"I've never seen anything like this internally," muttered Daniel Erickson -- Lead Writer, Star Wars: The Old Republic -- as he peered over my shoulder. He was referring to the way myself and three other members of the press chose to experience the starting planet Hutta. A group was formed consisting of two Bounty Hunters and two Imperial Agents, and we set out to explore.
We wanted the full-bore experience of playing a massively multiplayer Star Wars game, and that also meant the grouping aspect. So we set out to do something no one else at the immersion day decided to take part in. You see, from the get-go Star Wars: The Old Republic has group content. Many of its features are even designed around group play. They want you to be social, to interact with other players nearby and form lasting relationships in the game.
One such feature we were told about before we even sat in front of our stations to play the game, is the holo-com. It takes 'quest' npc interaction -- called missions in The Old Republic -- to an entirely new level. As a player interacts with an NPC who has a mission available, a prompt appears for all other members of the party. If you're not in range to go join your groupmate at the NPC, you can simply click a button and join the conversation via your holo-communicator. This in essence means that only one person ever has to actually be at an NPC to begin or turn in a mission -- everyone else can be remote and still interact in the conversation portion. There is of course a minimum range away that you need to be. I suppose it would be kind of weird to text someone four feet away from me instead of just talking to them.
And speaking of conversations, another system designed to encourage the multiplayer aspect of MMO is 'Social Points,' a sort of ancillary experience bar. As you participate in conversations with a group, each person is allowed to select the dialogue response they'd like to see play out. A random number is then rolled for each player, with the highest winning, allowing their choice to play on-screen.
The winner also receives a small amount of social points -- a scaling value based on the number of players in your group -- which are visible in the character pane, displaying as a bar. As you 'rank up' through the various tiers you gain access to items on special social vendors in cities. Kaas City on Dromund Kaas, for example, has a social vendor which sells such items. We're not just talking fluff here, either -- there are real, quality pieces of equipment that you can purchase with the regular game currency, credits, just for leveling up your social rank.
But it wasn't just the fact that we were grouping up to play through Hutta that Mr. Erickson was so surprised by. We'd done something none of their internal testers have ever done: we focused on group content above and beyond anything else, wherever possible. While the first group-based content doesn't come along until right around level five, it's definitely there. "Finally, someone will help us prove the naysayers wrong who think there isn't any group content," said Emmanuel Lusinchi, Associate Lead Designer on the game.
Foregoing our class story missions until around level nine, we instead took on the 'heroic' content on the trash planet Hutta. This content can be compared to 'elites' in World of Warcraft, or 'heroic' creatures in EverQuest II. It's stuff that you absolutely must form a group to tackle.
It was actually a challenge. While one member of the group drifted away and back to a solo experience for a bit, we were steadfast. Even though we only had three members of the party attempting the content, we were determined to beat it. Though we struggled along the way -- limping almost the entire time to the finish line -- we eventually did complete the heroic quests on Hutta. The reward was fantastic: a blue quality item -- a step above normal quest rewards -- and a lot of experience, not only from turning in the quests, but also from doing the content itself. We managed to outpace everyone else on levels, even while being grouped up doing group-based content, which has notoriously been slower than leveling by yourself in more recent MMOs.
The first heroic quest on Hutta takes you into the sewers of the 'Rust Factory,' an area that is comprised of both solo and heroic content. Luckily for those players not teamed up with others, the heroic sections are somewhat cordoned off – you'll easily spot them and recognize the fact that the creatures are elite without much risk. Assuming you actually mouse over things and read the tooltips, of course. It's set up like a micro-dungeon, with the mission taking you through the entirety of the sewer system's tunnels to complete specific objectives: kill so many of this, disable so many of this, find so many of this, etc.
We also stumbled upon bonus missions that become available as you start to progress through the area. And eventually we even found a boss, which had nothing to do with the missions we were working on – he was just down there to provide a challenge to players, while also dropping some fairly nice loot. The final step of the mission came when we discovered a Datacron at the end of a tunnel. It told us a bit about what's going on in the Rust Factory, and the fact that there was more yet to do before our good deed was done. This lead us into one of the factory buildings, with another objective to defeat elites and bosses, while also disabling a few computer systems.
Upon completion of Hutta, which we did about the same time the solo players did, the three of us that stuck together had at least three, maybe four blue items each – plus one or two more levels than the solo players – which made the transition from Hutta to Dromund Kaas, and the flashpoint The Black Talon, that much easier.
According to Mr. Erickson, Hutta is just the tip of the iceberg. Dromund Kaas has much more heroic content, and it's really hard, but also very rewarding. Some of the content will be a single, challenging 'boss' NPC. Others will be entire sections of the map set aside with nothing but elites and bosses. On Dromund Kaas we managed to conquer the first heroic area prior to the end of the immersion day, and it once again rewarded a blue quality item and a lot of experience. We barely beat it though, even with all four of us working together this time around.
While flashpoints are certainly exciting, the quantity and level of difficulty involving the group content – even on the first planet players will experience in the game – is very encouraging. It's a bit of a lost aspect of the MMO genre that has fallen by the wayside as studios focus on more casual aspects of leveling progression, and it's one that will be a welcomed return by many.
Up next: Hands-on with the crew skill and crafting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.