This is sort of the gorilla in the room. Last year, there were about a hundred thousand MMORPGs scattered around the E3 showroom floor, ranging from traditional fantasy to free-to-play grindfests, along with a number of games in other genres that were busily adopting some of the MMORPG's traditional features.
This year, The Old Republic was playable, and it's on track for a spring 2011 release. (Early rumors that they were going for an October release date, thus going toe-to-toe with World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, were debunked by a BioWare producer in LucasArts' booth, on the grounds that they would be too busy playing Cataclysm to compete with it.) As such, not many other MMORPG companies seemed inclined to even show up this year, unless it was something like Perfect World, which is playing in a different sandbox.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is set a few thousand years before the events of the first Star Wars and a few hundred years after the Knights of the Old Republic games. The armies of the Empire and the Republic are openly clashing all across the galaxy, with one of the earliest battles utterly devastating the planet Alderaan. (Alderaan, in general, does not seem to ever catch a break in the Star Wars universe.)
Players take the role of either the soldiers of the Republic or the agents of the Sith Empire. It is perhaps a triumph of hope over experience that there are playable characters in this game that are not actually Jedi or Sith; I expect playing Old Republic at or near launch will be like some kind of lightsaber-waving candy rave, with the one tank per launch server being bombarded by offers of everything from in-game money to sexual favors if he'll just join up with somebody's group.
The big news out of E3 is that every character will have his or her own personal starship in Old Republic, the same way another MMO would give you a horse. The interior of each starship features plenty of rooms to explore, and it's where your posse of recruitable NPCs hangs out between missions. As an example of what you can expect to be using, BioWare cited the Corellian Vanguard or Fury-class Imperial as available for players. Essentially, in Old Republic, everyone seems to be getting their own Ebon Hawk/Millennium Falcon.
PvP was dealt with in passing. Apparently, head-versus-head battles will be conducted in "warzones," the only one of which that's currently been announced is Alderaan, in the "Hope" trailer. The Empire has taken out most of the organized resistance on the planet, with Republic players as the small, embattled guerrilla forces that are working to push the Sith away.
BioWare also discussed how group tactics work in The Old Republic and used a four-person Republic scenario as an example. The heavily armored Trooper is the "tank" of the group, using heavy weapons fire to get enemies' attention and hold it on him. Jedi Knights get in close and carve up enemies with lightsabers while simultaneously helping to control larger and more dangerous mobs, and Smugglers hang back and fill the role of ranged DPS. The Jedi Consular is a designated healing class, although her role in our demo seemed to consist largely of standing in the background and spamming a spell called Benevolence.
The scenario in question involved repelling an Imperial boarding party from a Republic ship. Coordination was absolutely crucial over the course of the fight, as the Trooper's health dipped very low several times, and the damage-dealing players had to immediately switch targets and prioritize larger droids to avoid a wipe. In a group situation, conversational options are available but are apparently chosen by a sort of vote; whichever option gets chosen by the most people is the one the game goes with.
More importantly, for the first time, The Old Republic was actually playable at E3. A variety of starting level 2 characters were available to choose from, on both the Republic and Empire sides of the fence, and I spent far longer than I really should have on two different scenarios.
Naturally, playing an MMO for about 15 minutes is like basing your opinion of a five-course meal off of one bite, so it's hard to make any kind of qualitative assessment. At low levels, every MMO seems more or less the same.
All characters were fully voiced in the KotOR style, and I was able to choose a variety of answers to their questions. As a Twi'lek Smuggler, my conversational options were basically sarcastic, self-serving or sincere; as a Sith Warrior, I could be arrogant, bloodthirsty or oddly neutral.
The Smuggler's opening scenario begins when you drop off a load of blasters to a Republic stronghold on Ord Mantell, which is currently under attack by separatists. In order to be able to take off again, you're forced to go into action against them.
The Smuggler's gameplay largely revolves around taking cover, which is an option when you've targeted a hostile mob. While you're in cover, your evasion goes up considerably against any enemy firing at you from the front, and you gain access to a new move called Charged Burst that inflicts high damage and knocks down an enemy. If you're not in cover, however, and a fight starts, you will soon regret it. Fortunately, the Smuggler can drop a Flash Grenade to stun up to three enemies for a couple of seconds, which lets him find something to hide behind. Even so, the Smuggler is remarkably squishy and depends largely on getting the opening shot.
Conversely, the Sith Warrior is a largely self-sufficient killing machine. It's not so much that she had high armor or any real self-healing, although both classes have an out-of-combat channeled move that restores health. It's mostly that for a level 2 character, the Sith Warrior's damage output is utterly insane. She runs off of Rage as a spendable resource and can dump some of it with an instant attack called Frenzied Strike that seemed to one-shot almost anything I ran into. I wasn't even using a lightsaber — in fact, her opening scenario involves claiming an ancient Sith warblade from a tomb on Korriban, home of the Sith Academy — and I was leaving a long trail of bodies behind me, while the Smuggler seemed to have to work for every kill he got.
We still don't know a lot about The Old Republic. All of the customary MMO staples are planned to be in place in the final game, like raids, crafting and a player-driven economy, but all that can be reported about them right now is that they will eventually exist. The PvP warzones have yet to be shown, we don't know much about the playable classes, and there's probably going to be a tank shortage the likes of which we have never seen before because apparently tanks don't use the Force.
All of that aside, though, it's not a question of whether or not The Old Republic will succeed. At the absolute worst, we may be able to expect a massively multiplayer, multiple-installment sequel to the KotOR games, and that alone would be worth the price of admission.
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