It may have been under the radar for a bit after its initial announcement in 2008, but Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMORPG epic, was available to play at PAX East this year and it seems that developers Bioware have been quite busy.
Us media folk were told to posse up into groups of four so we could take on a mission known as the Taral V Flashpoint as a team, with each of us playing as a different class with equally important responsibilities. The team of four consisted of high-level characters with a decent array of special abilities, so we could all take full advantage of our respective characters’ abilities.
There was the trooper, whose role was to play as the tank of the group, intentionally drawing enemy fire and soaking up damage while returning equally heavy fire. His arsenal of abilities was based around ranged attacks with his blaster and explosives.
While the trooper was taking heavy damage, it fell on the role of the smuggler to serve as the group’s primary healer. That’s not to say that the smuggler is or has to be a healer class in the Old Republic, this was simply how Bioware chose to structure this particular character’s abilities for the sake of mixing things up a little bit.
That left the Jedi Guardian and Jedi Consular, who were both offense-oriented characters. Where they differed, however, was that the Guardian was responsible for dishing out heavy damage up close via melee attacks with his lightsaber, while the Consular hung back, acting as a secondary healer and dealing ranged damage through Force powers (like flinging rocks with Force Throw or tossing her lightsaber with Saber Throw).
Before we even embarked on our mission, we, as a party, spoke to a Jedi named Master Oteg at our little home base. While this mostly served as a briefing on the story behind our mission, it also introduced a subtle gameplay element that I thought was a great idea: multiplayer dialogue. Each time our party was given an opportunity to speak, we all rolled a number between 1 and 100, and whoever had the highest got to pick how he or she would response on behalf of the group. That means if that particular character wants to act like a jerk and give rude answers to whatever he hears, he will represent the entire group while doing so. NPCs can respond or act differently towards your party, depending on what is said, and fluctuations in alignment are affected by dialogue choices (think Paragon and Renegade points in Mass Effect). So the player that wins that roll ends up holding a legitimate amount of responsibility each time.
We coasted pretty easily through most of the demo until we hit the boss at the end, which actually turned out to be two bosses. As we fought against a heavily-armored Imperial Captain and his pet…gigantic reptilian thing, we hung in the fight for a minute or two before things really fell apart and we were picked off one by one, sending us back to the start of the mission. We had enough time with the demo that we were able to run back and attempt taking him on a couple more times, but it wasn’t until a glitch that prevented the giant reptile from attacking us that we finally had the upper hand. Naturally, it was at this point that we were told that our time was up. It was an enjoyable challenge though, and it was one that encouraged us to try out different tactics and strategies each time, to varying degrees of success.
Generally a harsh critic, I’ll admit that I had a hard time finding things that I didn’t like about the Old Republic. I mean, it’s Knights of the Old Republic, except prettier and with more classes, powers, and party members (that are human, no less). That’s a winning formula. If I had one gripe, it’s that Bioware still can’t seem to nail down an official release date, tentatively citing a Q2 2011 release.
The different character classes and their respective abilities were cool, to be sure, but in the Old Republic, classes aren’t just about snazzy abilities and picking whichever one suits your playing style best; they’re also about using their talents to collaborate and strategize with your party members.
Fortunately for me, my teammates were more than capable players that fulfilled their responsibilities and made up for my general inexperience with MMORPGs. It was also lucky that I played as the trooper, which allowed me to charge wildly into battle, setting off a string of high-powered abilities while my party’s adept smuggler healed me…frequently.
The visuals of the game looked fine; they were nothing special for video games but relatively impressive for an MMO. Unfortunately, the genre somewhat constricts how detailed visuals can be in an MMO (that is, if players want a lag-free experience), but I think Bioware managed to still make it look decent, all things considered. Some of the effects like explosions, fire, and Force powers looked a little flat, but again, when there’s a party of four (or more) characters on the screen all firing off their abilities at the same time, things will probably slow down quite a bit if you get too fancy. So I think the visuals were a good balance of prettiness and practicality, but let’s face it, they don’t really make or break the success of an MMO (see: World of Warcraft).
Gameplay ranged (appropriately) from simple to complex and never too much in one direction. Again, I was kind of the big, dumb animal of the group, so I had enough health that I could usually charge into a firefight and just use my basic attack to slowly wear down my enemies and nobody would ever end up in much trouble. But things would inevitably get more serious when, at times, my powerful enemies would start targeting my party members instead of me; this was especially bad if the smuggler, the healer of our group, was under fire. At that point, it was on me to use one of my abilities to attract the attention of the enemies and redirect their fire towards me.
But it wasn’t always that easy, either. Since every character has some form of mana (for the trooper, it was ammo), and if I was too busy spamming my special melee attack prior to my teammates falling under fire, it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have enough ammo to use my special ability to get the enemy’s attention. This happened on more than one occasion.
Moral of the story? Be strategic about using your abilities, and if you haven’t been, use what ammo you have left to crank out your most powerful attacks (I was a big fan of the sticky grenade) to try to finish off that bad guy before he finishes off your teammate. Given how I managed to occasionally muck up my relatively simple responsibilities — get shot, basically — I can’t imagine how stressful the gameplay can become for other classes.
Honestly, and it’s greedy of me to say since I was given so much time with the demo, but I wish I could have tried out the other classes, too. My teammates’ abilities were just as impressive as mine and made for some intriguing combat and gameplay elements. Seeing them do things like fling giant rocks and throw up mini-shields for cover in the heat of battle just looked fun and it made sure that there was never a dull moment. The fact that I was so impressed with this demo when it didn’t even cover all of the game’s classes told to me that the full version is going to be packed full of impressive abilities, species, and powers, and that’s the name of the game with something like Star Wars.
A game like this that’s so large in scope (when it comes to video games, it doesn’t get much bigger or sprawling than an MMO) is a perfect fit for a franchise like Star Wars. The Star Wars universe is expansive, full of all kinds of exotic aspects, and even this little taste that I got — which, for all intents and purposes, encapsulated no more than a tiny corner of the game’s universe — properly conveyed that. Star Wars is the epitome of epic, and by lovingly taking the time to accurately fill the game with all of the weapons, creatures, people, and professions that make Star Wars so unique (who hasn’t wanted to be a space smuggler at some point in their lives?), Bioware has effectively found a way for you to create your own, equally epic Star Wars saga.
There’s a pretty simple reason I’m so inexperienced with MMOs: I’ve never found anything compelling enough to warrant paying for it on a monthly basis. But after spending some time with The Old Republic, I think it may be time to empty out the piggy bank.