May 3, 2011

Posted by in Clandestine Maneuvers: The Imperial Agent, News | 4 Comments

FSS 2011: Imperial Agent Hands-On

When all of us fan site-types finally sat down to business at last week’s Fan Site Summit, Stephen Reid gave a short talk on what we’d be seeing while we were down there in Austin. He talked about how much of the information that we were going to see would undoubtedly change by launch, so there was no point in scribbling down every ability name and the percentage of healing or damage it does. Instead, he asked, that we simply play the game. Sit there, as a fan, and just play.

After thinking about what he said, this actually sounded appealing. Trying to play the game at the same time as you’re transcribing every nuance makes the play experience… unfavorable. We’ve done it before. So, while we may not have the most technically detailed writeup of the minutiae out there, I hope that these words resonate with you as a fellow player of this upcoming MMORPG obsession known as Star Wars™: The Old Republic™!

One of the featured segments of the recent Fan Site Summit in Austin was Imperial Agent/Bounty Hunter Immersion Day. Much like Jedi Immersion day back in December of 2010, writers were given an opportunity to take a level 1 character as far as we could in the time that was allowed. No limits, do whatever you want… just play the game.

Since I have an affinity for playing roguish, clandestine-type characters, I chose to play the Imperial Agent and my AAJ cohort, Sentinel, chose to play the Bounty Hunter (since he as an affinity for blowing things up and lighting them on fire.) This also worked out well since these classes are the counterparts to the Republic classes we plan to play; The Smuggler and the Trooper.

NOTE: There may be some minor story spoilers going forward… I’ll try to keep them to a minimum!

Ready, Set, Go!

Starting off as an Imperial Agent, you’re immediately tasked by your contact – none other than the Director of Imperial Intelligence, Keeper – to impersonate a mercenary in order to gain favor on the inside of a Hutt crime syndicate. Alexander Freed, the writer for the Imperial Agent story, really does a great job of making you feel all James-Bondish, but in a Star Wars setting. It feels completely natural and the tasks you’re doing really draw you into the story and make it believable.

My character started off with 2 sets of abilities, one for in-cover and one for out-of-cover. Note that you don’t start with the Portable Cover ability so you have to rely on all of the environmental cover spots as you start out. Portable Cover comes at level 8, which I never reached, as you’ll learn why below. One of the abilities was a self and party buff called Coordination, which increased the chance to land a critical strike. There was also one melee ability available to me at this stage called Shiv, where my character pulled out an electro-knife to attack at close range.

My goal for the day was to cover the most ground and get as far as I could, so that I could go off-world and check out Dromund Kaas, – which is the first destination after finishing your origin world as an Imperial player. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to rush through or sacrifice the story. So I decided to pursue only “class” quests – those tasks that push your personal story forward. There were plenty of side quests available, usually organized in little hubs that would all generally take you to the same area (which, incidentally, is probably the same area where your class quest is probably sending you.) In addition, there were also “bonus” quests which spawned automatically as you did something, and let you know that you could continue doing that something and get something else out of it if you so choose. So these bonus quests and the side quests are the ones I chose to ignore.

While this tactic seemed to play well into my overall strategy, it did have some downsides. For one, I seemed to be doing a lot of running around. Hutta is a big place, and there is a taxi-speeder system in place (which I hope they’ll add more drop points to,) but I found myself running end to end more than once. Had I also been doing side quests and bonus quests, it may not have felt like so much foot travel.

Another pitfall was experience and leveling. By doing only my class quests, I missed out on a lot of the experience points that would have contributed to my leveling earlier and more often. I didn’t notice any real problem with this, as most of the NPCs out in the open world consist of 3-4 enemies that I didn’t have any trouble in handling, even if a level or two below them. However, once it came time for my “grand finale” on Hutta, I had to face the foreshadowed nemesis from my story… and he was literally 5 levels higher than me (plus, designated as a “Strong” NPC as opposed to “Standard”) Needless to say, I couldn’t make it past him and without being able to do that, my trip to Dromund Kaas would be nothing but a pipe dream! So it certainly feels that with the current experience tuning, you need to do more than just your class quests in order to progress. Or, perhaps, just get a group together.

I’m With Her

Around level 5, I acquired my first companion, Kalyio Djannis, a Rattataki mercenary. She’s first introduced to you in one of the cantina areas in Nemro’s palace by not-so-subtly engaging you in conversation. This happens 2 or 3 times as you go back and forth into and out of the palace, until at one point she finally talks herself into my party. I didn’t really see if there was a way to “refuse” her, but I suspect BioWare makes sure each class gets their first companion no matter what.

A couple of items of interest about Kaliyio. She had flirtatious dialog options right out of the box, so it seems like she’s definitely one of the romanceable companions. I was playing as a male Chiss, so there’s no telling if those same options would be available if I was playing a female character (for all of you same-gender romance arc proponents!)

Kalyio is also very interested in killing things, or at least being around things that are killing things. Any time I made a “light side” dialog choice, I would lose “affection points” with her, and if I did something a bit on the dark side, I would gain them. Although she had 4 ability slots, I didn’t bother micromanaging her. Basically I let her attack anyone I was attacking, and occasionally pushed her grenade ability to add a little more AoE damage to the mix. It would be nice if the companion combat abilities could be placed on your bar, or at least keyboard to accommodate usage in your regular rotation.

So even though I’m not a big proponent of companions in a combat role in an MMO, exposure to Kalyio has intrigued me enough that I’m anxious to explore the stories of all of my companions throughout the game…

To Group Or Not To Group

Since the Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter both share the same origin world of Hutta, Sentinel and I thought it would be fun to group up and progress through the world together to see what differences between classes would be visible. It was explained by BioWare that the class quests will lead to the same general areas, so this seemed like a viable approach.

As we got down to it, we found that traveling together definitely made things easier in traversing the open world. The areas are literally packed with enemy NPCs, and at least right now, the aggro radius is huge. In other words, you’re always fighting something on the way to wherever you’re going.

Things got a little more complicated, however, when we started to do our class story objectives. While they seemed to be in the same areas many times, they were of course in different rooms or buildings, cordoned off by the now familiar red instance wall (if you couldn’t enter,) or green (if you could.) Incidentally, those walls become blue if a party member is inside and you’re eligible to enter.

This caused us to break apart a bit, and as each of us were in various stages of our own conversations in disparate locations, each of different lengths, it sometimes became frustrating to understand where each of us were in terms of being able to progress and rejoin each other to tackle some more open world stuff. A little communication fixes this of course, but it didn’t have a natural flow about it.

When we were apart, there was an option to join the group dialog via hologram (a newly-added feature), but that sometimes only added to the confusion of what type of quest it was, and what kind of impact I might have from afar. That said, group dialog is going to be one of the absolute slam-dunks for TOR – it’s awesome!

We also wondered what would happen if two (or more) of the same class grouped up. Could they all enter the phase-owned areas at the same time and complete the objective, or would they have to do it individually? Alas, we were not able to find this out.

Coming out of that experience, even though I am a die-hard group proponent, I’d almost suggest that the origin worlds be treated as a solo experience due to this. It will be interesting to see if this is still being fine-tuned (as most everything is) and how this is carried through the rest of the leveling game.

Looky There!

Anyone following the game knows how beautiful the environments are, but getting to experience one in person is an entirely different thing altogether. Moving around the large area of Hutta, I was constantly taken aback by breathtaking vistas, interesting lighting and lifelike terrain. And for those wondering, there was water (or some tainted variant thanks to the Hutts) but it never went deeper than my waist :) One interesting note, during his exploration on the Bounty Hunter, Sentinel found an area that overlooked an expansive ocean with a distant mountain range that looked like it may have been a matte painting as opposed to real objects in the game world. I tried to coax him into jumping off the cliff into the ocean to see what would happen, but he wouldn’t go for it!

Inside the buildings, things are just as immersive. There’s a lot of detail and attention paid to the placement of objects and their textures, the lighting, and layout of the interiors. Also worth mentioning that the camera controls are good, and I didn’t experience any odd clipping while inside small interior areas.

One interesting point about the multilevel interior environments is that each level is given a designation. As you’re walking through the building and going up stairs or an elevator, the system will display messaging on the screen to indicate you’ve entered a different level, much as you’d see messaging for when you change outdoor zones or sub-zones. This designation also carries through in the quest text in your log as well.

Speaking of logs and maps, the mapping system in TOR is very interesting. First, it allows a transparent overlay mode that you can use while you’re navigating the world with your character – very handy. The map itself has a complex legend system and allows for some interactivity with the map elements. For example, while in a group, not only your objectives are shown but those of your party members as well. If you hovered over one of them, it showed which party member(s) are on that objective. It will be interesting to see how this carries over into (presumably) larger groups as it could get complicated.

The minimap still needs some tweaking, due to the “shapes” of the icons on the map, many things close together simply became jumbled. I’d prefer to simply see colors instead of shapes, but for accessibility reasons the icons probably need to be both. The minimap does however have a filter, allowing you to choose what shows up on it at any given time.

Overall it appears that BioWare is investing significant effort and resources into the mapping systems, which should please long-time MMO veterans.

Well Then…

While most of the classes in TOR take direct inspiration from characters we’re familiar with from the movies, the Imperial Agent is a little different. I think that may be part of the appeal, at least for me. I always prefer to spend time getting to know something I don’t know rather than finding out more about something I already do know.

I was impressed by the overall level of polish both in terms of mechanics and visuals. There were some minor usability items and some “creature comforts” as outlined above that need some work, but that’s exactly why the game isn’t out yet – it’s all part of the polish.

The IA has an intriguing story layered on top of what appear to be mechanics for a solid and unique gameplay foundation. If you want all of the depth of a cloak-and-dagger story, combined with roguish gameplay, I couldn’t imagine a better pick than the Imperial Agent.

  1. Hengist says:

    As always Lethality, great write-up, thanks for doing it! Thanks for the details and the color to it, the little things are the things that are great to know.

    Cheers,
    -H

  2. sleepr says:

    Really good! Thanks.

  3. Levikus says:

    Ya, this is absolutely the class I’m playing at launch. It will be both my first stealth class, and my first healer. For the past decade I’ve only been playing in the roles of DPS and tank.

  4. Next time, force that sucker to jump into the water!!

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