Star Wars: The Old Republic Previews

IGN wasn't the only website to spend a fistful of hours with Star Wars: The Old Republic lately, as a good half dozen other previews sprung up on the Internet today. The usual rundown:

From the opening moments of the starting zone on Tython (the Jedi's starting area for SWTOR) as a Jedi Knight, my first couple of quests revolve around killing x-number of Flesh Raiders (hulking slimy beasts resembling something out of The Last Starfighter), or tracking down a series of Padawans who are trapped by said Flesh Raiders in the surrounding area. After some experience progression and then grinding through some similar quests, it all culminates with a showdown against an evil Sith apprentice who has taken up a residence in the nearby Gnarls Cavern. After dispatching more Flesh Raiders and eventually the Sith apprentice, I report my findings to a nearby Jedi Master Orgus -- who senses great promise in me and decides to take me under his wing to teach me more about the ways of the Force. Thus the adventure of my character begins, but not before I continue to carry out a series of rudimentary quests in the surrounding areas of Tython.

I go to investigate the last known location of a few Jedi only to be ambushed by more Flesh Raiders. Even when the enemies change with later quests (in this case, droids) it's still the same basic, "Go to Point A, Fight, Return to Quest Giver for Reward" sequence. This generic quest design has me a bit concerned regarding how the rest of the game will play out (it's a big reason I don't play Star Trek Online anymore) -- it's not inventive or engaging enough to keep me interested.

First, we must say that having fully-voiced dialogue brings a lot to the table of the standard MMO: it lends drama to what is ordinarily an inert setup to grind mobs. Here, we could select from options familiar to KOTOR or Mass Effect players, choosing to be friendly or dickish, and in certain circumstances, these choices can affect your affinity toward the Light Side or Dark Side of the force (side note: we wonder how non-Force-related classes will handle these moral decisions). With a movie-like back-and-forth between your character and a quest giver, the stakes feel raised: we learned that padawans have been captured by flesh raiders, the surly indigenous humanoids who up until recently weren't much of a problem. So we headed out to free the padawans from a potentially grisly fate.

Despite the enhanced story focus, The Old Republic is very much a traditional MMORPG, borrowing the nuts and bolts from successes that preceded it. Hence, we have a hotbar for our abilities and items which have cooldowns and point costs. One difference that makes the combat more engaging than many other competitors (like WoW) is that your character doesn't auto-attack. So you must either click or hit a key every second or so or you'll get wailed on. Still, at least at the low levels, skill isn't really a factor. You don't have to move around and dodge in combat or aim anything, you just have to manage your abilities and pick the right maneuver at the right time.

The game gives you eight stories to pick from, naturally based around your playable class, be it Bounty Hunter, Sith Warrior, Imperial Agent, or Sith Inquisitor for the Sith Empire, or Trooper, Smuggler, Jedi Knight, or Jedi Consular for the Republic. Unlike older MMOs these classes aren't limited to your standard Healer/Tank/Melee DPS/Ranged archetypes, and instead can be customised by the user, meaning any character can fill any role in a party something that the genre has been moving toward in the last few years.

In classical BioWare style this story system functions similarly to what you find in the Mass Effect series, with interactions with NPCs bringing up a full dialogue system of possible response/reactions that can permanently open or close possible storylines and affect the conversation of NPCs. Actions and choices that you make have a direct influence on your character's personal story, and their moral standing based on how you complete quest lines.

Dialogue scenes, however, add welcome spice to this otherwise slightly stodgy meal. How BioWare would bend its trademark conversation trees and adaptive stories to a multiplayer setting has been a principal concern about The Old Republic; the solution, it turns out, is elegantly simple and surprisingly compelling.

Every player picks a line of dialogue (or doesn't) against the clock, and a dice-roll dictates who gets to speak. The tension's raised when you're not sure if you'll get to influence the conversation the way you'd like, and this actually makes you more aware of the consequences of your words and the attitude of the character you're playing.
By the time I finished with my Consular, I hadn't made much of a dent in his light/dark split. While I was a member of a class known for being paragons of virtue, taking my Consular down the dark path led to some interesting conversations. Talking down to others, disregarding their skills, and generally acting like the greatest thing on Tython, being a giant douchebag is great. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see how far this approach could go, but knowing BioWare, I'm sure I could have pushed my Consular to the border of the Dark Side.

Like any other MMO, the universe opens up once players leave their starting planet behind. Once most of those early tasks are completed, and players have leveled up a good amount, they can jump on a ship to go to the next area. For those on the light side, this means a trip to Coruscant, where things quickly unravel with an attack upon the traveling vessel, but provides the first opportunity for multiplayer instances. Getting all players to join in is a little buggy at this point, but it's something being worked on ardently by the team. Thankfully, once everyone is together and an instance has started, traditional MMO gameplay takes over, with classes like the Consular providing support and mid-range attacks, while the Jedi Knight tanks, and other classes step up other fairly traditional roles.

And G4:
At this point, the game opens up into the kind of free-form questing that both MMO fans and BioWare RPG enthusiasts will no doubt recognize. In fact, were it not for the distinctly MMO control scheme, The Old Republic might very seem like a well deserving follow-up to KoTOR, playable almost entirely as a single-player experience. With the exception of one quest encountered toward the end of our playtime, virtually no single feat required more than our own brawn and determination to accomplish. However, there are quests and areas of the game that simply won't be accessible -- or, at least, able to be accomplished -- without friends in tow, and its here where you'll find some substantial loot. That said, having never partnered up in the first few hours, we didn't exactly find ourselves missing it either, but we were only playing in a world with 16 players.

This may very well be one of the game's most significant advantages or disadvantages as the story continues, threatening to lack the cooperative substance that MMO lovers require, yet boasting an ease of use and a straightforward mission structure that might very well invite less frequent MMO players into the genre. With any luck, BioWare's talent for nuance will be able to fundamentally please both groups as the previously announced Crew Skills mechanic and WarZone PvP sections will serve to bridge the two worlds.