Regardless if you’re talking about the movies, books or the new MMO from BioWare, Star Wars always seems to revolve around defining moments. There is that fork in the path where a character is faced with a decision that will not only affect his own life, but potentially the fate of the galaxy. Han returns to help Luke destroy the Death Star. Luke refuses to kill Vader. Vader refuses to let his son be destroyed. Leia never reveals the location of the hidden rebel base, putting quite a dent in Alderaan’s tourism business.
Now, with the massive Legacy patch to Star Wars: The Old Republic, the defining moment for BioWare’s MMO has arrived. Will this be shot in the arm the game desperately needs? Can it carve out a lasting spot for itself as a AAA subscription MMO? Or will subscription numbers dwindle once again, sending it towards the dark path of obscurity? I won’t try to tackle every single change–that’s what patch notes are for–but I’ll at least give you my initial impressions.
Let me start by saying that I really love what BioWare has done in their game, and for MMOs in general, in regards to storytelling and making your character feel like an individual instead of just another stat sheet. I have more empathy and attachment to my Bounty Hunter after a few months than I ever did for any of my World of Warcraft characters after years of playing them. The leveling experience in SW:TOR is much richer and interesting than in WoW too, and unlike Blizzard’s MMO, I never hear “the game starts at max level”. Companion characters have also been a really brilliant addition to my MMO experience. Not only are they helpful in a practical sense, but they also bring stories of their own and really enhance the idea that your character is a person of real power.
But… as many who play and follow the game know. SW:TOR has suffered from a lot of problems. World PvP is essentially dead. Even on PvP servers, the planet design ensures that factions do not cross paths easily till far into the game. Ilum, a world originally set up to be an entire planet for open PvP, has been put on ice. All incentives have been removed from it, and BioWare is going back to the drawing board regarding its future in the game. Bugs have plagued end game PvE content, sometimes being the only challenging part of a boss encounter. Faction imbalance led the Warzone PvP experience to become endless strings of Huttball. Even the basic need to get around in the game world is lacking, with a ponderous amount of steps and load screens needed to get from one place to another in order to meet up with friends. Frame rate and performance glitches made the game bog down at times on even high end machines, especially in warzones. The stock UI was decent, but completely lacking in customization options or even basic features like target of target frames. It all added up to a frustrating experience despite the game’s potential.
Fortunately, the Legacy patch solves (or at least improves upon) most of these issues.
THE LIGHT SIDE
With the addition of Novare Coast, and the alterations made to Voidstar, players now have three different PvP Warzones where they can potentially compete against their own faction. This adds a lot of variety when it comes to servers with a population imbalance, essentially smoothing over the only real problem population imbalance causes. Ilum is still in development, and there is no world PvP to speak of, so imbalance really isn’t a factor elsewhere. And, while I’m on the subject, even if there was a population imbalance, so what? Open world PvP was never about fairness and equality anyway. If you want a structured, evenly populated PvP environment, queue for a Warzone! But I digress…
Explosive Conflict adds another Operation to the game, much to the joy of raiders everywhere. Not only does this give people the new content and gear they’ve been after, but it also raises the bar with a higher tier of raid difficulty. In addition to this, BioWare has finally put to rest a number of bugs and design problems in their other two Operations. They also released a new Flashpoint called Lost Island which centers on the second half of the Rakghoul plague storyline (space zombies!). The first Flashpoint half was covered in Kaon Under Siege, and I considered it to be the finest and most challenging Flashpoint in the entire game. Lost Island is apparently ramping up the difficulty as well, perhaps too much so, given the fact that you’re still rewarded with first tier gear and commendations despite needing all of that gear to complete it in the first place. I’m sure we’ll see tweaks made to it in the near future, although I hope they increase the rewards rather than taking the Blizzard way out and adding training wheels to the content.
The real gem of the patch (as far as I am concerned) is the drastically improved performance and user interface. I don’t play on a bleeding edge machine, but it is more than capable of running most games at the highest settings without too many problems. This hasn’t been the case with SW:TOR till now. Even with max settings, I am no longer reduced to a stuttering sideshow on the crowded fleet or in warzones. The game just looks and feels better. I adore the Awareness Radius option which reduces the number of other players rendered in crowded environments. While BioWare claims this is for “low end machines” in the same way they write off every performance improvement – as if our machines were to blame, and not their code – I highly suggest everyone use this option. The UI customization is like a breath of fresh air. Finally being able to scale and move things around really helps me make the game my own. The addition of the target of target frame means tanking isn’t nearly as much guesswork in crowded AoE packs or in PvP. The UI still isn’t perfect, but it is a really great first step.
Other quality of life improvements include the gear “match to chest” option that allows you to match the color and pattern of your gear. There is starter level PvP gear for fresh level 50s so they can compete without being obliterated. Crafting has also seen huge improvements, with augmented crafted gear (containing sockets for augments) and the ability to remove mods from end game PvP and PvE gear combining to make for interesting combinations and levels of customization. You still won’t be able to carry over your set bonuses in your old gear, so don’t go too crazy, but if you’re like me and hate your Powertech having quad mufflers sticking out of your back, you can finally do something about it.
The other major feature of the Legacy patch is the fact that our Legacy is finally more than just a useless purple bar. We actually gain some tangible benefits for logging all these hours playing, and it’s pretty cool. The whole family tree business doesn’t really matter all that much to me. I suppose it adds an additional layer of depth to know that my Bounty Hunter has two brothers, a Sith Warrior and Jedi Knight (who are also cyborgs with a striking family resemblance), and that each of them has an ally they work with (Sorcerer and Trooper respectively) and that my Imperial Agent is my Bounty Hunter’s adopted daughter – a young lady who has proven a far more lethal and morally flexible protege than Mako has, and who provides me with intel on lucrative Imperial opportunities. It gives me a nice context to put things in when I play one of them that adds to their individual story arcs, even if that context only exists in my mind and on a family tree screen in game.
The real benefits come from features that encourages the leveling of alternate characters, and making that experience seem like a feature instead of something to do when you’re bored with your main character. These include:
- The ability to send mail instantly to any of my characters, including cross faction. For someone who spreads out crafting professions across alts, this was most welcome.
- The global unlocks that happen as you advance your characters. Whenever you finish a companion’s story line, you unlock a presence buff across all characters which stacks and makes your companions more effective at their roles. For each category of companion (like healer, for example) you also unlock a non-stacking buff that applies to all your characters as well. In the case of Mako, my healing companion, I unlocked the ability to receive more healing – making incoming heals on me a bit larger. I don’t know if this applies to non-companion heals, but I would assume it does considering other similar perks through this system include things like static boosts to your maximum health or critical hit and damage ratings. Each of these companion unlocks also reduce the cooldown of your Heroic Moment by 1 minute (to a max reduction of 5 minutes) and increase the duration of your Heroic Moment by 12 seconds (to a max increase of 1 minute). Your Heroic Moment now not only allows you to recharge your crowd control abilities and put a heal over time on you and your companion, but also allows you to use Legacy Abilities.
- Legacy Abilities are signature abilities you unlock once hitting max level with a certain class that can be shared across all your characters. For example, each of my characters can use my Bounty Hunter’s flamethrower ability during their Heroic Moment. Since you can only do this with a companion out, it doesn’t impact Operations or Warzones.
- Bind on Legacy gear that can really help you level – especially the gear that can use mods.
- The ability to unlock any race you level to 50 (or are willing to spend 1.5 million credits on) that you can use with any class.
- Other miscellaneous perks you can spend credits on like adding mailboxes to each character’s ship or reducing the cooldown on your fleet pass or quick travel.
Not only is this a fun system that provides a new mini-game for completionists and some decent perks for everyone involved, it is also a brilliant move on BioWare’s part. The strongest aspect of their MMO by far has been the leveling experience. From the start we’ve been told that the MMO is not only the spiritual sequel to their Knights of The Old Republic games, but that it is like eight sequels rolled into one game. Getting people to play through each of those stories is what BioWare is banking on. It keeps people playing, keeps them paying for their subscriptions, and it buys them time to improve their end game experiences. Even if some casual players out there have no intention of ever raiding or getting into PvP, there would still be hundreds and hundreds of hours of game time they could sink into these story lines. The fact that we’re now provided with rewards for doing so is just icing on the cake.
BioWare should also be commended for the incredible public relations and marketing push they’ve done surrounding this patch, pulling out all the stops with their Legacy Promotion. Free to play weekends. Referral initiatives. Giving 30 days of free play time to subscribers AND to people who reactivate their subscriptions. Pets you earn just from having an active subscription. When you consider this came on the heels of their Guild Summit which was an unprecedented community participation think tank aimed at making the game the best it can be, you know they are leaving nothing to chance. BioWare is committed to making this a great game.
However… That doesn’t mean everything with this patch has been good news.
THE DARK SIDE
Healers have been nerfed considerably, and while I understand that killing a geared and skilled healer in PvP in a 1 on 1 scenario was a huge challenge, I think it points out a drawback of the game. Healers have to be potent because they are the only thing keeping multiple people alive – especially in PvE endgame. If they aren’t powerful enough to do that, then your raid fails. If they are powerful enough, then they become the single most dominating factor on the PvP battlefield. It’s a problem that plagues every MMO that pays homage to the time tested and very effective “Holy Trinity”. Getting that balance right is a non-stop game of tail chasing.
Perhaps there were legitimate problems that needed fixing, such as the Force Bending buff for Sorcerers applying to more than one ability incorrectly. But the problem is that they’ve now changed the implementation of the ability as a whole, and removed the cast time reduction that applied to your biggest single target heal. This means to get that big heal off, Sorcerers have to root themselves in place for 3 seconds. This is a fair amount of time in PvE if there are environmental hazards or boss abilities to worry about. In PvP, standing still for 3 seconds can get you killed, and it gives people a LOT of time to interrupt you. This results in more emphasis being placed on your shorter, and less efficient heals, which means you burn through your Force faster. Sorcerers have the ability to trade Force for health, but doing so can be extremely dangerous. They used to be able to pick up a talent which would remove the health penalty, but no longer. This means on longer fights or in PvP, Sorcerer healers are going to run the risk of running out of heals. Maybe some of that can be compensated by throwing a heal over time on themselves when they pop Consumption and trade health for Force, but I have no idea how efficient that will be. At best you’re wasting two global cooldowns instead of one, and if you’re to the point where you’re starved for resources those seconds can add up.
To make matters worse on the healing front, medpacks have also been nerfed so that you can only use one per combat. This means that players other than healers, who are traditionally already horrible at self-preservation in Holy Trinity MMOs, now have even less incentive to keep themselves alive. They have a single emergency medpack to hold on to, but I can almost guarantee most players will be so worried about saving it that they’ll die before using it. This means healers, who are already less effective, are going to be expected to do more or risk shouldering the blame when things go wrong.
I think a far better solution to at least try would have been to remove the healing boost given by expertise. Let’s face it. No one complains about healers being too powerful in a PvE setting. Removing the healing boost from PvP gear would have been a decent nerf that wouldn’t have compromised PvE healing at all. Ahh… but maybe that isn’t what BioWare was really concerned with.
Time to put on my tinfoil hat!
Perhaps someone does see a downside to healing as it was in PvE – and that someone is BioWare. After people complaining over and over again how their Operations were too easy, perhaps they decided to take the easy way out. The Holy Trinity relies on three pillars. Weaken one of those pillars enough, and you weaken the whole. A nerf to healers can be perceived as increased difficulty in PvE without the need to make the content itself any harder or more dynamic. It’s effective, but it’s also a bit of a cheap shortcut.
Another thing that’s a big downside to patch 1.2 is the lack of Rated Warzones and the ability to queue as a full 8 man group. I know a lot of people were looking forward to this, not only for the sake of competition, but also in hopes that partial premades wouldn’t dominate like they currently do. What many players were looking forward to was 8 mans going up against other 8 mans and the rag tag PuGs competing against mainly other rag tag PuGs. As it stands, this isn’t the case. When you factor in the changes to how medals are earned, the greatly nerfed rewards for losing, AND the complete lack of any sort of deserter penalty for leaving games early – the end result is less than ideal or fun. Partial premades dominate, people on the losing team drop, only to be replaced by people who come into half a game with no time to earn medals, and who then drop out themselves. Repeat until time expires. This may not be the way things are on every server, but it has certainly been my experience thus far.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about patch 1.2 is the feeling of it being too little and too late. Many players feel that this patch contains features that the game should have launched with back in December, and the develops themselves have gone on record saying that they wish a lot of these features were present at launch. While second chances are also a big part of the Star Wars universe, only time will tell if it carries over to The Old Republic. My own guild is scattered and many have gone off to find a more active home to join. Many have cancelled their subscriptions, and many more were waiting on this patch to “save the game” before pulling out completely. Personally I’m enjoying taking a very casual approach and leveling alts, and checking out the new dailies. I will say that solo PvP isn’t very fun, and the lack of any sort of group-finding tool makes running pick-up groups for Flashpoints a less enjoyable task than it already is. If I do continue to play, it will probably have to be as a member of another, more active, guild where I can hop in and out of Warzone, Flashpoint and Operations groups instead of trying to be a driving force in creating and maintaining them.
I will say that if you are even remotely interested in Star Wars: The Old Republic, NOW is the time to play. The experience is much better than it was at launch, and even BioWare is keenly aware that it is now or never.
If you’re playing the game, please share your impressions on it and on patch 1.2. I’d love to read your feedback!
May the Force be with you.