E3 2011: The Old Republic Hands-on — WoW in Space?
… It was the same 1.5-second casting time. The same gradually filling bar, right above my list of spells. The same moderate-but-not exceptional speed boost. BioWare, Lucasarts, and their backers at EA can be forgiven from borrowing some tricks from the 800-pound gorilla in the online room, but as I headed out into the wilderness, the obvious parallels started to build. The mid-level NPC guards ambling about outside the town. The carefully seeded mobs I encountered as I left the town. Dewbacks and other Tatooinian beasts lumbering about alone. Groups of malfunctioning droids and malevolent smugglers clustered around memorable bits of scenery, spaced just so — you can pull them one at a time if you’re careful, but if you’re not, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed.
I tried some familiar keyboard shortcuts, cycling rapidly through my inventory, the character screen, and finally, the skill tree. It was divided into three branches. Each branch corresponded to a different aspect of your abilities. The branches were comprised of small square icons. Only by putting sufficient points in a certain icon can you unlock the icons higher up the tree. As a former denizen of Kalimdor, it could not have looked more familiar.
Even the annoyance of accidentally aggroing a mob while zipping by on your speeder, only to have it dismount you from long range, was recreated nearly verbatim from Blizzard’s genre-dominating title. Despite this deja-vu-producing interruption, however, I navigated the Jundland wastes mostly unscathed. Arriving at a long tunnel, I checked my map to confirm that it led to the home of the Sand People I was hunting, and plunged forward on my speeder.
Emerging into another section of the sun-baked desert, I threw myself into the task of slaughtering Sand People with aplomb. The Operative is a stealth class, so I entered stealth (causing my Companion to do likewise) and crept up on the nearest club-wielding yowler, who stood idly with three of his companions in a neat little group, as if they were just waiting for someone to lightsaber them in the guts. Without a lightsaber at my disposal, I deployed my Backstab and Ambush-style abilities, dealing burst damage to the unlucky mob in front of me.
What to do next, however? There was no way to re-enter stealth, so the abilities that required it were off the table. My Operative was armed with a blaster pistol — hardly the weapon you want while engaging at close quarters. With no way to manage threat, however, I was in a bind. I deployed a damage-dealing droid. I tried a burst-fire ability that missed horribly every time. Thankfully, due to the damage I was taking, I had a healing ability: a Kolto injection, which proved effective at repairing the damage done by the Sand People.
The combat, in general, suffers from the same problem that plagues many MMO’s. With most of the action taking place via dice rolls behind the scenes, things can feel pretty inert. Characters go through canned animations corresponding to their attacks and abilities, then return to a default state. Melee seems to have no physical impact. With no aiming to speak of, blaster battles are similarly wooden. Since two avatars shooting at each other never miss, does it matter where either of them stands? I wasn’t able to test out the game’s cover system, which seemed the exclusive province of the Sniper subclass.
After the first group was dispatched, it was time for some old-time MMO rinse-and-repeat action. I slunk up to each group of enemies in turn, emerging from stealth with a burst of damage and then trying desperately to dispatch the rest before I too succumbed. Every time I killed one of the Sand People, I increased my tally in a quest, which requested that I kill 20 of them. Eventually, one of them dropped the compass I sought.
Unfortunately my time with the Operative demo was up. Thankfully, however, do to an unforeseen circumstance, I was able to take another run through the quest, playing as a different class: the Sith Sorcerer. The Sorcerer was a big improvement over the goofy-looking Operative, resplendent in flowing robes and shaped not unlike a an evil Buddha. Primarily a caster class, the Sorcerer is furnished with a truly dizzying array of force lightning varieties: Instant. Channeled. Big nukes with long casting times. Chain lightning. Guy was like a Force-powered battery. He also came equipped with a couple crowd-control spells and two varieties of “Dark Heal” — Star Wars lore isn’t really rife with magical healing spells, so I guess BioWare just decided to take the path of least resistance.
Returning to the quest kiosk, I had a similarly contentious conversation with the quest-giver. I was distressed to notice that the Sorcerer’s dialogue, though voiced by a different actor, was identical the Operative’s. The developers had made much of the notion that each player’s experience would be personal and unique, and an illusion that now appears to have some cracks in it. To be fair, re-writing and recording each line spoken by a player character 4 or 8 or 16 times would have been incredibly time-consuming.
With my companion (another lightning-happy Sith) in tow, I returned to the Sand People’s hideout, made mincemeat of them, and retrieved the compass. This time around, however, I had the opportunity to track down the missing Sith Lord. Venturing into a cave at the back of the area, I fought my way through a number of more threatening mobs. In contrast to the Operative, the Sorcerer was both powerful and intuitive. I began each pull by crowd-controlling one adversary, usually with a visually appealing whirlwind spell. Chain lightning was next, followed by as many Midichlorian-powered electrical blasts as it took to neutralize the threat — usually just a few.
Eventually, I arrived at the prone figure of the Sith Lord, who was clearly on the verge of death. I wasn’t sure how any Sith worth his red lightsaber can allow himself to be shanghaied by a bunch of Bantha-herding savages, and I made sure to choose the dialogue options that best expressed my Sorcerer’s scorn. Without context, it was difficult to follow what was going on, but I was able to glean something about local Sand People art being the key to an important bit of local mysticism. Having passed on his knowledge, my fellow Sith was at my mercy, a situation that showed off one of BioWare’s distinctive moral choices, now appearing in an MMO context. I snuffed him without remorse, naturally.
Sand People have art? Do they take their breathing apparati off to create it? Leaving that question for another day, I battled to another branch of the cave, where I discovered a large cave-painting-style tapestry that I had my Sorcerer dutifully scan. I was then presented another choice: let it stand for posterity, or destroy it in order to confound anyone who might be following in my footsteps? I destroyed it.
My map then directed me to return to an Imperial base, where I would rendezvous with the quest-giver in the flesh and give him the news of the dead Sith Lord’s untimely departure. This trek involved a trip via speeder across the entire span of the Jundland wastes, including a breathtakingly unexpected run-in with a lone Bantha trudging through a canyon. The lumbering beast — hairy and oddly graceful — exuded enticing science fiction atmosphere.
For all of The Old Republic’s unsatisfying MMO trappings and familiar World of Warcraft features, you can’t argue with the power of the Star Wars universe. Nor can you discount the game’s visuals, which were an effective blend of the real and the mythic. Most importantly, the involvement of BioWare — masters of writing, voice acting, and thought-provoking RPG design — is a force to be reckoned with.
Having had a chance to test drive the game for longer than most of my E3-attending colleagues, I wouldn’t say I’m totally sold on The Old Republic. I am definitely curious, though. If you are similarly curious, I trust that this exhaustive account took the edge off somewhat.