PAX 09: STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC Brings Story to MMOs

In a Role Playing Game (RPG) you have four elements of game play: exploration, combat, progression, and story.  In a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO), you are generally overly satisfied with three of those four at a high level of quality.  Up to now, very few MMO’s have been able to cover story.  At Penny Arcade Expo 2009, LucasArts and developer Bioware revealed more about “Star Wars: The Old Republic” and how they hope the game will buck this trend.

Set 3,000 years before the events of the “Star Wars movies” and 300 years after the events of the “Knights of the Old Republic” (KOTOR) video games, “Star Wars: The Old Republic” has a story that begins with the Sith’s sacking of Coruscant – shown in the released teaser trailer.  With web comics and shorts, in conjunction with Dark Horse comics, available on the ”Old Republic” website, the story of the new MMORPG is sure to be one filled with life, death, war, and adventure.  But so what?  What is the big draw for fans of the comics or movies to play this game?

The franchise will sell right off the bat, but its because of the content that it will maintain itself.  As the speakers of the panel joked and shared with attendees a free downloadable “KotOR” copy – available on Steam for download – the patience of the audience was just becoming too thin for comfort.  They wanted what they all knew was coming: a live demo of the game play.  As fans watched with anticipation the trailer we had all seen before that was debuted at E3, the speakers – both Bioware and LucasArts employees – settled in to prepare to show us the game.  The screens went dark and the lights went dimmer and then it happened…

The demo started with the camera staring at a woman in metal armor, red flowing hair, and piercing blue eyes.  She wore her armor as most bounty hunters of the time did, loose and tight in all the right places.  The character began to walk around and in traditional fashion of MMO’s the camera was spinning around to help view the room that she was in.  The smoothness of the walking was impressive, but there was a bit lacking in the animation of the entire design.  While not even close to being done with the game, Bioware and LucasArts felt that even with this oversight, it was worth showing.  The bounty hunter walked into a room with three waiting Non-Playable Characters (NPCs).  While this was nothing new in any MMO thus far, the next few minutes changed everything.  The NPC turned and spoke to the player.  That’s right, spoke.  The entire game is voiced.  Text subtitles are sure to be an option, but every single NPC and player character now has a voice in the game.  When the player’s conversation choice – much like “Mass Effect” (another Bioware RPG) conversation dialogue – was shown, a brief description of what you wanted to say in what way was presented and the player’s character spoke intelligently and fluidly, expounding upon what choice you made.  It was as if they were just playing a normal single-player RPG.  The conversation went on for a few more minutes and gave a view at the style of camera work, design, and sounds of the game.  Mouths moved with the word formation and the simple (for the time being) character animation did still help with the delivery.

From the bounty hunter they moved directly to the Smuggler Class.  The one they displayed was a generic recreation of Han Solo, but that doesn’t make it bad.  The generic class “dress” schemes allows for users to easily pick out different classes from a crowd.  While the animation and the art seemed to be Beta quality, the gameplay actually looked great.  Smooth transitions and movement helped the player walk down a dirt road towards what looked like a military facility.  As he approached, we noticed an enemy waiting to blast the character.  Instead of running up and fighting, we saw something that may have shaken the foundation of MMOs to come.  As the smuggler approached some broken down boulders, a transparent green outline appeared as the cursor scrolled over.  With one click, the smuggler dove for cover, revealing that “Old Republic” will be featuring the first cover system in an MMO.  Now thinking of how this actually works is simple.  It’s more or less a defensive and offensive buff system and certain abilities, such as blind fire and barrage, do become available and are more effective.  The smuggler class also offers unique close combat abilities, one where the smuggler kicked the enemy in the groin and shot a single bolt into their head.

While it was awesome to see those two classes and some of their abilities, the crowd was ready to see the piece de resistance.  Lightsabers.  The last class we were shown was the Sith Warrior.  He was black clothed and had the strut of a cocky villain aware of his abilities and ruthlessness.  The fighting was very reminiscent of the original “KotOR” game.  Having the ability to leap into battle and draw a first strike move that negates the “non-ranged” aspect of being a Jedi/Sith.  The special abilities and strikes were almost perfectly timed with the player’s clicks.  No delay in action means that you’ll be able to have better response and planning with your moves.

One of the biggest advancements was the melee system as it pertains to multiple enemies.  As the Sith Warrior dove into three melee enemies, the defense systems didn’t just “miss” off the enemies, they were countered and parried.  The Sith was able to use non-action time and his saber to save himself from hits.  Whether this was a skill or trait of the class wasn’t very clear.  Its also not clear whether the player was actually commanding the defense or just allowing the skills and abilities to defend for him.  Either way, it was amazing to see this!  Truly something right out of a “Star Wars” game, movie, or written story, translated to a MMORPG.

After these first parts of the demo featuring the classes and some of the voice acting, the demo progressed to story.  Again, BioWare and LucasArts stressed the ability to create story in this game is going to be like no other.  They loaded two more advanced characters, a bounty hunter and a Sith warrior.  They were put into a part of the game that will occur time and time again, a choice juncture, specifically called a “flashpoint” (a highly customized point of play).  What this basically breaks down to is a group choice point.  The dialogue started towards the Sith warrior, apparently because he was the group leader, and the choice was made to spare the life of the captain of the ship they were on.  Regardless of the outcome of that choice, the second member, the bounty hunter, then made his choice.  According to how they explained it, both choices affect your player-to-player relations, your group’s alignment, and your character’s alignment (including NPC disposition).  What wasn’t clear is how the group would come to that choice whether in text chatting or other.  The choice dialogue was basically the same as “Mass Effect’s” where you were presented with three options of choice that were simply laid out and written and when the choice was made the character expounded upon the point.  Basically you could choose “no” and the character would speak, “While that’s a good idea, I don’t think we will be doing that.”  That’s not a quote from the game, but more of an example to show how the system works.

The two characters then took off towards their goal of killing the attacking Jedi.  We saw group combat, multiple enemy attacks, and NPC support members that weren’t a part of the player group.  Finally, we saw the Jedi vs Sith battle and I have to say it was kind of a let down.  While the actions and parries were there, it didn’t have the duel feel that the “KotORs” did.  I felt like it needed more fleshing out and better animation, and that very well may be on the way.  The bounty hunter did surprise us by being able to fly off into the air with a jet pack and use a flame gauntlet to incinerate some of the foes!

Finally, we were told about a “big reveal”.  While being shown Korriban, Hutta, and a few other planets, we were shown the biggest reveal yet.  The planet everyone wants to be on, the place where all the action happens… Coruscant. Deep in the underbelly of the city-planet, you will be fighting alongside or against Jedi, Sith, military, and NPC’s to achieve galactic supremacy.

This game is most likely going to be a game that is for any MMORPG fan.  It has all the familiarities of “World of Warcraft”, “Everquest”, and “Star Wars Galaxies”, but adds more with new systems of play, choice, and group.  Story was the big point we were driven to accept.

“Star Wars: The Old Republic” looks so far to be a sure fire winner in all its categories.  While there isn’t even a whisper of a release date, what we saw was a good indication that things are already being polished and fleshed out to create a game players will spend a lot of time with.

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