Hands on with The Old Republic

Can BioWare's great hope be more than just another MMO?

Strange to say it, but when you first start playing The Old Republic you forget it’s going to be built like an MMO. Missions, such as the one we played recently, are doled out in such dramatic and wordy ways that you’re temporarily blinded to the fact that the bomb-pursuit you’re on is essentially a World of Warcraft quest in space boots.

Above: Of course, nothing in WoW looks this badass

Secure a ZR-57 bomb that’s deep within a Separatist fortress on the planet of Ord Mantell, having taken down a force field at another point somewhere within said fortress? Well, that’s a little bit of a “fight your way into a zombie castle and bring back some fairy dust” retrieval quest isn’t it? As a side-mission there’s also the option to obey the will of a snarky journalist called Lamalla Rann who has a colleague that’s gone walkabout on a nearby island, who wants him and his scattered recordings found for a handful of credits. This too is straight from the school of “Brother Tooms was out collecting magical herbs on the Island of Death, where there happen to be werewolves, I hope he’s not dead” quest design.

This isn’t meant as criticism, as we’re certain the The Old Republic will sit comfortably within the realms of the badass (refer to image above), but with the expectations that come with the Knights of the Old Republic badge there are just things that need underlining. You can have all the voiced NPCs in the world, they can be as pleasant, funny or sarcastic as a writer can make them, but the next group of humans you come across are still going to be a bunch of ultra-dim cannon fodder mobs who stand next to a log until you cross the boundaries of their magic circle of aggro.

If anything, the wordiness and high falutin’ tendencies of The Old Republic make this difference between quest-giver and XP-harvest mob ever more stark – even if human mobs do have basic AI routines that make them hunt out cover. Again though, this isn’t necessarily a problem – just another thing that needs to be highlighted in an attempt to manage the vast amounts of expectation revving up behind a game that’s being set up as the second coming (of something or other).

Yes, it’s well on its way to being an excellent game – but in the hubbub it’s easy to forget that it’ll still be an MMO with most of the usual contrivances of the massively multiplayer role-playing genre. You need to also be aware that the game is still in its early days, so things will change and develop over time. In fact, one of the few things that stands no chance of being tweaked before release, and therefore something we can most certainly complain about right now, is that some of the NPCs have cheesy cartoon grins and awful hair. We like our Star Wars characters looking as scruffy as a nerf herder, thank you very much.

In any case, as a fledgling Republic Trooper – and an inductee of Havoc Squad, “the finest military special operations group in the galaxy” no less – we had to carve our way through a cavalcade of the respawning separatist bastards.

Unlike Force-powered characters who operate from a pool of mana/force, our lady Trooper worked on an action point basis – the more basic blaster rifle attacks we used, the more points we gained that could be spent on her more powerful special abilities. These included slamming a rifle butt in the face of our foes, leaving them unconscious on the ground for a while; a more concentrated stream of rifle power; and two sorts of grenades – a light one with an approach tomulti-target damage, and an ace heavy one thatsticks to the midriff and panics those it attaches to.

Above: Jedi and Sith may get lightsabers, but troopers get the big guns

This is a fun and engaging set-up, and one that more than shows off the fast-paced and up-front combat The Old Republic is aiming for – having you set against groups of bad guys, and unlikely to be taken down in one-on-one situations. The way that combat is regular enough to conserve action points between separate bouts to use on your next group of foes gives a great feeling of flow and momentum to your passage through the instance.

What you realise as you play, however, is the sheer amount of info that hasn’t been unveiled about the game – essentially all the constituent parts that will make it an MMO. Grouping, PvP, the ways in which your BioWare-tagged companions will be seen by other players, mounts, hubs, economies, crafting, travel between systems... even the area described above had to be played through in an abundantly solo fashion. Perhaps behind the scenes BioWare are still playing around with different options, or perhaps talk of the more social aspects of the game don’t fit within the set-in-stone LucasArts PR plan. More likely it’s a mixture of the two.

In any case, The Old Republic remains the greatest gaming hope around – how can a title with more content than every BioWare game put together not cause unquenchable salivation among our happy crowd of PC gamers? Before long though, we really do need to start seeing how the game will operate with some of the said happy crowd running amok inside it and armed with lightsabers.

Check the next page for a peek at some of the planets. Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

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