Much has been made about Star Wars: The Old Republic and its "next generation storytelling" driven by volumes of spoken dialog. But what's it like to play the game?
I spent a few minutes trying the game out at E3 last year, but only enough time to get a short taste of the game's controls and graphics.
Last week I headed over to the LucasArts' complex in the Presidio to spend half an hour playing through a selection of missions in the game.
My time with The Old Republic dropped me in the armored shoes of a "rising star" in Havoc Squad, one of the Republic's top special ops groups in the galaxy. The mission started out on the outskirts of Mannett Point, the home of the separatists base on planet Ord Mantell. My mission was to infiltrate the base, meet up with another squad member and work with her to get to a massive bomb before the separatists can use it in a "heavily populated" area.
As with most massively multiplayer games, the session kicked off with me talking to a quest giver, someone who, yes, spoke to me about what it was I was supposed to be doing next in my mission.
The game's user interface would be baffling to anyone not familiar with role-playing titles or massively mulitplayer games. A sizable chunk of the bottom of the screen is taken up with a rectangular patch of icons showing your character portrait, experience points, level, health, power bar and a collection of abilities the player selects for instant use. There's also a minimap, quest tracker, mission logs, and collection of buttons to pop up different screens for inventory and such.
In the case of my Trooper, I had a number of fairly straightforward abilities. Pressing one fired off a single shot, another button had my character let loose with a barrage of fire. I also had buttons for rifle-mounted and sticky grenades and the ability to smack someone nearby to the ground with the butt of my weapon.
These abilities aren't as sexy as the one's I wielded as a Sith, but were still fairly satisfying to see in action, especially the two grenade options. Watching someone swat at a grenade stuck to their body until they explode never gets old.
One of the things a little surprising about this more in-depth time with the game was how quickly I found myself in the middle of a firefight. After speaking to someone who handed me a side missions, I started wandering toward the town. I managed to walk up to within almost melee distance of an enemy before I realized they weren't on my side. I realized this when they suddenly, perhaps too smoothly, pivoted around and opened fire.
I quickly took the two guards down, all within eye shot of another set of guards higher up the path, without eliciting any sort of reaction from them.
So I did it again, thinking that these two other guys were perhaps on my side. I walked right up to them, and suddenly they opened fire.
Two things here. It would be nice if perhaps it was more obvious to a first timer who was who in the worlds of Star Wars. Playing a character already partially leveled, in a missions well into the game, I suppose it's possible I would have figured this out by now on my own. But I still think that issue could use some work.
The other problem here is this short-sightedness of enemies. Throughout my time with the game I noticed that the separatists often stuck to their spawn points until I was almost on top of them, indifferently looking on as I blew away their comrades.
After working my way through little groupings of bad guys, like following a bread crumb trail to my first objective, I found myself inside a building, clearing out the top floor before taking a ride down in an industrial elevator.
While the mini-map in the game did a fairly good job of directing me when I was outside any buildings, once inside, and down a floor, things got a bit more confusing. It was hard to tell what floor I should be on. It didn't help that the map showed where an elevator was whether you needed to use it or not.
A brief conversation with one of the on-site developers and I was able to work out where to go next. Most stationary objectives, like computers, that have to be interacted with for a missions shimmer when you approach them. Also a big help.
The fights in the game weren't very exciting if I was cautious, because of that limited range of observation the bad guys seemed to have. But I started running through clusters of enemies to try and put together a sizable enemy force before turning on them. Then things got exciting. My foes seemed to work together, trying to surround me without bunching up too much. I also was happy to see a nice variation of enemies, like the robot sentries that took a lot more to take down.
Another neat thing about the game is the constant morality of your actions and choices. Several times in my conversations with both the people on my side and who I fought against I was given the choice of how to proceed. Should I cut down the bad guys despite the fact they were begging for their lives? Should I let them bribe me? Should I just let them go?
My choices, I hope, have a bigger impact on who my character eventually becomes and how the world around him, or at least the longer missions, shape up, but I didn't play long enough to see any of that come to fruition.
As a former die-hard fan of massively multiplayer games, a gamer who doesn't find these sorts of games satisfying anymore, I remain interested, cautiously intrigued by Star Wars The Old Republic.
There were bugs, glitches, some things that need work, but the writing, the voice work, the art style and the way combat plays out, come together to deliver something that might just bring me back into the genre's fold.