Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall set me free.
One of the most memorable events in Knights of the Old Republic was visiting the ancient Sith homeworld of Korriban and joining the Sith Academy. That intrigue ridden world had a story that felt more focused than those on the other worlds. For those players who chose the dark side, it anchored their characters and allowed them to explore the extreme Darwinian nature of those mean Dark Jedi.
With Korriban being one of the starting worlds in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I felt I had absolutely no choice but to make a foul, corrupt (and bald) Sith Warrior. I wanted to do more slicing and dicing than electrocuting, so the Sith Inquisitor was left unloved. Dreams of frolicking about the galaxy like Darth Vader led me to make a rather ugly Cyborg. Truth be told, he looked a little bit Borg, which I thought might rip a hole in space and time. I was wrong.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
In the 200 or so years since the events of Knights of the Old Republic, Korriban hasn't changed all that much. The new Sith Academy is in a better state of repair than the old one, but it's still a dusty barren world, full of dangerous fauna and tombs ripe for plundering. The storyline isn't all that far removed from the adventures of Revan and company, either. You must learn the ways of the Sith, fight and conspire against your fellow pupils, grab weapons and assorted items from crypts and stab anyone that gets in your way.
For the most part, the missions themselves are standard MMO fare. You have to find items, and kill an arbitrary number of foes then return for a reward. Additionally players get bonus missions while adventuring, they rarely deviate from killing yet more foes, but at least it gives you a tiny bit more motivation to slaughter everything in your path as you make your way to your goal.
Where the missions stand out, and this was generally the case throughout my time with the game, is in the presentation. I wasn't just running around tombs to get gear and XP, I was getting revenge on a fellow Sith Apprentice, or turning a sniveling alien into a powerful force for the dark side. The cut scenes and focus on personal quests eases players into the game. While it might seem immersion breaking to be running around with thousands of other "chosen ones" the light instancing manages to give players that single-player experience without discouraging them from looking for groups and generally being more sociable.
It wouldn't be a BioWare game if choice didn't rear its head. Unfortunately the constraints of the genre limit the impact your choices will have. Instead of being world changing, they are more personal. It's more about building your character, on top of all the stats and gear. It might just be the illusion of choice, but knowing that my character had a personal story that I had a hand in shaping made me feel a lot more invested in the game. These choices vary from simply choosing who to hand items to for mission rewards, to betraying whole groups of people or murdering a mentor. In my time with the game I never saw any of my choices come back to bite me in the ass, but the potential is certainly there.
Unfortunately this all breaks down the moment you enter a multiplayer conversation. There is no conversation flow, as randomly selected members of your group speak with the NPC, while the NPC never really acts like it's talking to more than one person. A criminally nice Sith Inquisitor might spare the life of a prisoner while my Sith Warrior was demanding his execution, but the NPC will never acknowledge the disparity of our opinions. If he talks to my Sith Warrior then he automatically assumes that the selected decision was the one I chose as well.
But this is the only practical option that remains fair and it's still better than removing story and dialogue from Flashpoints altogether. It's also worth noting that these mutiplayer conversations don't extend to personal missions that are part of your class story or operations. Thankfully the dialogue is all fairly polished and while the quality of the voice acting can be spotty at times it's still right up there with any modern AAA RPG.
Although there are a few missions that require a group, Korriban is generally a solo affair. That doesn't mean that grouping is discouraged, merely that it's not all that necessary for the first ten levels. The ancient Sith homeworld is more about learning the ropes and fleshing out your character. But by the time I left the desolate planet I felt a great deal more purpose than when I leave the starting areas of other MMOs. The next stop on my galactic tour was Dromund Kaas, the ominous Imperial Capital. But before I travelled there I got an opportunity to select my crew crafting and mission skills and select my advanced class.
Crafting can seem a bit hands off, if you only glance at it superficially. You can send your companions on missions to gather resources, such things take both time and money. There is a chance they could fail their mission, but if they succeed they can bring back crafting materials and companion gifts. The gifts can be given to companions to gain influence with them. It makes their reactions to your choices completely hollow, since you know that if you upset your perky twi'lek chum by murdering a bunch of starving orphans, she'll forgive you if you give her a silencer for her gun. There is a cooldown on giving your crew gifts, which should limit this from being over exploited.
When you have the appropriate materials you can order your companion to start crafting, they go off and do that so you can keep on doing missions. There are also crafting nodes scattered throughout the various worlds which you can harvest yourself. So while the use of crew members for crafting may seem like it takes something away from the experience, the only noticeable difference between it and other contemporary MMOs is that there's no down time, you don't have to stop having fun just so you can stand there and craft for half an hour.
Every class gets two advanced classes, which in turn have three skill trees. While the initial eight starting classes per faction might seem small, especially since each class has a similar version in the other faction, there is plenty of variety. The first ten levels go by pretty quickly, so it's not long before you are able to diversify. I decided to follow the path of the Sith Maurauder, it boasted high damage and acrobatic shenanigans. I must also confess that I experience childish glee whenever I get a chance to mess around with two lightsabers.
BioWare have consistently been stressing that they want players to feel powerful, right off the bat. And I think they've managed to achieve that. Straight away, large groups of mobs can be tackled very easily. As a Sith Warrior I could leap into a group, lay down an AoE and barely even have flick my lightsaber before everyone has hit the ground. Of course, there are plenty of stronger enemies which will require a group, luck or some solid tactics before you can take them down. But standard enemies go down fast. There's also a real sense of progression early on. You get a whole plethora of abilities quite quickly, but not so much that it's overwhelming. Korriban and Dromund Kaas are simple enough so that you can experiment easily without getting beaten down.
It's satisfying to crush hordes of enemies without breaking a sweat, the force powers and dramatic acrobatics overshadow the less impressive animations to make combat look great, but it doesn't feel particularly special. It's responsive, there are abilities for every scenario and most battles last mere seconds. But none of it is new or defining. While BioWare have experimented with many aspects of the genre, combat doesn't appear to be one of them. It's still solid and really, making sure it's balanced and accessible should be their biggest concern. From my experience it was both of those things.
Just before I went to the Imperial Capital, I got a chance to try out my first Flashpoint, Black Talon. I couldn't really tell you what was going on, since I went from selecting the Flashpoint to being on a ship during an attack and dealing with an insubordinate Sith officer. There might have been a missing cut scene, because there wasn't much context. It was generally a lackluster affair and it was so overwhelmingly easy that there was no need to really communicate with the rest of my group. Our tank was really slow and there were almost no heals, but we didn't even get close to wiping. Despite playing a DPS character in medium armor I was able to jump into the fray and take most of the aggro safely before the tank even knew what was going on and there were no negative repercussions. Just as with solo missions the Flashpoint offered plenty choices, but due to the dialogue system they felt very disconnected from the game.
After capturing some rogue Imperial General and getting a pat on the back I finally made it to Dromund Kaas. Although my Sith Warrior's personal story continued to play out, there was a lot more group content and random bonus objectives encouraging players to kill every living thing on the entire planet. With the slower pace of the story it started to feel more like an MMO again, which is obviously not a bad thing at all. As enjoyable as Korriban was, The Old Republic is not a singleplayer game and although lots of KotOR fans would probably prefer a singleplayer sequel I think it would be a disservice to MMO players if BioWare ignored core aspects of the genre. There were slave rebellions to quell, wells to poison and artifacts to steal and while in reality I was generally going through the typical MMO motions, it was all tied together with context that made the whole experience more enjoyable.
The seat of the Empire's power was a lush jungle world, although clearly corrupted by the dark side. Its abundant wildlife and the imposing urban centre of Kaas City were in stark contrast to dusty, crumbling Korriban. When I first saw screenshots for The Old Republic I was slightly put off. The aesthetic seemed to have more in common with the newer Clone Wars cartoon than the movies or KotOR. But after playing it for a while I'm a bit more convinced.
What catches your eye are the huge imposing spaces, the detailed buildings and the frequently ornate gear. While the character animations are very poor and the style is slightly deformed, it will probably stand the test of time well. An overused comparison, but I still think a legitimate one is the art design of World of Warcraft. Blizzard took a similar route, focussing on a creative use of space, bright and bold colors and over the top armor and weapons rather than sharp, realistic graphics. And seven years on, it still manages to look great, if dated.
When my time in Dromund Kaas came to an end and I said cheerio to the slaves, giant monuments, deadly jungle and Imperial politics, my Dark Lord boss gave me a ship and sent me on my way. There were whole worlds just begging to be explored, ships to blow up and other players to embarass with my lightsaber, but all that is going to have to wait. Star Wars: The Old Republic launches on December 20, just in time to be set aside for familial responsibilities and holiday drunkenness. Unfortunate timing.