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.
The ranged nature of the Bounty Hunter means I don't get to experience the connection of light sabres, or use cover - in fact, my pale-faced Rikkitaki mercenary is disappointingly familiar. The second quest, however, brings a smile to my face. It's another head-collecting quest, only this time I won't be given the option to take the wrong head, because I've got to deliver it to his wife. Nice.
OK, about those sixteen classes? I'm ushered into a corner with Daniel Erickson, the Lead Writer and Designer on TOR, and told that I can know something special and new: each one of the eight classes will branch into two specialised classes. It's a classic BioWare device, and in this case, it spares them from having to write 16 epic class stories, as the Advanced Classes will share their narrative. Anyway, at some point, a Sith Warrior will get the choice - does he want to become a Juggernaut, or a Marauder? In MMO language: a tank, or hardcore damage-dealer?
And that's just the beginning of your specialisation - this is also World of Warcraft's level 10 Talent Point moment, where you start your journey down those three skill trees you can never completely fill. It's as big and complex as two distinct classes. It's the beginning of your uniquely tweaked character.
And it's now that I must, with regret, refer you back to the first paragraph. It was on the last page, so I'll write it again, to spare Eurogamer from suffering two free page impressions - "BioWare don't like to talk about anything that's still in flux". These are the questions I asked that are met with a good-natured lack of information:
What will other classes advance into? (We're not currently saying)
How exactly will these skill trees refine the Tank and DPS roles? (We're not currently saying) Is it like, erm, a Paladin? (A bit like that)
When will you get to make the decision? (It's changed a few times, it's not fixed yet)
Given that these branches share a class storyline, will you be able to respec? (Maybe, we're trying to distinguish gameplay from story decisions - you should have to live with your story decisions)
Do you understand how nut-chafing this drip-feed of information can be? (We don't like talking about things that are still in flux)
Something that's always bothered me about The Old Republic write-ups, and something that's been brought up by previous Eurogamer hands-ons, has been the idea of what you do when you're not fighting. Devoid of other players, and with a skeleton crew of NPCs, the world seems sparse. I know this will be fleshed out, but it's still a worry: How will you fill the hundreds of hours that MMOs are expected to fill? Where's my cooking and fishing?
The answer is equally evasive, but upbeat. There's enough content to fill those hours, I'm told. You won't have the time in a single lifetime to discover all the content. Between the two factions, there are no recycled NPCs. It's Knights of the Old Republic 3 to infinity. If you printed out the script and it rained, the Earth would be covered in papier mache. Is big game.
This is, according to Erickson, the result of a brain experiment where they're trying to recreate the game that they imagined when someone first described MMOs to them. And that's exactly it. That is the lost feeling I've had when reading these previews. I find myself filling in the gaps in the official information with the hope I had when I first installed Anarchy Online. All this vagueness leads to hope. And hope is hardly renowned for its realism.
One thing we can be sure of, though: BioWare's simple commitment to story and meaningful decisions trumps its desire to make an easily described MMO. Having mapped out the nightmare logic of Mass Effect's chapter-spanning decisions, and The Old Republic's eight epic class storylines, this commitment must feel like marrying a serial killer. Sure, it's simple to honour your vows, but it's not always easy. Let's just hope it's fun.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is scheduled for release on PC in spring 2011.