Star Wars: The Old Republic Preview

It’s not easy to produce a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG, quite often just called MMO). World of Warcraft dominates the space so entirely that even the other big players; Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online, Rift and Eve are small by comparison. But Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) has a couple of things going for it, so that when it releases this ‘holiday season’ it’s bound to get large initial sign-ups. Firstly, it’s set in the Star Wars universe, guaranteeing an audience of fans, interested in spending their time in this world, and secondly it’s being developed by Bioware who have a long-established name as a successful producer of high-quality roleplaying games such as the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, as well as Knights of the Old Republic – a game that’s the precursor to their MMO offering.

While a fervent MMO-player, I’ve been very bad about getting hyped up about games since Warhammer Online, so I had to admit I’d not read all that much about SWTOR before I went to Comic Con. I knew the basics, like the classes for each side, but that was about it. I knew I was going to go to the panel at Comic Con, and I also entered a raffle on their official forums to get to play an hour of the game – the first group content for each side… and I managed to score a slot playing in the Empire group on our final night in the States.

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The panel was held in a room that holds 2000 people and was filled to the brim. Not only did they announce the release window of ‘Holiday 2011’ (usually means mid-Nov to mid-Jan) but also that September will see the start of beta-testing weekends, where they invite more beta testers than normal to test bits of the game for short periods of time. It’s a system that worked really well in the run-up to Rift, and if you’re not already signed up for beta testing, now might be a good time to supply all your details. They also showed us the opening cinematics, which involve scrolling story text set to the original Star Wars music. It’s very… rousing, to say the least, especially if you’re in any way a fan of the series.

The panel also detailed 19 worlds that will be in play as the game releases, with more that can be added as it grows. Endgame content (things to do when you hit the level cap of 50) will include group, raid and solo things – there’s an entire planet dedicated to solo endgame quests and things to do. Equipment sets will mean your Trooper always looks like a Trooper, but you can tweak things a little. One of the things you will be able to customise is the look of your companions. Yes, unlike most MMOs, in SWTOR you will have companions (like those in Mass Effect or Dragon Age) who will quest alongside you. The game is fully-voiced, a first in MMOs, and it looks (and sounds) like they have a really strong cast of voice actors to bring the characters you’ll meet to life.

But most important is how it plays, of course. While I didn’t queue to get 15m of playtime from the start of the game, I did have my 1hr session late in the week. Basically, it’s the first Empire flashpoint (their version of instances, dungeons, whatever you want to call group quests/objectives) and it’s called Black Talon. I was playing a Bounty Hunter with an odd name and joined my mish-mash of adventuring types to fight our way through some ships and decide on the fate of a hostage (we were dark side, we killed him, of course!).

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The game felt pretty slick considering it’s still in beta, though we did manage to trigger at least one proper bug that the people there needed to sort out (quickly, I might add). As a group of four we were fairly unco-ordinated, all learning our level 9 chars as quickly as we could while progressing through a large spaceship mowing down anything that tried to stop us. Very quickly we got to the dialogue wheel mechanism. Whenever you talk to people in SWTOR a dialogue wheel pops up with three options for you to choose as a response. It’s easy to see how this would work in a single-player game, but in a multiplayer one Bioware have added some nice touches. Each player selects a response and then there’s an internal roll and a response is chosen for the group. Your character points (ie. Dark side points) are only chosen from the response you chose, but your group’s story will be dictated by the winning one. We were all pretty quick about it, but there’s some chance this might slow play down a bit as everyone reads at a different pace. The same holds true for interacting with objects such as lifts – we all had to click and select a floor, our group leader couldn’t just make that decision for us. That aside, the game felt very action-packed and even frenetic at times, and I don’t think it will disappoint in terms of animation or cool combat skills.

Empire characters can be Sith Inquisitors (ranged), Sith Warriors (melee), Bounty Hunters (ranged) and Imperial Agent (melee/stealth). Their Republic Counterparts are Jedi Consular (ranged), Jedi Knight (melee), Smuggler (melee/stealth) and Trooper (ranged). While it seems only a small number of classes, they can specialise once they get to level 10 into different variations of their theme, adding customisation. There’s quite a lot of playable races, so you don’t have to be human. The fact that the game is set over 3000 years before Darth Vader also gives Bioware some freedom to let you develop your own stories within the Star Wars universe.

I’m intrigued by the inclusion of companions. I’ve always liked them in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, it makes me feel not so much of a solo gamer. Within an MMO, where presumably I’ll be playing with friends, we can field a number of companions also to help flesh out areas we feel weak in. In the flashpoint I played, however, there were no companions out at all, so I’m still not sure how it’ll work.

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There’s no doubt that Star Wars: The Old Republic will have a successful launch. Even charging $150 for its collectors’ edition, they were selling fast. The game is up for pre-order here (as standard edition) for between £35-£40 depending on which online retailer you frequent. If you pre-order you’ll get earlier access to the game, but on a staggered basis to reward those who pre-ordered earliest, but also to maintain server load as the game nears launch. I have no complaints about the gameplay I saw, I think it looks a lot of fun, even if I’m unsure if I want to stick more to the fantasy MMOs I’m used to. My current thinking is that this may well be worth a few months of my time!



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