You can't fault BioWare and LucasArts' showmanship, but when you're working with what they're working with, it's almost too easy. At a recent EA press event, we were shown and allowed to play their Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, behind closed doors. We suspect this was only so they could have a hydraulic octagonal door to put the game behind, with a Stormtrooper guarding it, quacking officiously at loitering journos. Cheesy? Perhaps, but it's impossible to stop a little genuine excitement slipping into your cynical smile.
The visual language was pure 1977, however - not just the first Star Wars film, but the first five minutes of it. Considering that BioWare's work is set some 3500 years before the events of the films, was it all that appropriate? And if The Old Republic is the success it can be - its makers surely have the massed millions of World of Warcraft in their sights - will its own iconography be as potent one day?
There's no reason why not. But it's also something of a moot point, because BioWare, while giving the setting its own flavour, is keeping those touchstones very close to hand. That much is clear from the way the character classes are introduced. The Trooper is a Stormtrooper, back when they were on the side of good. The Smuggler is Han Solo, the Bounty Hunter is Boba Fett, the Sith Warrior is Vader and the Jedi Knight is Obi Wan.
Of the three more recently-announced classes, only the Imperial Agent doesn't have a direct analogue in the classic Star Wars canon. The Agent is a stealth specialist and gadgeteer with talents in subterfuge, infiltration and assassination and a story arc (each Old Republic class has its own epic quest line) showing you the political underbelly of the Sith Empire. Although we didn't see one in action, the Agent seems like an exciting cross between the classic role-playing rogue and an engineer class with a dash of dastardly James Bond about him - definitely appealing, and slotting smoothly into the set-up.
For the remaining two classes, we're back to that original-trilogy cast list - although the distinctions get a little muddier, because we're dealing with a second Sith and second Jedi. Perhaps fearing servers awash with Jedi and Sith, BioWare has decided to split the vote. The Sith Inquisitor and Jedi Consular are, like the Warrior and Knight, lightsaber-wielding, Force-using characters. They're likened to Emperor Palpatine and Yoda respectively, but aside from the Inquisitor's Force lightning powers, there isn't much that sets them apart from their team-mates at first glance.
The Consular and Inquisitor are weighted more towards ranged Force powers than lightsaber melee combat, and both have good crowd-control skills - stuns and dazes, the Consular using telekinesis, the Inquisitor lightning. Neither's afraid to get up close and personal, however, the Consular possessing a Force pull that will bring distant enemies under its lightsaber.
The "thoughtful" Consular will also be able to specialise in healing, but The Old Republic's specialisation system is intended to offer options not restrict them, and reduce the obstacles to soloing or finding a suitable group. You'll be able to quickly swap between specialisations on your character, so there should be "no worrying about finding a healer", according to LucasArts. Using the Smuggler as an example, you could choose to configure the cowboy opportunist as a "scoundrel" - a short-range stealth rogue, skilled in medicine - or a "gunslinger", your classic dual-wielding ranger.
BioWare also showed off the AI companions you'll be able to collect for your character, which - along with the fully-voiced conversational options and moral barometer - it has carried over to The Old Republic from its single-player RPGs. The two examples given were Inquisitor Companions: Khem Val the Dashade, a hulking alien tank who fights with his fists, and Xalek the Kaleesh, a "Darth Maul-style" lightsaber-wielding damage-dealer. They were only shown filling these simple roles in combat, so the extent of interaction with them doesn't currently seem that different from a traditional MMO "pet" character, although we're sure BioWare has more complex plans in the works.
Nevertheless, we were told we would have many companions with distinct roles, who would be "tools in a toolkit" for various tasks, including healing and solving certain puzzles. As with the specialisations, the goal seems to be to fill any gaps in your skill-set as simply as possible, although the companions do raise some interesting questions. If you never actually need other players, what will make The Old Republic an MMO? And if the Companions are drawn as individual characters rather than the usual faceless summons, how will the world support dozens of them running around with their masters?
It certainly wouldn't be the first - or last - time an MMO had strained credulity for the sake of what suits these peculiar worlds populated solely by heroes. Nonetheless, BioWare's determination to seed The Old Republic with the epic storytelling and cinematic style of its single-player games is going to raise more than its fair share of these questions, and it's probably going to keep on doing so until we get the first taste of the game running on beta servers.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. If nothing else, it indicates that the Austin studio is trying new things in MMOs. Thanks to extensive hands-on with a low-level Inquisitor, we've been able to observe some of these things in action, too, in what's already a polished and highly playable game.
It's worth noting, for starters, that it's extremely easy to play solo. BioWare has said that it wants players to be able to take on multiple enemies at once, on their own, in heroic combat, and there's no reason an MMO can't support that. It will have to be mindful, however, that it doesn't mistake taking on groups of three or more in quick succession and only seeing your health reduced by two-thirds for heroism, lest things become a little mindless. Fortunately, this sort of thing can be fine-tuned, and we're sure the developers will be paying close attention to it.
The Inquisitor's power set already seems to boast extreme utility even at a low level - a self-heal, a stun, a root, an area-of-effect knockback, an energy-replenishing "lightning-drain" attack, decent melee damage and devastating ranged damage with the lightning "shock". There's not much you can't handle with that combination. The skills are also snappy and combat fast-paced - there's no disguising that this is still straightforward MMO dice-rolling and icon-clicking, but it is a particularly fluid example of the form.
The missions we try in this Sith Academy area - a series of dusty canyons overrun with beasts, droids and rebelling slaves - are more run-of-the-mill than the dramatic class-story scenario we sampled at the Cologne gamescom, but that's to be expected at this early stage. There is, though, a strange contrast between the traditional MMO questing and the sumptuous BioWare conversational framework it's mounted in. A lengthy set-up with a mad Sith Lord and his acolyte - whom you can choose to conspire with to betray the Lord, securing yourself two quest rewards and some bad karma - leads to a straight fetch-quest: go in the cavern, kill the beasts, bring me their brains.
On the way, you can pick up secondary quests from holopads, which flesh out the lore of the area and dole out some more experience, but don't have the conversational element - though they're still voiced, as is your character, which remains a bold move for an MMO.
Questions still remain about the action, but in fairness we were playing in less than ideal conditions - on separate instances with no other players about - even if we were surrounded by luxurious LucasArts props and extras in real life. Under those circumstances, the questing doesn't yet compare well with what was shown of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm's new starting zones at BlizzCon - or even what you can already sample in Lich King.
But BioWare is bringing a lot to MMOs with The Old Republic, much of it very exciting - the iconic classes, the flexibility, the narrative ambition - and one hopes the forthcoming beta, like the hydraulic doors, is careful to bed those elements within the inherent wealth not just of the Star Wars mythos, but also the wider MMO genre. Like George Lucas' own exploits at the end of the last century, it may be impossible to look away regardless.