce once I start Graduate School in the fall.

After waiting hours for the monstrous game file to download, I immediately chose the path that I will eventually go down in the final release: the Sith Warrior.

There is one element that has always been touted in The Old Republic's  development cycle, and that was just how immersing the story is for each character class. Having played through the first two planets in the Sith Warrior cycle, I can honestly say that Bioware was not throwing out bullshit that we just wanted to hear.

The way your character advances through the story is a veritable MMORPG game-changer for the single player experience. Regardless of the thousands upon thousands of hours of voice acting, there has not been character dialogue this dynamic and immersing in an MMO...well ever. Truthfully, the way you can interact with other characters feels like its straight out of another famous Bioware title, Dragon Age.

Yes, you CAN tell this guy he looks like an asshole.

I started playing the through the story choosing courses of dialogue pragmatically, yet with the idea that I wanted to maintain my "Sith" edge. The problem was, that there are moral dilemmas and paths of dialogue that when I chose pragmatically, I often found myself accruing "Light Side" force alignment points rather than Dark. Not only that, but certain dialogue choices closed off the ability to accrue alignment points, yet allowed me to get more money or even a better item than I would have when completing a quest. Hell, at one point, I even talked an NPC into having sex with me. I promised her I would return...for a price.

I noticed that there were some pretty nice items available, but with the condition that I was at least "Dark Side Tier 1;" from then on, I pretty much chose paths of dialogue that gained me "Dark" alignment points (the center of the dialogue box will show a white crystal for possible Light points, or a red crystal for Dark).

Then of course, are the group "Flashpoints." I have only played the "Black Talon" flashpoint a couple of times, yet I was struck by how different both instances were based solely on random dialogue choices selected by my group. The way a group interacts with NPCs in the flash-point story is a little odd, and may need some tweaking. Basically, the group is all talking to the same NPC, and each person has the ability to choose different lines of dialogue; however, the game randomly rolls the dice for each player, with the highest roll winning the ability to actually speak that line of dialogue.

It only takes one person to muck up a flashpoint.

Like I said, this played out differently in both flashpoints, as one group member won a lot of rolls, but was clearly trying to boost his "Light" force alignment, much to the rest of our group's chagrin as we all got the same "Light" points. Not only that, but his dialogue choices completely closed off a section of the flashpoint that I didn't even know existed until I played it through again with a different group who mostly made "Dark" choices. Yes, it's cool and immersing, but you can see the potential for annoyance. It's almost like you want to have a pow-wow with your group before hand on how you want to play the flashpoint. Also, you can't skip dialogue like you can in the single-player, and the Black Talon runs I did took 45-60 minutes, with a lot of that a lot of waiting through the story.


What struck me about the early game mechanics of the Sith Warrior was just how many abilities become available to you at each level. You get an AOE ability, a DoT, a force jump, a buff, a lightsaber form - all in the first five levels. By level 20 (after I chose my advanced "Marauder" class at level 10), I have two and a half rows of different skills I can choose from, all with differing situational uses. There really is a great deal of variety about how you approach every battle, as you can make it as straightforward or uniquely badass as you want.

Sure you could do the standard force jump into a group of mobs and AOE smash the ground, and single target everything down with saber slashes. Or, you could start of with a force choke to immobilize and kill the first mob, force scream to incapacitate the other, impale the third with a DoT that will kill him over time, etc.. What's cool is that my Sith Marauder seems to instinctively know and respond to every change of target with a fluid motion or arc with the lightsaber, rather than just an abrasive turn and slash. The action is fast and fun, and looks incredible.

The "rage" mechanics are also a nice change of pace in an MMO. Rather than having a set amount of replenishing energy, Sith Warriors are dependent upon building rage through a few abilities, while other abilities exhaust that rage. Standard slashes, the force jump "charge",  and force choke all build rage (and there are some long-cooldown abilities that can give you a quick amount of rage in a pinch). The refreshing thing is that fighting is not a matter of a pushing a few buttons over and over, but actually can get pretty strategic as you manage building rage and spending rage depending on the situation. With the sheer amount of useful abilities, I actually find myself methodically clicking more than button-mashing. Oh, and say goodbye to "bandaging" or "sitting down" after battle to replenish health, as each class in the game has an ability that regenerates 7% of your health per second, making the turnaround even after a grueling fight really short.

All Sith warriors are pretty much the same until you get the opportunity to choose between the advanced "Marauder" or "Juggernaut" classes. Being a Sith Marauder is probably the closest thing to a "Rogue" class on the Empire's side.  It's mostly melee and relies on strength, but you can boost your force stat (or Willpower) enough to do some serious damage with the force abilities available to you. Right now, I am focusing on the "Carnage" combat tree, which seems to have a lot of passive PVE bonuses that will aid me through the single player and increase my potency with the dual-lightsabers. There is an "Assassin" tree, which also seems PVE but is heavily DoT oriented and screams "end-game bossfights." There is a third tree, which I can't remember for the life of me, but apparently it's the one tree that is also shared with the "Juggernaut" class and seems to have a lot of PVP attributes. Basically, the talent system and concepts have been lifted directly out of World of Warcraft, which in this case is probably a good thing.

If there is one thing that leaves me scratching my head, is that every time I have a new rank of an ability available to me, the price to buy it is pretty astronomical for what usually amounts to only a 15-30 damage bonus increase. Considering each skill already scales with your stats, there is in fact little incentive to even buy new skill ranks. Hopefully the cost will be adjusted by release.


Around levels 7-9, the story will give you your first companion. I won't ruin the Sith Warrior's story, but let me be the first to say that having an NPC party member fight, talk, and run around with you on your adventures can be pretty damn cool. It's not like having a pet at all, but rather an actual an permanent party member who you can completely outfit as you see fit. For grouping purposes, they actually physically count as a party member; for example, if three people join up in a group, each with their companions active, one companion will randomly be dismissed since the max number in a group can only be 5.

You pick up a lot of junk in this game, that in bulk can be sold for a decent amount of credits. It's a damn miracle that Bioware gave the companion the ability to vanish for 60 seconds while they sell all your useless stuff and clear out some bag space. Once I got my gathering secondary crew skills (archaeology and scavenging) I became giddy when I held shift-rightclick, an old habit from my WoW days to quickly pick all the resources out of a node; yet, my character didn't stop and pick up the items, but rather shift/right click made my companion do it for me. That's right, with an active companion, your character never has to stop again - just shift/right click and move on while your companion does the dirty work. Fuck. Yes.

I still have just my one companion, but apparently there will be a couple more as the story advances. Really, the only tedious aspects  with the companion has been some awkward pathing issues by the NPC that can get it killed, as well as having to babysit the "passive" button while running back through hostile territory so that they don't stop and fight the mobs that are running after you. Oh yeah, and every time they speak it takes you out of sprint. Bitch, can't it wait?

A Group Problem

The only aspect of the game that I find incredibly annoying is grouping. It's ironic, because what makes the single-player so fluid is what makes grouping a pain, in that the game and the planets you are on are broken down into phases; these phases are sort of like dimensions that overlap which allow for you to run around and do quests without having to really worry that much about camping quest mobs or competing for objectives with other players, because the bulk of the other players are in a different phase of the planet. Sure, you'll run into people in your own phase, but the real problem is when a quest requires a group and the people that join are in another phase.

What happens is that the group leader invites players, but if those people happen to be in a different phase they have to then choose the option of "jumping to the group leader's phase." Hell, you could physically be exactly where your group needs to meet to start the quest, but if you have to jump phases the game loads you up all the way at the beginning of the planet, forcing you to travel all over again and the group to wait. It is an odd problem to have, as it seems obvious that there should "phase pylons" that could load you closer to the group, or maybe just load you up in the closest medical station (which are everywhere). Right now, it pays to be the group leader, while others have to hoof it all over the place.

I'll take a speeder for 1000000, Alex. 

Right now, I am saving up for my first speeder as I advance to the third planet in the Sith Warrior's story. Looking ahead, I hope to talk about the PVP, more companions, and possibly even space battles if I can make it that far.

Until then, force choke 'em if you got 'em.

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