When LucasArts, BioWare and EA revealed their new MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic last year, it was with a flourish, a loud fanfare, a lot of grand rhetoric, and almost no information. The game remained fogged with mystery: it would have lightsabers, lots of story, AI companions, and maybe be a bit like World of Warcraft in space - if there was going to be any space in it. They weren't talking about space that day. They weren't releasing video either. Or saying what the classes were, or whether there would be player-versus-player combat, or explaining just how this mammoth, high-stakes project might work.
In other words, the big-time triumvirate producing The Old Republic issued a wry Alec Guinness half-smile, waved a hand in our direction and we wandered off, contented that these were not the details we were looking for.
Since then, the game's been showing a bit of ankle under those long brown robes, drip-feeding its website with wordy developer blogs and videos slathered in concept art from which it's been possible to mine nuggets of information and seconds of gameplay footage. The most significant news was the announcement of a Bounty Hunter class to join Jedi and Sith. We were expecting more of the same from its E3 showing, especially after EA's press conference climaxed with an admittedly stunning cinematic and not much else.
We weren't expecting to encounter the game itself. But we did. And we weren't expecting to be so impressed with it, either.
Shown running off live servers in the game's Austin, Texas development headquarters, The Old Republic looked solid, colourful and attractive with fast-paced, punchy and crisply-defined combat. Those are rare enough qualities for any MMORPG to claim, never mind one that's at least a year away from launch. BioWare also tore the wrapping off a new class - the Han Solo-inspired Smuggler, who joins the Republic side - and showed combat and story instancing in some depth before reverting to type and clamming up under questioning. But it was too late, their secret was out; Star Wars: The Old Republic is already a frighteningly real prospect, and its developers seem to know exactly what they're doing.
One of the thing they're doing, they are still extremely keen to remind us, is building a "fourth pillar" of storytelling to further support and embellish the lumbering super-structure of an MMO. BioWare professes to be unhappy with the generally static, lore-as-background approach to narrative adopted by most massively multiplayer games and is promising to deliver an epic, branching tale that responds to player decisions, in typical BioWare style, for each character class as well as both the Imperial and Republic factions.
Does that sound daunting? Then how about the even scarier commitment to fully voicing the game that rounded off the E3 reveal? Not only is this a gigantic undertaking, it's one that substantially changes the rhythm of the MMO, bringing it closer in line with the cinematic presentation of a modern single-player game. Beginning the live demo with some Bounty Hunter questing, BioWare showed how the quest was triggered by a three-way conversation lasting a few minutes. The camera cut between long-shots and headshots and there was no on-screen text at all (save some signature Star Wars subtitles for alien speech). It was, essentially, a cut-scene.
This move undoubtedly gives BioWare more room to flex its storytelling muscle, and may also go some way to making many players feel more comfortable playing an MMO. But it raises several difficult questions and risky departures for the developer. Voicing the player character is one: each character class will have a single generic voice, which risks undermining the strongly individual bond between MMO players and their "toons".
Then there's the sheer quantity of content these games require. Can all of it really be interesting enough to justify this kind of presentation? BioWare is currently indicating that it will be unwilling to let players skip or read dialogue scenes, and the rather stiff, bland and functional Bounty Hunter scene we watch makes us worried that they will slow the pace of the game to a crawl, especially for impatient, seasoned MMO players. Anyone who has made their way through the early parts of Age of Conan will attest to what a mixed blessing voicing can be in MMOs, although BioWare's commitment to never duplicating missions across the classes will certainly help.