Set three hundred years after BioWare's last title, Knights of the Old Republic, the developer takes Star Wars into new territories with (cue John Williams music) an MMORPG. Is the Force strong with this one?
BioWare definitely favours having a blaster rather than a hokey religion on its side, and it knows the only correct answer to the age old question of whether to opt for Jedi or Sith is two words: "Bounty Hunter."
Hence the first hands-on with its much-talked about MMO-take on the George Lucas's cash cow throws you into role of a up and coming Bounty Hunter. Morality be damned: ambiguity and selfishness is a lot more fun over the Imperial Agent class that some people in the room have been landed with. Where's the fun with stealth in the Star Wars universe when you can talk your way out of potentially deathly circumstances through smooth lines or intimidating growls, or simply shoot your way out? In BioWare's take on the universe, the Bounty Hunter always shoots first.
That is, if you choose too. This being a BioWare title, it'd be remiss not to expect branching dialogue options, and Old Republic is peppered with more tasteful choices than a Princess Leia slave girl convention. As the developer promised, there's voiceover for everything, and it really aids in strengthening the characters and their story arcs. Though we still take issue that anyone with an Imperial slant is automatically relegated to a British voice actor.
Story is important, because unlike other MMOs, Old Republic is dense with plot, and you'll be wading through many more conversations than grinds in the opening hours. Its perhaps the lack of the moral barometer that comes with the Bounty Hunter class that makes for such interesting choices so early in the game - the good/evil scale to which every story-related choice is measured bounces back and forth with all the speed of a radiation detector. Missions are rife with double-crosses, shootouts and tough talk. It's fascinating, and with tempers flaring on the flip of a sentence, loaded with tension.
Its definitely the overriding memory of my time spent with the game - which ran over two days - but also from which arises one of the central issues with the game as a whole: identity. But we'll come to that in a moment, and for now flesh out those opening hours and how the Old Republic sticks to the virtues of the genre.
The game opens on the iconic scroll (nicely, the scroll will flash up every time you log in, updating with your current position and story to help remind players where they left off) before plunging us onto the planet Hutta, and the small town of Tigunna, which sits in the shadow of the local Hutt's palace - there's two planetside,Nemro and Fa-athra and the continuing political powerplays between the two slugs partly forms your opening few hours until you're able to ran a transport off-world. You're here to take part in the galaxy-wide Great Hunt, but to enter you need a sponsor, but before that you need to rise to prominence in the local area to be noticed ie: be a gun for hire, act the bastard, and generally create waves within the local populace to draw attention to you. And also avoid the intentions of other bounty hunters trying to get an early lead by wiping out the competition.
Again, story impacts and fuels the missions. BioWare are taking care not to bore the populace with another list of racking up kills of insubstantial vermin to fill up the first few hours (and levels) of your life in a galaxy far, far away. There's an old joke that there's no such thing as a terrible Star Wars game, any experience elevated due to being part of a universe that captured many people's childhood imaginations.
The punchline works here as well - clearing the town of Fa-athra gangsters, bargaining with a squad commander for the release of prisoner, or tracking down a father and son at a nearby spaceport is instantly more interesting because you're effectively reliving Mos Eisley from A New Hope. Its a wretched hive of scum and villainy rather than a gleaming battle station, but its infinitely more interesting than any sterile Imperial world. A point hammered home when I actually do end up on Dromund Kaas hours later, an Imperial City that hosts the Great Hunt - straight-talking troopers and commanders seem stale and lack much of the intrigue that the many races offered back on Hutta. Only when i'm offered a chance to trap citizen-murdering Sith into massacring their own instead of turning in their accomplice is my interest spiked once more.
Or perhaps its because you realise your reputation only stretches as far as the backwater planets, and you realise the shear scale of what BioWare is attempting here. Sure, the actual areas for each planet are matched by other titles in the genre, but with an end of event presentation showcasing a galaxy map, with a vast number of planets to travel to and space battles breaking out in the space between them, it feels staggering. Again: all due to that sprinkling of Star Wars magic.
The battle system, well, since we're talking spacecraft, let's get that out of the way first. These will take take the form of on-rails cinematic sequences, letting you focus on the downing fighters soaring past, or taking out starship generators. In the presentation, BioWare inform the crowd that clearing set objectives will open bonus areas. It looks great, though, we're informed, these set pieces can be bloody tough. Cue a fireball were the Bounty Hunter class ship was fragmenting in space.
Back on the ground, and the character is outfitted with everything a rookie Bounty Hunter would need; rapid laser fire, an enemy-freezing electro bolt that ties in nicely with the powerful missile blast, knocking groups off their feet. Come the second day we've upgraded via a on-site trainer (these and weapon upgrade stations are dotted throughout the galaxy) to a flame thrower, a rocket punch, a close-range attack that for all intents purposes is a Shoryuken with a rocket pack, and an ability labelled Death From Above, allowing players to hover for a few seconds while pummelling the ground around them. In the closing hours of the event, a consortium of Hunters offers me the upgrade into a specialist class tree; dual-wielding mercenary or ability-heavy Powertech. each class will filter into specialities, and the range of moves that come with each filter down the powerpoint presentation faster than I can write. Needless to say, Old Republic has all the bases covered.
First day theatrics cumulate in one of what BioWare is classing its "Flashpoints", its epic moments that hope to offer the scope of the pitched battles seen in the two movie trilogies. The Imperial vessel you hitched a ride on to Dromund Kaas is charged to tackle an Alliance cruiser with a war general of political importance. With the Imperial captain's refusal to engage the cruiser, you're ordered to take command of the ship by another Imperial officer off-ship and capture the general.
For the first time since we started, the individual players are grouped together in Old Republic's version of a dungeon, trekking through two ships' worth of corridors, bridges and reactor rooms. With music pooled from the films (mostly the 'new' trilogy, such is the prevalence of certain themes, but incorporating some new pieces, such as a new choral piece come the climatic battle with a Jedi) its bracing stuff, its stirring blast trampling over the quiet clatter of dice rolling in the background deciding the cut of energy that comes with every hit and dodge.
Conversation choices are decided by majority vote, but your always awarded light and dark points by your own choice, even if the story swings the other way due to a group decision. An accidental drop-out during the quest late in the day means that I get to play through it once again the following morning, and see the fallout of different choices. The first time round confronting the captain leads to his death (numerous face-offs offer the straight option "kill him" to strike any further conversation stone dead), the second, he's spared. That first time the new officer in command decides to ignore escape pods ejecting from the cruiser, the second, the original Captain smells a trap and orders them shot down. First time round, the pods turn out to boarding parties that latch on to the ship and lead to an assault on engineering. That side-quest is entirely absent the second time, for obvious reasons.
It's typical BioWare storytelling, and offers an incentive to play through the game multiple times with the same class. However, either by design or accident, the gameplay favours a more single-player experience that stretches far beyond the usual introductory period of an MMO - the developer's own skill at crafting a brilliantly immersive action RPG seems at times to war with those elements that signify the genre the game's firmly intrenched in. Players will have a definite sense of how they wish to play their Bounty Hunter character - and having that clash against a group's differing ideology come key moments in the game is a concession to losing complete absorption in the story.
To decry a MMO for providing a rich narrative seems a contradiction - its something that would attract gamers not satisfied before with the wafer-thin plot illusions designed to excuse the menial tasks that litter an MMO. The game does incorporate Heroic missions, the honorific given to denote tough missions that require buddying up to survive, and quests into scrapyards and detention centres are greatly helped by groups of characters naturally created due to the overlap in objectives. It's a stalemate of sorts - damned if you do, damned if you don't - an outcome to which will only be found through continued play. Obviously whereas other games are spooling their post-campaign credits, The Old Republic is only starting to gear up into something larger.
The opening hours of this new epic are incredibly strong, and its an acknowledgement of the developer's confidence in the RPG field that this strength is as much its creation as that of the brand. As it stands it does hold promise of a viable choice to others in the genre, and will tickle the interest, at the very least, of Boba Fett fans worldwide.
Whether that strength holds as the experience hurtles towards play time hours notching the triple figures, while managing to merge single player narrative with multiplayer smoothly, is something, despite the many rumours and news pieces that have cast a shadow over the game in recent months, I hope it will manage. Manage with surety, the very same that comes from having a good blaster at your side.