Massively multiplayer online games really are a dime a dozen these days, whether you're talking free-to-play or subscription based. And yet, despite all the choices available to us, MMO players are still on a constant lookout for something new, something bigger. Perhaps one of the most anticipated titles is BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game that has attracted much attention for its affiliation with the Star Wars universe and such a well-known RPG developer.
EA and LucasArts have been rather careful about keeping BioWare in the spotlight, perhaps even downplaying their own involvement to ensure the studio remains at the forefront of the ongoing Old Republic promotional campaign. During this year's E3 closed demo, TOR senior producer Blaine Christine was able to offer considerable insight into the development process; more specifically, the studio's intentions behind the game.
What intentions, exactly? Imagine, if you will, an MMO with a story you might actually care about. That's what BioWare is aiming for with TOR. As Christine explained, Old Republic is divided into four pillars: Exploration, Progression, Combat, and Story. Sounds pretty basic, seeing as how most games can be broken down in the same way. Any major MMO you've played probably does well in the first three categories, but even the best of the best have trouble keeping players interested in their stories. After an opening cinematic and several starter quests, we begin tuning out NPC conversations and glazing over lengthy quest descriptions.
If Mass Effect Were an MMO
As a studio known for some of the best-written RPGs around, BioWare is lending their trademark storytelling to The Old Republic. Each of the game's eight classes -- split evenly between the Republic and the Empire -- boasts an exclusive story, which really adds to the replayability. On top of that, your decisions will actually affect your story and the progression of the game. "Your character is the sum of all choices made in the game," as Christine describes it.
During the closed demo, we caught a glimpse of the Jedi Knight progression, after the Jedi has defeated a key Imperialist NPC, Lord Praven. At that point, the player can decide either to release Praven or kill him, and your ultimate decision will net you Light or Dark points, plus approval or disapproval with your companions. Your options are mapped to a familiar-looking dialogue wheel, and rest assured, your choice does affect more than just your morality and virtual relationships; sparing Praven ensures you'll likely run into him again later, serving the Republic as a Jedi.
Since we are still talking about an MMO, you'll inevitably wind up grouping with other players, but this doesn't put the story on hold. To accomodate parties, Old Republic implements a unique cooperative dialogue system built on the concept of loot rolling. When prompted with a dialogue option, party members will select their own responses and then roll for initiative. Whoever wins (with the highest number) earns the right to speak in that particular cutscene. Rinse and repeat.
Starships & Companions
In Knights of the Old Republic, players were given the Ebon Hawk as a base of operations and a collection of companions to keep the ship lively. As the spiritual successor to the KOTOR series, The Old Republic employs this exact same formula by awarding the player his/her very own starship, in addition to a whole new cast of companion characters. Your starship will be your main form of transporation across the galaxy, and exploration is obviously an important aspect in any MMO. Being a Star Wars game, players can expect to see iconic locales from the core series and expanded universe, and every location features its own overarching questline.
You'll recruit companions throughout the game in much the same way as in any other BioWare RPG, and as briefly mentioned above, approval ratings do come into play. For those unaware of how this system works, your in-game decisions, no matter how small, affect your standing with certain companions depending on their personal values. Accepting a quest to help someone without any payment may not jive with the Bounty Hunter on your team, while that same choice could increase your approval with a more altruistic companion.
Hands-on with the Bounty Hunter
Being able to actually play The Old Republic in its current state was definitely a treat, and the hands-on portion revolved around the Imperialist campaign during the Tatooine saga -- around the 30 to 40 level range. Every available class was accompanied by a different companion character, capable of attacking or healing the player in combat, and our "mounts" were speeders, rather than actual animals. All classes come equipped with buffs and a heal spell to make them more self-sufficient, though soloing can still be troublesome for certain classes.
TOR classes branch off into specializations called "advanced classes," such as the dual-wielding Mercenary for Bounty Hunters; for their Republic counterparts, Smugglers, the equivalent is Gunslinger. When taking control of a Mercenary during the hands-on demo, I was told the Bounty Hunter actually had a support-heavy talent branch as well, best suited for healing in a party. Armed with two blasters as my primary weapon and a variety of ranged attacks, I set out in search of a missing Imperial agent in the Tatooine wastes, where the most common enemies were Tuskens and what might have been Dewbacks. Despite the sci-fi setting, Merc combat felt very much like a caster class in a fantasy MMO, where skills required prep time (read: cast time), and being attacked while prepping creates interference. More devastating attacks, like missiles, require longer preparation and are best suited for small groups at a distance.
The environments in TOR are incredibly grand, though from a graphical standpoint, the visuals are hardly breathtaking. The scale of everything is impressive to look at, and character animations run smoothly enough (just ignore all the creepy expressionless faces). Yet simplified shapes and heavy desaturation give the game a somewhat cartoony appearance, resulting in a World of Warcraft 2.0 feel. On the bright side, this probably means anyone with a half-decent rig could run TOR.
As for when the game will be out, BioWare still can't say. Most sources have The Old Republic slated for late 2011, but we're already midway through the year, and no release windows have been given.
Star Wars: The Old Republic E3 2011 Hands-on
Integrating BioWare's trademark storytelling into an MMO
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