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Star Wars: The Old Republic E3 2009 Preview

They're changing the way stories are told in MMOs. Will it work? Find out what we saw from the Bioware MMO.

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Bioware is one of those companies. Like Blizzard, they’re respected and combined with the Knights of the Old Republic intellectual property, they’re undoubtedly going to sell millions of copies of Star Wars: The Old Republic. It would be easy then for them to slack off and make “WoW in Space,” but based on what they showed at E3, they’re not taking the easy way out at all.

“No one has made [story] the central pillar of the game as we have,” explained Senior Producer Dallas Dickenson during their lavish E3 presentation. “Story drives choice and choice drives action.”

The Old Republic looks and feels far more like a single player RPG than an MMO. The quests they showed could have been straight out of Mass Effect. They were fully voice acted – in fact the entirety of The Old Republic is voiced – and cinematic in nature. This includes the player character, who responds with a dialogue wheel, virtually identical to the on Bioware used in Mass Effect.

The dialogue choices people make are important too. The entire E3 demo was set up to make each group through take a divergent path.

In each demo, they’d run through a quest on screen. The players, on the dark side, were on a ship that had been ordered to undertake a very dangerous, likely suicidal mission. The captain of the ship had refused, so the players were tasked with changing his mind.

Through dialogue, the players could either try to convince the Captain to do the right thing and listen to his superiors, or just simply kill him and take over the ship.

Each group had to decide whether to kill or convince the Captain and according to the Bioware guys, this totally changed the course of what happened next. Of course, they only showed each one side. In our group, people voted to spare the captain (I didn’t!) and he was convinced to change course and enter the battle, which eventually led to a nice duel with a Jedi.

While the dialogue system looks and feels a lot like Mass Effect, it is important to note that it is expanded for MMOs. In that demonstration, there were two members in the group and both had chances to talk, and presumably shape the outcome of the conversation. They’ve made dialogue multiplayer.

Dickenson began the presentation by explaining four pillars to making a good game. Three of them have been nailed, he said. Most games have RPG style combat, exploration and character progression down perfectly. The fourth neglected pillar is story.

Bioware wants to make a game that makes the players feel like they’re a part of something. It’s a game that they hope will have an emotional impact on its players.

These are a lot of buzzwords not often used by MMO companies. It was good to hear.

Dickenson half joked that in response to the often asked question of why they’re not making Knights of the Old Republic 3, they say they are… and 4, and 5 and 6, and 7.

In The Old Republic, each class essentially has its own epic, fully voiced storyline to follow through their development arc. In effect, each class had become its own game within the game. They wanted to make sure classes like the Smuggler had a story that fit that class, not just appropriate hot bar abilities.

That’s not to say the game is all about story and forgetting those mechanics. The Smuggler, a new class first revealed at E3, for example plays much differently than the one line description of a ranged class. The Smuggler, modeled after the Han Solo style, has an extensive cover system. This is represented by boxes that appear throughout the world. When stood in, it gives him some protection and allows him to fire around corners without being exposed. It looks and feels like how people should remember Han’s gun battles.

Artistically, they also seem to have raised the bar. The game looks a bit like Clone Wars. It is a stylized realism, that is by no means a cartoon, but not exactly photo realistic either.

The movement is what really sold it for me, though. This isn’t a game with two guys smacking each other in the face with light sabers. The combat looks fast and both sides will parry each other’s blows as iconic sparks fly. The fights end logically too. It’s not just a final smack followed by a death animation. When the guy dies that last blow clearly killed him.

It is still, at its core, an RPG mechanic driven experience, but it looks and sounds a lot like a Star Wars movie. It’s a neat trick, but from what they showed, they’ve caught the feeling.

Of course, they also plan to do all the regular MMOish stuff. There will be PvP, raiding, guilds, crafting, etc. But that wasn’t why they had everyone into that room. They wanted to show us that they’ve made a game that looks and feels like Star Wars. It’s epic, it’s full of story and it’s online.

I’ve seen literally hundreds of demonstrations and presentations over the years at E3, so it’s far too soon to tell if they’ve really pulled this off, but Bioware is saying all the right things. They’re making a game that, while rooted in what people love about MMOs, adds a truly Bioware experience. If their execution matches the rhetoric, this is easily the most surefire hit shown at E3 this year.

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