My biggest problem now with Star Wars: The Old Republic is that I recently switched my home computer to a Mac. This is a problem, because, several months after I first played it... years after it was first hyped.. I finally want to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, this December's PC-only massive Star Wars game.
All I needed to be converted, it seems, was to play the game a second time. From the beginning. It was as if I was playing a different game.
My first experience with the game was impaired by high expectations. I don't play massively multiplayer role-playing games. I'm not philosophically against games that join thousands (maybe millions!) of people together and just keep going and going with new adventures for months and years. I love video games too much to be against that idea of an infinite video game. I'm just against playing that game and nothing else, which is what getting enchanted with an MMO seems to mean.
I tried World of Warcraft for a weekend in 2007, had some fun, but ran away to save my time for real-life activities like playing video games that last less than infinite hours. I prefer my games to be liquids that fit into the containers of time I can allot to them. MMOs are some kind of gaseous form of video game, I take it. They seep in everywhere.
In the spring, I tried The Old Republic, cautiously wanting to believe the hype that this game, made by a company whose non-MMO games I enjoy, would be the gas-form video game for me. I hoped for that. I kind of didn't want it to be, either, because I enjoy playing other games. But if one MMO could take over my life, even for just a month before I quit it, I'd let it be a Star Wars game made by BioWare. Their Knights of the Old Republic, after all, is my favorite role-playing game and maybe my favorite Star Wars game. Plus, I like good Star Wars (not the bad stuff, which I'm sure you'll agree with me; why do people like the bad stuff?)
My problem with The Old Republic last spring was that I was battling my way through a multiplayer flashpoint. These sections of the game are designed for a band of players to tackle together, marching through a linear series of battles that are shaped by a story. I was told I'd experience BioWare's signature storytelling and some fantastic MMO combat. Well, I experienced some BioWare-style storytelling for a few minutes before the combat began and then the game turned into the thing WoW was for me: a disorienting and aesthetically unappealing jumble on my monitor of characters, numbers, too many icons, chat windows and a whole lot of waiting for powers to cool down so I could use them again to take down enemies with long health bars. That isn't WoW, I reasoned. That must be what MMOs are. And if that's what they are, I can wait another four years.
Last week, I got my second shot at the game. I was wary. I walked up the third floor of a club in New York City, the venue for a big preview event for Old Republic publisher EA. They had PCs set up for those of us who wanted to play. It seemed like we could play anything in the game, from the start. That helped me get my head around the fact that there are eight possible main character classes in the game and, if the EA reps are to be believed, they all have their own long storyline. Eight games in one. But that's quantity. I play for quality.
Of the eight possible lead character-types, I decided to play as a Sith Inquisitor, a particular red female Twi'lek one. (That's Twi'lek, as in "has a couple of tendril-link things cascading over her head like someone traded Rapunzel's hair for two big slugs." You know, like the guy who hung out with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.) I think her name was Sarbaox or something like that. I chose her because the text description for her back-story seemed to be the most interesting. She was some sort of slave who was trying to earn her way to be a Sith. Sounded good to me.
When you start The Old Republic, I realized, you're basically playing a single-player BioWare Star Wars role-playing game. Sold! You also don't have a bajillion icons crowding your screen and a flurry of party characters to worry about, which is good for people like me who fear MMOs. The first playable moments were fantastic. I've got my lady slave Sith-wannabe at the Sith academy. Her commanding officer is a complete jerk, disrespecting her, sending her on some dangerous training mission. And with that trademark BioWare dialogue wheel we first saw in their wonderful Mass Effect RPGs, I can make my Inquisitor lady mouth off to this guy.
I brought my heroine through her first few quests. She killed some giant bugs in a cave, murdered some bandits with Sith lightning and completed a blood trial for a guy named Spindrall.
The quests were fine. Nothing too great, nothing offensive. They were, more importantly, just the action between story I found myself caring about. I sent my Inquisitor back to her jerk trainer, a guy called Harkim who decided to tell my lady that she was filth. At least he didn't kill her, which he did to another trainee he didn't like. I got to choose more dialogue options and decided to threaten my trainer's life. Why not? No reason to be polite to a guy like that. That bit of conversaton happened in a story area of the game world, which I understand will stay uncluttered with other players. You're notified you are transitioning from a shared area of, say, a Sith academy, to a story area with a text alert. No load or transition, but a signal that it's narrative time.
Harkim sent my lady on her next task, to chat with a jailer. That guy was hanging out in another story area. He had a young, nervous man stretched on a rack. The young guy knew about a murder and it was time to get him to spill. My Twi'Lek was allowed to perform the interrogation, which unfolded as a series of dialogue-wheel choices ranging from nice positive-karma-improving actions to some evil stuff. I had her make the guy sing—something happy—which he did. It was a bad song. So then I had her fry him. He coughed up a name.
That whole thing was maybe the first 25 minutes of The Old Republic for one of eight character-types. I played it solo, and, more importantly, I played it happily. That's when I turned to ask the EA rep a question I knew I wouldn't like the answer to. Is this for Mac, too? Nope. [UPDATE: A few people have e-mailed me to say they've heard that the developers say the game can run on a Mac running Boot Camp, which supports Windows. Until I try it myself on my MacBook Air, I don't want to get anyone, myself included, to excited.]
I doubt I'm going to go in for a Windows PC for just one game, but I'm pleased to tell those who care about this game and BioWare that things are looking up. What I played had a very good mix of basic Star Wars action mixed with the kind of character-driven storytelling in BioWare games that's easy to get hooked on. I want to know what happens next to my heroine. I want to go through so many more decision points, mouthing off to jerk commanders, interrogating prisoners with just the right questions and who knows what else this game might let me do.
I used to not like The Old Republic because it seemed like it might be just another MMO. That is, it might be one of those games that's just not for me.
Now I like The Old Republic, because it seems like it might be just another BioWare Star Wars role-playing game. That is, it might be one of those games that's just for me.