Star Wars: The Old Republic – Hands On Preview

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away… actually, 22nd November at W London Hotel in Leicester Square, Bioware were showing off their latest offering to the RPG world: the massively multiplayer Star Wars: The Old Republic .  This is a game that has seen an obscene amount of money and time pumped into it. A game that will either see fans of the biggest space opera in history cry tears of joy or march on Skywalker Ranch with replica lightsabers in tow. Before we were given a sizable amount of time with the MMOpus, we were given a small talk about the game from Lead Environmental Artist, Michael Hanisch, giving details on what to expect.

Set thousands of years before the movies and a few hundred years after Knights of the Old Republic, the game begins shortly after the Sith have attacked Coruscant, causing a galactic cold war between the Republic and the Galactic Empire. As usual, the Sith just want to destroy things and control what’s left, whereas the Republic want to be all goody good and stop this happening. As Michael pointed out, RPGs have four basic elements: exploration, progression, combat and story. While SWTOR will include all four, the story is the centrepiece of the game.

With the game set in a time period that allowed Bioware a lot of creative freedom within the Star Wars universe (and with some boastful figures, such as over 100 hours of gameplay per side), Bioware’s signature game-altering dialogue choices, 60 novels worth of story and dialogue for thousands of characters – each of which are fully voiced – it’s not hard to argue that they are really pushing MMO storylines to the limits. Being the Lead Environmental Artist on SWTOR, Michael also had something to say about the visuals. According to him, every individual item in the game has been hand painted and concepted, even down to the slightly odd decision to include Imperial spatulas. It’s safe to say that there has been a lot of care taken.

Once the talk was over, we were escorted to a conference room filled with Alienware laptops. After holding back the urge to masturbate furiously over the sight, and finding a seat, I was logged in to the game and greeted with the choice of creating a Sith or Republic character. Being a slightly sadistic gamer, I plumped for dark side. I was then treated to a cinematic cutscene explaining that those naughty Sith are once again planning to rise up and have established a new base of operations on Korriban. It’s all very cinematic with plenty of lightsabers, talk of dark sides and destroying enemies – you know, the usual daily Sith activities. After this, I was taken to the create a character menu; first up was the class choice. For Sith there are the options of Bounty Hunter – a ranged weapon based character; Sith Warrior – a close combat character; Sith Inquisitor – a force power specialist and the Imperial Agent – a more stealthy character. On the light side there will be similar classes: the Trooper, Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular and Smuggler. The classes seem well rounded and anyone that plays RPGs regularly will notice their similarities to the more traditional ‘healer’, ‘brawler’ etc.

I decided I wanted my enemies to taste my blade and chose the Sith Warrior class, before then being asked to select my race. SWTOR boasts a wide range of familiar Star Wars races to choose from, including Twi’lek, Zabrak and, of course, human, however only human Zabrak can choose any of the available classes. One slightly odd inclusion to the list of races was the Cyborg as it just seemed to stick out like a sore thumb compared to all the organic humanoid races, looking more like a man in steampunk facial attire than an actual cyborg.  I settled for a standard human Sith and was asked to chose a gender before being taken to the appearance customisation screen where I got to choose from several body types, head designs, hair styles, scars and colour schemes. On the whole there are quite a few choices in each category, however the colour schemes were all completely pre-determined and there didn’t seem to be much difference between each. I couldn’t help feeling that some sort of palette selector would’ve been better, but at the same time the limited options spare people the temptation to make the most garish looking character in the galaxy.

After creating a muscular Sith with a red emo swoop and naming him my obligatory Star Wars name of Laibi, I was good to go.  A short loading screen later and the Star Wars feeling kicked in properly. John Williams’ infamous Star Wars theme blasted through the headphones and a character specific story crawl begins, explaining how the Sith are doing pretty well for themselves and that one of the dark side’s most promising warriors (me, apparently) has been summoned for the Sith trials ahead of schedule.

The game then began with a cutscene of a bunch of battleships orbiting Korriban and a shuttle departing from one of them. I was then given control of my character and sent to find my class specific contact in order to begin my first mission, whereupon I was whisked to the Sith base of operations and greeted by a Sith pureblood. One of the first things to note about SWTOR is the voice acting. Bioware have gone to great lengths to not only voice the playable characters, including a staggering number of dialogue options, but also every character you speak to in the game, including companions, enemies and even random passers by – a massive achievement for any RPG, let alone a massively multiplayer one.

After flirting a little with the pureblood that greeted me, using Bioware’s now standard dialogue wheel, I was given control of my character again and sent on my first mission. As with most MMOs this involved speaking to someone who would then tell me to mindlessly slay a bunch of creatures.  Walking through the dock, I noticed that the graphics aren’t even close to being photo-realistic, preferring to take an almost Clone Wars style caricaturist approach. It definitely makes a change and adds a great deal of charm to the game, although in comparison to the luscious greens and blue-greys I was seeing in other people’s Republic games, the red planet of Korriban was pretty dull for a place I would spend the next few hours exploring.

Back to the mission at hand and I had found myself in an abandoned Sith temple, bashing in K’lor’slug heads while hunting for a slightly better weapon than the one I was carrying. Again, standard fare for an MMO and while the mission wasn’t exactly thrilling, combat was enjoyable enough for me to actively seek out enemies to kill.  Like most MMOs, combat was started by right clicking on an enemy, sitting back and watching it get beaten to death. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, using the number keys to activate special powers such as a sword slam that stuns enemies.

On the whole, combat was very fluid; the animations looked natural and switching between enemies was never an issue, although there were a few snags when introducing special abilities. For example, even when the power was fully charged, it would sometimes not activate.  There also was a recurring problem where beginning a battle with a special ability would lock you onto an enemy but not let you attack or do anything else, then after a few seconds of frustration the enemy would just drop dead, without so much as a harsh word or drawn weapon. It was very odd and ruined the magic a little.

Another strange glitch came from dialogue choices. While most were voiced brilliantly and worked smoothly, there were several times where the game froze out after choosing a reply, before kicking me back to the start of the conversation. While this didn’t happen very often, three or four times in a two hour game is quite a sizable amount of times considering the hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours people will more than likely be sinking into it.

On the whole however, SWTOR is shaping up to be a very impressive game by any standard. The story, voice acting and music scream Star Wars at every opportunity and the art style – while not the most technically impressive available – is quirky and stands out from all the photo-realistic titles being pumped out at the moment. Combat is fun and the sheer amount of story and replay options on offer is staggering. While certain advanced features like companions and space dogfights weren’t on display, what was shown is enough to make me feel it will all shape up to be a truly impressive game and one to look out for, for all Star Wars, MMO and RPG fans.

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  1. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    You know that song, “the more I see you… the more I want you…”, well I’m kinda like that with this game. While I really don’t get wet thinking about MMOs, I’ve always fancied giving one a shot but managed to avoid it thus far. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up my avoidance though, not when there are lightsabres involved. I may even jump in to the Sith role rather than playing my typical goody two shoes role.

    Man, if I ruled the universe…

  2. Mark Mark_s says:

    Fun thing bout SWTOR is you can play the bad Jedi or the hard line all or nothing trooper and play the character as a bad guy. Your not just set in this good or bad role depending on which side your character falls. Same with the with the sith

  3. Edward Edward says:

    I keep finding myself more and more intrigued by this game, and I’m seriously contemplating diving in. However, the subscription price and the little glitches, along with the lack of customisation will probably prove to turn me off the game a bit more than I’d like.
    Still, great write up, and it’s awesome to see you back writing on the site, Iain :D

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