I like Star Wars.
I don't worship it, watching the films while my lips move silently with the action, a half-second before the lines are spoken. I don't have a Boba Fett tattoo etched on my inner thigh, and I've never asked my other half to dress up as Princess Leia. I do think I can pull off a pretty mean Chewbacca impression but then, who doesn't?
I can accept that for many, anything less than absolute devotion to the franchise is borderline blasphemy, but you can blame the prequels for my indifference. They threw a bucket of ice-cold water over my childhood passion for the series; after The Phantom Menace, I decided I preferred to take my solace in the outstanding Knights of the Old Republic titles, an example of games picking up where films dare not even tread.
Which brings me to the latest playable build of Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare's massively multiplayer take on the series it started. At a preview of the Imperial Agent class at London's Trocadero, we find ourselves on the planet Hutta, tasked with impersonating an intercepted ne'er-do-well in order to infiltrate a Hutt gang in their palatial hideout. A ranged class utilising grenades and rifles, the Imperial Agent is likely to appeal to those who prefer to assume a support role in groups, taking on crowd-control duties while providing focused fire on the main threat.
It's fortunate that while the missions have a distinctly 'fetch quest' mentality, they do at least count towards progression of the story, and the depth of the conversations does much to reward players for their efforts beyond a clutch of experience points and a gear 'upgrade' from your mentor that the charity shop turned its nose up at. So as you gain your disguise and prepare for your confrontations with the Hutts, the lore of the planet is gently teased open and the world beyond your pressing business is slowly brought to life.
The first example of the shades-of-grey moral conundrums you'll find within the storylines of both factions arrives early on, with a mission to retrieve a mother's son, taken by the father for shipping to an off-world Academy. Do you accept the father's remonstrations about the importance of his son's contribution to the cause, allow them to leave and simply lie to the mother? Or should you forcibly return the boy to his home?
And once you've made that decision, how about killing the father in front of his son while you're at it? Show the other buggers you mean business, even at the cost of tainting your own soul?
More completist players are in for a gratuitously extensive treat, given the accidental nature of some of the quest content. For example, a chance encounter with a concerned citizen leads to an engagement with a mysterious man in black, hunting the local Evocii and removing their teeth for trophies. When the inevitable confrontation comes, are you a force for good? Or are you a force for good who can always use a little extra cash to turn a blind eye? Your choice.
If you're the type of player who simply must explore every avenue of every side-quest character's dialogue tree, then you can already rank the solo component of The Old Republic as being light years ahead of its contemporaries. After around 18 hours of gameplay, I reached level 13 out of 50 and the law of diminishing returns in MMO character progression is alive and well in this game.
The lip-sync is extraordinarily accurate and animations, for the most part, are fluid and responsive. But despite the excellent overall presentation there are some oddities about the characters. The Imperial Agent we're playing jaunts across the landscape with a springing enthusiasm, fists lightly clenched at her sides with nervous energy, as though at any moment she might burst through a curtain and launch into a number from Annie.
The Cantina within the hideout you're tasked with infiltrating is well detailed, but rather sparsely populated. It's in these moments that you find yourself questioning whether BioWare has bitten off a little more than it can chew with the grandiose scale of the game. There are dancers, the alien band tootle away at a somewhat less catchy ditty than the one we all know and love, but there's a sense of emptiness in the room.