PAX East 11: Hands-On with Star Wars: The Old Republic
How do you kill World of Warcraft? Possibly by painting it a different color, with a BioWare flair, of course. During PAX East, EA and BioWare were gracious enough to give me some time with the game without waiting in the three-hour-long line that circled around their impressive booth.
I’ve been skirting around The Old Republic, not because I wasn’t interested in it, but mostly because I don’t have the time to get involved in another MMO, but if anyone besides the king of the hill can do it, BioWare can.
First things first, I had the pleasure of meeting and playing in the same party as Stephen Totilo, from Kotaku. He told me he hasn’t played an MMO in a while, but he really didn’t have to use his force powers to crash the game on his machine. I kid, I kid. I had a great time, when all was said and done, and came away mighty impressed. [You can check out his impressions, if you’re so inclined.]
Myself and about 20 others were sat down in a small room with a monitor and shown a quick rundown of the four classes we would have available to use and just what we were using them for. Of course, I was briefed quite a bit more ahead of time and allowed to check out a pretty swanky custom iPad app that they had designed just to give people a very detailed look at exactly what the functions of each of the four classes were, how the action bars were laid out and when to use each ability that was available.
The four classes we were playing with were the ones already announced for the Light Side – Trooper, Smuggler, Jedi Knight and Jedi Consular. I’m not going to lie, when I heard that the Smuggler was the healer, I’m sure I had a quizzical expression on my face. But yeah, the Smuggler was the healer of the group. Myself, I chose to play the Jedi Consular, which is kind of like a jack-of-all-trades hybrid class that does damage, has some healing abilities and some party buff actions that can be performed. She also fought with a lightsaber and could use the force to cause some havok. In other games I would possibly call this conglomeration of abilities something along the lines of a battle mage.
As far as the hands on time went, we were dropped into a quest involving a trip through a dungeon (Flashpoint), which took roughly 45 minutes total. I felt right at home when I was in battle, but what impressed me the most about this play time wasn’t the combat – it was the story. What I mean is this – while most MMOs have an overarching story and smaller ones within that, the vast majority of them don’t present the story in the best manner. The most underrated RPGs, like Square-Enix’s online Final Fantasy titles are probably the best of the lot when it comes to story.
Enter BioWare – master RPG-creators and story tellers. The cut scenes and dialog options had a very noticeable, very deliberate BioWare feel. Of special note was the dialog rings, set up in a similar fashion to Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2. Now, because there are four members in the party, not everyone can respond to each inquiry from the quest NPC. Everyone gets the option to respond, but after we all made our decision, an internal dice roll was done and whoever ended up with the highest roll was the player who’s character spoke to the NPC.
This also is where the massive amount of dialog (for an MMO) comes into play, which we’ve heard about previously. For every question that asks the player to reply, there has to be any number of different responses, from different voice actors for all the possible outcomes that the player and internal dice rolls can choose. That’s pretty impressive.
The cut scenes played out very similar to what you’d find in the aforementioned BioWare single-player games, with varying camera angles to give it a more dramatic feel, much like you’re watching a show on TV.
After the cut scenes, we were ushered into a shuttle which took us down to the planet, which served as our instanced dungeon. Getting our bearings, we took off, working as a team to defeat groups of enemies as we proceeded down the path to the boss. Unfortunately, we never did defeat said boss, but fell just short of the objective when our time was up. During the trip through the outdoor dungeon, I mostly stayed back a bit, firing off a bevvy of attacks at targeted enemies. I wasn’t too comfortable with the particular keyboard I was using and kept hitting Caps Lock instead of Tab for targeting, but eventually I got the hang of it. Every so often, when I saw the party was in need, I’d toss out a heal. The Jedi Consular also has at least one buff, but apparently I didn’t read each ability well enough to figure out what it was. Knowing my luck, that is what wasted the party at the boss, because they were missing my buff!
I mentioned earlier I felt right at home here, which is because the combat is very WoW-like. You know, that standard MMO battling that we’ve all come to know and love throughout the Everquest and World of Warcraft years of domination. Not that it wasn’t fun and exciting, mind you, but it was standard. I honestly don’t think this is where The Old Republic will shine or stand out in any way, other than the fact that you’re swinging around lightsabers and such. I have to admit, that’s pretty cool!
Ultimately, I don’t think the game play itself is going to make The Old Republic stand out and take a pot shot at World of Warcraft, or any other MMO, for that matter. No, what will make this stand out is the BioWare feel to the title, the story and the way it’s told. World of Warcraft in particular has a pretty horrid way of telling the story, although it has improved recently. Still, it’s nowhere near how impressive the great voice acting, animation and cut scenes are that I witnessed during this hands-on time with Star Wars: The Old Republic. And you know me, I’m a story and character person. I’m a huge fan of everything BioWare does, and it doesn’t look like this new MMO will disappoint at all. I can’t wait to delve into the title more in the beta and get a more thourough idea of what I would be getting myself into if I decided to pick this up once it launches. It’s definitely going to be hard for an MMO fan such as myself to resist delving into the deep, inviting universe.