Let's get this out of the way immediately. This will be the most fanboyish preview I have ever written, and probably one of the most outright glowing previews we've ever run on this site. Star Wars: The Old Republic is so much fun, I would have dropped all other coverage plans this weekend and sat playing for hours if I could have.
The hands-on content BioWare brought to PAX East in Boston, MA was one of the "flashpoints" where the war is just really getting started. This one is on the planet Taral V, home to Imperial research stations and one scary Imperial Commander with a very large pet.
The demo level started with our group of four at a Republic base. I played as a Jedi Knight, alongside a Jedi Consular (think mage), a Republic Commando, and a Smuggler. To show how flexible the roles are, BioWare set up the demo with the Smuggler as the healer for this mission, with the Consular doing more range attacks and buffs. The Knight and Commando were both tank-ish, with the speedy and powerful Knight wreaking havoc from up close while the Commando lobbed grenades and laid down some rapid-fire hurt from afar.
We started by seeing how the "group dialogue" works in a conversation with Jedi Master Oteg (seen above), another little green guy from Yoda's race. In the conversation, all four players get their own BioWare wheel-of-convo options, and chooses their response. The game then does dice rolls for all four characters, and the highest number from 1-100 gets their response spoken. It's an interesting way to handle having your other party members being controlled by actual humans, and worked really well. The dynamic of it made it seem like you were playing any other BioWare RPG with the complete story immersion you expect. After the short conversation and mission briefing, we went to get on our disguised ship and head to Taral V.
There were two major obstacles to us finding the main base and its Sith Empire commander: imperial soldiers and the native beasts. This let us try out combat against melee-focused werewolf and bigfoot style animals along with fighting off the long-range fire of soldiers. Everyone fell into roles pretty easily, and the Jedi Knight was instantly accessible and instantly fun to play. They had these guys set at level 32, so they had quite a few abilities already. From saber-throws to the Jedi leaping slash attack, quickly covering half a screen's worth of distance, even starting off battles was exciting. Once in the thick of things, the action didn't stop. Powers and abilities are varied and go from visceral thrusts of the light saber to massive bursts of force knocking back entire groups of enemies. A leap in and stun would allow my Commando and Consular to beat up on the enemies easily while the Smuggler kept me at full health. It's a team-work game, and from conversation afterwords it is very easy to have crazy amounts of fun in any role. Action was fast and responsive, powers are cool visuals to watch, and darn it, it never got old leaping 30 feet and slashing down at an enemy.
Once we'd cut through the swaths of enemies guarding the path to the base, we started our raid of the main facility, and it was not easy. Taking on massive battle droids and more Imperial soldiers than we could count, we barely made it through alive, then we came up to the boss. He killed us, really quickly, with the assistance of his pet that looked like a leaner, meaner Rancor. We reconvened and decided on a more measured approach.
The Commando would go take on the base commander as our primary tank, while I would take down the gigantic "Ripper" with our Consular and Smuggler hanging back and healing and buffing. While we ran out of time before we could defeat them both, we did take down Ripper, and it felt like a major accomplishment. It was fun, it was tough, it took team work and individual play; it was everything you want out of an RPG, and you were playing side-by-side with actual people.
For a Star Wars fan, there's nothing quite like stepping into the role of the galactic heroes recognizable worldwide. While this game is even a longer, longer time ago, the classes and tropes you know and love from Star Wars are all there. For those upset that many members of the Dragon Age team left that franchise to work on this in BioWare Austin; don't be. Their expertise is being used wisely in the service of what will be without a doubt the most story-driven MMO to date. In fact, in a casual conversation with lead writer Daniel Erickson, he told me that any one of the eight classes' main story is longer than all of Dragon Age: Origins. This game has story to spare, and it is interweaved throughout all the character types, encouraging you to explore it from every angle.
If the finished product of Star Wars: The Old Republic shipped with only the gameplay available today, it would already be a top contender for not just game of the year, but perhaps one of my favorites of all time. Knowing it also has space combat, individualized combat for each other class, the two (8) sides to the story, the characters from the comics showing up, side stories, group missions, and of course it's an MMO, so there can be expansions, an ever-growing world, new classes… it's almost too much to think about. Having played just shy of an hour of The Old Republic, I'm ready for the Jedi trials, ready to enlist in the Imperial Army, and ready to live in a galaxy far, far away later this year.