I've read a number of previews of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It'd be hard not to - people have been writing about it for over a year. Not to mention, I sat in a room at 2009's E3 and voted to kill some captain or other. But until yesterday, I still had no strong mental image of what the game would play like. That's not the fault of the writers - it's the fact that the particulars of what BioWare is doing are still in flux, and the developers refuse to talk about anything that's still in flux. Remember that sentence, you'll be hearing more of it later!
The basic recap facts have been worn into my brain, but let's dutifully go through it again: The Old Republic is a fully-voiced, story-led MMO, with eight classes, shocking amounts (fifty novels' worth) of dialogue, and BioWare's trademark branching moral storyline, with consequences that come snapping at your buttocks long after you've forgotten what you've done. Actually, I'm still expecting a slap for killing that captain.
Oh hang on, let me just correct a mistake. There are 16 classes - but we'll come to that later. See, I can prick-tease too.
At EA's showcase yesterday, the first thing that happened was a hands-on of a new class. We were each given a level six bounty hunter, and dropped into a Cantina in front of a quest-giving Hutt. Then, we explored the industrious swamp town of Jiguuna, and a hostile Evocii village.
The Evocii are proud warrior types - they're only hostile because Rikkitaki like us tend to be bounty hunters, bounty hunters work for Nem'ro The Hutt, and Nem'ro tends to send bounty hunters to kill them. Nem'ro's personality is best illustrated by his idle animation - he coughs into his palm, and licks whatever came out.
Worth mentioning at this stage - this is the first non-human playable race. When I ask about others, I'm given an entertainingly evasive answer that they'd only be using humanoid races because love scenes get weird with blobs. If we ever do make contact with lovely blue tit and dick creatures, I can't help but suspect BioWare will be catapulting themselves naked into space.
Our first errand involves killing Huttsbane, the aggressively named hero of a nearby Evocii village. It was my job to fetch his de-bodied head, but he wouldn't acknowledge my presence until I'd killed four of his Evocii Guardians. Not Scouts or Watchers, although they do look similar - Guardians. It's somehow reassuring to note that the adjectival pedantry of MMO kill quests has survived into TOR.
This gave me a chance to try out the six attacks that every low-level Bounty Hunter will have. It's a ranged class, with a weapon use that isn't limited by rage, mana, or energy - the Bounty Hunter has to deal with heat.
Decent attacks - the knockdown area-of-effect Missile Blast, and channelled Flame Thrower - all accumulate heat, and once your guage is full, you're stuck with phaser fire and the longer cooldown attacks like the paralysing Electro Dart, and the hugely damaging, but conditional Rail Shot. (To fire the rail shot, your target must be stunned, sleeping, or on fire). Our final move is the desperate Vent Heat, which can cool you down once a minute, and give you a chance to deal some heavy damage again.
The mobs aren't challenging - if you've read anything about TOR, you'll be aware that Lucasarts and BioWare's interpretation of heroism is to allow you to fight multiple regular mobs with only one eye to your HP. But once I do confront Huttsbane, I'm given the option to not fight, and take the head of another Evocii in his place. Bounty Hunters have three role-playing options - efficient, merciless, and sympathetic - and just like Mass Effect, the soppier options are delivered with in-character cynicism.
Role-playing doesn't affect your faction, of course. Both factions might have the light and dark path, but there were many thousands of decent German soldiers in the 1940s. That doesn't mean they fought for England.