MMOs have always been problematic for me. After nabbing Guild Wars and City of Heroes, a rather secretive five month spree resulted in the fear that if I didn't detach immediately I'd look up in ten years time, my face would be entirely composed of beard, my muscles would have atrophied, physical friendship groups disbanded and my immediate surroundings would smell like a cross between a Mos Eisley back-alley and a bantha pit. So I made a rule: Never to play an MMO ever again. it was supposed to be for my own good, allowing for a productive and fulfilling life. I'm not saying that MMOs are evil or disparaging those who play them, indeed I rather salute you. But for me, though, the addictive dangers were all too real.
Now, however, that's going to change...and it's all BioWare's fault. Knights of the Old Republic was something of a seminal game for me. I'd already delved deeply into Baldur's Gate and its sequel, but combining excellent storytelling with brilliant RPG mechanics and the Star Wars universe was something else. I remember it vividly, I'd just started reading Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy and I couldn't have been more excited. And I'm not the only one. The calls for KOTOR 3 have been loud and numerous, fans desperate for BioWare to resume control of the series after Obsidian's solid-yet-rushed sequel. There were cries of disbelief when the news hit that BioWare were doing an MMO; after all, Galaxies wasn't exactly mindblowing. But in my last preview I suggested that in actual fact Star Wars: The Old Republic would be at least KOTOR 3. I was wrong. This is much bigger than that...
'We're giving players Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 with this game,' say Bioware. That's the party line, they had to have a stock answer to disgruntled KOTOR fans, and it's a persuasive one. According to the developers, each unique character class will offer over 100 hours of gameplay in terms of unique storylines across three story arcs. There are eight of them, you do the maths. During the brief presentation we had before our hands-on session, four key ingredients of RPGs were touched upon - exploration, progression, combat and story - the note being that MMOs tend not to focus heavily on a scripted story, allowing the players to create their own adventures. BioWare, unsurprisingly considering their background, have ignored that completely and chucked in eight distinct, unique epic tales, all of which have their own multiple narrative avenues depending on the choices that you make as well.
Having explored the beginnings of the smuggler's role in our previous session, we jumped straight into a demo featuring a level 26 Sith Inquisitor set in the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine. The planets are pretty large and we had to deploy our speeder to get anywhere fast. There'll be a variety of vehicles you'll be able to interact with and pilot in the game, and our rep confirmed once again that there will be elements of space combat in the game, but that we shouldn't expect Rogue Squadron.
Each character class will offer specialisations, and our dual-bladed lightsaber-toting Dark Side chum had been turned into an Assassin. This meant plenty of stealth abilities, melee attacks that did ridiculous amounts of damage when attacking from a hidden position and defensive capabilities that allowed us to shore up some damage. The Sith Assassin is, in essence, a stealth tank combined with Darth Maul, which is very cool indeed. All characters can have companions fight with them, and ours in this case was a Dashade fellow by the name of Khem Val who had a few basic attacks of his own. As well as having your main character interface along the bottom of the screen, there's a mini one for your companion down to the left so you can give them direct orders. You have also stop and chat to them, get to know them a little better, and your actions and conversation decisions will affect how they relate to you.
A twenty minute demo at a bustling convention is perhaps not the best way to get an impression of an MMO, but BioWare and EA managed to do a pretty good job. We started by signing up for our mission from a nearby terminal. It turned out that Czerka Corp., the shady capitalist swine from KOTOR, had rapidly pulled all business ventures and excavation programmes based on Tatooine and it was our job to find out why. The last lead related to a Sith Lord named Darth Silthar who'd gone off to investigate Sand People activity and an old legend regarding the region, only to disappear. So off we zipped on our landspeeder, the first order of the day being to take out twenty Sand People and rough them up for the Sith Lord's compass. This allowed us to indulge in shadowy assassinations, springing from our dark Force cloud upon unsuspecting desert folk and either smacking them with a whirlwind flurry of lightsaber strikes or stunning them with Force lightning before finishing them off.
The compass (which, frustratingly, was in a different menu and had to be 'activated') led us to a cave where we charged in headfirst and were promptly swarmed upon by irate Sand People and killed. Our second attempt was far more patient, picking them off in clusters of two or three, before finally reaching a shabby hut at the end, which housed a dying Sith Lord. As Silthar waffled on about the Sand People's legend, an option popped up that allowed us to kill him for Dark Side points or spare his life and get him some medical assistance for Light Side points. Naturally we ran him through with a lightsaber, but not before he'd pointed us towards a Sand People mural that might yield more clues, which we destroyed after inspection for more evil XP.
We headed back to the Sith base to relay our findings only for a bunch of the other deceased Sith archaeologists from Silthar's mission to crackle with electrical energy and re-animate, shambling about like zombies and speaking in a garbled language. It turns out that there's a pretty irritated spiritual force somewhere called The Imprisoned One, and it's going around and possessing corpses and people and eventually whole planets. Sadly, that was all we had time for and our demo was interrupted by a flood of other eager industry bods, itching to get their hands on the game.
It was a very basic demo really, and one that would not have felt out of place for a regular RPG, which is, I suppose, rather the point. The MMO aspect to this game is really quite optional, you don't have to play the game with others if you don't want to, but the feel is there. Tatooine spread out before us and we desperately wanted to go off and explore the vast, epic space, but we just didn't have time. The scale is enormous, bigger than anything BioWare have ever attempted before, but their focus on character detail seems to be as attentive as ever. We'll have to wait and see if the promises, and there have been many, will be fulfilled, and hopefully we'll be able to bring you a verdict by the end of the year. The calendar is somewhat against SWTOR, with heavy competition from Blizzard approaching in the form of Titan next year, but I hope this game gets released when it's ready and doesn't fall short. The prospect of it fulfilling its remit is just far too exciting.