Nevertheless, we were told we would have many companions with distinct roles, who would be "tools in a toolkit" for various tasks, including healing and solving certain puzzles. As with the specialisations, the goal seems to be to fill any gaps in your skill-set as simply as possible, although the companions do raise some interesting questions. If you never actually need other players, what will make The Old Republic an MMO? And if the Companions are drawn as individual characters rather than the usual faceless summons, how will the world support dozens of them running around with their masters?
It certainly wouldn't be the first - or last - time an MMO had strained credulity for the sake of what suits these peculiar worlds populated solely by heroes. Nonetheless, BioWare's determination to seed The Old Republic with the epic storytelling and cinematic style of its single-player games is going to raise more than its fair share of these questions, and it's probably going to keep on doing so until we get the first taste of the game running on beta servers.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. If nothing else, it indicates that the Austin studio is trying new things in MMOs. Thanks to extensive hands-on with a low-level Inquisitor, we've been able to observe some of these things in action, too, in what's already a polished and highly playable game.
It's worth noting, for starters, that it's extremely easy to play solo. BioWare has said that it wants players to be able to take on multiple enemies at once, on their own, in heroic combat, and there's no reason an MMO can't support that. It will have to be mindful, however, that it doesn't mistake taking on groups of three or more in quick succession and only seeing your health reduced by two-thirds for heroism, lest things become a little mindless. Fortunately, this sort of thing can be fine-tuned, and we're sure the developers will be paying close attention to it.
The Inquisitor's power set already seems to boast extreme utility even at a low level - a self-heal, a stun, a root, an area-of-effect knockback, an energy-replenishing "lightning-drain" attack, decent melee damage and devastating ranged damage with the lightning "shock". There's not much you can't handle with that combination. The skills are also snappy and combat fast-paced - there's no disguising that this is still straightforward MMO dice-rolling and icon-clicking, but it is a particularly fluid example of the form.
The missions we try in this Sith Academy area - a series of dusty canyons overrun with beasts, droids and rebelling slaves - are more run-of-the-mill than the dramatic class-story scenario we sampled at the Cologne gamescom, but that's to be expected at this early stage. There is, though, a strange contrast between the traditional MMO questing and the sumptuous BioWare conversational framework it's mounted in. A lengthy set-up with a mad Sith Lord and his acolyte - whom you can choose to conspire with to betray the Lord, securing yourself two quest rewards and some bad karma - leads to a straight fetch-quest: go in the cavern, kill the beasts, bring me their brains.
On the way, you can pick up secondary quests from holopads, which flesh out the lore of the area and dole out some more experience, but don't have the conversational element - though they're still voiced, as is your character, which remains a bold move for an MMO.
Questions still remain about the action, but in fairness we were playing in less than ideal conditions - on separate instances with no other players about - even if we were surrounded by luxurious LucasArts props and extras in real life. Under those circumstances, the questing doesn't yet compare well with what was shown of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm's new starting zones at BlizzCon - or even what you can already sample in Lich King.
But BioWare is bringing a lot to MMOs with The Old Republic, much of it very exciting - the iconic classes, the flexibility, the narrative ambition - and one hopes the forthcoming beta, like the hydraulic doors, is careful to bed those elements within the inherent wealth not just of the Star Wars mythos, but also the wider MMO genre. Like George Lucas' own exploits at the end of the last century, it may be impossible to look away regardless.