E3 2011: The Old Republic Hands-on — WoW in Space?
E3′s The Old Republic experience began, like many of the conference’s demos, in a dark theater. The assembled journalists and civilians were treated to a seven-minute video, which attempted to give us a crash course in the classes that would soon be available for sampling. Since the characters on offer were all level 26, they were furnished with a dizzying array of skills and talents, and EA and BioWare were wise not to toss us directly into the Rancor pit.
As the video wore on, however, it was clear to me (a veteran of far too many hours in Azeroth) that the game‘s many abilities accorded closely with MMORPG conventions. We would soon be handed control of a variety of unfamiliar Sith archetypes, but the touchstones were all there: Casters had nukes. The sneaky class worked best if it attacked from stealth. Support classes had heals and buffs. Melee classes waded directly into the fray.
To be fair, The Old Republic’s Star Wars setting and profusion of different character builds adds some welcome spice to proceedings. Each faction has four classes, sure, but within each class are two “Advanced Classes,” specializations that have a huge effect on the playstyle. Bounter Hunters can be “Powertechs” (focusing more on gadgetry) or “Mercenaries” (focusing more on direct damage). Imperial Agents specialize as Operatives (with a Rogue-style – not Roguelike – focus on stealth ambushes, gadgets, and technological heals) or Snipers (speaks for itself). Sith Warriors have the choice between Juggernaut (tanking) and Marauder (damage-dealing) styles. The Sith Inquisitor bifurcates into the Sorceror (casting) and Assassin (stealth, burst-damage) specialties.
Released from the theater, we were ushered into a large room set up like a LAN-partier’s wet dream. Row upon row of top-of-the-line PC’s awaited, each furnished with Razr’s Old Republic tie-in peripherals (stay tuned for our coverage of Razr’s E3 booth and an interview with Robert Krakoff). Enticing avatars went through their idle animations on each monitor.
In the scramble that ensured, I ended up with an Operative. Not my first choice, but I decided to make the best of it. My enthusiasm was hardly increased when I noticed that my character was wearing a pair of under-sized purple shades that made him look like Agent Nein from Psychonauts.
I surveyed my surroundings. The Old Republic’s demo quest took place on Tatooine, back when the Sarlaac, presumably, was just a hole in the ground. We began in a small Imperial base in the Jundland wastes, full of sun-baked clay buildings and patrolling troopers. The game’s distinctive art, known as “stylized realism,” was shown to good effect, and Bioware’s designers made the iconic desert planet look appropriately epic.
Following a crowd of other avatars, I navigated my Operative over to a small kiosk that rested against the side of a building. The basic keyboard-and-mouse controls were like putting on an old, familiar set of MMO clothes. Spacebar still meant jump, a function I proceeded to briefly abuse, just for old time’s sake.
When I arrived at the kiosk, the game made its first misstep. The quest we were tasked was delivered by a tiny, holographic Imperial Officer, which quickly brought the grandeur of the setting to a creaking halt. I realize that there’s a precedent for holographic communication in the galaxy far, far away – Leia was a fan – but would it have killed BioWare to provide us with a flesh-and-blood NPC, so to speak?
The mission was a rescue operation of sorts. A quixotic, mystical Sith had disappeared into the desert searching for some kind of powerful relic, and hadn’t been heard from in some time. The Imperial officer suspected that he had run afoul of some Sand People. I was expected to track down a Sand People guide (a Sand Person?), relieve him of one of the special compasses that pointed the way to their hideout, and find this missing Sith.
Our quest-giving conversation showed off The Old Republic’s vaunted voice acting, which was solid, to be sure. The writing, as well, was up to the developer’s high standard. I was able to choose between three responses to each query (matching the classic BioWare “friendly-neutral-douche” triumvirate). F*cking up Sand People has a long and noble tradition in the Star Wars universe (cf. Skywalker, Anakin), but that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it. Deciding to roleplay my Operative as a jerk, I chose the most contentious, insulting answer possible each time. The result were a number of satisfyingly sarcastic responses, and, as an added bonus, I curried favor with my companion.
Companions are an important game mechanic in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Every character has one, and despite their function as dramatic foils, they’re also there to have your back during combat. The Operative was accompanied by a bald Dathomiri Nightsister (a la Asahj Ventress), who provided extra DPS every time I got into a scrap.
Now that I had a quest, it was time to consult the map. Maps are a key component in any MMO, since you spend a lot of time figuring out where to go next, and I’m happy to report that The Old Republic’s map was one of its best features. Looking sharp in blue and gold, the Map showed a huge area of the Jundland wastes, full of points of interest, quest-givers, portals to other areas, and other ephemera. Most usefully, if you move with the map open, it fades out but does not disappear, enabling you to navigate around while keeping an eye on your location. This feature is a staple in randomly-generated action-RPG’s like Torchlight and Diablo II, and it was welcome in the The Old Republic.
Venturing out of the town into the wilderness, it was time to summon my speeder bike. Pictured above, speeders will take the place of mounts in the game, enabling players to traverse vast distances quickly. They’re ridden standing up, which looks nice if you’ve got a cape to billow out behind you.
It wasn’t until I hit that hotbar button that the similarities between The Old Republic and World of Warcraft dawned on me with full force…