Star Wars: The Old Republic
BioWare have never made a massively multiplayer online game before. What they have crafted is some of the best-loved role-playing games of the last decade and beyond, which perhaps means they still don't lack credentials when it comes to the creation of an MMORPG based on what must be one of the biggest gaming properties in the world: the much adored Star Wars saga.
Reports indicate that BioWare had been waiting for the opportunity to enter the market presently dominated by rival Blizzard for some time, Ray Muzyka and his team awaiting the 'right partners, right team, and right IP'. It doesn't come any bigger than Star Wars, while LucasArts will be keen to get their IP back to the fore after the gradual petering out suffered by the initially impressive but ultimately flawed Star Wars: Galaxies - which itself was created alongside Sony Online Entertainment.
Enlisting BioWare's services could be regarded as something of a risk, then, a veritable 'punt' when an old hand of the MMO genre such as SOE, Blizzard, Funcom, Cryptic or Mythic might have leapt at the opportunity to work in the illustrious universe of George Lucas' imaginings. But LucasArts have perhaps looked at the wider picture. Star Wars is built on compelling stories and an engrossingly believable world, and BioWare has pedigree in abundance when it comes to these areas of expertise, with a team of 12 writers having reportedly worked on The Old Republic's plot for as long as two years before the official unveiling. So, all BioWare need to do is get good at making online titles, and work out the technicalities of delivering the experience to millions, and LucasArts are on to a sure-fire winner. Perhaps this is still a little bit of a gamble, after all...
Another area where BioWare look keen to tread is the so-called mainstream mass market, titles like Mass effect and Dragon Age positively brimming with Hollywood-like production values and cinematic appeal, despite still being classic examples of the sometimes nerdy RPG genre. Accessibility is a by-word in The Old Republic, and LucasArts may feel that in BioWare they have a developer that can not only pull off a title to please the community and the critics, but also to lure the mass market currently enamoured of World of Warcraft. If anything can do it, the Star Wars IP can.
Having played a small portion of the MMO, we can certainly testify that BioWare are doing their very best to avoid the less-savoury elements present in the current crop of online games. The experience appears to be unashamedly action-focussed, with an emphasis on quick thrills, at least in the ship-based segment we played, our young Sith taking on all comers in a romp through the corridors of Republic cruiser, introducing the game's combat.
The action is very much real-time, and it's visually contact-based in a manner that at first glance gives the game the look of a third-person action adventure title - closer in appearance to The Force Unleashed than to Star Wars: Galaxies. Taking its cues from Blizzard's genre leader, The Old Republic also boasts heavily stylised visuals, that are almost cartoon-like in the trend set by The Clone Wars television series. BioWare hope this approach will make the game timeless, giving it legs even as technology evolves and flashier more graphically intensive titles emerge. In the same vein, prettily stylised but non-photo-realistic graphics should also ensure the game can run on computer hardware not only found in the depths of the Pentagon.
The combat, then, is a far cry from other games, while BioWare look keen to dish out the action in a liberal fashion, giving us Force Powers to play with as we move through the stage - heading towards a final dramatic show-down with a powerful Jedi Knight. This battle was somewhat tougher, but there's no doubt that the sense of power is palpable, although much depends on your moral choices which may offer quick boosts which will come back to haunt you later. In the stage we played, the biggest decision was perhaps whether to kill the ship's Captain or not - this move linking in with the drama-heavy story to dictate how the rest of the segment will play out.
This looks likely to be an absolutely gigantic game, BioWare stating that more scripted story is present in The Old Republic than in all of their previous games combined. There is also an utterly vast quantity of recorded in-game dialogue, this title being the biggest vocal project ever undertaken in any medium.
The scale is hardly surprising. The MMO will take in two factions: the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire, with endlessly branching shorelines designed to give players a very personal experience depending on their class, back story and in-game choices. Bounty Hunter and Sith Warrior classes for the Sith Empire have so far been confirmed, while the Trooper and Smuggler have been announced for the Galactic Republic. Beyond combat and key story sequences there will also be a lot of exploration on offer, players given access to a range of planets, including Korriban, Ord Mantell, Nal Hutta, Tython and Coruscant. All of which promise to be well-fleshed out arenas.
The idea is that the plot will give quests and missions a lot more context than other MMOs can muster, while the grandiose, millennia spanning tales of the Star Wars universe should make the experience feel cohesive; whole. Set thousands of years before the events of the Star Wars movies, but after BioWare's own Knights of the Old Republic games, this online opus will open with the Galactic Republic facing off against the machinations of the dark Sith Empire.
So, we've seen the combat working effectively, dabbled with the odd Force Power and taken in the game's World of Warcraft informed visuals. The RPG system looks solid enough, and while the voice-acting is very over the top we're hopeful that the plot should hang everything together. Will fans take to the accessible concessions made by BioWare, though? Will all the disparate elements that comprise the game work in an online setting? Details still remain scant on key areas, while BioWare don't have another MMO with which to draw conclusions about the likely direction of this project. We're eager to delve deeper into this universe as a PC debut, perhaps late next year, looms.