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.
Much more dramatic and intriguing was a scene later in the demonstration, showcasing a critical choice in the story of a Sith player who was grouped with a Bounty Hunter for the episode. The Sith had to decide whether or not to kill or spare the captain of a warship, which had ramifications not just for what happened next in this instanced set-piece, but for the Sith player's whole story arc, as well as both players' alignment towards the light or dark side of the Force.
Crucially, the scene showcased a multiplayer dialogue system, where both players took turns to choose conversational options. BioWare's hazy on how exactly this will work, but it's a fascinating prospect, and reassuring to know that cut-scenes are being engineered to involve all players in a given group. A bigger unanswered question is how the development of a separate branching story thread for each player in the game can result in a game world with any consistency at all for the population at large. But then, if The Old Republic essentially allows players to jump between and enjoy each other's divergent bubbles of story, would that necessarily be a bad thing?
As you can tell, on its narrative side, The Old Republic is still asking far more questions than it's answering. When it comes to combat, we can be clear: it's standard MMORPG stuff, but it's faster, and there's more of it.
Specifically, BioWare's aiming for many-on-one combat, and not in the traditional MMO sense of gangs of players contending with single tough enemies. The Bounty Hunter was shown dealing capably with three or four enemies at a time on his own, and when paired up with the Sith, numbers just increased further - until the two had to take down a Jedi Padawan and Knight in succession (the Sith looting a second lightsaber for his trouble). Enemies fall fast and come quick, and the pace of action is consistent.
Although fighting's still a matter of selecting an enemy, auto-attacking and then triggering skills by clicking on the skill bar or pressing the number keys, it was noticeable that the cooldowns on the skills were very short, and the skills themselves were swift, immediate, and extremely well-animated, giving a greater sense of physical contact and a more exciting spectacle than the usual flailing, ungainly pas-de-deux of, say, Warhammer Online.
The Bounty Hunter is a ranged fighter, picking off foes with a blaster, launching himself into the air with his jetpack to dispatch "death from above", or using a flamethrower when things get up close and personal. The Sith are melee fighters who can instantly leap and strike from a distance, use famous Force abilities like Vader's choke, and channel hatred to increase the power of their attacks. Sith and Jedi can learn to deflect blaster shots with their lightsabers, which, although it's a passive skill, is still animated convincingly in real-time - it's these touches that make The Old Republic look so good in action, along with the clean, mildly cartooned, expressive figures.
Finally, we got to see the Smuggler in action. Another ranged fighter equipped with a blaster, the Smuggler is, true to the wary and cunning Han Solo archetype, not quite as confrontational or pyrotechnic as the Bounty Hunter. This is demonstrated with one of his special moves - a brutal kick in the nuts followed by a shot to the head - BioWare firmly belonging to the "Han shoots first" camp.
Furthermore, the Smuggler negotiates fire-fights with a cover system, the first of its kind in an MMO, which highlights suitable cover points in the environment - slotting into these greatly mitigates damage. It's another example of the ways in which The Old Republic is making itself more appealing to the non-MMO player - combat that's less abstracted, and presented in the vernacular of the console action game as well as the standalone RPG.
That sums up The Old Republic; from the admirably stripped-down interface (all UI elements apart from the chat log fitting in a neat row on the bottom of the screen) to the cinematic framing and the brisk action, it's a confident and slick attempt to cushion time-honoured MMO basics with a single-player-style comfort zone. On the combat side of this equation, there's little to argue with, but the question remains whether Star Wars: The Old Republic can achieve this blend without losing what it means to be a massively multiplayer gamer in the first place; whether it might become a place where people, distracted by conversation, set-piece and personal choice, go through solo story experiences in tandem but disconnected, never really occupying the same world. We reckon there's still a risk of that, but after this impressive E3 demonstration, we're a lot more interested in finding out for ourselves.