Well, let's get this over with. I'm not really, actually, that much of a Star Wars fan.
Yes, yes. Cue sharp intakes of breath, baleful looks and the curling of lips. I'm a heretic, a pariah, a man cast adrift upon a cultural sea of shame. I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near this holiest of universes, lest I taint it with my irreverent lack of faith. Don't get me wrong, the films are alright. Some of them. But I discovered the original trilogy late, probably when I was about 13, and as such they lacked the epoch-defining impact which they seem to have had for so many of my peers.
So, my main point of reference for the Star Wars universe is in fact BioWare's first foray into the legend: Knights of the Old Republic, a game which defined the canon fuelling the company's first MMO offering, and an experience which I enjoyed immensely. Helpfully, the similarities between the two are immediately obvious, both visually and in play-style - something confirmed when lead writer Daniel Erickson describes Star Wars: The Old Republic as KOTORS 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ad infinitum. He even calls it "the world's biggest RPG". BioWare is clearly not shy about emulating its previous success. However, The Old Republic is an attempt to do something quite new in MMOs: create a story-driven world where consequences are everything.
What we're treated to in a dark and sweaty corner of EA's gamescom booth is a 15-minute hands-on of the scenario already seen in the E3 demo - storming the bridge of a Imperial Captain who has disregarded a direct order from a Grand Moff ordering him to engage a Rebel Battleship. This time, however, it's in the guise of the newly-defined Dark Side melee class, the Sith Warrior.
Expectations are clearly set, then. The Sith are the universe's rude-boys, totally outside the normal ranking system of Imperial officers - given carte blanche to wheedle, intimidate and violently direct the actions of officers who would normally be their superiors. Traditionally what we'd expect is a direct and forceful approach to this kind of inter-service discipline: a short, sharp shock with the business end of a lightsabre rather than any attempt at negotiation or diplomacy.
Of course, this is an option, and one we've already seen played out in the previous iterations of the scenario seen through a Bounty Hunter's eyes, so I decide to strike a blow for light from within the darkest heart of the Empire and attempt to resolve the situation relatively peacefully. BioWare seems confident that its deserved reputation for credible moral decision-making will carry weight in the MMO sphere, so I'll test it by making a few decidedly light-side choices with my force-wielding nasty. Compassion from the Dark Side? Even I know that seems a bit incongruous.
It turns out that a slightly pansy attitude has its advantages after all. By deciding to spare the captain, and going on to give him a little moral support and some emotional encouragement, I'm able to tap him as a resource. He's not captain for nothing after all, he's the most experienced and tactically talented person on board, with in-depth knowledge of this sort of engagement and the total respect of his crew.
Keeping him alive means that, after a hyperspace jump to within combat range of the Republic's battleship, a string of intelligent snap-decisions by him steer us out of much of the danger, avoiding a number of the boarding craft that the rebel scum fling our way and making my task of repelling the commandos who do come aboard much easier. Ghandi may well have been onto something, the sly dog. Whilst our decisions reward our gentle Sith with a few light-side points, very much in the vein of KOTOR, we're told that even the nicest of Sith cannot party with the most degenerate Jedi - Erickson uses the analogy of the good Nazi, whose ultimate conclusion would be the assassination of Hitler rather than defection. Interesting choice of scenarios, no? Watch your back, Emperor.
The conversation itself, as well as being fully voiced, follows the traditional BioWare route of suggestive choices, three for each branch, which are then fleshed out in the actual responses. Not only does this mechanic keep things more interesting - because I was intrigued to see how each choice would be manifested rather than impatiently waiting for the text I'd just read to be vocalised - it fleshes out the player character beautifully, with even the 'nice' light-side options rendered in gritty Sith style. There are four or five decisions to be made, unless of course the first choice is one to execute, and each feels as if it has a real influence on the mood of captain and crew, and therefore on the interactions available afterwards. Our mollycoddling seems to assuage the initial aggression of the situation, mollifying our wayward CO into rallying his troops and offering sound tactical advice.
This isn't one of the earth-shattering choices we're promised we'll be making, it's a single early mission, but we're promised that the consequences range beyond the simple location and number of boarders. Humiliate or intimidate the captain too much and we're told that he might not be so willing to offer advice or more palpable support once you're away, aboard the enemy vessel. Absence, it seems, makes the heart grow bolder.
We're also shown the multiplayer conversation mechanic, whereby speech options are allocated randomly for members of your party to decide. We're only shown a party of two behaving in this way, and BioWare is cagey on what maximum party size will be and how this will affect conversations, but what we see works well, even allowing a sort of good cop/bad cop interchange. It raises an interesting question, however. Grouping is a notoriously hit-and-miss affair, and finding like-minded individuals in the virtual world is not necessarily an easy task. In a world of irrevocable consequences, where the decision of a stranger can dictate a portion of the next 400 hours of your gameplay, choosing who you take with you on missions suddenly becomes extraordinarily important. We shall see.
But, it's time to earn that combat pay, so we head down to the shuttle bay from the bridge to fend off a team of Republic Commandos.
As you might expect, the skills of the Sith Warrior are melee-focused, with a smattering of Force powers to spice up his arsenal. Two 'point-building' basic attacks are on offer, ala World of Warcraft's Rogue, with the 'spending' skills providing the high-impact damage-dealing. Most useful is a long-range leaping strike, enabling players to close the distance on ranged opponents quickly, forcing them into toe-to-toe slugging matches. The ground which the Sith covers with this attack is considerable, plus it can be combined with a regular jump and executed in mid-air, adding to its range.
A spinning gut-lunge and a sparkly area attack are the point-spending attacks bolstering our level-8 character's assault, whilst the out-of-combat heal of Channel Hatred is quick and effective, adhering to BioWare's policy of not wanting people to have to "sit around on hills eating bread" to restore health. Most iconic of the combat skills available has to be Vader's favourite though: the Force choke. This lifts enemies from the floor and gradually drains health, whilst also presenting them as the perfect target for ranged allies to perforate.
Action-led and frantic, combat usually means being outnumbered, enhancing the feeling that even low-level characters far outstrip everyday folks in their martial prowess. Blocks and parries are animated and synchronised - in Erickson's words, "you don't need to check the feedback text, you can see what's happening". Again, it's very hard not to appreciate how much of KOTOR is being channelled here, especially as the Sith Warrior is the class with best fit to the PC and Xbox classic. Of course, it's still a matter of hot-keys, random number generation and stat checks, but these mechanics are well-concealed beneath the brightly stylised combat engine, engendering an atmosphere of skill and action rather than dry statistics.
Of course, it's way too early to start making any concrete judgements. BioWare is under no illusions about how much of the balancing and fine-tuning work still needs to be done. But The Old Republic is shaping up very nicely, thank you - and that comes from a man who thinks that Luke Skywalker is a whingeing little twerp. Sorry.