With the launch of SWTOR on Steam this week (and totally, completely, not a beautiful coincidence), I finally reclaimed my account and rejoined the battle for the galaxy! A quick glance through my old emails seems to show the last time I played was around March of 2012, so you could say I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Frustrations from a returning player
Before we dive into the thick of things, I wanted to layout some positives and some big ol’ negatives of the experience as a returning player. There is a little bouncy question mark that you can click on that works as a serviceable help system. Anytime you play through some content or view something new, it’ll have new help information about it. For example, I played a Starfighter match, and when I got back I saw the window had some helpful info about how to play the Starfighter matches. That was nice.
Beyond that, though, you are not given a whole lot of guidance about where your gameplay ended and where the newer content can be found. Even the Chapters pane below wasn’t particularly useful.
It’s a big, blank window with no information about how to start or anything. Sure, I might be a free-to-play player at the moment, but what am I even supposed to do with this? I genuinely don’t know how to get this content started without searching around on the internet – is this what BioWare wants? There’s plenty of room to poke fun at the over monetization of SWTOR, but here it would actually make sense! Do I need to buy something to unlock this? Like geez, throw me a bone. And my mission log wasn’t much more help. I’m pretty sure I completed the original game’s story content, but the game itself sure isn’t telling me where to go from there.
Anyway, with all that said, I’m going to be approaching this as mostly a newcomer. While I remember PvPing extensively, I don’t remember how to fight at all. I haven’t kept up with the game outside of our own Hyperspace Beacon coverage – and even then only tangentially. It hasn’t been my game for so long that beyond the general, “Oh there’s going to be an expansion, cool,” I simply haven’t paid it much mind.
So stick with me and let’s see if SWTOR’s got enough PvP to make this an MMO worth our time.
Galactic Starfighter PvP is a breath of fresh air
The first thing to catch my attention in the PvP Activities menu was the Galactic Starfighter mode. I vaguely recall the ancient addition of a space combat simulator in SWTOR, but seeing it in person all these years later really impressed me. It’s a free-flight game too – no rails here!
Basically each player can choose one of four different types of ships to play as, and then you can choose your active abilities by selecting which crew members to bring. It’s a fun way to utilize the companions you’ve met through the game in a new mode.
During combat, you have lasers and missiles on your left and right mouse buttons, as you’d likely expect from a flight game, but you also have those crew skills to activate. There seem to be two match types: conquest and team deathmatch. The conquest matches are 12v12 bouts made up of your typical three contested points to capture: Just hold points and blow away the enemies to increase your team’s score and win. The downside is that the two modes are in the same queue (we’ll come back to that shortly).
The combat was smooth, and the skills that you start with feel useful. There appear to be plenty of different options for upgrading your ships and adding cosmetics. To a complete noob, it wasn’t clear just how much more powerful you can become through these upgrades. I assume that the more you play, the more effective you will become.
To be fair to space combat games, I haven’t legitimately played one of these since… oh, probably Tie Fighter through DOS. I thought that game was amazing, but it’s been half of forever. So I can’t really speak to how well of a space combat sim this is compared to dedicated flight games and similar, only to similar modes in MMORPGs. Either way, I really enjoy it.
A single queue for multiple modes, seriously?
Most MMO PvP comes in a few variants, but they typically follow a well-known format like conquest, team deathmatch, king of the hill, and many others. It’s so common that you’ll be forgiven for not specifically remembering which MMO uses which combination of the above. And then there’s Huttball. Now, I’m sure there are some tendrils you can draw showing where the origins of Huttball are, but it’s still an extremely unique and fun PvP mode.
The long and short of it is that two teams face off with their standard combat loadouts. But rather than winning by capturing points, players fight over a ball in the center that they need to take back over the goal line. It’s chaotic, hectic, and a uniquely fun PvP experience.
And of course, SWTOR also has a passable conquest-style map.
Now, the crux of my issue with SWTOR’s PvP implementation is two-fold. First and foremost, Huttball is mixed into the same PvP queuing system as the normal conquest system. I understand from a low player population point of view that developers might think this is a good idea, but I just hate it. And I’m sure many other players hate it too. Rather than satisfying anyone, you’ve upset everyone.
I love my Huttball and I love my normal PvP, but I don’t love being tossed into a queue where I can’t control which game mode I’m actually going to be playing next. That’s insane. Split those queues up. If you need more warm bodies, then try something new with your game modes. Change the number of players on each team, change the length of each match, add extra rewards – do something to encourage play there. But don’t fall into the lazy design and simply throw them together in one bucket. It’s ridiculous.
The second big mistake SWTOR’s made with PvP is limiting the number of matches you can play per week. It’s ten. Ten matches per week. Let me repeat that for those who just experienced a real life spit take. Ten. Matches. Per. Week! Talk about absolute insanity. Has anyone at BioWare ever met a PvPer? Players queue matches back to back to back to back, hour after hour after hour!
The 10-match limit is just one of the annoying free-to-play limitations in SWTOR, as it turns out, but even then, that is totally crazy. PvP is only successful when you have, you know, players. Player vs. player. It’s right there in the name. Why in the world anyone would think limiting the primary resource for improving a game mode, I simply can’t fathom. I wish I had been in the meeting when someone made that decision: “No, no. We simply have too many people free-riding and playing our PvP mode. We absolutely must limit the number of players. That will make them want to sub up.” My head is going to explode just imagining it.
Now that the game’s released on Steam, BioWare, can you address this?
The overall health and state of PvP is difficult to judge
In spite of my generally good impression of the PvP, I found it difficult to really get a read on how strong the player population and the health of the game modes are. Earlier today, we covered the Steam launch and the influx of new and returning players on the platform, but that doesn’t mean the PvP population is enjoying the benefits of that. Some nights, my queues have seemed to pop right away. Other nights, it’s been stale. I often waited 10 or 15 minutes between queues.
One thing to note in addition to the above is that players have the option when they queue to choose whether they are fighting for the light or dark side. I assume this essentially complicates the PvP population further. Luckily players aren’t locked into one side or the other, so you’re free to switch it up. However, I didn’t see any indication on how many players were queued one side or the other. I’m sure there are players who are going to stick to one side, but I’m also sure I’m not alone in just wanting some good matches. If I were to see that the current population is skewed more toward the dark side and I can get my queue to pop sooner by queueing light side, you can be sure I would.
So that’s my refreshed take on SWTOR’s PvP. I really want to keep playing a bit more, but I’m not sold that it’s a good use of my time yet. I know there is some open world PvP and also the ranked matches, but I’d need to level up before I can play those modes more legitimately.
Did any of you join back in with the Steam launch? Did you sub back up or stick with the free-to-play route for now like me?