Last year, I was lucky enough to play BioWare's upcoming MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Years in the making, and with probably another year more, my hour-long turn as the Sith Inquisitor, a role that sent me running about the planet of Korriban killing giant scorpions and talking to snotty British people, was an enjoyable play session. However, an hour with the game wasn't much to really dive in, so it was with great anticipation that LucasArts, EA, and BioWare invited me back for a long, six hour session with the game.
I and fellow journalists were split between the Jedi Knight and Jedi Consular on their origin planet of Tython. It's a lush green forested planet with some of the oldest Jedi ruins in the galaxy, making it the perfect place for the Jedi to set themselves up. I was lined up with a brand new Jedi Consular, a character treated as a particularly powerful new member of the Jedi Order. Technically a padawon, I wasn't even given a lightsaber. Instead equipped with a crappy training sword (which the farthest I ever upgraded beyond was a vibrosword, with lightsabers made by the player at a later level), I set out to perform the origin world tasks and make myself familiar with The Old Republic.
These early tasks are typical origin world stuff, and even after six hours, I wasn't even close to unlocking all of the Consular's potential, much less delve into its advance classes, the Jedi Sage and Jedi Shadow. All the same, by the time I was level 8, my Consular was well on his way toward telekinetically flinging rocks and performing powerful stat boosts. Unlike the Knight, the Consular focuses much more on what he can do with the Force, not what the Force can do with him. While a Knight will flip out and wail away at enemy characters with their lightsaber attacks, a Consular is much better at flinging rocks, Force pushing, AoE attacks, and stat buffs. Personally, I found the Consular's play style to be very rewarding, although who can tell how they will play compared to the more ranged-focused classes.
Oddly, one interesting take is how every character has their own healing abilities, which can be used indefinitely, such as my Consular's meditate ability. Additionally, every character has a revive ability to instantly bring back their allies. Coupled with the speeders taking players across the map, as well as a quick travel ability with a thirty minute cooldown, players will be able to get back into action pretty quickly should they die.
Once I got a hand of my character, it became time to complete some tasks. Like any other MMO, missions tend to follow traditional paths: go to this place, kill these things, collect these things, talk to these people, etc. The Old Republic doesn't necessarily break this mold, but it does offer interesting takes on these missions. Almost every mission is integrated into the story, and most offer opportunities for conversations with characters. They often end in either positive or snarky commentary from your character, influencing the light/dark dichotomy.
Many of the early missions for my Consular required me to head out and deal with the problematic Flesh Eaters, pink bulky things that have a taste for padawons. My Master Yuon Parr would see that I performed up to my expectations. Additionally, I would be tasked with finding ancient holograms of the original Jedi founders and even collect the hilt of the very first lightsaber. That alone was enthralling, but assisting a nearby colony of pilgrim Twi'leks with Flesh Eater and disease problems, becoming integrated into their religious culture, assisting new padawans, proved to be a whole lot more interesting. My favorite mission required me to snoop on some romantically-inclined padawons. Lie for them, and they'll pass on a rare lightsaber crystal, as well as send you down the path of the dark side. Rat them out, and besides pissing them off, you'll be rewarded with a boost to the light side of goodie-twoshoes. An easy decision to make, I exploited it for all that it was worth, gaining a crystal, lying to a Jedi, and generally acting like a jerk. It felt great, and many of the missions can be performed like this. For an origin world, Tython is surprisingly large, and the Bioware reps were proud to say that these origin worlds are nowhere near as large as later planets.
By the time I finished with my Consular, I hadn't made much of a dent in his light/dark split. While I was a member of a class known for being paragons of virtue, taking my Consular down the dark path led to some interesting conversations. Talking down to others, disregarding their skills, and generally acting like the greatest thing on Tython, being a giant douchebag is great. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see how far this approach could go, but knowing BioWare, I'm sure I could have pushed my Consular to the border of the Dark Side.
Like any other MMO, the universe opens up once players leave their starting planet behind. Once most of those early tasks are completed, and players have leveled up a good amount, they can jump on a ship to go to the next area. For those on the light side, this means a trip to Coruscant, where things quickly unravel with an attack upon the traveling vessel, but provides the first opportunity for multiplayer instances. Getting all players to join in is a little buggy at this point, but it's something being worked on ardently by the team. Thankfully, once everyone is together and an instance has started, traditional MMO gameplay takes over, with classes like the Consular providing support and mid-range attacks, while the Jedi Knight tanks, and other classes step up other fairly traditional roles.
The game does branch off from other MMOs in a couple of ways. First of all, the companion characters seem to be more than just pets. There are at least five unique companions to each class, and they will fight alongside players with basic commands dictating how they act. The Consular class, for example, has a large lizard man equivalent to a scaly wookie, but other companions ranged from other humans to R2-D2-esque droid.