I did finally get into the beta this weekend. Saturday to be exact. And I ended up spending most of the day messing around. After a somewhat rocky start, I had a whole lot of fun. It even rendered me deaf to the siren's call of Skyrim for a day, so that's saying something.
First, the bad. I could gush all day about the good stuff, but betas are for testing and I feel like I should be focused on what the problems were. Not that any of the developers will actually read this, but more in the interest of just jotting it down for fair reporting.
They're going to have to improve their communication and response time. I had a hard time figuring out how and when, exactly, I was supposed to login. Prior to the actual beta test, I kept getting errors making me reset my password over and over. Then their servers were down, but it didn't say that up front. I wasn't sure if it was just on my end or what was going on. Eventually, they posted a statement letting everyone know that they were having some trouble handling the demand, and that we could give it a break for a bit. It was a little late, in my opinion, but they did seem to get it straightened out. Still, this has me worried. If they can't handle the load for a (albeit large) simple beta test, then how is launch day going to go?
Communication was a bit shoddy as well. I got an email at what seemed like the last minute letting me know what time I could actually log on. Maybe it's just me, but I felt like there was a lot of disorganization behind the scenes. One might expect a certain amount of this for a test, so I'm hoping they learned and get it all ironed out for the launch. Being perfect is not the key. Technical difficulties are going to happen. It's important that you communicate what's going on to the players, though. Swiftly, and with an expected return time if you can. Even if it's just "check back for more info in an hour," we want to know. At the very least, we don't want to keep hitting enter at the login screen and changing our password when it's a server load issue.
Once I got in, though, it was all good. I rolled every Republic toon, and one Sith warrior. I wanted to see as much of the starting areas as possible. The problem was, I kept getting pulled into the story. I wanted to keep playing each toon, which is not exactly helpful in a beta-test mindset. It says great things about the game though.
Weirdest thing for me: there is NO QUEST TEXT. None. It's all told via dialog. I thought maybe it would be disorienting and/or annoying, but I found it immersing and hugely entertaining. It slows down things quite a bit (especially if you weren't a quest text reader), but you don't notice until after the hours have ticked by. For a game that borrows very obviously from the other success out there (namely WoW), this method of quest giving struck me as a huge improvement.
It seemed to me that, by removing the player a bit more from the game, they actually added to the immersion. That may sound backward, but bear with me here. In WoW, I'm interacting with the world through a thinly veiled avatar. It "speaks" with my voices, acts like me, etc... it IS me just in different clothing. I could roleplay other characters, sure, but the roleplay is inevitably based on my own imagination and suspension of disbelief.
In SWTOR, it's more like you're directing and actor. I'm saying: "Okay, now preform this scene, and act like you really care about the NPC." Or, conversely: "Let's do that scene again (reroll), except now you're an evil bastard (Sith)." You choose the dialog motivation, but the character acts it out and adds flavor. Rather than making me feel removed, it made me more engaged and I found myself really digging my characters and their stories. It was like a movie coming to life before me, due to my minute ministrations. I was hooked. Here was, truly, game-assisted roleplay.
There are plenty of MMO artifacts you could point to that degrade immersion, but I feel like Bioware has done a great job at minimizing them. I think a major complaint folks are going to have is that SWTOR is "on rails." And I'd agree. It's no Skyrim. Or EVE, for that matter. It is certainly not a sandbox-type game. If that's what you like, perhaps you should look elsewhere. What it IS, is Knights of the Old Republic, the MMO. (I wouldn't be surprised if that's how this project was originally pitched). I loved that game, and I think I'll love this one. It takes the best of story telling, and adds multi-player elements.
There are so many things to like. From the alignment options, to the crew, to the giant world and breathtaking scenery, to, yes, the lightsabers. There are also things that are grating. The non-customizable UI, the sometimes arduous size of cities, and, obviously, the early technical issues.
My hope is that a lot of this gets smoothed out. The tech stuff definitely needs to be addressed before launch and beyond, and the other stuff could be helped by patches along the way. This is what a beta is for: learning. And I hope they learned quite a bit.
As far as excitement for the game? Yep, that's definitely in full swing. I can't wait. I love what I've seen, and feel like this is a game definitely geared toward me. I understand that it may not be for everyone (especially if "rails" bother you), but, man, is it right up my alley. My biggest current concern? How am I ever going to balance SWTOR and WoW. I don't plan on ditching one for the other, and I doubt they'll politely schedule all patches and releases around each other. Could be an interesting year for gaming coming up. May the Force be with us all. We're gonna need it.
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