Star Wars: The Old Republic

Impossible to see, the future is.

It may be the worst kept secret in recent gaming history, but that hasn't stopped LucasArts putting on a big show to unveil its new MMO from BioWare, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Dozens of journalists have been invited to the company's San Francisco HQ, including many flown all the way from Europe. Executives from BioWare, EA and of course LucasArts are all putting in an appearance, along with creative directors, storyline writers, gameplay programmers and an army of PR people. In fact, the only notably absent person is George Lucas.

A press conference is held in the impressive on-site cinema. A trailer is shown, along with a video of "pre-production gameplay footage". There's a question-and-answer session, followed by roundtable presentations, executive interviews, a tour of the building and a trip to the gift shop (think Javva the Hutt coffee mugs, hundred-dollar Indiana Jones hats, Yoda costumes for dogs and receipts that bear the legend, 'May the Force Be With You').

With all that stuff going on, you might think the dozens of journalists will come away with a thorough understanding of Star Wars: The Old Republic. You might be wrong. The phrase "We're not talking about that today" is wheeled out again and again, and after a couple of hours it feels like the list of things they're not talking about today is longer than the list of acceptable subjects for discussion.

Here are just a few of the things they aren't talking about today: the story delivery system, grouping, space combat, the number of classes, travelling between planets, player housing, how long the game's been in development, how many people are working on it, PC exclusivity, subscription fees, the release date. Best quote of the event: "We're not talking about anything that has to do with space today."

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The visuals have a hand-painted quality to them - much like some of the backgrounds in the old movies.

It's clear that what would be discussed was determined well in advance, and that everyone has been thoroughly briefed. This launch event is not about sharing details or answering specific questions. It's about sending a precise, and rather short, message.

The message, in essence, is this: with Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare is doing things differently. This game is not Star Wars Galaxies 2, nor is it Knights of the Old Republic 3. (Actually, according to BioWare, it's KOTOR 3, 4, 5 and beyond, but more on that later.) It may be set in the same time period as Knights of the Old Republic, but it's an MMO as well as an RPG. It will include the same features you'd expect from traditional MMORPGs, but BioWare is throwing new elements into the mix.

"We're huge fans of the MMO genre," says BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka, speaking in a post-press conference interview. "We're looking at the things that great MMOs do so well - exploration, character progression, combat, raids, PVP, PVE and all the things that fans of the genre have come to expect.

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This mining droid may be taking the whole strike thing too far.

"We're adding something to that. We're adding a pillar where you get to play solo or multiplayer, and go back and forth between them via a meaningful story arc," he continues. "You make choices that matter and have consequences, and you feel like you're making a difference as you progress through this world."

According to Daniel Erickson, who's one of the writers helping to construct that story arc, this is what sets The Old Republic apart from other MMORPGs. "For whatever reason, when people took the RPG and went to make the massively multiplayer RPG, they left out the fourth pillar - story," he says. "Obviously, that's not something BioWare's ever done. So if we're going to make an MMO, we're going to make one with all the pillars there."

The story is set some 300 years after the events of the KOTOR games, and 3000 years before the Star Wars movies. Following years of war, the old Republic and new Sith Empire have reached an uneasy truce - so uneasy, in fact, that it falls apart soon after the game begins.

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