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Star Wars: The Old Republic humongous hands-on preview

We’ve all heard about the very BioWare touches that will make The Old Republic the most story-focused MMO ever, but no one has known how the game actually plays. Until now. We recently sat down and played one of the starting areas and proceeded to play for about six hours – enough to get through most of the first planet and to try out a party-based raid mission. We also learned about some of the higher-level content, including how recruited companions will allow you to delegate the less-heroic tasks like gathering and crafting so you can spend your time doing what Star Wars characters are supposed to be doing – going on adventures.

Above: Our primary enemies in the starting area were the flesh raiders. Whether they were actually evil, or rather puppets in a larger plot, reamained properly ambiguous

We started our game on Tython, a temperate planet with forests, rivers, and mountains. Here, the Jedi have established a colony, but we learned later that the natives as well as earlier settlers aren’t so happy with the Jedi presence, which is a surprising and interesting social dynamic – you never expect anyone to just dislike and distrust the Jedi, and we’re not talking about shady bad guys either. Our character was a padawan (a Jedi in training) in the sense that we were still young and without tons of experience, but for the sake of classes, we were a Jedi Knight. Knights are agile melee fighters – we’re not sure if they are the game’s main tanking class, but they aren’t rogues either – their abilities are all about direct damage but they aren’t exactly sneaky. Other members of the press who played alongside us in this starting area were randomly selected to play Jedi Consulars, who are more like casters – their earliest attack ability is visually flashy, where they tear a huge rock out of the ground with the Force and hurl it at enemies.

We started off at the Jedi temple, which showed off TOR’s visual splendor: all of the buildings we encountered featured huge halls with high ceilings, sweeping curves in the architecture, and cool details like giant floating spheres of sci-fi gobbledygook (they look cool, but their purpose is a mystery – not that we care). We were told to head out to the wilderness, where young padawans were having problems with the indigenous life. We hopped on a speeder bike, which is (at least on Tython) the game’s fast-travel system. In seconds, we arrived on a platform that we realized was a sort of frontier, an outpost of civilization at the edge of forbidding wilderness. Here we could purchase and sell items to vendors and meet up with trainers to learn new abilities. First, though, since we were penniless, we met up with our quest giver and got to explore BioWare’s now-beloved dialogue wheel.

Above: The Jedi aren't shy about the grandeur of their temples - not exactly humble, are they?

First, we must say that having fully-voiced dialogue brings a lot to the table of the standard MMO: it lends drama to what is ordinarily an inert setup to grind mobs. Here, we could select from options familiar to KOTOR or Mass Effect players, choosing to be friendly or dickish, and in certain circumstances, these choices can affect your affinity toward the Light Side or Dark Side of the force (side note: we wonder how non-Force-related classes will handle these moral decisions). With a movie-like back-and-forth between your character and a quest giver, the stakes feel raised: we learned that padawans have been captured by flesh raiders, the surly indigenous humanoids who up until recently weren't much of a problem. So we headed out to free the padawans from a potentially grisly fate.

Despite the enhanced story focus, The Old Republic is very much a traditional MMORPG, borrowing the nuts and bolts from successes that preceded it. Hence, we have a hotbar for our abilities and items which have cooldowns and point costs. One difference that makes the combat more engaging than many other competitors (like WoW) is that your character doesn't auto-attack. So you must either click or hit a key every second or so or you'll get wailed on. Still, at least at the low levels, skill isn't really a factor. You don't have to move around and dodge in combat or aim anything, you just have to manage your abilities and pick the right maneuver at the right time.

My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.