Since The Old Republic's launch is still presumably sometime in the not-so-close future, all there is to go on about whether or not this game will live up to expectations are hands-on events and BioWare's reputation. For previous stories I'd only been permitted to play for roughly 20 minutes at a time, providing an incomplete picture of a game meant to be played for hundreds of hours. The combat felt a little too safe, and it was difficult to get a sense of how the focus on storyline and character interaction would really impact the experience. More recently I was given the chance to play for roughly five hours with the Jedi Knight class, and came away pleased. Though the combat still feels standard for an MMO, the voice acting and story sequences do a great job of putting the tasks in meaningful context.
The issue I have with a lot of MMOs is that the tasks you're asked to do to level and gain new gear lack any sort of significant meaning. It's just kill five monsters, then kill 10 more and collect their ammunition satchels, then maybe kill their leader, then move on. In The Old Republic, you're still given these kinds of tasks, but considering the amount of story that's delivered between them and the fact that it's presented like it is in a single-player role-playing game, it instills a stronger sense of purpose. In the case of this demo session, that purpose is to become a Jedi.
The setting for questing is Tython, the starting area for Jedi Knight and Jedi Consular players. As tends to be the case in many Star Wars games, you don't start out with a lightsaber. The iconic Jedi kill stick must be earned. As the Knight class, my focus is combat. I have a training sword that buzzes with energy but doesn't glow like the saber. Initially I can use a Strike skill to deal instant damage to enemies and build a focus meter. This can be followed up with a Slash attack that does more damage and consumes focus, which forms the central combat mechanic for the class.
Earning experience through questing and killing opens up more skills that highlight the Knight's adeptness at close-range combat. One particularly useful skill is the Force jump. When triggered my Knight soars through the air and slams into the target, stunning it and building focus. It's a good way to get a head start on a fight, especially in a group when a party member can get in a free hit while the target is reeling. The additional focus is also helpful for unleashing more powerful skills such as an overhead slash for higher damage. I can take advantage of explosive containers in the environment with a Destruction ability, which detonates them. And in case I need a break from the back and forth of melee combat, I can trigger Saber Ward to deflect incoming attacks for a short while.
This whole time I'm fighting flesh raiders, which look like Hammerhead sharks filtered through the Hellraiser universe. It seems they're being led by a shadowy Force user, the tale of which is unspooled throughout the course of the opening quest zones. Progress between each quest cluster is quick and goals are bunched intelligently so you can tackle multiple tasks simultaneously. The emphasis is on convenience, with fast-travel options tied to every settlement. Instead of running back and forth between places there's an alternative to hop onto a speeder bike to cut down on wasted time. In all locations where NPCs hand out quests, what really helps to drive home the importance of missions is the presentation.
Whether speaking with a villager in a remote town or with leaders inside the Jedi Temple on Tython, I'm not given the traditional text boxes filled with quest information. Instead, the camera zooms in close and cuts between characters as they engage in fully voiced dialogue sequences. I can't say right now if this approach to delivering story might wear out its welcome on the journey from level one to the cap, but throughout the starting zone I was having a great time listening to the story of the world and getting to better know the characters. It made me feel more like I was doing quests for a particular person than as an excuse to check off another box in my quest log.
Things get more interesting in a party. Provided all members are near the quest giver, a shared dialogue sequence can be initiated. There are standard dialogue options, usually split into nice, neutral, and ill-mannered responses. In a shared conversation, my party member and I input our own dialogue choice, and a roll determines whose selection wins. Sometimes the outcome can be the difference between a "thank you" and a "shut up." And sometimes it can blow an engineering crew out an airlock.
It's a system made more exciting by the inclusion of Light and Dark Side points earned through decisions made. I'm told by one Jedi trainer to keep an eye on a young couple. It seems they might be in love, an emotional bond considered dangerous amongst Light Side saber-wielders. I track them down, learn their love to be true and am faced with a decision. If I turn them in, I get the standard quest reward and Light Side points. But if I decide to keep their relationship a secret, I get the bonus of a lightsaber crystal. Since there's no reloading the game in an MMO, these decisions are permanent, and I find I'm actually spending time thinking about how I want to treat these characters instead of blindly focusing on amassing money and experience.
At another point I'm given a quest to destroy a flesh raider elixir. Yet on my way I'm told by another NPC I'll get a cash reward should I return the elixir to him, since he'd like to use it for experimentation and research. I choose the latter path, neglecting to annihilate the concoction in exchange for a monetary bonus in addition to an allotment of Dark Side points. What are the long-term implications of these decisions, if any? I can't really say, but I can say that despite the familiar kill and collect quest goals, the storylines threaded through the tasks are strong, something I certainly hope is maintained throughout the experience.
Companions play a role in the world of The Old Republic, something I encounter briefly in an early quest. I venture deep into an underground warren and break free a T7-01 droid. It's the Jedi Knight companion character, but this early in the game he's only around for a little while. He has his own skill bar with unique commands, including an electric jolt that helps generate threat for the Knight. He can also sell off junk items from my inventory, an option which I could see being extremely convenient while out in the field far away from any vendors.
Throughout the experience, the high production quality is evident. There's still presumably quite a bit of work to be done in terms of polish, but The Old Republic's stylized approach to the Star Wars universe is looking like a smart move. The characters animate smoothly, and my Knight moves to block all incoming individual blaster fire shots with his sword. The environments are especially well done, with grassy areas with sporadic tree growth and misty rivers swerving past ancient stone statues and carvings set into mountains that ring the zone. The Jedi temple's interior is a sprawling space and in the main chamber sits an immense object, sort of like a friendlier version of Event Horizon's warp drive. Rich Star Wars orchestral scores play in the background and the voices of the NPCs I met were convincingly done, which is especially impressive considering the incredible amount of voice acting that's included.
I didn't wind up making it to the lightsaber portion of The Old Republic before my time with it ended, but greatly look forward to doing so once it is eventually made playable in testing phases and beyond. It's designed with convenience in mind, suffused with high production values, and in the early Jedi sections of Tython does a great job of establishing character and providing context for your actions. For Star Wars fans and first-time MMO players it seems like The Old Republic will be an easy game to jump into, and for the hardcore MMO player hopefully the benefits of the presentation outweigh the familiarity of the combat.
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