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Going to a galaxy far far away with The Old Republic

12:00 PM on 12.03.2009 // Ben Perlee

It has been just over a year now since LucasArts and BioWare made their big announcement of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Really a matter of when, not if, the game has been in development for a long time, and dreamed of by fanboys for even longer.

When taking something as beloved as the Knights of the Old Republic franchise and turning it into an MMO, people were bound to have some interesting feelings for the game. After all, things could devolve into something like Star Wars: Galaxies, which arguably doesn't best represent Star Wars.

So in early November, I was lead into a large private theater in the Presidio of San Francisco at George Lucas' exclusive complex devoted to LucasFilms, Industrial Light and Magic, and (of course) LucasArts. There, I received early hands-on with the game, got a glimpse at what BioWare and LucasArts have planned for the game, and checked out what they hope to be the next big MMO.

Hit the jump with me.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: LucasArts
To be released: 2010

Let's be real: the most exciting elements of The Old Republic would be those features that are distinctly BioWare. With over a year's worth of voice-over, each character class will have distinct plot lines with proper acting. Conversations, too, are acted out directly using the real-time dialogue systems of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. With eight character classes split between the two factions, and each offering completely different plot elements, there is a huge amount of story in The Old Republic.

It is this story element that LucasArts and BioWare hope to make the big selling feature for the title. While something like World of Warcraft can rest on its laurels as an established MMO, BioWare -- a company new to the MMO market -- has to fight through by doing what it does best. Building on the Star Wars universe is a special way of doing that.

Helping fuse the universe of Star Wars and the distinct development of The Old Republic is the usage of Companions. Each of the eight character classes will have different and unique Companions to fulfill gameplay roles. While they don't necessarily fulfill the role of a player-controlled character, they will help you out in important areas, especially those areas where your class might be especially weak. While I didn't have a chance to work with one of these NPC Companions, examples shown to me included Khem Val: the Bashade, and Xalek: the Kaleesh, who acts as a type of apprentice for the Sith Inquisitor class.

For this event, I was given some hands-off time with the Imperial Agent class and the new Jedi Consular, and about 40 minutes hands-on with the just-announced Sith Inquisitor. Between the Jedi Consular and the Sith Inquisitor, that brings the class total to eight, with a whole slew of options for players. Those options? Jedi Knight, Trooper, Smuggler and Jedi Consular for the Galactic Republic, and Bounty Hunter, Sith Warrior, Imperial Agent, and Sith Inquisitor will be representing the Sith Empire's side of the game.

BioWare made an odd yet very conscious decision when designing the character classes of The Old Republic. Instead of offering the staple classes like Tank, Healer, or Mage, the developer looked at what people would want to play play, and built classes from there. No offense, Star Wars: Galaxies, but there is a reason why almost everyone wanted to play as Jedi -- because they're awesome. Thankfully, with the inclusion of Companions to help fill out any holes a Class, along with a pretty developed tech system (should I make my Smuggler more of a sneaky sniper or more of a healer?), the game promises a more balanced experience.

So how do these new classes play? Well, the Imperial Agent (which we've known about for a while) is sort of a sneaking stealth class. All of their moves are designed to be executed from behind, blend in invisibly, and even shiv enemies. It looks like a cool class for people used to a slower playing style. The Jedi Consular, in contrast, is more aggressive. Looking like Queen Amidala with Force powers, the Jedi Consular is all about Force pulls and deflections. They stand farther from the action, to be sure, but they will be doing a lot of damage from the side.

Then there's the Sith Inquisitor. Best for people who like being dicks, the Sith Inquisitor is a Palpatine-esque character all about quietly planning stuff before screwing everyone over. This was the class I played, andLucasArts PR asked that to enjoy this class, everyone play as evil as possible. Of course.

Starting out at the Sith Academy, I was fortunate to luck out with a posh-voiced Sith rocking a pedo-stache while doing douchy things. Everyone is delightfully self-serving, and missions in this initial area evolve around establishing authority, calling each other slaves, collecting important artifacts, killing robots, and dealing with a miner insurrection.

Sent on a mission to retrieve some special artifact, I got some solid hands-on with the Sith Inquisitor's powers. Everything you would expect is here, such as force lightning, as well as abilities that sap an opponent's health or toss them up in the air with a whirlwind.

The actual meat and potatoes of the game looks to be pretty standard, as far as MMOs go. Actions are controlled with function keys or mouse clicks, and there is no auto-attacking. People expecting a battle system like in KOTOR will be disappointed, as  The Old Republic looks to offer standard MMO gameplay across the board. Players will start off in different areas of the Star Wars universe as an introduction, then focus on taking on instances and missions. A big selling point for BioWare is that The Old Republic will bill extremely plot driven. Considering this is a company that has never made an MMO before, they are relying on what they do best -- tell a story. 

When it comes to visuals, it looks like BioWare is taking a balanced approach to the game. Instead of attempting a very realistic approach, BioWare has taken a middle ground between something like The Force Unleashed and TV series The Clone Wars. While far from the heavy, bold style of the latter, The Old Republic's engine looks to allow for flexibility for plenty of users with varying rig-quality, as well as looking pretty damn good. Sure, it's not like BioWare is going crazy with the graphics, but it is obvious that they have spent plenty of time thinking about what best fits an MMO game.

Audio is certainly nice. All of the voice acting sounds right up there with the Star Wars standard. The soaring epic orchestral makes a comeback, and it sounds like everything is going to make you feel as epic as you'd expect.

I came away very impressed with the quality of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It is obvious that BioWare is placing utmost care into developing the de facto Star Wars MMO, and that every element -- from the story, to the action, to the gameplay -- is being designed from the ground up to represent the best of both the Star Wars universe and the quality of a BioWare designed game.


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