I like Star Wars.
I don't worship it, watching the films while my lips move silently with the action, a half-second before the lines are spoken. I don't have a Boba Fett tattoo etched on my inner thigh, and I've never asked my other half to dress up as Princess Leia. I do think I can pull off a pretty mean Chewbacca impression but then, who doesn't?
I can accept that for many, anything less than absolute devotion to the franchise is borderline blasphemy, but you can blame the prequels for my indifference. They threw a bucket of ice-cold water over my childhood passion for the series; after The Phantom Menace, I decided I preferred to take my solace in the outstanding Knights of the Old Republic titles, an example of games picking up where films dare not even tread.
Which brings me to the latest playable build of Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare's massively multiplayer take on the series it started. At a preview of the Imperial Agent class at London's Trocadero, we find ourselves on the planet Hutta, tasked with impersonating an intercepted ne'er-do-well in order to infiltrate a Hutt gang in their palatial hideout. A ranged class utilising grenades and rifles, the Imperial Agent is likely to appeal to those who prefer to assume a support role in groups, taking on crowd-control duties while providing focused fire on the main threat.
It's fortunate that while the missions have a distinctly 'fetch quest' mentality, they do at least count towards progression of the story, and the depth of the conversations does much to reward players for their efforts – beyond a clutch of experience points and a gear 'upgrade' from your mentor that the charity shop turned its nose up at. So as you gain your disguise and prepare for your confrontations with the Hutts, the lore of the planet is gently teased open and the world beyond your pressing business is slowly brought to life.
The first example of the shades-of-grey moral conundrums you'll find within the storylines of both factions arrives early on, with a mission to retrieve a mother's son, taken by the father for shipping to an off-world Academy. Do you accept the father's remonstrations about the importance of his son's contribution to the cause, allow them to leave and simply lie to the mother? Or should you forcibly return the boy to his home?
And once you've made that decision, how about killing the father in front of his son while you're at it? Show the other buggers you mean business, even at the cost of tainting your own soul?
More completist players are in for a gratuitously extensive treat, given the accidental nature of some of the quest content. For example, a chance encounter with a concerned citizen leads to an engagement with a mysterious man in black, hunting the local Evocii and removing their teeth for trophies. When the inevitable confrontation comes, are you a force for good? Or are you a force for good who can always use a little extra cash to turn a blind eye? Your choice.
If you're the type of player who simply must explore every avenue of every side-quest character's dialogue tree, then you can already rank the solo component of The Old Republic as being light years ahead of its contemporaries. After around 18 hours of gameplay, I reached level 13 out of 50 – and the law of diminishing returns in MMO character progression is alive and well in this game.
The lip-sync is extraordinarily accurate and animations, for the most part, are fluid and responsive. But despite the excellent overall presentation there are some oddities about the characters. The Imperial Agent we're playing jaunts across the landscape with a springing enthusiasm, fists lightly clenched at her sides with nervous energy, as though at any moment she might burst through a curtain and launch into a number from Annie.
The Cantina within the hideout you're tasked with infiltrating is well detailed, but rather sparsely populated. It's in these moments that you find yourself questioning whether BioWare has bitten off a little more than it can chew with the grandiose scale of the game. There are dancers, the alien band tootle away at a somewhat less catchy ditty than the one we all know and love, but there's a sense of emptiness in the room.
Happy Hour has yet to start, no-one's making the first move and there's unlikely to be much in the way of cross-species intercourse after the stagger home from the kebab shop. The interactions feel a little cold and detached, as though the participants aren't really sure where they are and what they're meant to be doing here.
And while it's fascinating to tease a character out of the main storyline and into your team as a companion, once at your side, they trail blindly behind you like an almost-mute quest NPC. Attempt to talk to them before their personal story opens up and you'll receive a rote "I'm too busy to talk" response, repeated over and over. Given the well-publicised depth of voice-acting in the game, it seems a little odd that an allowance hasn't been made for at least some unique commentary to be provided as the story unfolds. Perhaps we'll see some further development here for the final game.
As it stands, the cover system so crucial to the Imperial Agent's performance is also a little buggy. An icon may appear above an object, but you won't always take shelter behind it. When the system works, it works spectacularly, allowing you to take a more strategic approach with your team, as sniper and covering-fire options open up. When it fails, it fails rather badly, leaving the player feeling ham-fisted and vulnerable.
These issues can all be fixed of course, and to focus too closely on them is to ignore the many remarkable achievements BioWare has already made. The holo-communicator connecting you to your quest-givers not only provides welcome relief from the usual to-and-fro, but also brings another flutter to the Star Wars heart. As befits a game with so much dedication to the finer details of the carefully crafted universe, its ice-cold blue projections flicker with reassuring familiarity.
The health recovery system is a refreshing change of pace to the usual fare where you watch your characters sit on its backside, drinking itself to a lonely death. When your Imperial Agent pauses to gather strength in The Old Republic, a droid gently floats and bobs in front of you, projecting a holoscreen on which your character idly taps away. Perhaps she's updating her Facebook status: "Nearly died on Hutta. LULZ."
Kaas City contrasts sharply with the murkier Huttan planet and it's at this point that we get a feel for the breadth of environments rendered in the game. Where gloomy vegetation and mournful animal calls fill the swamplands of Hutta, Kaas City is a vertiginous sprawl of deep chasms that leer beneath you while mechanical spires soar overhead. City travel is accomplished in sleek hovering taxis and interiors are filled with holographic projections of planetary statistics. It is fantastically, gloriously Star Wars in both look and feel.
Our first taste of the traditional instanced MMO content takes place in the Brentaal Star where a rogue general lies guarded. We're able to complete this section without healing support and with purely damage-focused players.
It's a simple affair, focused on dispatching waves of enemies as we progress through the ship corridors. BioWare is tight-lipped on whether this style of grouping is indicative of the overall party component of the game or merely an example of an easier early instance. While the sight of ferocious battles being waged outside the ship windows certainly makes the heart sing, it may sink after running the rather repetitive gauntlets of the instance several times.
So while there's a more timid evolution behind some of the player-versus-environment elements of The Old Republic – albeit one heavily influenced by the rich progress made in Mass Effect and KOTOR – the game's most intriguing contribution to a typically cautious genre is to bring an inherent sense of community to the player-versus-player component of the game, the Warzones.
Post-match, the familiar battlefield report gives details of damage done, healing done, healing received and the usual statistical information, but there's a twist. At the end of each match, every player receives the option to vote for the person they feel made the most significant contribution to the team.
You can't vote for yourself – BioWare knows its audience well – but for every team-mate commendation you receive, your rewards are increased accordingly. It encourages you to play to your role: to provide that life-saving heal, or indeed to pay back the healer who brought you back from the brink of death with a well-timed taunt.
The game will utilise a Valour system for PVP progression with a level cap of 50. Success on the battlefield is rewarded with tokens used to purchase various ranks of PVP gear as you level up. A built-in achievement system will also bolster your token rewards so, for example, if you defend for 10,000 damage without dying, you'll receive a bonus in recognition at the end of the battle.
With the caution that defines any occasion where a roomful of people get their first experience of a PVP system, the combat is at first timid but grows bolder as people familiarise themselves with the combat options. There's nothing revolutionary in the combat style for anyone familiar with MMOs, but the action and Warzone design are polished.
As civil war rages on Alderaan, both factions are fighting to achieve influence in the area. At the beginning of each match – and following death – players spawn inside a dropship high above the battlefield before being whizzed into the action on a speeder-bike. Once on land, both teams battle to control a spread of turrets which fire upon the opposing team's dropship. Once a ship is destroyed, the round ends.
While taunt mechanics rarely come into effect in MMO PVP environments, players will be be able to use a revised form in battle. Rather than forcing a target to attack the taunter, the system will instead effectively debuff the enemy, increasing their damage taken for example, or reducing their defences.
The diminishing returns effect, critical to all player-versus-player combat, is now visible to players rather than being an unknowable, hidden percentage to be feared. As you suffer crowd-control effects your Resolve bar fills; once full, the player is immune until it recedes.
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While BioWare is not yet talking Warzone numbers, we are promised that it's not sitting idly by preparing the bare minimum while the competition soldiers on. Both PVP and PVE servers will certainly be available at launch and every server type will also feature purely PVP zones – again, details on these remain under lock and key.
To wrap up, we're given a fleeting look at the space combat. While the action is epic in its rendering, BioWare is careful to manage expectations; this section of the game will remain as a purely single-player, arcade experience. It's more time-filler between meatier group activities than a system of progression in its own right.
But the first time you see your ship approach the sprawling thousands of asteroids that form a planetary ring system, then dart and twist through a maze of collisions towards the enemy fighters? Well, you'll have to see it for yourself to appreciate the impact, and if you have even a passing interest in Star Wars, you'll be right do so on launch day.
Once again, we've been treated to an awfully generous slice of this long-awaited online world. But inevitably, and with so much potential on show, we find ourselves asking the nagging question that lingers after every preview of The Old Republic. Where exactly is the long-term MMO in this most epic – and infamously costly – of MMOs?
Each glimpse of The Old Republic raises as many questions as it answers, and the knowing smile that greets any enquiry about the endgame is starting to wear a little thin for players and press alike. With only a little over six months until the game's proposed November release, it's an area of the game that Bioware needs to start talking about. While the signs are looking good for The Old Republic's release, its long term prospects have yet to be given the same air of confidence.