PAX East: Hands on with “Star Wars: The Old Republic”

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Saturday morning at PAX East saw me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (sure…) waiting in line to try Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware’s upcoming foray into the MMO genre.  A continuation of the Star Wars universe era set forth in their successful Knights of the Old Republic series, The Old Republic is set some 300 years after the events of KOTOR and 3500 years before the films.  An unstable equilibrium exists between the Jedi order and the Sith, and this conflict provides the obligatory factions for players to choose from as well as the main plot vehicle.

After a brief iPad tutorial and a rah-rah video presentation, we were released into the demo area to coalesce into groups of four.  In other words, I PUG’d with a bunch of media folks (full of fail).  I settled at a station that was set up with the tank character of the group; the trooper in this case.  It may seem counterintuitive that a blaster-wielding character is the tank, but this is actually a touted feature of SWTOR (yes, people are already calling it that).  Any character class can be reconfigured on-the-fly to fill any group role.  While they may accomplish these roles in slightly different ways, the differentiation between classes is more about aesthetics, back-story, and branching story lines.

The start of the “Flashpoint” (SWTOR’s group encounters) was actually the most impressive part of the demo.  We played through a portion of the Taral V Flashpoint and the encounter began with a briefing from a Yoda-like character.  Every character in SWTOR (player and NPC alike) is fully voiced and has a chance to be heard thanks to an innovative dialog system.  At each phase of the conversation, players have a choice of paraphrased responses with different intents (similar to Bioware’s Mass Effect games).  Once each player has made their choice, a random roll determines who actually speaks.  Multiple inflection points in a conversation ensure that each player has a solid chance of affecting the outcome.  While we didn’t get to see it in the demo, conversation paths will have a significant impact on the challenges faced in the Flashpoint as well as the outcome of the story.

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Once the Flashpoint was underway, everything seemed pretty familiar.  The default controls were all in the right place and my shortcut bar was populated with a variety of direct damage abilities, taunts, stuns, and a few emergency/last-stand abilities that one would expect to see on a tank.  We moved through the dungeon fairly smoothly, clearing Imperial trash and local wildlife until we’d made our way to the base where we proceeded to wipe three times until our time was up.  The boss encounter wasn’t especially difficult; it was a double type where both had to go down at roughly the same time to avoid a nasty enrage.  It did however require a certain degree of strategy, coordination, and comfort in the different roles which was a bit much to ask of our PUG.

SWTOR’s graphics were on par for a current MMO release, adopting a more artistic watercolor effect in the terrain details.  The landscape was attractive and featured destructible objects and side objectives to add some depth and environment based strategy.  Still, aside from the voice and dialog system, there’s nothing groundbreaking in the game’s approach to the MMO formula.  The Old Republic seems to be going for very story-driven gameplay that is more accessible to new and casual players by making it easier to solo and form groups quickly.  However, MMO veterans may lament the lack of definition between classes and even Star Wars fans may find the idea of a Smuggler/Healer to be a stretch.

My final impression of The Old Republic preview is murky:  the game will definitely be fun and engaging for Star Wars fans in general, and even more so for fans of Bioware’s other titles.  However, regular MMO players will likely find it to be plain vanilla with a Star Wars skin on it.  Since I fit into both categories, I think I’ll be waiting for a free trial period to at least test it out a bit better before plunking down my $15/month or whatever the going rate is.

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Rob Allegretti
Rob Allegretti
Rob Allegretti

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