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Hands-on: Star Wars: The Old Republic

There's an unnavigable divide between the world of MMORPGs and the art of good storytelling. Not writing, mind you -- the gang at Blizzard know their way around a word processor -- but rather, the actual sharing of a story. It's not a genre that supports the relaying of intricate plotlines. Most players are in it for the grind, for social status or notoriety. The option to enable "text skipping" doesn't exactly lend itself to plot development. Even if the mass interest was there, all of the game's players are receiving the same storyline. No choice, no branching, no consequences.

Attempting to build a bridge with which to cross this divide would be an extremely ambitious undertaking. Fortunately, Bioware is a studio well versed in ambition -- and, if our brief time with the game is any indication, Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to irrevocably change the way MMOs tell stories.

After both watching the game in action at a LucasArts demo and getting our hands on it shortly thereafter, we were left with a bizarre feeling that what we had just seen was not in fact an MMO, but rather, another offline installment in the KOTOR franchise. The familiar elements were there -- rich storytelling, clever writing and interesting characters. These elements were presented in frequent cutscenes which appear in lieu of scrolling text quest -- a welcome change for the hardcore MMO player with a number of levels notched into their belt.

Here's where the aforementioned ambition comes into play -- each of the game's classes will have its own personal story arc that lasts throughout its entire lifespan. Beneath this umbrella is an epic class-specific story as well as a few serialized mini-arcs which include a ton of tied-together quests and instanced dungeons. Daniel Erickson, The Old Republic's lead writer, explained that the game's quests are so linked to a player's personal story that no one quest will be embarked upon by two different classes.

Or, in other words, two characters from two different classes won't receive any of the same quests. The replay value here is going to be mind-boggling.

The replay value here is going to be mind-boggling.

Even more mind-boggling is the amount of voicework that's going into this thing. Erickson claimed that the title is on its way to setting a record for most voice work ever put into a single entertainment industry project. We believe it. Each cutscene contains extensive voice work, often from a number of NPCs conversing with the player. Each class has its own voice actor. Multiply that by two to accommodate for genders. You can probably multiply that by a bit more, should the game offer its players a choice of species to play as (we've only seen humans). Then accommodate for conversations that branch off based on decisions each player makes, and you have a hundred thousand billion hours of voice work.

Speaking of branching off, the game's cutscenes feature moral decisions and branching dialogue. As you'd expect, these choices drastically alter the course of the mini-arc in which they occur -- but your larger decisions also effect the grand scope of your character's own personal story.

To non MMOers, these sound like ludological storytelling conventions that have been around for about a decade. In the context of a persistent online RPG, it sounds like straight up witchcraft.

For the hardcore grinders among you, fret not -- there's plenty of stuff here for you lot as well. The combat looks fast-paced paced and complex, and the classes we got a chance to see look varied enough to keep MMO players used to a particular RPG archetype in familiar territory.

The three classes we saw were Bounty Hunters (long range attackers) who implement blasters, flamethrowers, rockets and jetpacks), Sith (damage and aggro sponges with a number of nefarious force powers at their disposal) and the just-revealed Smuggler (rogueish class that uses a really neat -- and unprecedented -- environmental cover system). We didn't get to see the Trooper or Jedi classes, nor could we squeeze from BioWare's tightly squeezed lips what the other classes would be.

However, they did confirm the Hair Stylist class from Star Wars Galaxies wouldn't be making a re-appearance.

It'll be a tough act to pull off, but BioWare has wowed us before.

The demo we played placed us in the shoes of a level 10 Sith named DARTHAWESOME, who was sieging an Empire-contolled ship in an attempt to dispatch its disobediant captain. Once you reach said captain, you can choose to kill him, and lose his expert advice during the following battle, or spare him, and risk the unkind response from your red-sworded master. Of course, these consequences weren't known before the decision had to be made, as is often the nature of consequences.

(We killed him, of course.)

It looked really great, and the standard conventions of the MMORPG genre will apparently all be in there -- a player-controlled economy, PVP, raiding, guilds, etc. -- but BioWare didn't focus on these elements in their presentation. Why should they? We've seen all that stuff before.

What we haven't seen is an MMORPG with an overarching, class-specific story -- one that the player can contort to fit their own moral code and personal priorities. It'll be a tough act to pull off, but BioWare has wowed us before. If anyone can pull it off, it's them.

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