Star Wars: The Old Republic is the highly anticipated massively multiplayer online game from Mass Effect and Dragon Age developer BioWare. We're the Jedi knight that got squashed like a lightsaber-wielding grape at a recent player-versus-player (PVP) competitive online press event for the game. Interestingly, PVP combat will be available in several flavors in The Old Republic, including specified PVP+ areas on PVP servers (while player-versus-environment servers will primarily be based on player parties fighting), but BioWare expects that the vast majority of competitive play will take place in dedicated warzone arenas, in which players will be able to earn PVP-specific rewards such as PVP-specific items, titles, and points that will contribute to your character's overall PVP ranking. As with all of our coverage of prerelease games, please keep in mind that all information below is not necessarily final and is subject to change.
We didn't walk away with much of a ranking from our warzone session, which pitted a Republic team (which we joined) against an Empire team (which wiped the floor with us). To be fair, this was our very first shot at PVP, and the same went for most of our teammates--which is why our character, a Jedi knight, didn't flourish in those particular battles. To clarify, all characters in The Old Republic can pick one of two specializations upon reaching level 10. In the case of the Jedi knight, which is the Republic's frontline warrior profession, the character can take either the guardian specialization, which focuses on soaking up damage (known by online game veterans as the "tank" role), or the sentinel profession, which focuses on dealing damage (known by online game veterans as the "damage-per-second" or "DPS" role).
We played with characters that had been preloaded by the developers with skill trees that had already been preset. The character we ended up with was a mid-20s-level sentinel-specialized Jedi knight who was focused almost entirely on offense, with extremely limited ability to control the battlefield and no real defensive options beyond The Old Republic's new PVP concept of "resolve." The PVE game has many powerful character abilities that can subdue enemies by electrically stunning them, pelting them with gravel, or using a ton of other methods, but enabling all these abilities to have their full effect in PVP would make for a frustrating experience, since organized players could presumably lock down an enemy character with debilitating effects for far too long. This is why the game will have a PVP-only skill called "resolve," which works for any profession and can be triggered after a character has been zapped by enough negative effects to fill up a special onscreen resolve meter. When characters use their resolve ability, they can immediately break free of any negative effects that are currently limiting their mobility, which can mean the difference between life and death in some cases, but this powerful ability also has a lengthy "cooldown" timer, so it can't be quickly reused.
Aside from resolve, our Jedi sentinel came specialized with tons of offensive abilities, several of which require points of "focus"--a character-specific value that gets built up in combat only after performing certain basic attacks. What follows is a list of our character's equipped attack abilities (we were informed that the characters created for the press event possessed even more skills that had not been loaded into the game's hotkey banks). The Jedi knight's basic attack, strike, is a simple lightsaber swing that builds up two focus points. The zealous strike ability is a two-hit lightsaber attack that builds up three focus points. Master strike is a powerful melee attack that hits three times but costs five focus points. Overhead slash is a triple lightsaber attack that costs seven focus points to perform and carries a chance to briefly stun its target, but it has an extremely long cooldown timer. Cauterize is a lightsaber attack that costs three focus points and briefly causes damage over time to its target. Crippling slash is a lightsaber melee attack that costs two focus attacks and has a chance of slowing its target--but it also has a long cooldown timer. Blade storm is effectively a Force push attack that costs four focus points and, if successful, both deals damage and sends its target flying. Force sweep is a lightsaber melee attack that costs five focus points and potentially knocks its target off its feet. Force leap is basically the Force jump attack from Knights of the Old Republic and can be used to quickly close the distance with an enemy who isn't too far, and isn't too close, by leaping into battle with a strong melee attack. Force stasis is a brief stun ability with a very long cooldown timer.
Our sentinel character also came equipped with two power-enhancing abilities (or "buffs," as they're known to most online game players): Force vitality, which increased the defenses of our party for the duration of the effect (generously set at 30 minutes), and Force might, which increased the offensive power of our party for the duration of the effect (and was also generously set at 30 minutes). Our character also had a few different lightsaber stances that could be activated modally, such as juyo form, which was a more offense-focused stance concerned with dealing damage; shii-cho form, a more-balanced lightsaber stance that equally emphasizes offense and defense; and saber ward, a more defense-focused stance. Our character also had a combat focus ability that instantly generated a few focus points (but had a long cooldown timer), along with the game's standard out-of-combat healing ability (which lets every character in the game not engaged in battle quickly recover lost health) and a team-based revive ability that let us quickly rescue any fallen comrades.
We should clarify that specializing a Jedi character to deal damage isn't necessarily bad in PVP--but in a competitive match, this is the kind of class that seems like it needs to be played skillfully in the front lines with ample backup from an equally skillful contingent of support characters. What we had, of course, was a bunch of first-timers poking blindly at their keyboards, so we didn't fare as well as we'd hoped--but like we said, this was officially the fault of our teammates, and it's not like any of you can prove otherwise.
We played in the Alderaan warzone, which is an objective-based PVP arena where each faction has a warship stationed overhead from which each team deploys by speederbike. The objective is to capture and hold three different antiair turrets, which, when captured by one team, will open fire on the opposing team's ship--not unlike the standard capture-and-hold conquest mode you've probably seen in games like the Battlefield shooter series. You can capture a turret simply by walking up to it and right-clicking it to initiate the capture process, but the process is interrupted if your character moves or is attacked, so you generally need to clear out any defenders from a turret before you can lay claim to it. Dying characters would respawn back on their faction's warship and were required to hop onto another speederbike and, after watching a brief animation depicting the character swooping back down to the ground below, would touch down and be able to fight once more. The speederbikes on the ships spawned in a row along the ship's launchpad, and interestingly, using different ones caused our character to arrive at different destinations (specifically, near each of the three turrets).
But as we found, capturing and holding all three turrets was easier said than done. This particular arena put all three turrets in a single, horizontal row and was designed to wall in players on the extreme edges so that there was only one path "in" to the center from either of the outer turrets. However, the center turret was placed atop an underground hallway with four entrances, so there was plenty of room for cross-traffic above and below. While we didn't see much action in the tunnel, we spent much of our time fighting for the center turret, which, being the most easily accessible, was the easiest to capture as soon as one team was cleared out. Which also made the central turret the map's hotspot.
We played through several eight-versus-eight warzone matches (with each side consisting of two four-player teams, since eight-player warzone groups had not yet been implemented at the time) and actually found ourselves faring pretty well in the early going, since we focused exclusively on capturing turrets and strongly encouraged our teammates to do the same. Unfortunately, our Imperial foes got wise quickly and began getting smarter about leaving at least two to three defenders at either of the turrets at the edges of the map at any time, happily giving up the center turret on occasion in favor of holding the other two.
PVP battles in The Old Republic seem as fast and frantic as in any other modern game of this sort and require good situational awareness, since Force-wielding characters in both factions have telekinetic powers that can displace your character from your current position--which will also potentially knock you out of range (and out of line of sight) if you have teammates behind you waiting to use support skills to help you out. Controlling an enemy's mobility is as powerful an ability as you might imagine and can be especially nerve-racking when you're pinned down and unable to move while some Sith inquisitor is unloading lightning bolt after lightning bolt onto your head and another Sith warrior is using a Force jump attack to come flying in out of nowhere and hack away a huge chunk of your health.
Knowing that we were playing as a damage-focused character, we did our best to wait for our teammates to congregate at a turret control point before leading the charge against the frailest hostile Imperial character in the area (usually an Imperial agent or Sith inquisitor) in the hopes of inspiring our teammates to focus their fire and knock our targets out. This worked sometimes, but sometimes we didn't quite get the backup we needed because our teammates were, understandably, too busy experimenting with their character classes to play to win. We learned a few lessons of our own in the process. For instance, Force leap is an excellent way for the Jedi knight to open a battle against a lone opponent, but it tends to be a poor choice in a group situation, especially when assaulting an organized enemy group, since the huge forward leap might put you out of range of any friendly support effects, yet it puts you immediately in range of all your foes' close-range attacks.
The best option for a damage-specialized Jedi sentinel in a group situation generally seems to be to wait until the rest of the group--preferably including guardian-specialized knights and/or heavy-duty Republic troopers--has engaged the enemy and then judiciously use stun abilities to single out weaker targets or stop stronger foes from finishing off squishier friendly characters, such as smugglers. The resolve ability can be helpful when you're really taking fire, but at the time of this writing, it lasts for only eight seconds, and while it did save our lives a few times, it was no substitute for having good healers to back us up and good control characters, such as a Jedi consular, to lock down enemies while we went in for the kill. Yes, our character had two stun abilities, but both had noticeably long cooldowns, and because our team of novices (and we include ourselves in that reckoning) didn't have a ton of cohesion, we found ourselves using these abilities to cover escapes and prevent deaths rather than to stunlock and finish off lone defenders so that we could make more and more turret captures. Again, it's really not fair for us to blame our teammates for our lack of success--they were beginners just like us, after all--but we're still going to do it anyway.
It's clear that in addition to in-depth, story-heavy player-versus-environment quests, crafting, and group flashpoints, warzone PVP will add even more depth to this already-enormous-seeming game. Star Wars: The Old Republic's challenging and fast-paced competitive play will offer a challenge to the most hardcore PVP veterans. The game will launch later this year.