A long, long time ago, in a galaxy not too far from here, someone tried their hand at a massively multiplayer Star Wars game. Unfortunately, unless living the life of a tentacle-haired cantina dancer eternally stranded in a barren hell that just so happens to share some location names with Star Wars sounds right up your alley, the game was something of a disappointment. Taken on its own merits, yeah, it was all right. But it wasn’t Star Wars.
So, how do you convince gamers who’ve been burned once to abandon their lives as Night Elf Mohawks and take up lightsabers once again? Easy: you hire on BioWare, creators of what’s arguably the best Star Wars story since “Empire Strikes Back.” That, however, cracks open a whole new can of worms. Does a BioWare epic – let alone KOTORs 3-8 – have any place in an MMO? What about dialogue trees? MMOs are a fertile soil for social interaction, sure, but chatting up NPCs is another story entirely.
It’s with those questions and plenty more that we took Star Wars: The Old Republic for a test drive during E3. So, how’d it fare? Find out after the break!
A vest, a blaster, a dry wit, and a… tentacle head? Damn! Our pre-rolled The Old Republic character (not pictured above) was just one Harrison Ford away from being Han Solo. Oh well. No matter. Our scrappy Twi’lek smuggler was a suitable variation on the theme. As we began playing, we quickly found ourselves in a conversation – Mass Effect 2-style radial wheel and all -- with the guy in charge of the ship docks. Apparently, we’d recently delivered some cargo – probably of the illicit variety – and he was grateful.
Unfortunately, we wouldn’t have known it from his facial expression, which was surprisingly stiff. And while we have no way of knowing whether or not his character was simply a sci-fi Botox addict, we’re guessing that wasn’t the case. Obviously, BioWare still has plenty of time to shepherd its characters across the uncanny valley, but for now, the lack of expressiveness is a bit disappointing – especially considering that BioWare cited emotiveness as one of the main reasons it chose a cartoony look for The Old Republic in the first place.
Our dock-watching buddy, after dodging our attempts at snarky banter, informed us that a local resistance group had taken over nearby anti-aircraft guns. In other words, if we wanted to leave the planet, we’d have to disable those guns. Now, stop us if you’ve heard this one before: after receiving the quest, a marker appeared on our circular map in the upper right corner of the screen. Each time we disabled a gun, yellow text informed us of how many we had left to go. All the while, we took on small groups of enemies with a mix of auto-attack and skills on individual cooldown timers.
A drama-packed, Mass Effect 2-style mission this was not. In fact, if The Old Republic ever wins any sort of award, it sure as hell had better have World of Warcraft at the top of its “people to thank” list. That’s not to say combat wasn’t fun, mind you. But we couldn’t ever shake the feeling that we were just playing as a mix between WoW’s hunter and rogue classes. Basically, we had the yellow, refilling energy bar of a rogue and the long-range fighting style of a hunter. The smuggler’s cover system did add a unique twist to the proceedings, but there’s no doubting that BioWare’s following in Blizzard’s industry-leading footsteps.
The game’s looting system, too, is highly reminiscent of WoW, right down to the color-coding for each tier of armor/weapon rarity. While ducking behind cover and blasting thugs, we managed to nab ourselves a marginal upgrade in the form of new gloves and a shiny new blaster. Nothing too amazing, obviously, but assurance that – as with WoW – you’ll be exchanging your gear for incrementally better stuff nearly as often as an iPhone owner.
If nothing else, however, BioWare has learned from Blizzard’s mistakes as well as its successes. Translation: no sitting on hills and scarfing down bread in order to get back precious morsels of health. After combat ends, you’ll need only wait a couple seconds to hop right back into the fray. Does it make a whole lot of sense? No. But did Luke Skywalker sit down to munch on bread after slaying the Rancor? Of course not. The Old Republic may be taking a page from WoW, but its cribbing entire volumes straight out of Star Wars canon. Or at least, that’s the hope.
Similarly, my character was able to contact his quest-giver via an R2D2-style hologram mid-quest. Once again, The Old Republic proved to be all at once smartly streamlined and Star Wars-y. So long, unnecessary running back and forth in order to begin the next leg of the quest. You won’t be missed.
After throwing a wrench into the local resistance’s operation, we ran back to the ship docks, only to be ambushed by more thugs in what was actually a pretty unexpected moment. As one of the game’s developers told us, the smuggler’s story unfolds as you might expect of a guy (or gal) cut from Han Solo’s cloth: everything constantly goes wrong. So long as it keeps things exciting, though, we’re pretty ok with that.
The demo wrapped with us holding our wounded customer in our arms. He’d been shot, but he was still able to inform us that our ship had been stolen. Remember what we said about everything constantly going wrong?
The Bottom Line: Overall, we have to say we had quite a bit of fun during our 25 or so minutes with The Old Republic. Unfortunately, seeing as we only got to mess around in the smuggler’s starting area, it didn’t do much to dispel some of the bigger question marks surrounding the game. How will quests with multiple people work? Will the story just get in the way of more traditional MMO gameplay? What’s the deal with PvP? The list goes on. Still though – despite a few obvious WoW influences and some wonky facial animations – we’re very pleased with what we’ve seen so far. Here’s hoping our high expectations are rewarded when The Old Republic launches in spring 2011.