Star Wars: The Old Republic Hands On

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So far, we’ve only been able to play BioWare’s upcoming MMO in restricted and supervised environments. Well this week the blast doors have been blown open, the tractor beam has been powered down, and we’ve been exploring the galaxy in the new beta to uncover everything we can learn about the game. Today we’re bringing you a look at the starting experiences for the Republic faction.

Players on the Republic side choose from four classes, each of which is assigned to one of two starting planets. The Jedi Knight and Jedi Consular each begin as Padawans on the ancient Jedi homeworld of Tython, while the Smuggler and Trooper classes each find themselves stuck in the midst of a civil war on Ord Mantell. Each of the stories, particularly the smuggler’s, begins with a hook that gets you right into the action, helping you understand not only who your character is, but also the larger context of the world around you.

BioWare’s promised to bring meaningful storytelling to the MMO genre and, based on the starting planets at least, that promise has been fulfilled. For one thing, all the content on the starting planets revolves around a single theme. On Tython, it’s the appearance of a strange group of hostile aliens. On Ord Mantell, it’s the war between the Separatists and the Republic. Every single quest bears some relation to the larger story and even the smaller side chapters where you’re helping Twi’Lek pilgrims or Republic refugees fit the overall context of each world. It’s a great way to keep the players focused on a single purpose for the first ten levels of play.

Each character also experiences the game from a unique perspective. Though you’re running through the same areas, fighting the same sorts of enemies, the Smuggler’s experience of the civil war is very different from the Trooper’s. The Smuggler’s story kicks off when his ship is stolen, so all his interactions with Republic officials, refugees and Separatists revolve around trying to get the ship back and taking revenge on the person who stole it. The Trooper is very different. He or she has been sent to the planet to help put down the Separatists and experiences the content through a different lens.

What makes it work is that BioWare explores the drama through the stories of individuals and relates it all to your character’s motivations. For instance, at one point my smuggler was sent to rescue a boy who had been taken captive by the Separatists and, while the plot details are interesting by themselves, I was even more impressed by all that the mission accomplishes. First, it advances the overall narrative of the war between the Separatists and the Republic. Second, it tells you what the Separatists are all about. Finally, it allows your character to respond to the situation in a way that expresses your own values. Do you help the kid? Do you force him to do what you think is the right thing? Do you even tell his parents he’s alive? There are lots of examples of this in each character’s story, from deciding whether or not to expose a pair of Jedi lovers, or pondering whether to destroy a shipment of weapons or hand them over to a group of threatened people.

BioWare’s storytelling in The Old Republic follows the same format as its other RPGs. In other words, all the story is delivered through talking heads and cutscenes. While it’s an effective and familiar approach, I hope that the game begins to reveal more of the story through the actual gameplay and environments. It’s true that the settings themselves provide a mood that helps support the overall tone of the story, but for the most part, the story bits are still stuck in the conversations. On the plus side, the dialogue and acting are top notch, and the range of responses your character can give definitely help you get in a roleplaying frame of mind.

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At some point on your starting planet, you’ll eventually find your first companion character. The Jedi Knight, for instance, rescues an astromech from the Flesh Raiders, while the Smuggler allies himself with a battle-hardened soldier who shares a common enemy. The companions act as a sort of a moral compass for your actions, and you’ll instantly see feedback when your decisions change their loyalty. I actually started feeling kind of good about myself as a person when the little astromech looked favorable on my decisions. As an added bonus, whoever wrote the translations for the little droid did a first rate job of writing exactly the way I thought R2-D2 talked.

Companions can even help you out in combat, allowing you to take on even tougher challenges than you would normally. Given that you’re almost always outnumbered in this game, it helps that the companions make smart use of their abilities and generally pick the right targets. You can micromanage their abilities if you want, but I didn’t find it necessary at all. Even little T7-01 kicked some ass. In fact, he was so effective, that enemies would often run right past me and attack him instead. I know I’m supposed to be above that but, for a Jedi-in-training, that kind of hurts the old pride a little bit.

When you need even more firepower, you can group with up to three other players to take on the game’s tougher challenges. The added firepower is nice, but my experiences on Ord Mantell were insanely chaotic, and not in a good way. I’ll assume it’s just that my smuggler’s more calculated approach to tactics was out of step with what the three troopers I was with wanted but, whatever the case, fighting with other players seemed to make the things that my smuggler was good at even less relevant.

Thankfully, the combat is true to the overall style of Star Wars. Jedis leap into combat, swinging their lightsabers left and right as flesh-eating aliens fall around them, or how Smugglers crouch behind cover, using thermal grenades and blasters to take out robot sentries and bounty hunters. I have to say though, having started with a Jedi class, the smuggler and trooper are just not as dynamic. Sure, the cover system and ranged combat work as designed, but I didn’t feel that the combat for the ranged classes was as active or strategic as the combat for the Jedis. Once you find a spot of cover, you just start cycling through your attacks until it’s time to move on to the next bit of cover. Sure, as a Jedi you’re equally focused on hotbars and cooldowns, but at least you get to move around a bit and watch some exciting animations.

On the other hand, my smuggler can kick guys in the nuts, so I’m conflicted.

The beta’s answered a few other questions for me. Multiplayer conversations can work, thanks both to the holocom you can use to call in for conversations you’re not present at, and the random system that determines which players get to speak at key moments. It also appears that Light Side and Dark Side points for choices made during the conversations are only awarded to players who voted for the conversation option that was ultimately given. So if you want a criminal to destroy a shipment of illegal goods but the rest of your party votes to profit from them, your choice won’t be honored but at least you won’t suffer Dark Side points for it.

We’ll be back in the coming weeks to bring you even more coverage from the beta, this time exploring the world of the Dark Side.


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