E3 2011: Hands-on impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic

At this year's E3, four Massively staffers were on site for interviews, demos, and hands-on time with the latest MMOs. You've read about most of what we've seen so far, but now we're ready to tell you about our experiences with what may be the most highly anticipated MMO of the show: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

A few of us have played the game before, or multiple times, while this was the first time for others. Our opinions are varied, but you'll notice a fairly obvious theme. Follow along after the jump for more on what we thought of our time with SWTOR at E3 2011.

Dan O'Halloran

I was able to play two different level 26 Sith Empire characters at E3. First, I got my hands on the Imperial Agent class with the Operative advanced class. This class relies on stealth for its opening move, then on a number of DoTs combined with shiv and laser pistol attacks. I found the class to be not very exciting. Once out of stealth, I had no way to restealth. Also, there was only one ability to use while stealthed. Admittedly, those abilities I was missing may come later in the character's progression, and I may have had a better experience in a group in which positioning would have helped, but overall I was unimpressed.

Next, I played a Sith Inquisitor Sorceress. I had much more fun with this class. I would send my companion in to draw fire, disable one mob with Whirlwind, and lay down the lightning on the other. I could heal mid-battle, attack multiple mobs at once, and shield myself if I knew I was going to take damage. She soloed well, and I could see she would do quite well in a group situation as well.

I was able to play through a mid-level quest, which was standard fare: kill 20 of these, loot one of those, etc. The interesting part was getting a bonus for killing more than 20 targets. I wasn't sure what the bonus was, but my quest tracker was recording it. Also, the quest was clearly the start of a chain that was steeped in the story and lore of Tatooine. Those kind of elements help get you through the leveling grind on your way to the endgame content.

Overall, I found SWTOR to be enjoyable, though nothing particularly revolutionary for the MMO genre.

Rubi Bayer

I finally got my hands on SWTOR the last day of E3, so I was going in with some serious anticipation and excitement. I'd never played the game before, so my only impressions have come from Massively coverage, trailers, and gameplay videos. I had pretty high expectations, even though it's not my favored genre.

Since it was my first hands-on, I chose a starter character, and I felt obligated to make a Jedi Knight. My impressions were of an extremely polished game... and a super-uncomfortable stool to sit on, but that's neither here nor there.

When I picked up and set out on my first quest, I found a nice balance between a game that held my hand and led me along and a game that allowed me to explore and find things on my own.

I enjoyed the different choices in my conversations with NPCs, followed by the brief cinematics. The setup felt very novel and open to me, and I enjoyed thinking over my options before answering. Once I was out in the open, running around and killing, it felt like a fairly typical MMO, albeit a nicely created one. Kill 10 of these, rescue five of these, find this cave, and so on. I don't generally have a problem with this MMO staple in the beginning areas because it is a nice tool for helping brand-new players learn combat and get a feel for the world around them. I'm interested to find out whether that sort of thing continues into the higher levels. I hope not.

The look of the game wasn't particularly to my taste, but personal preferences aside, I can appreciate that it's consistent. I've seen enough games with stunning characters and butt-ugly worlds -- or vice versa -- that I've got big love for games that keep a consistent art style throughout.

All of that said, this game is just not for me.

There's nothing wrong with it. On the contrary, I was extremely impressed with how well-done it is. But it didn't hit the right notes for me. It didn't hit any notes. When the demo was over, I climbed out of my chair and walked out with nary a frown that I'd been made to stop playing.

Thankfully, I'm married to a SWTOR fanatic who cannot wait for this game to come out, and I can appreciate it on his behalf. He's gonna love it.

Shawn Schuster

When I played Star Wars: The Old Republic for the first time in 2010, I admittedly was a bit overwhelmed. Granted, the highly anticipated MMO was still in a very early stage of development, but most of what I saw was fun and easy to grasp. When you put so much hype into an MMO -- especially during a time of so many recent failures in the genre -- you really do expect a certain amount of excitement. At the time, I felt that the game delivered, but it still didn't blow me away entirely.

Fast forward two years later and I'm playing the game again as a level 26 Sith Warrior Marauder at a demo room at E3 with probably 15-20 other people. I'm usually not one for melee characters, but I was thoroughly excited to get my hands on the game once again.

I was pleased by the freedom we were given in this demo, as opposed to my first experience. We were allowed to figure the game out ourselves, with only some gentle suggestive nudging by the BioWare devs in the room if we appeared lost. I found the UI to be very easy to decipher, the controls to be traditional and familiar, and the general layout of the game to be something you'd expect in any MMO. My quests involved finding an injured NPC and killing a handful of Sand People along the way. When I killed more than my allotted 20, the quest progressed to a bonus version, allowing me to get more rewards for killing 40 more.

The experience was a bit more on-rails than I'd like, though, as I could look across the mountainous wall around me and see caves marked with either a red or green entranceway, depending on whether I was able to enter them or not. This made the main quest a cakewalk to find, but I hope that's something you can turn off if you don't care to have your hand held the entire game.

The group dynamics were pretty incredible as we tested out the group dialogue options. Any BioWare fan is familiar with the dialogue wheel and how that works, but it gets especially fun when your conversation with an NPC is dictated by various choices picked by your teammates. Each person in the group picks his or her dialogue choices, and the games rolls to see whose snarky or not-so-snarky comment is used. This can be especially fun when you're playing on demo characters with no real consequences. Yes, I want to shoot that guy in the face! Yes, I want to burn that ancient relic to the ground!

Despite my enjoyment of the story and conversations with NPCs, I felt that the one sticking point was the combat. I'm sure not all classes are like this, but with the Marauder, I was literally pressing the 1 and 2 keys until I built up enough aggression to use any other skill. So it would be 1-2-1-2-1-2... 3. 1-2-1-2-1-2... 4. And so on.

That's not to say that this is a flawed mechanic -- it works well for World of Warcraft, RIFT, Lord of the Rings Online, and so many other triple-A MMOs, but it's just nothing new. I admit I did have fun with the end combo skills once they opened up, though.

Overall, I feel that SWTOR will be a hugely popular game at launch. I enjoyed it much more this time than any other time I've played it, which means only good things if this pattern keeps up. In the progression of MMOs of this type, we've seen RIFT take players from WoW, and in that same manner, I think we'll see many RIFT players follow the path to SWTOR. It will be familiar enough to jump right in yet new and fresh enough to keep them coming back every month for more. SWTOR will attract fans of BioWare's unmatched storylines, Star Wars franchise fans, and traditional MMO followers. It will not, however, revolutionize the genre.

[UPDATE: After being made aware that Beau Hindman in fact did not play the demo first-hand, I've decided to remove his impressions from this article. Our apologies for the misunderstanding. - Shawn]

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.