How do you evaluate an MMO when you've only had an hour with it? I believe the simple answer is that you can't.
In San Francisco earlier this week I was shuttled to LucasArts HQ, a campus tucked away from the hustle and bustle of downtown in some of the city's fabled rolling hills. I was escorted beyond a line of cubicles, quaint little office homes where game creators are sculpting one of the studio's next big releases.
Eventually, I was sat at a location with several PCs set up for the press to explore a lone mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO being co-developed with BioWare, creators of Mass Effect 2 and the Baldur's Gate series.
The two studios share more than a few epic tasks: (a) create an MMO that is both compelling and interesting, (b) make the "Star Wars" universe feel alive and steep the user in its tradition, (c) immerse users in its mechanics and keep them coming back for more and more, and (d) yank more than a few people away from Blizzard's World of Warcraft.
It turns out that I had an epic task myself: write about an MMO that will ostensibly offer hundreds of hours of play with just one mission under my belt.
I was given control of a low-level Republic Trooper, a ranged character that can do more than fire a few laser rounds. She, in this scenario, was able to toss a medium-range grenade to break up gaggles of assault-armed Separatists, and could fire out a focused assault weapon-side grenade that did much the same.
The reason I was annihilating Separatists on near-tropical Ord Mantell, I found, lies in the mission. I learned during the demo that my character was selected to be a member of Havoc Squad, "the finest military special operations group in the galaxy." My goal was to put down an uprising on Mantell, but more specifically, find a ZR-57 bomb the Separatists were hiding in their red-lit, heavily guarded base.
To begin the infiltration, I needed to speak with Wraith, a fellow member of Havoc squad and disable a forcefield generator. I also had the option to talk to Lamalla Rann, an NPC who gave out an optional quest that intersected with my mission.
I'll spoke with both, but I chose later to disregard Rann because of time allowance.
As with most MMOs the infiltration was little more than killing and retrieval. I blasted and bombed my way to the front door of the base, Manett Point, and into the elevator leading to its machine innards. From there I ran about its hallways, disabling computers. I eventually hit a room with a Separatist NPC who had knowledge of the bomb. Our conversation didn't go well and after he was killed, I hit a computer to learn the real location of the bomb.
In the monstrous hallways of Manett Point, I killed both human and machines. I also bumped into more than a couple of NPCs, most of which connected to Rann's sidequest. I became confused at points. Both stories seemed to fuse together into one much more complex mission.
After gathering the bomb intel I used a menu option to teleport back to Havoc Squad HQ where my commander was standing, awaiting my report. The mission ended.
What Can I Tell You?
I would be providing you with little if I chose to talk about the game as a whole with such a tiny piece of the MMO under my belt. To be sure I asked associate producer Tim Temmerman after the demo if this mission was indicative of the size of most in the game.
"No," he told me. "The missions will vary in size completely. You’ll have some that are real small sidequests that you would expect in a KOTOR game. Maybe it’s like part of a primary quest, but it’s someone who just needs a hand or needs help. Or you’ll have massive, massive quests -- you may have seen in E3 last year, the “Kill the Captain” quest inside that big starship, so some of those will be huge in scale. You saw just a medium, kind of general along your quest path size.”
But while I can't speak to the details of the full game, I can at least talk about the combat, which should be a familiar offering for anyone playing MMOs. You roll around, in 3rd person, pointing at enemies and killing. Standard attacks build AP that you can then use to put down a larger attack. With the ranged Trooper specifically I learned to use AP as a way to get the rushing villains out of my face.
"With the trooper there’s that definite feeling that they’re rushing on to you, so you’re going to have to keep them at bay somehow," associate producer Tim Temmerman told me after the brief demo.
"We’re not getting into it for today, but eventually when you start to build your character and spec out your skills, you can go into paths that might reflect more of a crowd control aspect. So it encourages that if you’re maybe going to be in solo play, you’ll want to do that. If you’re in a group aspect though, you’ll just want to be a 'nuker.' You’ll specialize more in abilities that deal damage.
"As a Trooper you did have a couple. You not only had the stock strike where you knock them back, but you may have started with a burning … basically a fire bomb. [The Trooper] does have that ability, it’s an opener attack, you open it up and it essentially cast a ring of fire around everyone."
And you'll need to knock down thugs: the Separatists and machines came at me hot and heavy during the demo, often rolling in bands and ready to eat me alive. The good news is that I was able to destroy them all with the combat options available to me: a rifle butt, a rapid fire here and there, a pulse grenade, and even a few normal shots. The Republic Trooper isn't a throwaway caster or your typical ranged adventurer who has to roll with a group. The Trooper can handle his or her own business without the aid of others.
Telling a Story
Another thing I did get out of the demo is a sense of the way Lucas and BioWare are trying to tell us stories. It's one of the broad goals the tandem have.
"We hope to tell a story," Temmerman told me. "That’s what 'Star Wars' is -- telling stories. It’s telling stories and getting people to actually be engaged and want to come back and see new stories and to share with other people as well. We’ve done an MMO in the past and you kind of have two aspects. You have a story-telling aspect, getting that cinematic quality. Then there’s the multiplayer aspect, hanging out with your friends and doing social features and PVP. To marry that, it’s a broad goal, but that’s what we’re shooting for."
And it did have a story to tell -- even if I was confused briefly by the sidequest. I infiltrated a base thick with Separatists, battled my way through droids and men, met more than a few NPCs willing to haggle or beg for their lives, and eventually discovered the location of a bomb important to the movement.
I'll chock my confusion up to inexperience and being thrust into the middle of a game that I didn't begin and with a character I didn't spec. I'll be happy to see more of TOR in the future and I remain confident that the MMO is headed in the right direction. After all, I sighted no Gungans during the demo.