Star Wars: The Old Republic is meant to stand in for all the sequels that BioWare and LucasArts otherwise would have made for their acclaimed Star Wars role-playing games. That’s a tall order, because it means BioWare is attempting to satisfy not only the fans who want to explore sprawling worlds and kill giant monsters, but also those who are looking for a deep, personal storyline — something that MMOs typically don’t deliver.
To that end, BioWare promises that The Old Republic will let you feel like the hero of your own personal Star Wars saga. The game features eight classes — you could choose to learn the ways of The Force as a Jedi knight, for example, or be a military man and concentrate on improving your skills with heavy artillery. BioWare says each of these classes will have “several hundred hours” of storyline.
Moreover, Old Republic will be the first MMO in which each and every line of dialog is fully voiced. That’s several hundred thousand lines of speech.
Publisher Electronic Arts will show two different types of demo for Star Wars: The Old Republic at its E3 booth this week: One in which you can team up with three other players and attempt a high-level boss fight, and one in which you can choose to try the opening missions of the game as a Level 1 character.
Knowing little about the ways of MMOs, I thought it prudent to spend my time at a pre-E3 preview event last month playing the simpler opening scene, taking the part of a hotshot lady trooper tasked with stopping some Separatist forces that had gotten hold of a cache of missiles.
(This turned out to be a good choice — the feeling that I got from the other writers at the event was that jumping feet-first into an MMO as a high-level character was confusing as hell.)
I didn’t have much time to think about whether I was a good guy or a bad guy or what. This all takes place 3,500 years before the movies, so are the Galactic Republic or the Separatists the good guys? Are there good guys? Eh, I’ll just do my job and try to be nice about it. So when my commander starts briefing me on the situation, I try not to mouth off too much, selecting from the dialog wheel the more pleasant options. For now. Maybe this guy will start to annoy me later.
Starting off a game of Old Republic feels similar to rolling a new character in World of Warcraft; you’re kept in a small area and given a few tasks that teach you the basics of the game. In this case, it’s a small military base that the Separatists are guarding; the first thing I end up doing is getting into a battle with a group of three of them. I quickly find out that I have a sweet bazooka sort of attack assigned to the “2″ key, so I hit that every time it recharges and I lob an explosive that takes down these early enemies in a single hit.
This depletes an ammo stock, but I also have a command that will let me stand still and replenish my health and ammo after a few seconds.
My main mission is to find and secure one of the crates of missiles, but as I kill guards, I find that this, too, is a quest; I get some bonus XP if I off 10 of them. So I do. Soon after, I find the missiles and report back to my commander. Now he wants me to go back out there and jam three communications stations, each of which is guarded and each of which is easily disabled by means of standing there while a timer ticks off.
Finally, I get to blow this opening area and head out toward a town, where I will surely find many more quests. A war is raging all around me as I depart, Separatist forces are out in the hills, sniping away at my Galactic brethren.
As I’m walking up the path, I run into another guy with a little speech bubble icon above his head. “A quest!” I think, and talk to him. He wants me to find and kill three of those snipers. I take the quest, and as it turns out I can find them and take them out on my way into town anyway. They’re hiding in bushes and such but not very well. Soon after, with about half an hour of play time under my belt, I reach the first town and quit the game.
As I said, I’m not an MMO person, but I have gone through the first couple hours of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. In one sense, Old Republic felt a lot like that, in the way that it gave me a rapid-fire succession of quests and big XP bonuses to hook me into its carrot-on-a-stick compulsion loop.
The difference is, as BioWare said, in the new Star Wars game’s approach to storytelling. Playing Warcraft and trying to absorb all the story is like trying to read all of Wikipedia. Every time you start and finish a quest, you’re assaulted with giant pages full of tiny text. Old Republic‘s cinematic, voiced, more-measured approach to storytelling made for a more memorable experience.
BioWare says if you want to play the entire game solo, pretending that it is just a very large single-player RPG, you can. But the developer’s aim is to tempt over the shut-ins, giving them alluring sidequests and content that can only be accessed with a group of players.
Whether fans will feel that Old Republic is an acceptable substitute for another offline RPG remains to be seen. But from my brief experience, I can see how it might achieve its goal of crafting a more appealing MMO story.