"You assumed no force could challenge you. And now . . . finally . . . we have returned."
Being a longtime console-centric gamer, I always found it difficult to understand the appeal of MMOs. How could anyone possibly find these online adventures enjoyable when they seem to lack a real purpose, especially when most gamers use them as nothing more than a virtual chat room? It seemed unlikely this genre would ever resonate with me. After I caught my first glimpse of Star Wars: The Old Republic trailer last week, the gears started to turn in my head and I got really hyped, until I discovered it was still another MMO.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to raise the bar on massively multiplayer gaming.
While I am sure my lack of faith disturbs all of you avid fans of the genre, my interest was piqued enough that I decided to drop by LucasArts' meeting room for a closer look. One of the publicists lead me into a small room with several other editors while the rest of the TNL crew stayed behind to hear more about the latest Monkey Island adventure. I imagined that everyone else invited to the demo session actually had some interest in MMOs, or would at least be polite enough to feign interest.
I must admit, it was disappointing that there were no demo stations to actually play, but, fortunately, the Bioware producer kept us adequately entertained and focused throughout the entire presentation. I was worried the program would unfold with tons of useless jargon and hyperbole, which tends to happen a lot at E3. What I took away from his message was: Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to raise the bar on massively multiplayer gaming. Even before he went into detail on the how, what, and why, it was easy to sense his level of pride at what Bioware had accomplished working in conjunction with LucasArts. The two corporations felt it was essential to focus on what should serve as the core foundation that often eludes MMO adventures: the story.
If you haven't figured it out by now, a lot of time was spent talking about how Star Wars: The Old Republic is an online game that would deliver a strong, narrative quality that's usually found in offline games. Each time a player began a new character, he would embark on an adventure distinct from everyone else's, thanks to the dynamic decision-making structure. Sounds a lot like what the team behind Mass Effect 2 is going for, doesn't it?
To help drive this emotionally charged adventure, Bioware has set out to tackle what could be a holy grail for MMO production: high-quality voice-over dialogue for every character in the game - primary as well as secondary characters. That's got to go down in the history books as unprecedented. Take that, WoW.
Toward the conclusion of the program, Bioware presented us with two brief examples where we were able to experience this new milestone first-hand. The first took place on the planet Hutta, a treacherous world occupied by the ancestors of Jabba the Hutt. Players who opt for the bounty hunter class will end up on Nal Hutta with your unit aspiring to land the next big hit, shortly after some cordial introductions The second area was based around the tale of a young Sith apprentice who is ordered to track down a rogue Imperial captain who's decided to follow his own agenda.
The session got exciting for me when the Bioware producer gave the panel an opportunity to choose whether we should spare the Captain's life (which could prove useful), or take the darker approach and execute him. (Search your feelings.) You know what option I went with. The popular vote leaned towards the latter choice and the Captain ended up dying at the feet of his crew, who were quick to then support the Sith progeny with his mission. The choices were similar to those in Knights of the Old Republic, which explored dynamic decision making and consequences in a more controlled offline setting. The Bioware reps seemed disappointed that we didn't take the humane approach by sparing his life, but that's only because they ran out of "I Killed the Captain" buttons.
Despite my lack of interest for MMOs, I can't deny the sheer excellence The Old Republic will deliver. It's extremely faithful to the Star Wars universe, rich in replay value, and upholds a strong narrative quality that carries an emotional impact from beginning to end. It's packed with enough resources to even give those chatty compulsive gamers a real reason to pick up their light saber or trusty rifle to save the galaxy from peril once again.