Well like many thousands of people this weekend, I have been taking part in the final “uber” stress test Bioware are running for Star Wars: The Old Republic. As the NDA was recently lifted there’s no reason I can’t talk about it, so I will!

I’ll start by saying I have this game pre-ordered, so regardless, I will be playing it at release. This will be my first subscription mmo since Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning launched three years ago, (wow…that long eh?). I’ve played a few free to play games since then but nothing really serious since I knew going into them they wouldn’t hold my attention for more than a couple of months at best.

The first thing I’m going to talk about is the character creation, it uses sliders but really they are model and texture swaps, there aren’t any minute adjustments to bone structure or the like and personally I think that’s the best way to get actual changes, since as I’ve said before, sliders tend to have a very narrow field of “good” surrounded on both extremes by sheer ugly.

Anyway that was a welcome decision, however apart from humans who have the most customisation there seems a distinct lack in certain species options, there may be about 40 hair styles for human but there are only 6 skin tones for Twi’lek, 6 hair colours for Chiss, workable but perhaps disappointing considering how long players will spend looking at their character in all the games conversations. It’s also bizarrely the least rich character creator Bioware has every created for an rpg,  with both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 1 & 2 having far more depth.

The second major criticism is the ui, only the chat window is moveable but since every other ui feature is locked in place you can’t actually move the chat window anywhere anyway. It’s maximum opacity slider doesn’t stop it being transparent and there is no ui scaling meaning if you like your ui small or like me you suffer from poor vision and you prefer certain elements bigger and therefore easier to see, you’re out of luck. The game may be fully voiced but don’t be fooled, many alien species still require reading tiny subtitles regularly.

The conversation options are done via the “Bioware” conversation wheel which you will be familiar with from Mass Effect games and Dragon Age 2, unfortunately like those games this can lead to flawed responses, I once picked a “control yourself” option to a panicking padawan as a Jedi and somehow managed to translate that into a “Shut up idiot” voice over, which wasn’t what I was expecting my mild-mannered, light side Jedi consular to say.

There is also the feeling that I’m not really having a conversation so much as “scoring points”. If I want to be light side I have to pick light side responses when they are listed and if I want to be dark side I have to pick dark side responses, this sounds obvious but it really narrows down your conversation engagement when you know you always have to press 1 for good, 2 for neutral and 3 for evil no matter what the storyline is. There are some variations where neutral can be an alternative good or bad response but the general design is predetermined so you can just not pay attention and press a button.

With all these criticisms it might sound like I hated it but far from it, Bioware have created a cinematic world surrounded by other players while still maintaining a great single player experience. The voice acting and presentation is quality and the music is always apt for the world or scene you are playing through, the transitioning between instances specific to your class storyline is seamless and the group conversations are fun to see which player gets the response, and what they say. They really aren’t afraid to make evil actually evil, as a Bounty hunter I managed to cut the head off a begging husband and then present it to his wife as a lesson in always paying the Hutt boss, I wasn’t expecting Bioware to go that far but was pleased to see such a contrast in theme between my Bounty Hunter and my Jedi Consular storyline.

The writing is excellent and there are many divisible points where if you follow the story you might feel torn between choices, what is best for the npc in question vs what is best for you such as the Jedi lovers investigation. I really wanted to just leave them be but of course passion leads to the dark side and being a Jedi I felt I had to inform the Jedi Master of their indiscretion. There was even a potential bribe of a power crystal from the lovers making it doubly hard to stay light side. I managed it, but I sure would have liked to see that crystal!

SWTOR seems a strange mix of good and bad, Bioware at one moment, show their genius only at another moment, to completely throw it away with ignorance. MMO players could potentially be spending years in their game and the first two game features they will encounter i.e. character creation and then user interface are both lacking. I can only hope that Bioware have something up their sleeve for the future to give the ui more customisation because it seems the character creator will already be too late to fix post launch day.

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