One of the games I was most excited for at E3 was by far and away Star Wars: The Old Republic. Any regular readers of RPGSite or my articles will be well aware that despite being a massive RPG fan those of the massively multiplayer variety are not my cup of tea. I've struggled to enjoy MMOs, and those I have enjoyed I've struggled to find the time to play correctly.
The original Knights of the Old Republic on Xbox and PC is one of my favourite RPGs of all time and really sealed the deal for me of how amazingly talented the staff at Bioware are.
This online continuation of the KOTOR universe is being created by a dedicated team over at Bioware Austin under the guidance of the Star Wars experts at LucasArts.
Before seeing gameplay we were offered a bit of explanation from some members of the Bioware Austin development team. Their goal, they tell us, was to create a Story Driven MMO. Bioware is known for their expertise in telling detailed, moving game stories, and they wanted to carry that concept over to MMOs.
They then went on to elaborate what Bioware thinks makes a good RPG. They see four key ingredients – Combat, Exploration, Expression and Story.
Bioware believe that the first three options have been explored and showcased well in previous MMOs - but the last option, story, has never come across well in the MMO genre. In order to do something new in the genre, Bioware decided to concentrate on evolving this aspect.
But why Star Wars, we ask? The Bioware guys elaborate. "For a great story, a great setting is vital. What better place to create a compelling story than the loved Star Wars universe?"
"The trailer released this E3 showed the Sacking of Coruscant, one of many events leading up to our game. The epic scale of this trailer should give players an idea of the kind of story we want to tell in The Old Republic."
Epic, then. Check. "Story drives choice, and choice drives action," our guides continue. "We're going to show you some of the choices you can make in this game today and you'll hopefully see how the choices you make in the story drive the action you will take."
From there, we jump right into the game world. The art style caused quite a stir when it was first shown, but that hasn't deterred Bioware. "The art style is what we like to call Stylized Realism - it is identifiable as Star Wars and has a realistic edge, but isn't so realistic that the game will be as graphically intensive as Mass Effect."
While the art design might annoy some purists who want an entirely real game, I found the art design fairly pleasing. It wasn't a far cry from the original two KOTOR games and fit the Star Wars universe well. It's not as stylised as cartoon The Clone Wars, for certain.
The first class we're shown is the Bounty Hunter, whose storyline begins on the world of Hutta. Depicted graphically for the first time, Hutta is the home of Jabba the Hutt's race, though there'll be no Jabba here - The Old Republic takes place 3000 years before the Star Wars Saga.
An early Bounty Hunter player such as the one we're shown has to find a way into The Great Hunt - a quest to find the greatest Bounty Hunter on the planet. The fame granted by winning the Great Hunt will allow you to leave your home planet and head out into the galaxy.
You might notice that this sounds suspiciously like a single-player game. In its look, The Old Republic feels a lot like KOTOR 3 - each class will have a unique story that starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and the entire cast of characters will be fully voiced.
The dialogue and voice acting feels very classic Bioware and like the other KOTOR titles with quality voice acting and fell written if slightly cheesy dialogue. The Mass Effect dialogue choice wheel returns here, with similar options, again allowing characters to be light or dark side.
This has an interesting effect in-game, as dialogue choices can have a direct effect on what happens to your character, like in the single player games. More on that later.
Next, we get to see some Bounty Hunter combat. The Bounty Hunter is generally a ranged character, specializing in blasters and rocket fire on enemies from afar. Up close a Bounty Hunter can execute some crowd control with his flamethrower, but is best served setting enemies on fire and then running away to decent blaster range as fast as he can.
We're told that all characters will have distinct advantages and disadvantages - alongside this, we're then shown a new class - The Smuggler.
A new reveal for E3, the Smuggler is for anyone who fantasized about being Han Solo as a child. Another ranged class; the Smuggler is weaker and less armoured than the Bounty Hunter but comes with one distinct advantage - use of the world's first cover system in an MMO.
Taking more cues from Mass Effect, the Smuggler will be able to cover against bits of the environment for a defensive bonus. They will also have access to different, context sensitive abilities when in cover.
Once again, the Smuggler has a unique plot which will start them out on a lone planet and eventually see them get their own ship. All players will be able to choose to side with the Imperials or the Republic or in some cases court with both.
With many classes including ones yet to be revealed each with unique storylines, our Bioware hosts suggest that this game is as good as having KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6 and more all in one box.
But what about the multiplayer aspects? The game is designed as a story meant to be experienced with other players. The game will have PvP servers and other more traditional modes, though.
To demonstrate this, we now see two higher level characters - a Sith and a Bounty Hunter - take on an element of the storyline. The two characters are both Imperial supporters, and have been despatched to an Imperial Ship whose captain has disobeyed a direct order.
We see classy, stylised looking Star Wars environments and hear some great voice acting as the two characters confront the captain. At this point we see another first - a multiplayer dialogue system.
Instead of one player controlling the dialogue, all members of a party will get the chance to respond to the words of NPCs and shape the direction of the plot. In one party you could have a neutral Bounty Hunter who tries to spare lives and a ruthless Sith, and they could both be making independent decisions in dialogue that effect the play for both players.
In our demo, the Bounty Hunter character threatens the captain and in spite of him begging for his life the Sith character then chooses to strike him down.
We watch as the Sith gains Dark Side points, confirming the return of this system from the single player game. The Bioware employee points out that in an MMO, these decisions are permanent - there's no save game to go back to if you don't like the consequences of your choices!
After seeing a little bit more dialogue and more co-operative conversation choices, we're then shown a combat-heavy section of gameplay as the same ship is invaded by republic forces.
We watch as the Sith deflects blaster bolts and moves in to inflict close damage while the Bounty Hunter fires devastatingly accurate blaster fire from afar. Both players are deeply involved in the combat, and their teamwork is making everything easier.
When a Jedi shows up, our Sith character grabs him and force-chokes him, holding him helplessly in the air while the Bounty Hunter places several blaster bolts into his chest.
The combat looks highly cooperative, very KOTOR, and most of all fun. Unlike most MMO fighting, this looks good as well as plays well, taking many cues from the combat of the original KOTOR games and their presentation.
The Bioware employees ask us to envision this play with a much larger player base, with a large team of players carrying out a mission together. This definitely, definitely excites us.
Most impressive of all was the fact that even at this stage in development this was running for real on computers in the very same room as us, with the action being controlled by servers back at Bioware Austin's base of operations.
Star Wars: The Old Republic was definitely one of the more impressive games showcased at E3, and we were only disappointed by the fact the game wasn't complete enough yet for us to play it, forcing us to watch live gameplay of the developers.
If you're a KOTOR fan or a Star Wars fan, this is definitely worth watching. If you're an MMO fan, we imagine you're watching anyway. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!
Warning! This Article has been edited since Publication! Reason: Switched out the term "Jedi" and "Dark Jedi" in sections of article for Sith for the sake of accuracy & Edited sentence regarding Classes & Alignment.