BioWare's put together a great recipe for next week's Star Wars: The Old Republic, combining the general style of gameplay and social interconnectedness of a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG with the mass fan appeal of the Star Wars franchise. This deliciously gooey confection is then further sprinkled with the Canadian developer's trademark focus on narrative. Mash-up lovers among you, think of TOR as KOTOR meets WoW.
It's quite an enticing dish to place in front of Star Wars-loving gamers, a concoction tempting enough to lure even the staunchest opponents of monthly subscription-based gaming in for a look. Fans of BioWare games will immediately find themselves in familiar territory with certain aspects of The Old Republic, but those same people will be utterly lost in other areas if they've never sampled a massively multiplayer online game.
Since a good number of SW:TOR players will likely be new to the genre, I'm going to spend a little time here bringing you up to speed on some beginner MMO concepts. Then we'll take a look at The Old Republic specifically and some of the differing approaches it takes.
Welcome To The Online World
First off: creating a character. The basic class selection and body customization screens should be familiar to any RPG fan. MMO newcomers might be confused when they're asked to choose a server, however.
It works like this: MMOs are way too big to let all online gamers run around the same world together. What happens is that they're split up into smaller (but still quite large) groups, each one on a different server. If you create a character on one server, that's where that character will have to live. So if you plan to play with friends, make sure you coordinate your efforts and start out in the same place.
There are also different types of servers. PVE (Player Vs. Environment) is probably where most newcomers should go, since they won't have to ever worry about a fellow human player randomly killing them. You can still do battle with other human players on a PVE server; it's just much more of a structured process.
If taking on human players anywhere at anytime sounds appealing, you may instead prefer to go with a PVP (Player Vs. Player) server. These are best suited to groups, since there's generally safety in numbers. You also might see RP on the server list; these are Role-Playing servers, meaning all participants using the in-game chat will be speaking as if they're the actual character and not a human playing a video game.
Finding Your Way Around
Now that that's out of the way... forget everything you know about navigating an open world in a video game. MMOs often involve a lot of tedious running around and few fast-travel options. The Old Republic is no exception.
There's a lot of ground to cover on each outdoor map that you explore, and you'll be seeing most of it on foot in the early going. Speeder bikes can't even be purchased until you hit level 25. For reference: most people will finish off their class's tutorial world missions at level 10 or so, somewhere around the 6-10 hour mark.
As you explore the starting world, you'll come across various enemy-free settlements filled with merchants and mission-giving NPCs. You'll also find speeder rentals in many of the more major locations, allowing for a quick and safe travel option from one side of the map to the other (provided the necessary locations have been discovered).
Many of these safe areas feature terminals that you can right-click to “find” the location on your map. Once a location has been found, you’re able to fast-travel to it as long as you’re not in combat. The fast travel button is on the hotkey bar at the bottom of the screen by default, second box from the right. Be aware though: it can only be used once every 30 minutes.
Like most RPGs, you'll quickly build up an assortment of quests and sidequests. Active ones are tracked on your minimap, typically marked with some sort of green-tinged icon. Active quests also appear in a list at the right side of the screen; clicking on one brings up the mission description as well as a menu that you can use to track or untrack specific quests.
Also take note of your Codex, which serves as both an encyclopedia and an in-game, constantly updating instruction manual. Tutorial notifications are on by default in The Old Republic, and you'll see a list pop up on the right side of the screen as new game features are revealed. This is, by far, your most helpful tool; click on the desired topic to open a pop-up window describing how it works.
Combat in The Old Republic is built around hotkeys and cooldown timers, much like WoW. At the bottom of the display you'll see a row of small boxes. These are your quick-use attacks and abilities, with the boxes all mapped to the numerical keys on your keyboard. Newly unlocked abilities are automatically assigned to open slots, but changing around which number key triggers which power is as simple as clicking and dragging the thumbnail image from one box to another.
Combat is relatively simple once you get the hang of this basic framework. As you approach a group of enemies, left click on one to target it. Then simply press a number key to execute the desired attack; hovering the mouse cursor over each box gives you a pop-up description of what the mapped ability is.
Once you've triggered an attack, you'll see that the image inside the hotkey box has dimmed. The ability is now in its cooldown phase. Some abilities cool down quicker than others; just remember that when the thumbnail picture is no longer dimmed out, the ability is usable again.
The basic rhythm in combat generally boils down to cycling through a series of number key button presses. You’ll also generally have to worry about the yellow “resource” gauge on the lower portion of the screen. While basic attacks like straightforward blasterfire can simply be spammed, some attacks will either fill up or consume a meter of some kind. In the case of Force-users, it's Force points. Bounty Hunters, on the other hand, need to watch a Heat gauge. Regardless, the idea is the same: you have resources to manage.
Your more powerful or potent abilities will typically drain (or fill, in the case of Heat) this bar. You'll need to carefully balance your skill usage between abilities that can be spammed and those that affect the secondary gauge. Force points automatically regenerate and Heat automatically dissipates, but not quickly enough to give you unlimited access to the more potent strikes in your arsenal.
The general rule in Star Wars: The Old Republic is: the first player to inflict damage on a particular enemy "owns" it. If you see an enemy with a red-colored health bar over its head, attack away. If the health bar is instead grayed out, it's probably because another player is on the attack. You can feel free to help out -- any damage you do still counts -- but you won't get experience or loot drops from the kill.
Once a battle is over, you’ll probably be interested in healing your wounds. There are healer class builds later on in the game that can get you ship-shape in the middle of a fight, but every class has the opportunity to rest and recharge when the battle is over. Simply press the = key and relax for a few moments as your character’s health quickly refills.
Back to loot drops. Occasionally, you'll see a colored beam of light shooting upwards from an enemy corpse. This means that there's loot to be had! Right-click on the downed enemy when you're close by to search. Typically, you'll just want to click Take All to gather everything. An option in the game's settings menu even allows you to set it so that all lootable corpses in close proximity to one another can be searched by clicking just one of them.
Loot should then be brought to one of the game's merchants. Hovering the mouse cursor over an inventory item will bring up a description. Many of the items you collect are basically generic loot, existing only to be sold in exchange for credits. You'll be able to tell which they are from the description.
Really, a good general rule to follow: hovering the mouse cursor over just about anything on the screen will generally give you a pop-up bubble offering a description or explanation for what you're highlighting.
Being A Better Star Warrior
Killing enemies earns you experience, but you'll definitely want to take on quests as well, as these are your main sources of XP. Leveling up in The Old Republic is a relatively simple in the early game, since there are no ability points to assign. Your new abilities must be purchased from a trainer, a merchant introduced to all classes in a tutorial quest.
Later on, you'll add NPC companions to your group and choose from one of two advanced classes, each with three different skill trees to level up. You’ll have to start worrying about assigning skill points and how you want to spec out your character; for more specific tips, check out our various SW:TOR class guides.
As much as the Codex is a helpful resource, remember that this is a massively multiplayer game. At least some of your fellow players will probably be willing to answer any basic questions you might have. To type a message into the chat window, visible at the top left corner of the screen, either click on it or press the / key, then type your message. Be friendly and polite, and hopefully you'll be treated the same in return.
Getting Your Star Wars On
There are a few elements that make Star Wars: The Old Republic stand out in comparison to other MMOs. First, everything in the game is fully voiced, a rather unusual feature for this sort of game and a monumental achievement when you consider that the game's eight classes each have a separate story. It doesn't really alter how you play the game, but it does serve to enhance the experience pretty significantly.
Also be aware that while The Old Republic does allow for cooperative efforts on missions in the early parts of the game, even requires them for certain outings labeled as "Heroic," the unfolding story you experience is unique to the class you're playing.
You'll see green and red barriers scattered throughout the world as you explore, usually at the entryway to some building, cave or other indoor structure. These are Story Phase areas, similar to the concept of player-specific "instanced" zones from other MMOs.
It works like this: whenever you're out in the larger world, you've got any number of human-controlled players running around and doing their thing. Step into a Story area and you'll suddenly be in your own personally Star Wars bubble, built specifically to further develop the story relating to your character class. Green barriers are clear for you to pass through; red ones are either for another class or possibly for your class, just not at that particular moment.