E3 officially kicked off today in Los Angeles, and I was lucky to be one of the first in line for the latest hands-on demo of Star Wars: The Old Republic at the enormous Electronic Arts booth. There were two different types of demo stations awaiting us: level 1 Galactic Republic characters for those who were new to the game and level 26 Sith Empire characters for those of us who were more comfortable with MMOs. I was hot to play the mid-level Sith characters, but first we had to watch a 10-minute instructional video on how to play each advanced class.

I will attempt to impart the wisdom of the video from my quickly jotted notes:
  • Sith Warrior Juggernaut: This tank spec should open with Forced Charge to build rage, then use other rage-increasing abilities like Force Choke until you have enough rage to Impale.
  • Sith Warrior Marauder: This DPS spec should keep the Rupture bleed ability up on all targets and Smash to stun opponents if surrounded.
  • Imperial Agent Sniper: Use natural cover or portable cover to set up sniper shots. Throw out an Explosive Probe before the battle and then detonate it for AoE damage when the enemy approaches. Use an Interrogation Probe, which does damage over time to a nearby target.
  • Imperial Agent Operative: Use Stealth for a big opening Backstab ability. Use poison-over-time ability and Shiv as often as that ability is up. Also use the self-heals available for this advanced class.
  • Bounty Hunter Mercenary: Two blasters take care of most enemies. Use the Unload ability when available and call on AoE Death From Above to bring down the hurt.
  • Bounty Hunter Powertech: Flame damage-over-time abilities define this advanced class. Grapple far away opponents into damage range, then lay on the Flame Bursts for extra damage.
  • Sith Inquisitor Sorcerer: Using the Dark Side of the Force, channeled through electricity, this advanced class does direct damage with Lightning Strike, damage over time with Affliction, and AoE damage with Electrocute and Whirlwind. It also has healing powers.
  • Sith Inquisitor Assassin: This advanced class uses a double-edged lightsaber from Stealth. Assassins have the Discharge and Shock abilities for DPS, Mind Trap for crowd control, and Lacerate for AoE damage.
Every class has buffs it can use before combat and a special ability to quickly regenerate health and power after the battle.

The instructional video also gave a brief overview of Companions. Companions have ability bars with four hotkey slots, which allows you to access their special abilities and command them to attack. You will also gain or lose approval with your Companion depending on your answer choices in branched dialogue with NPCs.

Once the overview was over, we got to fire up our demo stations. I sat down at one that was preset with a level 26 Imperial Agent Operative. I was on the planet of Tatooine, about 3000 years before Luke Skywalker roamed the dunes whining to his uncle about wanting to go to Tosche Station to pick up power converters. A Sith Lord had a dream and went into the desert. He is now wounded and needs rescuing.

When I first gained control of my character, I clicked on a mission station. A hologram appeared and told me to find the Sith Lord. When I chose the snarky answers in the branching dialogue tree, I gained some kind of favor points with my Companion, a female humanoid who appeared to be the same race as Ventress from The Clone Wars animated series (a Nightsister from Dathomir). After accepting the quest, I summoned my vehicle, a hoverbike model that I rode standing up, and headed off into the desert.

Once I accepted the quest, the location of the first objective was marked on my map. I easily dodged random desert creatures on my way to a cave in the cliff wall. Outside the cave, I clicked on a beast near the entrance that had a golden star-type icon next to its display name. I asked a SWTOR employee at the demo and was told that marked an elite creature. Sounded like a good time to see what this Operative could do!

I dismissed my vehicle mount, which automatically summoned my Companion, whom I shall henceforth call VentressLite. I went into Stealth mode (which also concealed VentressLite) and sneaked up behind the creature. I then initiated combat with my Backstab ability, followed by my poison damage-over-time ability, and threw out a probe that started zapping the beast. VentressLite stood there marvelling at my prowess, and it occurred to me that she was waiting for me to tell her what to do. I clicked on her Attack hotkey and then started mashing every ability I had that was off cooldown. Mixing up blade stabs with pistol fire and my ongoing DoTs took down the beast's health steadily. Near the end of the battle, my health was getting dangerously low, so I used one of the three healing packs I had on my hotkey bar. After that, the creature dropped dead, allowing me to loot some credits off of it.

Battle was a little hectic as I was still learning what this class could do, but the fact that I took down an elite beast on my first try shows that it's not overly complicated.

I remounted my vehicle after healing to full and headed into the cave. I came out the other side into a hidden valley of Sand People. The first step of my quest, according to the quest tracker in the upper-right of my screen, told me to kill 20 of them and loot a compass that would help me find the fallen Sith Lord.

This was a little trickier, as the Sand People often stood in groups of two. Looking over my hotkey bar a little more carefully, I noticed I had an AoE pistol fire ability, as did my Companion. I also had the ability to stun a target for four seconds. Now I had a plan.

Stealthing behind one, I attacked, stunned, and started laying down the AoE fire and told my Companion to do the same. As brilliant plans go, this one was marred when my wild pistol fire drew another two Sand People. Much frantic keyboard mashing, self-healing, and cooldown-camping ensued, but I emerged victorious once again! Then my demo time was at an end. The wounded Sith Lord would have to wait another day to be saved.

The Operative isn't a particularly flashy class to play. It doesn't use a lightsaber or throw lightning about. I felt the class would have shined more in a group situation where range and positioning would come into play. Also, I was surprised to see that there was no ability to re-enter Stealth mid-combat to access the high-damage Backstab ability again. And there were no other Stealth based abilities besides that one. Admittedly, this is a mid-level character with many abilities yet ahead, so I wasn't able to see what BioWare had planned.

Overall, I found the experience easy and enjoyable. The UI is familiar if you've played any kind of MMO, and the class abilities were very effective when you understood when to use them and how. The Companion was a helpful extra damage-over-time component, though I wish I could set her to automatically attack anything I attack and not have to tell her to do so for each target. (Perhaps I missed that toggle or it's planned for later levels).

I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the demo one more time before the end of E3 and will hopefully have a chance to try another Empire class before our time is done here!

Star Wars: The Old Republic is finally here, and the Force is with Massively! We've prepared a Hutt-sized feast of class introductions, gameplay guides, lore roundups, and hands-on previews to help you navigate the launch period and beyond. And don't forget our weekly SWTOR column, the Hyperspace Beacon!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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