Six weeks is probably the longest I’ve ever taken to level a character to maximum level. Not even my first MMO character ever, an Orc Hunter called Bel Riose, took that long. This is probably due to two factors. One of which is the fact that Bioware made a game where I want to read the quest log, or in this case watch the cut-scene. It’s so unnaturally immersive when you’ve been used to the stale old walls of text from practically every other MMO in existence. Even Champions Online and DCUO had walls of text that were pretty much required to know what the quest was about, even though at the time they were released they had the most spoken dialogue of any MMO.
The second reason it took so long was, well, I chose to level as a healer. The last time I levelled as a healer was in WoW, with a druid. I gave up half-way through after I spend a full 30 minutes soloing the then-elite Bhagthera in Stranglethorn Vale and being thoroughly sick of it.
Thankfully though, this time I had companions who could tank and DPS for me, and I rarely felt out of my depth going this route. Indeed the only time I felt out of my depth was when they decided to invoke a plot twist that removed the tank companion I had been gearing up all through the previous planet (and my other tank companion had been woefully under-geared since I picked her up). Gold enemies tore through my DPS companion like he was thin paper and I had to take them down the good old fashioned Stranglethorn Vale way. Hit, Hide and Heal.
Perhaps in a stroke of foresight by Bioware, my primary Healing stat also improves my DPS, unlike in Vanilla WoW where Intellect and spirit were as useless in cat form as Strength and Agility were to healing, and the Balance skills were the equivalent of paper spitballs and twanging them with a ruler.
Yes, I chose to level as a healer knowing my potential fate for one good reason. If I could come out of 50 levels of gameplay as a healer and still say I had fun, I’d know this was a good game.
I did the same for City of Heroes, I did the same for Champions Online, I did the same for Star Trek Online. Only WoW and CoH made me want to gouge my eyes out for choosing the support route while levelling. Luckilly for CoH I could get a group anywhere, any time. Unfortunately for CoH I spent most of that grinding an instance in a way known as ‘Drecking’. Which is ironic since the one thing you didn’t do when Drecking was kill Dreck.
So, did I have fun in SWTOR? Yes. I had fun. Most of the time. The companion mechanics let me choose to shore up the areas I was lacking in, allowing me to focus on doing what I did best, healing my companion, stealthing around and generally avoiding fights.
That last point is a bone of contention too. With such a stealthy class as the Operative, being able to crowd control and sneak past without fighting I missed out in about 50% of the XP when levelling. This was incredibly apparent when a friend of mine, who is currently a level 49 Bounty Hunter, said he had just finished Hoth, when I, at level 48, had just completed Corellia. I was 4 planets ahead of him and 1 level behind. I’d finished my class quest (and got my tank back). I had even spent a full 2 hours playing the (rather fun considering) Space combat minigame and pulled back a full level. (Possibly only JUST bearable due to the ‘2 hours of awesome’ playlist I compiled beforehand). I felt like I was being punished for playing my character as intended.
Aside from falling behind the levelling curve – and lets be honest here I never actually came across a fight I couldn’t take, even being 2 levels behind intended – there are still a few niggles that keep me from falling deeply in love with this game.
The first is the incredible similarity to WoW. As you may have guessed already I’ve played this game in such a way as to be able to directly compare it to my WoW experiences. I chose the Operative class which is most like my Primary WoW Class – Druid. I chose Medic to go along with a talent tree I knew beforehand it had similarities to – Resto. I chose Biochem as my crafting profession since I knew it’d be like Alchemy. I chose Empire since it was most like the Horde. I even joined my old WoW guild as they started over in SWTOR.
I have a list the length of my body of direct comparisons and direct similarities. Some of which I will share.
First off is Crafting. It’s almost a direct copy of WoW’s crafting system with a little bit of Fallen Earth in there too. Thanks to companions doing all the legwork you don’t actually have to stand there and watch a progress bar. This frees you up to do other things while crafting is going on (like levelling, or flashpoints, or play the Auction House), and also allowed Bioware to up the crafting times. I’ve got recipes that take up to an hour to complete (the little dash of Fallen Earth I mentioned). They’ve also taken WoW’s recipe discovery mechanics and made it make alot more sense. You get a chance to discover a better quality recipe of an item when you reverse engineer it (Reverse Engineering is kind of like disenchanting in WoW, you get some of your ingredients back and lose the item). Frankly it’s a lot better than WoW’s way of discovering new recipes, it makes you feel like your character is actually discovering them rather than transmuting fire and learning to make a super-flask-of-awesome.
There’s also similarities in what you can craft. Biochem makes stims that are effectively the same as WoW’s flasks, plus you can also discover recipes for Biochem-only reusable version like WoW’s Alchemy-only mini-flasks or reuseable potions.
End-game Gear is also split into tiers, for which you receive tokens from Operations and Flashpoints (Raids and Heroics in WoW parlance), the difference here is that all the stats in the majority of pieces are ‘modifications’ which can be swapped out (for a price) and put in any other piece of gear with mod slots, meaning you don’t have to become a clone of every other level 50 Agent/Sith/Jedi/Trooper etc as you get better gear.
It also means that you can, potentially, have a level 50 epic tanking set that’s actually the Slave Girl Costume from Return of the Jedi. Granted, WoW has just added something similar in, and pretty much every MMO released in the last three years has something similar, even if it’s only changing the colour.
Operative Class abilities are also eerily similar to that of a rogue. Stealth, Ambush, Cheap Shot, backstab, sinister strike, Vanish. All there albeit with different names. Add onto that a smattering of ranged abilities that mirror WoW’s Hunter, and a similar story for druid healing abilities and you’ve got a class that’s going to be very, very, versatile when dual-specing is added.
Healing as an operative, while superficially similar to that of a WoW Druid, is nothing like it at all. While you do have yourself a slow, big heal (like Healing Touch), a Player-based AoE HoT (like Wild Growth, that’s also the end of tree Talent) and a stackable fast HoT (like rejuvenation) and an instant, buff consuming, low-cost heal (like swiftmend) there few but crucial differences. Mainly the “Tactical Advantage” buff. The big heal, Kolto Injection, gives you this TA buff. Random ticks of Kolto Probe (the stackable HoT) also give TA with talents. Tactical Advantage allows a selection of other abilities to be used. One is a quick, medium heal that consumes a TA (like Regrowth without the HoT), the other is an instant heal that also consumes a TA (like Swiftmend). However, with talents, if the target is under a certain health threshold your cheap and powerful Swiftmend-alike doesn’t consume the TA buff, allowing you to spam it. This means that the most energy efficient way of healing a tank thats being pounded is to keep them under 30% HP.
Which is fun.
I’ve already gushed about how great the story is, but playing as a light-side Empire I fully expected to find some strange and awkward gaps where the Light Side choice didn’t make any sense, or should have rightly gotten me killed by whoever I said it to.
Thank god Bioware knew this. I got zapped by about 3 or 4 Sith Lords through my playthrough. One of which ACTUALLY killed me and sent me to the Medical Droid. As you progressed through the story you gain more and more influence, so the underlings requesting your assistance – while questioning your decision – can’t actually do anything about it because they know you have the power and fear you.
Lightside Empire isn’t all goodie-two-shoes though. Most Light Side choices are pragmatic or bureaucratic as opposed to evil. Bioware spend alot of time distancing the Sith from the Empire conceptually, so that an Empire Patriot can still loathe and despise the Sith. Despite this, it does occasionally fall into what Dungeons and Dragons players call “Lawful-Stupid” territory. Whereby the Light side choice is quite obviously a dangerous, stupid and frankly idiotic choice. At the end of Directive 7 flashpoint (minor spoiler here) there’s a droid who help you, who, during the instance has basically said he agrees that Organic Life is a menace, but doesn’t believe genocide is the answer to it, and you have the choice to destroy him or let him go. I’ve read enough Asimov to know that a determined sentient robot with an agenda can manipulate the galaxy, even if it’s a pacifist, but as a “Light V one-dark-side-choice-and-lose-your-title-and-speeder” character I had no choice but to let him go.
If anything destroying him should have been light side, and making him a slave by sticking a restraining bolt in should be dark side.
Darkside and Lightside choices often fall into a false Dichotomy, and I can nearly always see a third way out to all of these situations, but the options just aren’t there. Where there are three options, it’s normally 2 light, 1 dark, or 2 dark, 1 light. A few times there’s an option without a score change, but – while they have promised it – there are no rewards for Neutral players yet.
The comparisons to WoW will remain in the game mechanics. When it comes to story though, SWTOR is lightyears ahead of anything else. It’s what Bioware does best, and they live up to their standards here.
If you loved KOTOR, give SWTOR a try, even if you turn off chat, play the Jedi Knight and pretend it’s KOTOR 3. It’s worth it.