Immediately after watching the following video for Star Wars: The Old Republic last week, I thought to myself: You know what, LucasArts, you have won this year's contest for best E3 trailer.
At the time, though, the triumph of that trailer felt bittersweet. While it's incredibly exciting and it actually reminded me why I once loved Star Wars (not a small feat, these days), it doesn't actually show what the game is going to look or play like.
I've since learned, though, that this crazy battle scene at least ties into the game. It depicts the sacking of the Republic capital world of Coruscant and the ravaging of the Jedi temple by the Sith. This conflict takes place 300 years after the events in the first Knights of the Old Republic, and provides the starting premise for the new Star Wars MMO LucasArts and BioWare are jointly crafting.
Anyway, I can't complain too much about this trailer's all-CG nature, because BioWare actually showed a ton of honest gameplay from The Old Republic behind closed doors at E3. Just to cover the big picture up front: Yes, this is a traditional MMO. It's got turn-based combat, loot, parties, guilds, player housing, raids, the works. Downed enemies sparkle when they have items you can pick up. Stationary NPCs dispense quests. Veterans of most any recent game in this genre will know what kind of gameplay to expect here.
Given the MMO trappings, what really struck me about The Old Republic was the degree to which BioWare is imbuing this traditional MMO framework with the feel of a single-player RPG. It all came across during a single sample mission, in which two players had fought their way through an Imperial capital ship in order to confront the captain about some misdeeds he'd been getting up to.
In most MMOs, when you get into a quest-related story sequence, all the dialogue and character actions continue to take place in the game world while you run around and jump over your party members' heads. But The Old Republic takes the control out of your hands, using close-ups and other dramatic camera angles to play out a cinematic interlude the likes of which you'd expect in an RPG where you're the sole player.
You also get to make dialogue choices using a wheel-like interface straight out of Mass Effect--and if you're rolling with a party, every member will get to contribute to decisions that sway the course of the mission you're on. How will multiple players contribute to dialogue choices? How will the game prevent other players from teabagging you in the middle of one of your dramatic cutscenes? Are all the quests instanced?
BioWare is cagey about logistical details like that at the moment, as you may notice in this interview we did.
BioWare wasn't the slightest bit reserved about the nature of your choice in this mission: spare the captain or kill him. The developer's parlance calls this sort of moment the "flashpoint" of a mission, where you'll affect how the mission plays out afterward. In this case, killing the captain meant having to fight off an invasion of Republic troops who boarded the ship, but company reps said if we'd made the decision to let the captain live, the mission would have gone a completely different direction.
These sorts of decisions are going to grant you light or dark side points--they'll move your karmic slider toward good or evil, in other words--but again, BioWare isn't saying what your position on the moral scale is going to do for you, gameplay-wise. I'm also a little curious to see what your evolving alignment means to your character, since you'll already have chosen the good-guy or bad-guy faction (the Republic and the Empire, respectively), as per MMO tradition.
BioWare is starting to roll out more and more of The Old Republic's player classes, and the company is completely forthcoming about the fact that each of the classes will correspond directly to one of the revered characters from the Star Wars movies. There's the Imperial bounty hunter class, who might as well be Boba Fett, given his extensive Mandalorian armor and concealed weaponry like a wrist-mounted flamethrower. At E3, the company also unveiled the Republic's smuggler, the Han Solo class.
Let's be honest: Star Wars weapons don't play directly into the typical MMO model of combat, which generally has two opponents mechanically hitting each other repeatedly until one of them goes down. That looks a little strange when it's lightsabers you're talking about, which are supposed to kill just about anything in one hit--and let's not get started about the absurdity of two guys pointing blasters and shooting each other over and over. In that light, I'm glad to see that BioWare is at least working on playing to the strengths of each class's combat potential. The smuggler, for instance, will be able to take cover behind predefined barriers during a firefight. That will offer an increased defense rating, of course, but more importantly, it will just make the combat look better, which is something the MMO genre sorely needs.
In general, though, The Old Republic is looking surprisingly complete for an MMO that's so far from release the developers won't even publicly pick a year yet. This was of course a controlled demo, so who can say what the rest of the game world looks like at this point--but the environments and characters BioWare did show off looked good enough to be included in a shipping game. The company has clearly taken a page from the World of Warcraft playbook by giving the art design a highly stylized nature, making the characters look a little cartoon-like in the interest of looking good on lesser PC hardware. But I was impressed and a little surprised by the technical detail in the world, too.
I was also pretty annoyed at the general quality and polish of what I saw in The Old Republic, because after I kicked WOW for the third time I thought I'd never play another MMO again. But when a BioWare rep capped off the demo by taking down a named Jedi with his Sith character, then looting that character, grabbing his blue lightsaber, and equipping it in a dual-wielding configuration with his existing red one, I felt that familiar combination of loot lust and Star Wars fandom that made me admit to myself before I even left the demo room that, yes, I'm going to have to try this one.