We met with the Bioware and LucasArts folks in an E3 meeting room tucked far away from the chaotic and absolutely gigantic EA booth that was down on the show floor, where we were assailed with all sorts of The Old Republic awesome, including a demo of the game's armor progression, the awesome "Hope" cinematic, a group gameplay demo, and more. While all this was going on, the room adjacent to us could be seen through the glass wall separating us, which contained two rows of machines set up with the actual game running live. Needless to say, all I could do was think about the moment I'd finally get to get my hands on the game. That day has come, and I chose to spend my first live experience with Star Wars: The Old Republic as a female Chiss Imperial Agent.
If you read the series of possible playable races articles we ran in recent weeks, you'd know I was pretty keen on the idea of Chiss being in the game, however, I felt they'd be an unlikely addition due to their isolationist nature. Turns out this didn't stop Bioware from putting them into the game, and my dreams of playing a Chiss in Star Wars: The Old Republic came true in short order. Why the Imperial Agent? Because spies are cool - duh!
The Imperial Agent is the Imperial counterpart to the Republic's Smuggler class in that it is generally a bit of a stealth class and relies heavily on the cover mechanic that they both share. The Agent Is a bit more ruthless than the oftentimes comical Smuggler, and I just have a thing for sniper rifles and shanking people, so I ran with that.
The Agent delivers in this regard, even at the low level one or two they started us out at I had a number of skills at my disposal. I could fire your basic rifle shot, shiv enemies up close, take cover, debuff enemies to take more damage by using the "Laze Target" ability, and use a sniper shot from cover to deal ridiculous amounts of damage, often resulting in a one shot kill. It felt like using a backstab from range really. The cover system takes some getting used to, but is pretty neat overall. My only criticism is that the cover ability only seems to work with a target selected, and so you often times want to roll into cover near a group of enemies you want to take out and realize you can't until you actually tab a target. Otherwise, it's pretty intuitive, with green silhouettes denoting nearby cover positions.
The Imperial Agent's story starts off on the seedy underworld of Nal Hutta, where your contact, an Imperial known only as "Keeper" sets you off on a mission to infiltrate the organization of Nem'ro the Hutt. The dialogue is convincing, and provides players with numerous options that should be familiar to any players of Bioware's previous RPGs. You'll be able to select from a number of different of responses that fit a particular tone or position you want to take with your subject and sometimes you'll have actions you can choose to perform as well. For example, I ran into a character within Nem'ro's stronghold that got the idea he knew me from somewhere; thinking that I could use this to my advantage I played along, only to find out I apparently owed the guy money, not so advantageous after all. However, being a girl, and a particularly fine one to boot, I attempted to flirt my way out of the situation, which failed miserably and resulted in me having to shank the poor bastard. I guess he just didn't dig blue chicks.
Aside from the main story quest, which is pretty compelling and feels very thematic for an Imperial Agent, you'll find numerous peripheral side quests throughout the world, and while the voicework is compelling, it's all pretty standard fare. Some guy needs help with this or that and you go take care of it for him, though some of it can be resolved entirely through the game's dialogue system, which is a definite plus. I ran into side quests that basically amounted to killing X number of things to get some items to bring back to my contact, but I also took on a task for someone looking for their missing brother. This could have resulted in a fight if I decided to go that way, but instead I agreed to pretend the brother had died in exchange for some quick cash. I earned a number of Dark Side points for this as well, but I am unsure how they will affect a non-Force character.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to do any stealth gameplay. Daniel Erickson, the lead writer on Star Wars: The Old Republic was on hand and explained to me that the stealth ability was learned later. I was determined to acquire it during my playthrough but never did. Instead, I had to settle for not-so-subtle face stabs when I felt that melee itch, which turned out to be a lot. Daniel took notice to this and agreed this was one of his favorite ways to play as well.
Overall, the combat, at least for the Agent, is fairly standard. It's flashy enough and fun, but it wasn't blowing my mind or anything, though I did only reach level 3-ish so take that for what it is. I can think of many MMOs that didn't really start off too exciting at the early levels, and this was definitely a good bit more exciting than those games, but not mindblowing. The cover mechanic is a lot of fun, and perhaps if I had stealth right out the gate it may have been a bit more interesting. The world seemed fairly open, though I didn't really get deep enough in it to be sure, and there are a number of "taxi points" throughout the game that you can use to travel quickly to a previously discovered location.
I've run into a lot of people during the show who ask what I thought of my hands-on with the game, and the short and sweet of it is this: If you liked Age of Conan's Tortage experience, it felt like the whole game was basically like that, only with way higher production values given the fact this is Bioware after all. For me, this wasn't a bad thing. I had figured Bioware prepared a demo build for E3, and I was attempting to "beat it" only to discover that it was actually the full version of the game they were letting us run around in. I didn't realize this until almost two hours later, which I think speaks for itself as far as how much I enjoyed the experience. If you like the idea of playing an Imperial spy, you'll probably be pretty happy with Bioware's implementation.
Oh, and here's a little gem for you geeks out there like me. If you're wondering how Bioware is accounting for the fact Chiss are suddenly prevalent throughout the galaxy, at least enough to be represented in Star Wars: The Old Republic as a playable race. Daniel's answer was, "They aren't." which leads me to believe that races may actually be faction, and perhaps in some cases class specific. Something to think about.