Sit back and prepare to become immersed in a story of kidnapping, espionage and torture as... wait, wrong article. BioWare definitely didn't have to kidnap me, and they certainly didn't put me through any torture when they told me that they wanted me to play Star Wars: The Old Republic recently for five hours. That's right, an MMO preview event put together properly -- providing enough time to sit down and and get dirty with the game. Because we all know that an hour or two simply isn't enough for a solid impression of something you can spend half a decade or longer playing.
The event kicked off with the 1-10 starting experience on the mystical planet of Tython, the home of the Force itself. It was the first time the planet had been playable anywhere, and it was also the first time the two classes which start here were playable: the Jedi Knight and the Jedi Consular. For the demo I chose the Jedi Knight -- a class that appears to be a mix of tank and damage dealer, for those familiar with MMO jargon -- and had the opportunity to play through the entire offering of content on the planet.
The World of Tython
Tython is teeming with a rich backstory, and BioWare has managed to present it in a light that keeps you interested. Every action you take part in, every creature you do battle with, all serves a purpose as the gameplay progresses through a guided story experience. Seriously; many missions offer multiple choices and will contribute to the game's alignment system, be it the Light or the Dark sides. Even the dialogue choices you make while talking with NPCs can affect your alignment. You'll always feel connected to a greater purpose while playing through the content in the game. You actually matter, and will have a great deal of impact in what culminates in you receiving your first Lightsaber once you reach level 10.
You enter the world as a young Jedi ready to start your training, but out of nowhere flesh raiders begin attacking the small colony and you must help to fight them back. Once you've cleaned up the flesh raiders, it's time to hop on a speeder and get over to Gnarl's Outpost to warn them of the threat. Unfortunately it's too late -- the outpost has been hit and many of its students captured by the flesh raiders. The next few missions, which you acquire from the outpost, focus on saving those captured padawans, as well as securing Gnarl's Cavern. You ultimately discover a sinister plot extending well beyond the flesh raiders at work here, and must journey to the planet's Jedi Temple to alert the local Jedi Masters.
These missions introduce the player to two fairly cool mechanics in the game: bonus missions and story areas. Bonus missions are those you'll automatically acquire by visiting an area to carry out missions you've been given. It will be things like clearing out the creature threats within the area, flesh raiders for example. Story areas are sections of the world instanced specifically for you or your party, meaning you won't have to compete with other players for major story arc goals like the plot mentioned above. You'll be able to easily recognize them by a green glowing barrier marking the entrance and / or exit of the story area. Once you've completed your goals within the area and leave, it will glow red -- disallowing entry until you receive more mission steps taking place within that area.
Tython sees you battle the flesh raiders, which you discover have begun to use powers not normally available to them, as well as visits to the Ruins of Kaleth, guarded by Droids manufactured to protect the secrets of the Force. Ultimately, you'll overcome the sinister beings and their agents behind the plot, and at last be considered a Jedi. However, one threat remains. An ancient creature has taken notice of your newfound power and the Lightsaber you've obtained, and wishes to test your mettle. The final mission on Tython pits you against the creature in a battle to the death.
A Flashy Name For An Instance
Flash points are special story areas which are larger and encompass many goals within a single area, sometimes even offering multiple missions within the flash point itself. They're designed to be solo-able, but will scale based on your party size -- offering a challenge to you whether you're alone or with three other friends.
The first flash point for the Republic, which was playable for the first time ever in our demo, takes place immediately after leaving the planet Tython. Once you become a Jedi, you're sent to Coruscant by way of shuttle. Unfortunately while onboard the shuttle it comes under attack by an Imperial Star Destroyer due to... cargo... that they want to get their hands on. It appears there's a dignitary the Empire doesn't much care for, and it just so happens she's on your ship.
Sadly the demo ended shortly after getting into the flash point, but I was able to get through to the first mission accessed within the story: the Empire has locked down the ship's bridge and you must figure out how to regain control. The game's first major ethical parable is present here, as you have two choices. Take the quick route and shut down the ship's generators, disabling the locks on the bridge doors immediately, or go the longer route and figure out a way to override the locks by accessing key points throughout the ship. The problem is that there are a handful of engineers trapped in the generator room, and shutting them down requires opening the air locks. If you open the air locks, you kill the engineers. They're willing to make that sacrifice, but the choice is up to you.
Luckily, this also introduces something rather unique to The Old Republic that you won't find in many MMOs currently on the market. The content within the flash point will change based on the decisions made during these milestone moments.
Everyone Needs A Companion
Space is pretty lonely when you're by yourself, so BioWare has decided to implement a companion system to the game. It's fairly robust, providing each player with their very own companion that tags along on missions and other activities. For the Jedi Knight class, you receive a T7-O1 Droid, but I noticed the Jedi Consular's companion was a lizardman. One extremely cool facet of companion gameplay is that they have their own inventory, and you can equip them with many of the items you'll find in the game world. Each companion benefits from different attributes, so you'll always have a reason to keep items around that aren't useful to your character.
You'll be able to pick up a number of companions as you progress through the game, many of which you can leave behind on your ship to act as your crew to take advantage of the Crew Skills system. Your crew will carry out various actions for you, from gathering resources, to making items, to diplomacy or trading missions, even while you're offline. You'll be able to have five companions working at any given time.
The Jedi Knight
Combat for the Jedi Knight class is an extremely visceral experience. With no auto attack -- commonly found in other MMOs -- you must rely on using various attacks with your Lightsaber or other Force abilities in order to generate the resources required for more advanced combat moves. Strike, for example, is an ability you start the game with. You'll use it to generate focus, which can then be depleted by way of using the Slash ability. They're both attacks with your weapon, but Slash deals far greater damage due to requiring a resource you must first generate.
As you progress through Tython you'll unlock additional abilities, most which will require focus before they can be used. Force Leap, however, is another avenue for generating that much-needed focus. It will also, as the name conveys, utilize the power of the Force to allow you to leap long distances -- even scaling cliffs -- toward your target enemy. It's pretty handy to use in conjunction with Slash to generate initial threat on creatures, at least early on. Later in the game you'll receive more abilities that deplete your focus in various ways, some to help you survive, and others to help you deal extra damage.
Sweep, for example, costs focus to use and will snare your target -- limiting their movement speed a great deal.
A New Immersion In Questing
One of the features of The Old Republic I liked the most during the demo had to be the way the quest system is designed. Gone are the days of needing to drudge through quest text to find out what an NPC wants from you. The entirety of the Star Wars: The Old Republic experience is fully voiced, and the interaction with quest NPCs is all done in an interactive cinematic experience. You'll actually find yourself interested in the stories because, rather than needing to read countless paragraphs of text, it's spoken to you all while you interact with the NPC by way of dialogue choices. If you want to be a jerk, you can be. If you want to be the knight in shining armor, you can be.
A great way this system is utilized is in parties, especially in flash points. While in a party and interacting with mission NPCs, each member will be presented with dialogue options like normal. After everyone has selected their choice, a random number will be generated for each person. The person's character that receives the highest number will be the one that interacts with the mission NPC during the cinematic for that particular line of dialogue.
Earlier this year I had a chance to play the game for about an hour. I didn't really enjoy that experience as much as I'd hoped to, leaving with a feeling of wanting more from the game than what was there. BioWare obviously learned from those impressions, as I left this time still wanting more, but it was the good kind of wanting more. I wanted to keep playing. The combat was interesting, the story content engrossing, and the overall experience was simply stellar.
I often find myself concerned with being "hooked" by early starting experiences after the Age of Conan debacle in which 1-20 was amazing and then the rest of the game lackluster, but Tython felt like a small sampling of an even greater experience. It easily rivals the Goblin and Worgen starting experiences found in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and in some ways tops them thanks to the questing system.
With the budget BioWare has committed to this game, along with their standard for quality, it's one worth looking forward to -- especially fans who feel burnt by Star Wars Galaxies. Now let's just hope they nail down a release date at some point in the near future.