Star Wars: The Old Republic – hands-on

“The Sith is an action-point class. Do you play many MMO games?”
“A few.”
“So he plays a bit like the rogu... oh, you’ve got it.”

At that point, with the help of BioWare’s Rich Vogel, we’re knee deep in Republic corpses, taking down wave after wave of plastic-clad troopers. Our Sith character is deflecting their blaster fire with his lightsaber while we come to grips with his abilities. He earns points by swiping and smashing; he can then spend them on finishing moves. We Force-choke one foe, hanging him by his neck, watching his legs writhe in pain. As he drops to the floor, trying to catch his breath, we turn away and slide a lightsaber into his ribs.

Even at this early stage, The Old Republic is as polished, as playable and as slick as... that other major MMO. Why? How? Because BioWare Austin, the studio responsible, have paid attention to the details from the very start. And their ambition seems limitless. They want to make an MMORPG that encapsulates the essence of their single-player games: a true online sequel to classics like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. They want to make a game with proficient, modern production values, fully voiced cutscenes and multi-threaded conversations. They want to reduce the grind – removing the tedious fetch 10 and kill 20 quests that plague the genre – and tie everything into their story. They want to introduce genuine consequence, giving parties of players the kind of moral choices their single-player games have become famous for. Except that in this world, there are no save games, no chances to go back and see what might have happened.

Right now, this is the most exciting game in development. As the aforementioned Force-choked trooper slides to the floor, clutching his chest, a horrifying truth becomes apparent: The Old Republic is a credible World of Warcraft killer.

What’s extraordinary is just how playable it is, even at this stage. BioWare have been playing with the working game for months, and are now smoothing the myriad details into a workable whole. “We didn’t want to show the game until there was something playable,” says studio co-director Rich Vogel. “We didn’t even want to announce the game until we had something.” And, as it turns out, the huge Austin studio has already created plenty. “The game is playable. We have a server up and running, we can play the game at home.”

The promise is huge: an MMO that is both as intuitive as an action title and as engrossing as a story-led game. The Star Wars universe, now a few hundred years along from the events of Knights of the Old Republic, and thousands of years before the events of the movies, is the perfect setting for a sci-fi MMO. It’s going to be as rich and deep as any MMO has ever been. But it might not have been this way.

The other studio co-director, Gordon Walton, explains that BioWare could easily have ended up making an MMO other than this one. “We had many options, and we knocked it down two or three several times, but everything came back to Knights of the Old Republic. It was the right universe. We just had to make the deal, so we did.”

Once that deal had been struck there was the formidable task of creating a studio of over a hundred people, which would then produce the content required to fill out a massive, multiplayer world. “BioWare Austin came in to existence in early 2006... We started the game working with only a few people. We’re now a very, very large studio,” says Walton. “Some of the staff came from SOE, but the early seeds were all BioWare. James (Ohlen) has some considerable experience; he was the lead designer on Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights and KotOR. We knew who the high level core creative team was going be. But the key hire that wasn’t settled on day one was Ohlen, because we didn’t know who we would get.”