When BioWare announced that they were making a Star Wars MMORPG instead of Knights of the Old Republic 3, there was a bit of a mixed response. On the one hand, people were excited for a proper, AAA Star Wars MMO. On the other hand, fans of the original KOTOR were upset that their beloved series would turn into a pointless grind fest and time sink. But from what BioWare and LucasArts showed at this year's E3, it certainly looks like The Old Republic is in good hands, and will appeal to just about everyone.
The problem with nearly every MMO ever made is that the way they are designed makes it incredibly difficult to tell a compelling story. BioWare, one of the best developers of narrative-driven games, has acknowledged this flaw of MMORPGs, and plans to change it. In fact, the 15 minute demo of The Old Republic that I got to play through felt more like one of BioWare's other games, like KOTOR or Mass Effect, rather than an MMO. A huge part of that comes down to the quest system, and how players interact with NPCs. In The Old Republic, every single character is fully voiced, including each and every player class, male and female.
In most MMOs, players don't care about the story, or the quests they are undertaking. They just talk to an NPC, accept the quest without reading what they have to say, and then go kill 10 generic enemies. In TOR, quests are handled in typical BioWare fashion, with branching dialogue options, compelling choices, and enjoyable voice actors. The main twist with the game being an MMO is that you can't simply undo the choices that you make. For instance, in Mass Effect, instead of beating the game twice, some players would just save before the final fight, and get both the "good" and "evil" endings. In an ever-changing MMO, players will have to live with the decisions they make, something that gamers have never really had to do before in a video game.
There are 8 classes in total in The Old Republic, each with their own starting planets and storylines. I played as a Sith Warrior, and started my adventure on the Sith home planet of Korriban. As an acolyte in the Sith Academy, I was tasked with retrieving a proper war blade from one of the many tombs on the planet's surface. My overseer informed me that another acolyte named Vemrin was too ambitious for his own good, and that I should retrieve the blade to kill him before he tries to kill me. Upon returning to the academy with blade in hand, I encountered Vemrin, who then told me that he planned to kill our overseer, and that I should join up with him. Thus began the plethora of choice.
Combat in The Old Republic is a mix of old and new. The Sith Warrior's combat style, for instance, is like any traditional MMO. I had two attacks at my disposal: Assault, which is a basic melee strike that generates additional rage points (which are used for other abilities) and Vicious Slash, a more powerful single-target attack. I also had the ability Force Charge at my disposal, which let me jump from great distances to attack my foes. Other classes fight differently, such as the Smuggler, who uses a cover mechanic during combat the first of its kind in an MMO.
And although it feels more like Mass Effect with multiplayer than World of WarCraft with lightsabers, BioWare has confirmed that the game will contain traditional MMORPG elements. One video they showed had a group of players confronting a boss, with a Republic Trooper acting as a tank, a Jedi Consular healing, and a Jedi Knight and Smuggler both dealing damage. BioWare also introduced warzones, which will serve as PvP areas, and hinted at instancing, endgame raiding, and crafting all playing prominent roles in the game.
With a beta test hopefully on the horizon, Star Wars: The Old Republic is shaping up to be one of the biggest games of next year. BioWare is nothing if not ambitious with their largest game yet, and if it succeeds, it could end up changing an entire genre forever. The Old Republic is scheduled for release next spring.