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Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bannor

Postby Winterhawk99 » Wed Nov 30, 2011 2:17 am

Star Wars
The Old Republic


Once again this year I was honored to do a beta test for a new upcoming game. Also Beta testing was Bannor Bloodfist. We collaborated in this review, to give you the best we can about the game before it comes to market on the 20th of December. SWTOR is a MMORPG made by one of our favorite gaming company’s Bioware. So here it is. See if this harkens you to explore the galaxy aligned with Either the Evil Empire or the Free Republic.

A Disclaimer for everyone. Bannor and I are both game builders with a lot of experience so this review may be very technical for some. It's meant more for game designers than for players. If you are a player just glaze over the technical stuff. There's some stuff you would be interested in too.
.

Character Creation

The Game starts off with character creation. There are 8 classes Each of the classes have 4 races to choose from. During the 4 days of beta I choose 4 classes and 4 different races to play. Bannor played 1 class.

Winter's Characters

1. Twi'LeK Jedi Consular played to 11th level
2. Pure breed Sith Jedi Inquisitor played to 14th level
3. Mirialan Jedi Knight played to 8th level
4. Zabrak Smuggler played to 4th level

Bannor's Character

1. Human Trooper played to 12th level

We got a lot of playing time in and found a lot of stuff so lets start with character creation. When you create a character you get a choice of 4 races one which is always human the others are various races that are applicable to that class. When you create a character you have several static model choices. I was surprised that when you created a character this day and age there was a use of static models. There are plenty of choices. You can choose between 5 phone-types, several hair styles, tattoo's, skin color etc. Still in this day in age of players being able to mold their face models it was surprising. I was invited last year to a few weeks playing a trial of EQ2 and was pleasantly surprised to find that there you could mold your character's facial structure. Being that your Character toon will be a static model you will probably run into several relatives while your adventuring the worlds of SWTOR in time.

The Textures of both the Player Characters and the NPCs are the best textures in the game. I will explain that later in the design portion of the review.

While we are at character creation I'll explain leveling real quick. From 1-10th level its completely automatic. Once you get to 10th level you can pick a specialization and that is when you start choosing from 3 separate specialization trees. This is one of the things that will separate your character from others along with some neat crew abilities you will have to choose from and other things. It would be nice to see if in the scripting of the auto leveling there are integers that track your progress through the level to level your basic stats. I don't not know if that is true just something that could be implemented to separate PC abilities through their actions on the server.

The Good things about Character Creation and Leveling

1. Even with static models there are enough models and choices to make your PC somewhat unique from others. Much more than NWN but most likely about the same as NWN + CEP.

2. After 10th level there are several ways to personalize your character to separate them from others of the same class through both specialization skill trees and crew abilities.

The Bad things about character Creation and Leveling

1. Static PC models are dated by 5-10 years. Having static model PCs will put off many people that are heavy into the storyline and role playing genre of the game.

2. Auto leveling of abilities will deter some of the same people above that are into customizing their characters to suit their storyline or role playing.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Wed Nov 30, 2011 5:19 am

Controls

The controls at first threw me for a loop. Most Bioware games use a click and hold on the left mouse button to move forward. When I first got into the game I tried this to no effect. I then tried the standard Keyboard keys to find they were the same: w= forward, s=Backward etc. Knowing now that the keyboard worked, I started playing with the mouse. Upon some experimentation I figured out that by pushing and holding both mouse buttons I could move and turn the perspective in a chase camera mode. Soon I was comfortable with the movement. Not to bad a way to do things.

My first combat was a total disaster. I died quite nicely trying to figure out the mouse keys. After some experimentation and a lot of dying I found that you can in fact target an opponent with the mouse but could not attack them. You have to either use the number keys corresponding to the quick bar or you have to use the pointer to click on the quick bar itself.

This combination made combat feel a bit clunky and you can get easily turned around upon yourself. The controls in general I like however, beware combat. You want to always be aware of the camera in combination to where the PC is or, you can quickly become confused when destroying gullible Jedi.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Wed Nov 30, 2011 6:25 am

Storyline (SPOILERS]


We have lots of good things to say about the story lines Bioware created for the classes. They are well thought out. There are plenty of quests, and it felt very much like a single player module following each class story. Each class gets its own story line to follow. Whether you are a former slave struggling to become a Sith Lord, or a smuggler who has his ship stolen The stories of the individual classes will give you a good thrill. During the first 10 levels its all about the players story. For Jedi and Sith its about getting your first Light saber and Henchman. I did not get far in my smugglers story but I would assume its getting your ship back and getting your henchman. There are a lot of challenges and tests before you reach 10th level so be prepared.

There were a few minor things we saw with the Storyline of each class that could be improved upon. One is each specific class gets the same kind of henchman with the same name and background. For a Jedi Knight its a CP-30 looking Robot, For the Sith Inquisitor its a Force gobbling predator looking creature, The fact that every Sith Inquisitor, Jedi Knight or Imperial Agent gets the exact same Henchmen really hampers the immersion factor. Bioware could have easily added a branching quest line for henchmen so that each class could follow 1 out of 2 or even three quest lines to vary the henchmen a bit within a class. The same could be said for the class storyline itself. As far as We know you follow a very linear story with no branches to get to the 10th level goals. The Story could have easily branched out and back into itself much the way Dragon Age Origins did with some consequences down the road by the way the PC branched out and back into the end of the story. We may not have gotten to a high enough level for that to have happened but there was a sort of finality to the end of the 10th level that, as designers, speaks volumes to us.

The Good things about PC Story lines

1. Deep, well thought out story for each specific class
2. Good immersion factor for the player
3. Excellent structural balance of quests to reach class goals

The Bad things about Story lines

1. No branching of story lines within a specific class
2. No relevant Consequences for a PCs actions
3. Major Rewards are all the same making each PCs story the same in the end
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Thu Dec 01, 2011 2:07 am

Light Side/Dark Side points


Here's an interesting part of the game. As you go through your PC's storyline and enter into conversations with NPCs, you can pick up points that make you stronger on the light side or dark side of the force. We're not sure what all this involves but we did get a few glimpses. There are certain levels to this scale. When you hit a certain level in either light or dark side points you can buy things from special stores after you complete your first major quest. So it's similar to alignment yet not so similar and has some intrinsic value to you. Another interesting facet of this is you can build both light and dark side points at the same time. I made some mistakes with my Sith Inquisitor and at 7th level acquired 100 light side points and at the same time 100 dark side points balancing my level to 0. As a Jedi the choices during the various conversations were pretty obvious. As a Sith they were not so obvious.

Case in point: My Sith went to a set of ruins where a biologist was experimenting on big rhinoceros looking creatures and thought that they represented one of the purest forms of the dark side of the force somehow. This scientist's assistance whistle to me and said she wanted to discredit him because well He was totally nuts and was going down a path of research that lead absolutely nowhere. She even said she would pay me as well. The Biologist wanted the brain of this creature. The assistant also wanted the brain to alter before I gave it to the Biologist. My greedy, evil super Sith wanted both rewards. She agreed with the assistant and gave the brain to her to alter then took it back and gave the brain to him for both rewards. The End result was 50 light side points. I looked at that and went WHAT?!. Then I thought about it if his research did merit something to help the empire and the assistant was trying to mess it up I should have gotten light side points.

That was impressive. I love the way Bioware weaved the story so you weren't sure the right move to get points one way or the other. I wish it wasn't all that clear cut for the Jedi. Later on on the 4th day of testing I entered a conversation with an NPC and there was a little disk of the conversation choices. I moved my pointer over each choice and had a little bit of a let down. The little disc showed a blue triangle in the center when I paned one choice and on another choice a red triangle appeared in the center. They were giving the answers away darn it.

Other than the little disc in the corner of the conversations We love the whole Idea of Light side/Dark side points and the scale. It takes alignment and modifies it to an applicable mechanism. You do good things and bad things the scale shifts on the balance between the two which is also a very novel and good approach to this kind of thing.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Thu Dec 01, 2011 3:26 am

Balance


There are several ways to treat balance. You can look at balance between Races, Classes and other things. Balance we want to discuss here is player vs server balance or encounter balance. Many of the Classes and Races on each side are extremely balanced almost redundant in fact, so the main thing we want to do is go over is the encounter balance where we found a few things. I'm not sure about Bannor but with each class I played encounters started off fairly easy to beat. It would be equivalent to an NWN server with the slide bar all the way to the left on the easiest difficulty. With each class when I hit either 7th or 8th level that scale went up to something like hard core rules. I died a lot with each character starting at about 7th level. The encounters in most not all the quests suddenly became very difficult to beat. At the end of your first big class quest the difficulty went back down again to a little more difficult than easy. It seemed a little strange to me that the difficulty level would change so much over the course of 10 levels but it did. One of the reasons may be that Bioware is encouraging you to group up once you hit 7th level. If that is the case...........OK. If not then there are definitely some problems with encounters. There's not much more I can say about encounter balance other than that. When you play SWTOR remember that encounters are not always balanced the same way for every level. You may get your hat handed to you all of the sudden when you start doing quests after you level to a certain point.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Thu Dec 01, 2011 5:11 am

Quests

There are two basic forms of Quests in games. There's the fetch Quest where you go out and find something for someone. Such as in the example above I had to fetch the brain of a creature and bring it back to the two quest givers. There is also the assassinate quest. In this quest the quest giver sends the PC out to kill something and no need to return to the quest giver unless you collect ears or something. Once an assassinate quest is complete there is usually some form of auto reward or something in a chest near-by. True to form Bioware made most of the quests one or the other of these forms. They used assassinate quests as bonus quests. Many times when you get a fetch quest, you go into high combat areas there when you kill your first bunch of combatants you pick up what SWTOR calls a bonus quest. That quest will usually be to assassinate x number of the same creature. If you complete the quest you usually get something like a commendation on the last x number creature that you kill.

I found the quests interesting enough within their formats. Many of the quests had small twists and turns however, you could tell they were focused on these two basic forms. When I started making quests with Mermut and others in Harvest Moon years back, We tried to avoid simple fetch and assassinate quests and did our best to make quests that didn't look anything like these two forms. I really think Bioware could have done better with coming up with more complex quests structure for a game they have been making for several years.


The good things about quests.

1. The quests generally were very interesting
2. The quests varied along the lines of the two main quest forms

The bad things about quests

1. Most of the quests were along the lines of fetch and assassinate quest an experienced gamer will get bored quickly with the quests.
2. The assassinate quests were much alike more so than the fetch quests.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:52 am

Terrain

Terrain is a big subject especially with this game and with our backgrounds in making terrain. Bannor and I will go over the parts we felt were generally well done first.

General Model building

The General model building was just ok. Nothing really stood out for us. Bannor and I found a few problems with a few models and a few questionable building practices. The first thing we noticed was that every tree we looked at was built with speed tree. You could see by the shapes the layout of Fronds, leaves and trunk that they were all speed tree. All speed tree trees have a certain look about them that tags them that way.

The worst thing I found in the actual model building of terrain was a sparkly line right across a path on Tython. I was traveling either from the Jedi temple to the forward base or the forward base to the ruins when I saw a flash of light across my screen and went “OH NO NOT AGAIN”, I walked around Found a white sparkly running perfectly perpendicular to the path you followed. Someone forgot to check their vertice and whether the vertice on the two models were smoothed in 3ds or not. The good news is I only found one sparkly in 36 hours or so of test and play. I also found one in Dragon age origins in the wizard tower during the abomination takeover, After I bought the game. I know its just a sparkly but on the CTP team we consider that just bad modeling when we see a sparkly. I hoped they fix it before release of the game.

Bannor noted to me on the 3rd day of testing he was seeing a lot of scalable placeables. I did not noticed that before but after he told me I was taking my Jedi knight from the gnarls to the temple and found at least one. The Jedi Temple is in a deep valley and coming from the Gnarls you get something similar to the Pittsburgh effect when you first see the temple nestled within the valley with a mountain in the background. On top of the mountain was a giant rock and another smaller one right beside it to the right. That smaller rock has exactly the same shape, texture and smoothing as the first. So it does seem that Bioware cut some corners not only with speed tree but with scalable models they could stick in here and there as fillers.

All in all the modeling wasn't bad. You could see where Bioware cut some corners but mostly it wasn't bad.

Walkmesh

For the first time we have seen; Bioware has incorporated some form of layered walkmesh and full Z-axis control into their builds. We've been waiting for this for 8 years. I took my first character(Jedi Consular) out to the main start area in a place called the gnarls. It was a lush green grove area with several streams and bridges. One of the quests was to collect transmitters of lessons from pods on the bridges so I did that along the way some Flesh raiders attacked me and the battle carried over then under the bridge. When the battle was finished I was under the bridge. The bridge that I had just walked over to collect the transmitter. Under the walkmesh of the bridge standing on another walkmesh.

“ TWI'LEX DANCE
TWI'LEX DANCE
TWI'LEX DANCE”

This is the second biggest innovation in Design I've seen Bioware make in this game. Thank you Bioware. Now all you have to do is show us how you did it :). I loved the fact that walkmesh wasn't and issue in this game in that regard. Another problematic part of walkmesh is players often get stuck between non-walkable meshes for various reasons. I had this situation several times in the game. I got out of it by jumping over the non-walkable meshes. The ability for players to jump smoothly over mesh and naturally solved many problems. With Bioware's previous games; PC's getting stuck between meshes was always an issue. I have very high praise for Bioware in what they did to innovate the way they handle walkmesh in SWTOR.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Fri Dec 02, 2011 5:05 am

Transitions

Seamless Transitions are by far the best thing Bioware improved upon in this game above all other games Bannor and I have seen. The only way we could tell we entered one area from another is the text that came onto the screen when we entered the new area, except for certain special areas. We know of two ways to do this. The first example is in the Creation Engine made by Bethesda for Skyrim.

With the Creation engine, The entire outside world is loaded onto the computer. If a PC is on the highest mountain in Skyrim they could conceivably see the entire world as they do a 360 degree pan. How is this accomplished? The engine uses the PC as a center point then drops the resolution the further away a point is from the PC. This is how Bethesda accomplishes the trick. So there are no outside/outside transitions the entire world is one area . Dropping Resolution from the point of the observer drops the requirements for data the CPU is using. It isn't necessarily the best way to do it but it works.

The Other way we know how to do seamless transitions is the UDK way. With the UDK engine one area is loaded. As the PC progresses away from the center of that area and towards the edge of a new area that new area is loaded. Before the PC gets the the edge the new area is now fully loaded and seamed together with the old area making the transition between the two undetectable. A system similar to this is how we believe Bioware accomplished making all the areas except a few special areas completely seamless. We could not even feel a transitional lag when going in and out of buildings. It was that good.

There were a few special transition points we saw. The first was when you transitioned into class storyline areas, Bioware put a green or red alpha in front of the entrance of the area very similar to an NWN transition to show it was a class area. Green meant you could go into the transition. Red meaning you could not unless you were part of a group that had that specific class and, they invited you to join them. Even with the alphas at the transition, when you walked through it there was no feeling of a transition at all. You just passed through the light and into the next room, cave or section.

The other special transition was going off planet. This was the traditional Bioware blue highlighted door trigger. In this case using the traditional trigger made sense. That was the one and only trigger we found with each of our classes were we had to click and have a fade screen before transitioning to the new area. I highly suggest Bioware makes all its future games with these techniques.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Fri Dec 02, 2011 5:48 am

Ambient VFX and Related Issues

Here is where Bioware starts to drop the ball. As we were walking around and testing. We found some nice things about Ambient VFX and some bad things. The first thing we checked out is water and waterfall VFX. The waterfalls were nice. There was once small glitch in the waterfalls on Tython. It was so small we did not report it. We were in the gnarls looking at the waterfalls As we moved around them at one point, at the right distance and at the right angle to the waterfall we could see the rotation of texture panels with their associated alpha backgrounds as they rounded their animation frames while the emitters traveled through the panels. If we took a step in any direction we could no longer see them. Because of this we saw it as a small thing and no real need to report it. Perhaps we should have. Later I found a huge waterfall on the capital world of the Sith Empire that did not have that same problem. The waterfall was a beautiful sight and good modeling. Nearly all the waterfalls on Tython had the same issue with texture panels but again it was a certain distance at a certain angle so no big deal.

We also found there was no time on the server. If you were in Tython it was always day and always the same hour. That was a big letdown for us. The biggest problem I saw with that was on the Republics capital. As soon as you get off the Shuttle you see a big sunset. Every time you are on the shuttle pad you see a big sunset. It never changes.

In General the ambient VFX either was not there or had small problems. We saw no wind, no time change, I'm not sure if the grass grew but I'll bet that it doesn't. It made the enviroment look very bland and static. Mostly this area was a big let down and far behind what we have seen from Bioware in the past. I really hope that Bioware changes this.
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Re: Star Wars The Old Republic Review By Winterhawk and Bann

Postby Winterhawk99 » Sat Dec 03, 2011 6:37 am

Textures and Texture UVW

Lets do the good news first. The designers did a really good job with the Texture UVW and wrapping the models with t-verts. Sometimes in NWN you can see a face model that has a split from the forehead to the chin. It's especially prominent along the nose. That line is wear the edges of the texture on the face model meet. When the two edges are not perfectly aligned you get that line at the along the edge. In SWTOR we did not see any of those lines on player,NPC, Terrain, or placeable models. The designers did wonderful work for Bannor and I not to have caught any edges on the textures.

Here's the bad news. The textures in general were substandard. They were very substandard. The First thing we looked at was the Trees on Tython. The bark did not resemble anything similar to any bark we knew. The bark looked like someone wrapped a cobblestone texture around the trunk. I know we are visiting alien worlds but bark should look more like some form of tree bark not some form of stone. The leaves on the trees looked similar to red oak, however there was no definition within the leaves themselves that gave any kind of depth to the texture. It literally looked like the artist made a 2x2 flat green tga/dds and used it for the texture. When I was on the Sith capital world I noticed the same thing in the ground cover the tga/dds of the foliage looked like 2x2 flat green textures. The Tree barks there at least looked like tree bark however the resolution and the overstretching of the textures made the logs and trunks of the trees look amateurish.

There were a couple of flaws in the textures also where I just didn't know what I was seeing. I stopped by a large boulder on one of the Tython paths to check it out. On the surface and at a glance the boulder looked like it had a good textures. It was Marble gray with some moss on the surface of the texture. Studying it closely I found the boulder had some form of depth problem. It was very much like someone had covered the whole boulder with several layers of clear Lamination sheets. As I studied the effect I became slightly physically disoriented when I stared too long. It was a powerful effect. The only thing I can think of that might be able to cause that effect is somehow perhaps the Normals and alphas or perhaps the moss on the rock was a separate flat model on top of the rock where the alphas overlapped the rock model. It was a strange effect one that I have never seen before.

All the textures We looked at closely were very flat, simple, and unimaginative, except for creatures. I've worked on several large Persistent worlds and have made or helped with several tilesets. I know that whether flat and simple or complex and vibrant; in the files a 512x512 is still a 512x512 a 1024x1024 is still a 1024x1024. You can add normals, alphas that might put a little load on a server, but as long as you keep it within reason. You should have no problems adding much better detail than what we saw in the textures. Textures were by far the worst general thing we saw on SWTOR.
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