Star Wars: The Old Republic

Sith sense.

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.

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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.

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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.

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