These are some thoughts about Star Wars: The Old Republic, written after the beta test weekend of November 12. The NDA has dropped, so here is the post. It's probably missing a lot of clarifying details, though.
I played a Sith Inquisitor and Imperial Agent, both to about level 10. I did all the quests in the starting zone.
The game performed very well. No lag, good frame rate. The only issue I saw was rubber-banding on other players when going down a lift. There were some minor tooltip problems, and some missing or incorrect gear icons.
All in all, I think the game is in solid technical shape for release.
The quests and stories are amazing! I liked the voice acting for all the various NPCs, and even my own characters.
I really like the use of seamless phasing/instancing (areas where access is controlled by green/red forcefields) that separate important story points from the world at large. That was very elegantly done.
I would particularly like to single out the support for playing a Light-side Sith. It was very well scripted and written. It is a particularly unique experience to play a good guy working for the bad guys, and lying to everyone for the greater good.
In some respects, it's even better than Bioware's single player games. In the single player games, there's always the sense that I can save and restart this conversation if it goes badly. I found that having only one try at the conversation to be much more immersive, and it felt like conversation choices were more meaningful.
I think having repeatable group quests very early on (around level 4 or so) was a neat idea. However, the implementation where you can group and converse in General Chat with people in different instances made assembling groups a bit of pain. After a few tries, I gave up on forming groups and just did the quests with my companion.
I like the graphics. They are clean and good looking. In particular, they look very good when in the conversation screens.
The animations are all excellent. Combat animations are great.
The only problematic animation is the humanoid female running animation. It is slightly incorrect. Or more accurately, it's correct when viewed from the side, but when you view the character from behind, the elbows sort of disappear, and the character looks as if she is running in an awkward or "prissy" manner. Lord of the Rings Online has this same issue.
The chat box is pretty good, it's easy to talk to people. However, there are a few too many system messages being sent to it by default. In particular, selling items is a particular bad offender. Going to a vendor makes your chatbox useless. Also when you die, there's this "8 4" which is sent to the screen and chatbox, which is very confusing when you look back at the box a bit later.
In general, the cardinal rule of chatboxes is that they are for talking to other players. The less game messages that are sent to it, the more useful the chatbox will be.
As is normal for Bioware games, here's where the problems start.
Before I start in on things I didn't like, I would like to mention that I really liked the ability to quickly heal up outside of combat. All classes get a variant of this.
In particular, Seethe (for Sith classes) is amazing. It's the pacing that Darth Maul does when he's fighting Qui Gon Jin in the Phantom Menace. It just works, looks awesome, and makes your character seem like a total bad-ass. I look forward to pressing the Seethe button whenever I can.
Number one reason to play a Sith: you get Seethe.
The decision to not have an auto-attack is interesting. However, I think giving a zero-resource attack at the start was a bad idea. It takes up an extra button slot for an ability that is hit somewhat infrequently. You use it enough that you need it on your bars, but it really doesn't do enough to justify its placement.
More importantly, there are a lot of players who seem to use that zero-resource attack exclusively. I found this especially problematic with Agents. I grouped a couple times with "quiet" players. People who were in the same area to do a group quest, and didn't talk, but accepted an invite when I sent it to them. I found that these guys seemed to use the zero-resource attack almost exclusively (well, they also used grenades). They never went into cover, never sniped.
These types of people are going to perform really poorly in groups, and I'm not certain I can blame them entirely. The whole "cover" thing takes getting used to, but if the zero-resource attack is good enough, combined with your companion, that's what people will use entirely.
In some respects, it might be better to delay giving people a zero-resource attack until a later level. Let them get used to managing their resource, even if it means waiting for the resource to regenerate. Most early fights end before the resource bar is exhausted entirely.
Edit: I am not 100% sure about this critique anymore. I did not realize it, but the resource bar regenerates non-linearly. The closer it is to full, the faster it regenerates. I still have to think about how this works.
Number of Abilities
You gain too many abilities in the early levels. It completely swamps your hotbar. As well, these abilities often seem contradictory. Why am I getting knife attacks when I snipe? Why do I have so many cooldowns? Two types of lightning attacks and saber attacks, which should I use?
It was somewhat hard to figure out exactly how my character was expected to play. I ended up picking a couple of abilities and using them exclusively, ignoring the majority of the hotbar.
It was only after I hit level 10 and the advanced classes that I understood the logic behind the early game. Bioware gave us two sets of abilities in the early game, to get a feel for how each advanced class will play. But you don't know that when you get the abilities. It just seems like you're getting overloaded with abilities you rarely use. And if you try to use all the abilities together, you feel less effective.
I think the early game would work better with fewer, more cohesive abilities. Every time you get a new ability, you should be able to add it to your rotation and perform better than you did before.
The transition to advanced classes at level 10 is flat out terrible. There is almost nothing about this process that I can say was done well or done correctly.
First, you can leave the starting planet before level 10. In particular, the Sith Inquisitor story line doesn't seem to give enough experience. So I left at level 9, realized that I needed to be 10, and came back and ground out the rest of the level by killing random mobs. But it seemed really easy to end up missing the advanced classes quest line and keep going when you really shouldn't.
Second, the advanced classes are sprung upon you with almost no warning. You get to make an irreversible choice that affects the rest of your game. There isn't even a confirmation screen! Misclick, and you've wasted hours.
Third, having your advanced classes abilities be in a separate tab in trainer screen is non-intuitive. I chose the Sorceror so I could heal, and then could not figure out how the game expected me to heal. I only noticed the new separate tab in the training screen after 15 minutes of searching for any way to heal another player.
Why not just combine the two ability lists at the trainer? I don't particularly care if an ability is a Sorceror ability or an Agent ability. All I care about is if there is a new ability to train or not.
The entire experience of getting an advanced class should be a reward. Instead, it's a process full of perils and pitfalls, where it feels like you are making an enormously consequential decision on very little information, and you're not even sure you did things right.
Healing and Flashpoints
I don't really have much experience with the flashpoints. I only tried one Black Talon.
I chose Sorceror so I could heal, and I saw a group advertising in General for a healer, so I joined them. They were partly through the instance, at some sabotage droid boss.
I tried healing, but the one heal I had was so small compared to the health bar and incoming damage. I'm not sure if I should have tried to do damage as well/instead, but healing took all my Force and my time. We ended up wiping and the group dissolved.
I'm not sure if there was something else I was supposed to do, or if the other guys just didn't do enough damage, or if the tank was playing badly and taking too much damage or what. But all in all, it was a pretty lousy experience. When you fail, you should kind of know why you failed. I have no idea what went wrong in that group. I only had the one heal and I was spamming it with almost no overheal.
The main thought I had after the flash point experience was that I should have chosen Assassin so that I could have gotten back to regular quests.
TOR is a Bioware game. It has all the strengths of Bioware games, and all the weaknesses.
The quests and storyline, and general solo play is amazing. I really enjoyed that and I look forward to fully exploring the game when it releases. Also, I'd like to reiterate that I loved Light-Side Sith.
But mechanically, it feels like there are a lot of design issues. These don't really matter for solo play, but I think the crucible of group and endgame play will expose a lot of flaws.