Star Wars: The Old Republic

Hands-On Preview: Media Beta
"There is some real serious appeal to the notion of a never ending story told by Bioware."

A long time ago...

...right here on Earth, BioWare created one of the great masterpieces in gaming with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Here is a game not just revered for its gameplay, but storytelling that rivals and possibly surpasses the divisive Star Wars prequels. Here is a game that contains some of the most memorable characters in BioWare's history. Here is a game that contains one of the best and most jaw-dropping plot twists you'll ever see.

That was 2003. In that same year Star Wars Galaxies, an MMO, was released by Sony Online Entertainment and Lucasarts.

Fans of the BioWare game clamored for more, but their series was handed off to Obsidian, who built a sequel that, due to budget and timeline constraints, was not everything it could have been or was hoped for. BioWare meanwhile moved on to other things, giving us Jade Empire before the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games.

Meanwhile, things didn't go so well for Star Wars Galaxies. After some early success, the population of the game began to dwindle. Now, here in 2011, the game is scheduled to shut down forever in December... just in time for BioWare to publicly release its foray back into the Star Wars universe with their own MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Where Did You Dig Up That Old Fossil?

The first question anyone naturally has to ask when a new MMO comes onto the scene is this: how is it different from World of Warcraft?

When you first start to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, the answer is a trite "not very." In fact, for the first few hours, you can't help but notice that nearly every gameplay element is almost exactly like World of Warcraft. You have a bunch of cooldown-restricted abilities mapped to numbers. You right click on stuff to loot it or interact with it. You left click to target. You cycle targets with tab. You move the camera by holding down a button on the mouse and moving it. You have an item that takes you home to a certain warp point when used. Instead of riding around gryphons to travel long distances, you ride around on speeders. The list just goes on and on.

Even down to the animations and the art style, this thing calls to mind World of Warcraft. All the characters are a little bit cartoony, and the jump animations look similar. Even the color palette on the Jedi planet of Tython, where my Jedi Consular started out, reminded me of Darnassus, home of the night elves in World of Warcraft.

Trust Your Instincts

On the surface, the classes themselves – at least on the Republic side, which is all we are currently allowed to discuss – seem to correspond to the classic roles in an MMO. For those unfamiliar, your role usually fits into one of four major types: Tanks/Defenders, whose job it is to draw the enemies to themselves and absorb damage; Big DPS (Damage per second)/Strikers, who can dish out massive amounts of damage with each single shot; Crowd Control/Controller, who makes sure smaller hordes of enemies don't overwhelm you; and finally Healers/Leaders, who make sure everybody stays standing with healing abilities and buffs. This is obviously a simplification of things as there are hybrids of these roles as well as specializations, but these provide a good baseline for discussing the class roles.

Jedi Knights seem to be natural fits for the Tank type of job, while Jedi Consulars appear ready made to develop into Healers. Both classes start on the planet Tython, which is the heavily wooded Jedi home world. If you're a Jedi Consular, you very quickly start to run into other players that are Jedi Knights and vice versa. Without going into too many specifics regarding the storyline (both for reasons of possible spoilers and NDA restrictions), you can expect to have a Jedi Master sending you out on quests and regularly "coaching you up."

Smugglers and Troopers, meanwhile, seem to have abilities that make them good fits for DPS jobs, with Troopers at least also being an option for Tank work due to their ability to use heavy armor. Both of these classes start on the planet Ord Mantell, which is currently embroiled in a bitter civil war. Ord Mantell itself seems to have a more mountainous type of feel to it than Tython, with most of the structures being either built into the mountains themselves or between and around them.

The game does offer two specializations per class, which makes the simple picture I outlined above already somewhat murky. I figure that more options are always a good thing so this is a point in the game's favor, but I was unable to log enough time to actually play these specializations myself. Also, many of these things are still being tweaked for balance anyway, so my own experience may not match what we'll see on release.

What I hope this does provide though is a clearer picture of your starting options on the Republic side. If you want to play a Jedi, you can right away choose between the more battle-ready Jedi Knight or the more healer/controller type as a Jedi Consular. If you want to play someone who doesn't use the Force and starts off on a contested planet with a civil war going on, go with the Smuggler or Trooper. Specialization means you should be able to tweak things more to your play style as you go.

Luminescent Beings Are We, Not This Crude Matter

So far I've mainly focused on what Star Wars: The Old Republic appears not to be. It does not appear to be a revolution in MMO game mechanics or class roles. It does not appear to be a revolution in art style. It does not appear to be a revolution in control scheme.

However, BioWare all along has said that Star Wars: The Old Republic will demonstrate that the next evolution in MMO gameplay is story. When you are out killing things and taking their stuff this game appears, in large measure, to be World of Warcraft... IN SPACE. But what about the promise of story here? How is this "next evolution" in MMO gameplay realized?

One thing that I always struggled with in World of Warcraft was the idea that nothing I did actually mattered. I thought this might be an insurmountable challenge for MMOs, since it's impossible to disguise the fact that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of players with characters just like yours running around doing the same things you are. When someone gives you a quest to go get some Macguffin so they can do something, the illusion of doing it specifically for this guy is pretty quickly dispelled when dozens of other players are standing around getting the same quest or already returning with the Macguffin. Why should I bother going to get it if this guy already did?

BioWare appears to be trying to solve that problem in The Old Republic by going out of their way to maintain the illusion that YOU, and no one else, are the most important person in the galaxy.

The most significant way they're implementing this idea is with small storytelling instances. Wandering from place to place, you occasionally see green shimmering curtains over a room, which resemble force fields. When you walk through them, you're temporarily separated from any group you're with, and you won't see any other players wandering around. In my play experience these tended to appear when I was about to have a plot advancing conversation with my Jedi Master or commanding officer. This really gives you the feeling that you're having a private conversation with an NPC.

There are also some areas where only one member of a class can enter as part of a group. These are class-specific narratives that provide a chance to recruit some help to advance your plot, but only from other classes who will never experience the particulars of that plot. This strikes me as a very, very smart way to not only provide some replayability, but also to provide some quest balance and to maintain story integrity.

There are also red curtains that mean you can't enter the area until you've taken on the appropriate quest. I found these to be slightly more damaging to the immersion as there seemed no good reason I couldn't enter and explore a cave, for example, just because I hadn't picked up a quest. Nevertheless, this illustrates the extent to which the BioWare team is making sure that the storytelling aspect of the game maintains consistency and coherence for your individual character.

As far as the storytelling sequences themselves, there is an absolutely staggering amount of voiceover in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Given the vast reported size of this game I can't even imagine how many hours they had voice actors locked in recording studios to get this ready for day one. Your own character also has a voice in the game, so don't expect to be able to play the silent protagonist here.

Dialogue often features the typical conversation wheel we have grown to simultaneously love and hate in BioWare games these days. The options appear to map themselves to the light side near the top of the wheel, with dark side responses mapped toward the bottom, but there isn't an obvious blue/red highlight over the responses, but this might be tweaked later. Some responses give you light- or darkside points after you choose them, but I wasn't able to discover myself what the implications of this were from a practical standpoint during my own playing time.

You Must Do What You Feel Is Right, Of Course

Everything I'm about to say is based on a limited amount of play. I didn't get any character higher than level eight because I tried to at least get a glimpse of all the classes, and things may change between now and launch day for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The most important thing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic got right was that it felt like Star Wars. Lightsaber battles. Music to match. Getting to actually say things like "Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy." The game remains a masterpiece because it captures so much of the spirit of Star Wars.

There are moments where that happens in the MMO. Sometimes the dialogue hits perfect notes. Sometimes the choices you have to make invoke classic Star Wars themes. And sometimes, just sometimes, the action feels just right. There was a moment when performing a certain quest where I approached a group of three flesh raiders with my Jedi Consular. Taking them all head on might have been a difficult fight, but instead I force lifted one of them to immobilize him, immediately followed up by force pushing the second one, and then used the force a third time to hurl a boulder at the last one. That felt like Star Wars.

But... then there are moments that do not. Shortly after that my force meter had run out and the fight devolved into me whacking things with my training saber over and over, each time waiting for the cooldown to run out so I could swing it again. The feeling disappeared. Sometimes the dialogue consists of tired old choices like either demanding a reward or saying you did it for the good of mankind. Other times you wonder about the storytelling logic just contained in the quest you are on – the reason I was fighting flesh raiders at all was because Padawans were being captured by them, and yet I, another Padawan, was being sent out to rescue them. Also, it is a sad day indeed when force users can be imprisoned in wooden cages with thin planks.

And so, it is a mixed bag. When everything is right, the game soars. When it isn't, the game drags.

But will it sell?

I think the notion of a never ending story told by BioWare has some real serious appeal. The sales of games like Mass Effect and, in particular, Dragon Age, indicate that even when the actual gameplay isn't perfect, there is a rabid audience out there for the types of stories that BioWare can deliver.

In this particular case, the gameplay has been taken straight from World of Warcraft, which has already demonstrated its viability as an appealing gameplay model for casual types of gamers. Layer on top of that a Star Wars setting that already has a large fanbase and maybe, just maybe, Star Wars: The Old Republic can find success.

On the other hand, because the gameplay is so familiar, will the hook of BioWare-level storytelling really be enough to keep people around? After all, when you're actually out there playing this game and not selecting dialogue options, this is still in large part just another World of Warcraft clone in a different setting.

I can't say for sure. And it's entirely possible with a couple months to go, BioWare may have one or two more tricks up their sleeves. But as someone who enjoyed World of Warcraft for at least a couple of years, the idea of playing a game like it set in the Star Wars universe with me as the center of attention (even if it is just a bunch of tricks) has a certain draw that is hard to deny.

Hands-On Preview: E3 2011
"If BioWare can pull this off... there will be a new king in town for Star Wars fans."

I'll admit it: I'm a pretty big Star Wars buff. When I was in high school, I read my fair share of Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson novels about the expanded universe. I even wanted to have my own lightsaber. Not much has changed in the 9 years since I graduated–I still want a lightsaber and a ship with a hyperdrive and it looks like Star Wars: The Old Republic is the game that's going to let me do it with style. BioWare and EA were happy to show us what they've cooked up and I'm fairly impressed with what I'm seeing.

It's true that games like Rift have been providing players with more and more dynamic experiences, but that's never been what BioWare has been about. The Old Republic focuses on four tenets set forth by BioWare: Exploration, Progression, Combat, and Story. They say that many MMORPGs have nailed the first three of these elements, but few have managed to get the story right. I'd say that TOR has exactly what both single-player and MMORPG fans need, and it's fairly impressive what BioWare has achieved with the story segments. Players will have legitimate choices to make and, much like BioWare's single player titles, they'll have an effect on what happens down the line.

For example, our demo featured a Jedi who had defeated a member of the Sith order and was faced with the choice to either execute him or spare him. Execution–which goes against the Jedi Code–provided dark side points and would forever erase that character from the game. A second run through showed the results of sparing him, with the Sith Lord becoming an ally in the fight against his former comrades. That's fine and dandy for single play, but how does this fit into dungeons and other aspects of an MMORPG played with other people? Dice rolls. In perhaps one of the most intriguing things I saw in the demo, story sequences in dungeons are done similarly to single player sequences–with full voice acting and animation. When it comes to choices, however, every member of the party decides how they might react, and a roll takes place. Win the roll and you don't get loot, but you do get to be the character that speaks and makes the choice. I was impressed not only by such a simple system, but why TOR was the first game to get it right. That seems to be what BioWare is good at: taking something new and making it so that it seems like it should have been there forever.

Combat in the dungeons is fairly standard MMORPG fare–there are eight classes, four for each faction, and unlike many MMORPGs, parties are capped at four, so a balanced party will have one of each class. Each class has a speciality, ranging from tank to dps to healer, but these classes are also able to specialize into additional subclasses so that players can get the type of character that matches their play style. It should also be noted that all of the eight classes has a unique storyline, each with its own twists and turns, so it's much more worthwhile for players to undertake these branches that will take hundreds of hours to complete.

TOR also offers several different types of end-game content for players, ranging from PvP warzones to raid content, known as Operations. These, as you would expect, have multiple parties working together in a dungeon. Operations require a high amount of coordination and cooperation between these parties, so they are the epitome of what you can achieve in TOR. We didn't get to see a great deal of detail here, but what we did see looked like it was shaping up well.

I'm very hopeful with what I've seen for Star Wars: The Old Republic. There appears to be quite a bit of quality content combined with a BioWare story featuring twists, choices, and progression, and you usually don't see that in many MMORPGs. If BioWare can pull this off, The Old Republic will truly be the kind of game that Star Wars Galaxies wanted to be, and there will be a new king in town for Star Wars fans.

Hands-On Preview: PAX East 2011
"They even managed to incorporate a lot of their trademark styles and mechanics into an MMO format to make it stand out from the rest."

In 2004, Sony Online Entertainment released the first Star Wars-themed MMO to the PC gaming market. Entitled Star Wars Galaxies, it enjoyed relatively good success, but never managed to get out under the shadow of the 600 lb. gorilla known as World of Warcraft. In 2008, BioWare announced a project in collaboration with Lucasarts to create a new Star Wars MMO called The Old Republic. And although Galaxies is still running (albeit with a diminished player base), gamers have been eagerly anticipating the new title. With The Old Republic slated to be released in 2011, EA provided a booth for the game at PAX East with various public demonstrations, Q&A sessions, and a public demo.

At first glance, The Old Republic looks quite similar to World of Warcraft, only with a Star Wars theme. The gameplay involves fast, turn-based combat, multiple playable classes, a skill tree, numerous standard sidequests, and so on. However, with BioWare's cinematic acumen and storytelling ability, there is quite a bit more to it than meets the eye. They even managed to incorporate a lot of their trademark styles and mechanics into an MMO format to make it stand out from the rest.

The Old Republic takes place 300 years after the events in KOTOR, and 3500 years before the films. Between KOTOR and The Old Republic, the Sith Empire launched a surprise assault on the Galactic Republic, claiming many of their territories. This attack escalated to a war that lasted for twenty-eight years. Eventually, the two sides established a tenuous truce, but tension still lingers in the air. The Empire has its own hidden agendas, and the Republic is building up its military strength. The galaxy is now on the brink of another all-out war and you, the player, get involved in this galactic conflict.

When creating a character, players get to choose between eight classes, four on each side. The Republic side features Jedi Knights, Jedi Consulars, Troopers, and Smugglers, and the Empire includes Sith Warriors, Sith Inquisitors, Imperial Agents and Bounty Hunters. Each has a unique skillset, as well as a choice between two advanced classes which are completely unique to that class. But as a BioWare game, there is more to these classes than just choosing a playstyle and working on a build. Each class also has a unique story which ties heavily into the overarching plot, though not much detail has been yet unveiled about those stories. The reps insist on letting the players be surprised by them.

Also of note is the presence of Mass Effect's dialogue wheel, which gives players dialogue choices during events. This can affect how an event plays out, and it's a nice way of incorporating strong NPC activity that most MMOs don't delve into.

The Old Republic's presentation is solid, with high quality graphics and large, detailed worlds. There are also plenty of cutscenes which will occur frequently, including during minor sidequests. And of course, it's not Star Wars without John Williams's musical score as accompaniment. There will also be a handful of original compositions by various composers, but we do not yet know specific names. Another big audio detail is the full voice acting in the game, including the player avatar. This time around, expect a lot of fully-spoken dialogue instead of just grunt noises and one word statements.

One interesting aspect of the gameplay is that each player has his/her own customizable spaceship, which serves as a base of operations to travel between the seventeen available planets. Of course, players can do more than just cruise around the galaxy from point A to point B; there is an option to engage in space combat missions, which play out like a rail shooter. Completing these missions provides EXP and a special currency used to customize the ship. During the demonstration, a mission was played out where the objective was to destroy sixty TIE fighters with the optional mission of destroying eight ship turrets. The person playing the demo managed to complete the main objective, but not the secondary, which made it more difficult for him to survive until the end, but meant that he still got rewarded to some degree.

A companion system will also be implemented in The Old Republic. Companions are reminiscent of your party members in games such as KOTOR, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. They can tag along with the player to assist in battles, provide random commentary, discuss story events, and occasionally try to influence a player's decision. In turn, players can also try to convince their companion to undergo character development and become a friend or even a lover.

At its core, The Old Republic feels like an ordinary MMO, but BioWare's involvement gives it a lot of potential. The company has proven itself successful with Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, but does it have what it takes to make a WoW killer? It's hard to say, since many other MMOs have attempted such a feat and none have succeeded. The BioWare reps didn't seem to care, though, stating that they would simply focus on making a good game that would carve its own niche in the flooded MMO market. Only time will tell how this MMO will fare when it comes out later this year.

© 2011 Electronic Arts, BioWare, LucasArts. All rights reserved.