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Since it was first announced in 2008, BioWare’s first MMOG has been the most hotly anticipated title in the genre. With the great RPG chops at the studio, it was the perfect choice to take over the Star Wars license and make the great MMOG that Galaxies never was. The plan was to concentrate on story, as BioWare games are wont to do. That’s where all of the fully recorded dialogue came in; for the first time in an MMOG, we were going to be able to hear what our character sounded like. That was the feature I was most excited to try out when I was invited to the LucasArts facility at the Presidio in San Francisco last week. But instead, the demonstration build focused on showing me the Trooper class, a Republic military badass with a big blaster and exploding bombs. At least the prebuilt character at my station was a hot chick, that somehow made it all that much cooler.

“We’re excited to have people play the Trooper here today, we think it’s a really cool class,” said Jake Neri, producer at LucasArts for The Old Republic. “Last year, people played our Sith classes and we wanted to try and get some Republic love in the mix. We wanted to show why it’s cool to be something other than a Force-wielding character.”

My Trooper was a dark-skinned female human with a big gun and scarred, worn pieces of body-armor that were reminiscent of Boba Fett’s costume. She was level 6, and her action bar was populated with around 6 different abilities. The Trooper’s mechanics are based on “Action Points” which you accumulate by hitting a target with your basic attack, which in my case was a single shot of my blaster. Once I had 5 or 6 points, which were displayed in the HUD by an increasing number of tiny blue lights below my health bar, I could use the more vicious abilities, such as a rapid fire barrage which used up all of your action points over time.

My favorite ability was a sticky grenade, which I could throw on any enemy that was at least a bit away from me. Doing so treated me to a somewhat comical animation of the enemy trying to shake off the grenade before getting blown the f’ up. Such silly evasion techniques are ultimately useless and the grenade causes so much damage that it was pretty much a one-shot kill that I used every time I could. Using all my abilities and a little bit of patience, I was able to take out all of the enemies in this hive of scum and villainy at will.

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But perhaps that’s because the AI wasn’t quite turned up high enough for the demo. My mission was to infiltrate a separatist base on the planet of Ord Mantell, a location steeped in Star Wars lore and even mentioned during the first films. The base was full of enemies in groups of two or three guards, but there was no communication between them and their aggro range seemed absurdly small. I suppose it wasn’t much different than other MMOG’s but it was difficult to suspend my disbelief when I’m blasting and exploding my way through the base with a group of nonchalant guards only 20 feet or so away who didn’t even bat an eyelash. It just didn’t feel very Star Wars-ey.

The standard UI for most modern MMOGs is used for The Old Republic. You’ve got your minimap, your questlog and your target frames. While you get major story quests from a quest giver, you acquire the more simple “Kill 12 of these guys” quests once you actually start killing them. That one innovation may have more to do with not wasting computing cycles on quests that lack a significant story element (it gets hard to justify an in-game story reason every time you want the player to kill guys.) And it also means that less voice acting and scripting needs to occur to explain what is a comparatively simple task for the player.

I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see very much story and dialogue, but I was pleased with what I did see. The first quest giver you speak to let’s you in on the basic story that there’s an uprising of separatists and you need to stop them, possibly by blowing up the base. You also get a side quest to track down a holograph reporter whose been taken hostage, which you can accept or not. This is all told through short conversation points to which you can choose from three responses in a radial menu. If you’ve played any BioWare game in the last ten years, then you can pretty much guess what those three break down into.

“With each decision you make, you can be good to bad, mean, snarky, whatever you want to be,” Neri said.

The good part is that these choices actually do matter beyond being a dick like Han shooting first. “You do have choices that have consequences in this game,” said Neri. It seems that choosing to not accept a quest is just as important as dialogue choices. “It’s not just about taking a meaningless quest, it’s a quest that actually changes the story that you’re participating in, which can also change your progression.” Neri hinted that TOR might have some Fable-like changes as well. “You might go down the dark side as a player, and perhaps that affects the way you look from a physical perspective,” he said.

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Of course, I picked the most bitchy dialogue responses – purely for scientific reasons – from the short text descriptions but the things that my character actually said didn’t match up exactly. That allowed a kind of set-up/punchline effect where you know what’s coming but you still get a laugh when you hear it. The voice-acting felt natural and I was happy that the actress delivering the lines really fit the character that I playing. I began to wonder if they recorded multiple actors and actresses for each slider on the character customization screen. If so, that’s a lot more voice acting than I at first thought the designers would have to do, but Neri and his team solved the problem by casting actors who were just extremely versatile.

“There’s one voice actor for male and [one for] female,” said Neri. “When it comes down to casting, it becomes really important to find a really cool, universal voice that can be dynamic, get into different situations, and can deliver lines and feel credible no matter the [dialogue] decision you make.”

How do you get one voice to match up to each player’s expectation of what their character sounds like? “It’s about picking the right voices,” Neri said. “We’re doing the best we can to make sure that we have really cool voices that can be used across the big body type to the small body type to the different races, et cetera. It’s a challenge, but we’re aware.”

There’s a lot of potential with The Old Republic and everyone is talking about how it may take the life of another certain game, but Neri is tired of hearing the term.

“We hate the phrase WoW-killer. I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense really. What we’re trying to do is make a really cool game that we think people would want to play and that’s our first and foremost goal,” he said. “We didn’t set out to kill WoW, just as I don’t think [Blizzard] set out to kill anybody. We set out to make a good game that we can be proud of and let the chips lie where they may.”

There’s still a lot we don’t know about The Old Republic. LucasArts is being incredibly tightlipped on PvP or endgame other than that they are aware that players want those things in the game. If you want any more proof that LucasArts loves a secret, look no further than the fact that their office in San Francisco is on an ex-military base and that we were “escorted” when going to the men’s room. You can read about Russ Pitts’ adventures at LucasArts here.

Hell, Neri couldn’t even tell me how long the game has been in development. For all I know, it could have been being worked on since Knights of the Old Republic shipped in 2003.

I sure hope not, because based on what I saw, the team has a lot more polishing to do before The Old Republic is complete.

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