Star Wars: The Old Republic

Old Republic Holds Promise For MMO Fans, Frustration For BioWare Fans
by Phil Kollar on Jun 11, 2011 at 10:55 AM
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bioware
Rating: Teen
Platform: PC

The E3 2011 demo of Star Wars: The Old Republic was my third time checking out the game, but I found a new thought running through my head as I played it this time: I’m not so sure that the average BioWare or Star Wars fan is going to fully enjoy this game. Let me explain.

During a presentation before my hands-on time with The Old Republic, BioWare stuck to its company line about how this will be a “genre-changing” MMO, but for the first time in my experience, they broke down what they mean. According to the developer, there are four major tenants of the role-playing game experience: exploration, progression, combat, and story. As BioWare tells it, MMOs have already mastered the first three, but they’ve always put story on the backburner.

In other words, BioWare will not be significantly changing the core style of MMO gameplay that has been refined and popularized with titles like EverQuest and World of Warcraft. For a long-time MMO player such as myself, this isn’t a big deal. I’m used to the slow-paced, role-based combat of MMOs, where a strong tank and healer are required to survive, and a constant grind for equipment upgrades awaits all max level players. I’m totally excited to see BioWare’s version of this formula, especially if it does a better job of story-telling. But will gamers who are used to the more complex, less grindy nature of old-school BioWare RPGs or the fast-paced combat of newer BioWare RPGs be able to get into it?

BioWare seems to be banking on the storyline pulling people along for multiple playthroughs as different classes. Each class will have a fleshed-out, fully-developed story that, by the developer’s estimation, will take several hundred hours to complete. The key to this is that classes won’t share very much content. For example, a Republic Jedi character and an Empire bounty hunter will not have a single shared quest line.

Another aspect of the storytelling that BioWare showed off was their classic form of a morality system. Often quests will allow you to make a major decision that will push your character toward either the light or dark side. More impressively, these choices can impact your story further down the line. In the example I saw, a Jedi character captured a Sith foe and was able to choose to execute him on the spot or give mercy and allow the Sith to become a member of the Jedi Order. If the player goes with the latter choice, the character will show up later in the Jedi storyline.

Despite taking place thousands of years before the Star Wars films, Old Republic will also be full of locations that are familiar to fans, such as Hoth and Coruscant. My E3 hands-on time was the first showing of Tattooine, an area where I played a Sith sorcerer hunting the desert planet’s dunes and caves for a lost ally. I had a speeder bike that I used to quickly get around, although giant lizard creatures and hostile sand people crowded around most of the areas, knocking me off my bike and into combat when I got too close.

During E3, BioWare also showed off multiplayer conversations, a new feature that will allow BioWare’s style of dialogue choices even when players are in a group. When a dialogue option comes up, each player in the group will make their own choice, at which point the game will roll dice for each. The character with the highest roll wins and gets to speak the next line. I saw the system in action during a group quest on the planet of Alderaan, and it came off as a clever way to implement storytelling in very traditional MMO group-play.

To be clear, I personally remain incredibly excited for The Old Republic. It’s looking to shape up as a super-polished, fun, narrative-heavy MMO experience. But the more times I get hands-on with it and talk to other, less MMO-loving writers about it, the more I realize that BioWare may not be doing everything they could to pull in a wider audience. MMO players should be all ready to consider Old Republic as their MMO of choice if it hits its planned release date of later this year. Everyone else? You might want to try it and make sure you can get into it first.