So, instead of stalking eBay or the aisles of my local toy store, I spent 20 hours decorating my Nar Shaddaa sky palace in Star Wars: The Old Republic this week. That’s right, 20 hours without a single blaster shot. And 20 hours sans the telltale snap-hiss of my lightsaber(s).
It’s been both fun and frustrating, which is basically SWTOR in a nutshell.
First off, let’s do the obvious thing and commend BioWare for adding an addictive housing system to SWTOR post-launch. That’s more than most MMO studios can manage these days, and while the mechanics could be better, they’re also a cut above most of the half-hearted housing attempts this genre has seen over the past decade.
Housing in SWTOR is hook-based, meaning that when you press a button on your UI to enter decoration mode, you’ll see dozens of placement “hooks” scattered around your stronghold’s interior (and exterior) that can hold housing items of a certain size. Vertical hooks are found on walls, while horizontal hooks cover your floors and ceilings. Most hooks feature a configurable assortment of what I’ll call sub-hooks, meaning that instead of a big poster-sized decoration space on a particular wall, you might opt to have two poster-sized hooks that are half the size of the default, or even a smaller poster hook in the middle surrounded by a dozen really small square hooks.
Each hook supports dozens and dozens of different game items. A medium floor hook, for example, may display everything from computer terminals to shelves to speeder bikes. Smaller hooks hold my pet astromechs, my character’s companions, or NPCs ranging from Mando mercs to jawas to the requisite tiny twi’lek dancer. The largest floor hooks, on the other hand, can hold orbital cannons and my XS freighter!
Once you place an item on a hook, you can rotate it and move it from side to side, which results in a surprisingly wide range of custom looks, particularly when coupled with BioWare’s limitless supply of placeable objects.
The hook system is incredibly user friendly, so if you’ve only got a few minutes, you can plunk down a passable bedroom, a cantina, or a med bay setup and call it done. Or, if you’re a housing junkie as I am, you can spend hours placing, replacing, rotating, and experimenting to create the perfect custom pad.
It’s impossible to mess up, and BioWare has also helped out housing fans by providing a separate inventory for all of our decor items, which saves precious inventory space. Whenever you acquire a new housing item and right-click it from your inventory — whether it be a loot drop, a cash shop or auction hall purchase, or a traded gift from another player — said item goes into your housing inventory and will then display in a separate UI window whenever you click on an appropriate hook into which the item may be placed.
While SWTOR does boast a dizzying array of housing items and the solid hook-based placement system mentioned above, it’s also somewhat limited because of that hook system, particularly if you’re familiar with the player housing possibilities in games like EverQuest II, Star Wars: Galaxies, and so on. In the latter’s free-form system, for example, basically any and every object in your inventory could be placed anywhere in a house. And I do mean anywhere, as the developers allowed you down-to-the-pixel control over X, Y, and Z axis placement. This included crafting sub-components and all kinds of gnarly little sci-fi trinkets that creative players could and did use to build mind-bogglingly intricate show pieces.
In EQII’s housing system, meanwhile, any and every object may be scaled up or down with your mouse wheel, which adds a significant amount of customization that SWTOR currently lacks.
Ultimately, SWTOR’s hook system is still a hook system. It’s better than many other hook systems, but its inherent limitations prevent players from, say, arranging bottles on their cantina bar or hanging their character’s weapons on a weapon rack just so.
I’d also like for BioWare to add the ability to target or mouse over placed items in order to identify them. Perhaps the most challenging thing about decorating in SWTOR — aside from the cost, which we’ll get to in a minute — is finding that one particular piece out of thousands.
As much as I’ve been enjoying SWTOR’s housing system this week, the cynical part of my brain can’t help but surmise that BioWare added the system more out of a desire to drive players to the cash shop rather than the desire to drive SWTOR further down the full-featured MMO road. I could be wrong, but the sheer number of housing items originating in the Cartel Market make it hard to think otherwise. There are a few craftable housing components, including some spiffy computer and starship terminals as well as themed furniture pieces like Voss-Ka chairs and senatorial desks.
But a good number of the game’s essential decor pieces are not only cash shop items but lockbox items, meaning that you can either waste wads of meatspace cash on digital item packs and hope you’re lucky enough to get what you want or bankrupt your supply of in-game credits by paying obscene auction house prices to the players who were lucky enough to get what you want.
Cash shop crap aside, I’m having a good time with SWTOR in general and with its housing in particular. There’s definitely room for improvement in terms of functionality and customizability, but as-is, Galactic Strongholds is an engrossing minigame that’s held my attention far longer than the main game’s industry-standard combat, looting, and progression.
Plus, it’s so much easier to hide all these action figures, vehicles, and playsets from my better half!