Just wanted to drop in and report on my experiences thus far in The Old Republic!
I just recently reached level 20, which doesn't seem to be as big a milestone in-game as other levels, but is still a nice round number.
I first met a companion a little before Level 10. Level 10 is when a whole bunch of stuff starts happening. By this point, you've presumably learned how to navigate around in the world without bumping into walls and falling off cliffs, and can kill enemies without always dying, so you're more or less fit for polite society. You can travel off your starting planet to your fleet, and for the first time will run into human players of much higher level (since there's no reason for higher-level players to be visiting your starting planet). You can also choose your specialization, which will have a drastic impact on how you play the rest of the game. For levels 1-10, I was an Imperial Agent, which is a ranged class that does a lot of damage. I could have chosen to specialize as a Sniper, which would make me into a much more lethal version of the same. Instead, I chose to be an Operative, which combines a bunch of stuff together: I'm a healer, and a stealthy fighter who can do a ton of damage at close range, but at the same time I still have (and am advancing in) my ranged damage skills. About the only thing I can't do is take a lot of punishment.
Around level 15, you get your own spaceship. This is AWESOME. There's a whole other game around your spaceship, which feels a lot like Descent. I've flown three missions so far; I flamed out spectacularly in my first try, and have won every mission since. They're like… well, they feel just like the space fights in the Star Wars movies, really. You fly in a squadron of fighters, and have a bunch of enemy fighters who may get on your tail, then zip ahead of you and try to dodge your fire. Sometimes you're flying through fields of asteroid debris, other times around huge capital ships that are engaging in fights of their own.
For my first mission, I had to disable a large monitoring station. The missions are all timed, and you need to complete set objectives by the end of the timer without dying. The station included antennae, turrets, and power generators. We would fly in to try and take out some of the targets, then keep on flying as we would turn around for another pass, all the while dealing with the stream of enemy fighters hurling in. On my first attempt, I managed to take out all the targets after about 3 minutes, but my shields were nearly gone, and I was destroyed before we could calculate the jump to hyperspace. I think I've since gotten the hang of it: whenever there are fighters on the screen, always focus on taking them out. I think that if you shoot them early, then they're taken care of; if you let them last longer than a certain amount of time, they'll shoot you and damage your shields. Since there's much more time available to finish the mission, you can just worry about your main objectives when you don't have any enemies currently visible. Sure enough, since then I've accomplished this mission three times, each time earning a very nice chunk of experience, credits, and some fleet commendations.
A second mission involved taking out a celebrated Republic pilot, sort of a Red Baron figure, along with his squadron of elite fighters. The "elite" fighters proved to not be very challenging; I could take out each one with a single missile. (You have a limited number of missiles, but each does much more damage. The game encourages you to use these on your mission targets; I usually hold them in reserve, and will start deploying them either when I'm running low on shields or when I have limited time left for my objective.) This mission had a very different feel than the listening station one. First of all, instead of flying through similar approaches on multiple passes, you're basically moving forward the whole time. Second, you only get one shot at each of your objectives, but they're on the screen for a much longer time. In this mission, I basically take out the fighters as they come up; when the "Red Baron" shows up about halfway through, in the middle of a huge squadron, I take out all the associates from a distance, then empty all my missiles into the leader. So far he's always gone down while still at a distance; I assume that if I let him live longer, eventually he'd get closer and be much more of a threat. Other than that, the other thing is to keep an eye open for his elite squadron, who seem to arrive in 2's. The first 2 show up at the very start of the mission, another 2 around the midway point, and the final 2 right at the very end.
The third mission (and the last that I can currently run, though I'm sure there will be more at higher levels) is an escort mission. I typically HATE escort missions, in all types of games, but this one felt a lot of fun. Instead of enemies focusing their fire on you, they're shooting at the target shuttle, which is (usually) in front of you (although sometimes he goes off course… "Where is he going?"). As with the other missions, I just love the scale of this thing. It's thrilling to be flying toward a cloud of dozens of enemies, then have a destroyer suddenly appear below you.
Oh, yeah: the single best part of these missions is the vertigo they induce. I mentioned "Descent" earlier; unlike Descent, these missions run on rails, so you're just targeting and not having a ton of control over movement (other than some adjustments to dodge asteroids, ships, etc.). But it's so thrilling to see the screen swoop around dramatically as you pursue and are chased in all three dimensions, often with no empirical sense of where is "down" or "up". I love it.
Okay, enough space mission stuff:
Like I said, nothing too special seems to happen at 20 (though I haven't returned to the Fleet yet, and there may be something waiting for me). However, I've already received notice that at level 25 I'll be able to purchase a vehicle, which is roughly equivalent to a mount in World of Warcraft. I've seen a few of these on the Fleet. They look a little goofy in a space station, but would be awesome planet-side. I'm guessing that they let you move much more quickly, and possibly avoid some combat as well.
Heh... well, between writing that last paragraph and starting this one, I've advanced to level, um, 26. I'm going to go ahead and post this now, as my playing is increasingly outstripping my writing. There's lots more to say, and hopefully I'll grab some time soon to say it. In the meantime, I have a galaxy to subvert!