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Hands-on: Star Wars: The Old Republic

We've set foot on Korriban and stepped into the shoes of a Sith Inquisitor. Read on for our impressions of the Bioware's next big title.

It seems like an eternity since I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the original Xbox. A game that felt more like one of the movies from the original trilogy than the prequel trilogy ever managed to do. But Bioware also managed to add their own style to the game, and the end result was one of the best role playing games of the generation.

The Obsidian Entertainment developed sequel did not get the same amount of praise, but was still a very solid entry and a memorable game in its own rights. For years fans have been waiting for a sequel and there was a bit of moaning and disappointment as the project Lucasarts and Bioware had been working on was announced as a MMORPG. Senior writer Hall Hood jokes around as says that in terms of content Star Wars: The Old Republic is actually Knights of the Old Republic parts 3-10, in all in one package, referring to the separate storylines available for each of the 8 character classes in game. It's one massive game and interestingly enough the focus is still firmly on story telling, making the game something of a oddity in MMO circles.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
Bioware senior writer Hall Hood.

I first played the game back in March of 2010 and I must say I was far from impressed. The missions we were given a taste of at the Lucasarts' offices in San Francisco were rather lukewarm and saw us playing the Trooper class. Rather boring blaster fights were mixed up with story components that felt oddly out of place, but far from engaging. Perhaps, I'm too much of a Star Wars fan to feel the appeal of the Trooper class. After all, for most of the fiction these kind of characters have been reduced to cannon fodder on both sides of the conflict. Star Wars: The Old Republic wants to make them more relevant and heroic, and that makes the Trooper and Imperial Agent classes interesting, at least in theory. Personally, I chose a completely different class for my first proper venture into the world of Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Having the choice of 8 classes is daunting enough in most games, but when it also means that you'll experience one of 8 completely separate story archs through the adventure it forces you to think even more about your choice. It's not just a choice of whether you want to tank, support or use a versatile class, it also dictates what kind of character you will be and what part of the fiction you will experience. For me the choice was simple in the end. I wanted to see Korriban, homeworld of the Sith, and I chose to play as a Sith Inquisitor. Good at dealing damage at close and mid range.

Arriving at Korriban a disgraced slave, stripped of my Sith rank as my master had fallen, I'm forced to go through a series of tests to prove my worth and regain my rightful place as a trueborn Sith. The game does an awesome job of introducing you to the inner workings of the Sith empire and the relationships, between Sith masters, their apprentices, the dark council and the dynamics of the empire. The main quest line is mainly about your personal journey, and the greater forces at work, while optional quest lines provide you with interesting insights into the world of the Sith. The main quest line does a good job of putting you firmly on the dark side, as the overseer constantly refers to you as slave and thinks little or nothing of your progress. A much more powerful Sith, Lord Zash, seems to have seen some potential in you, and perhaps she will be a stepping stone towards even more power later on.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

One thing that we take for granted in a Bioware title these days is the fact that you can align yourself towards good or evil, or in this case the dark or light side of the force. It does come across as a bit strange given that you choose your side straight away and at first glance it seems rather silly to be a good guy when you've picked a Sith Inquisitor as your class. For other classes, such as the Bounty Hunter or the Smuggler it seems more appropriate with a grey scale in terms of morals. I'm sure Bioware has some sort of solution for this worked out, but as most of the conversation choices in the early part of the game had few real consequences (apart from the dialogue), it was difficult to see the point in opting for kind conversation choices even if I made an effort to flirt with female NPC's whenever possible.

The side quests on Korriban involved a number of things, from helping out imperials recovering research data and helping your stature with the non-Sith component of the Empire, to dealing with individual masters or renegade Siths. One side mission saw you choosing whether to side with a master or an apprentice, which was rather interesting. One seemingly deranged master claimed to have created a stronger bound with the force through dissecting the brains of a creature indigenous to Korriban. He wants you to collect a specimen in a tomb with an especially impressive brain. Simple fetch quest, one you've surely done a million times before. The twist here is that his apprentice wants you to give the sample to her so she can manipulate it and debunk her master's work and expose him to the dark council. She needs to prove his incompetence and you're the one to help her. Now you can choose to deliver the creature's brain to the master or the apprentice, and thus deciding the faith of the master. The quest provides you with an interesting insight into the inner workings of the relationship between master and apprentice in the Sith Empire.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Another side quest sees you aiding a highly placed Sith in scanning various senior members of the Sith Academy to see whether or not they're true blood Sith or not. There is also a quest where you root out some renegade Sith acolytes - observe that these were not sympathising with the Republic, but rather wanted to see a change in leadership of the Sith. A nice hint at how the hierarchy that rules the Sith works.

One thing of note is that while your choices in single player role playing games may seem monumental you always have the choice of going back to a previous save and making another choice. That option is not there in a persistent MMO such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, your choices remain and will affect the remainder of your experience with that character. It adds weight to the decisions, and you're likely to reflect an extra moment upon the consequences they may bring down the line.

Korriban is a brilliant location to start your adventures in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not only is it a key location from the previous Knights of the Old Republic games, but it also gives you a lot of background to the current conflict and the war that is about to descend upon the galaxy.

While this starting area is just a fraction of the content you will experience as a Sith Inquisitor, it does instil confidence in me. The approach Bioware have chosen with a heavy emphasis on story telling, voicing the entire game and relying heavily on cutscenes works wonders on a genre that has perhaps grown a bit stale as a result of Blizzard's overwhelming success.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

In addition to the class story archs there is story you're meant to experience as a group - the so called "flashpoints". These instances allow four players to take part in an event that is key to the war that rages on between republic and empire. At this point of the event my low level Sith Inquisitor had been upgraded to a level 14 Sith Assassin - a bit of a tank - and a rather powerful character to have along on the Black Talon flashpoint. The objective of the flashpoint was to hunt down an important Jedi general and well deal with him. It saw my group trek on through corridors and battle various republic droids and troops. Our group was not very well coordinated and we persisted mainly because we were slightly overpowered for the instance. What's interesting about these flashpoints is that they're also as story heavy as the rest of the game, cut scenes and conversations are sort of conducted in a semi-democratic manner where you take turns in deciding what directions conversations take. At the end of this flashpoint we could choose whether to take the wounded general prisoner or execute him on spot. Staying in character the person who won out in the dialogue tug of war opted to end his misery. The conversation system definitely added a bit of spice to the instance.

The flashpoint mainly consisted of fights against drones and the likes, and there was always bonus objectives flashing up in the top right corner - disrupt panels, defeat a certain number of troops, etc - but the most memorable fight was against a Twi'lek Jedi (at least that's what I think she was). She had a lot more moment, and it was hard to get a fix on her with my light sabre attacks, she also had an attack that sent me flying away from her when we were engaged in close combat. I resorted to mainly using techniques such as shock, electrify and lightning on her, with varying results. After defeating her we caught up with the wounded general and dispatch of him. Mission accomplished.

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The game has definitely come a long way since we first saw it. The graphics are crisp and strike me as a mix between the art style of The Clone Wars and the more realistic and dark style of the original Knights of the Old Republic titles. I also came away impressed with the voice work. Not only is the game voiced well (I expected no less from Bioware), but the cut scene have been expertly directed, and never feel prolonged. You're getting the story in short concise chunks, which is what you want in an online role playing game. The choices you make add immersion, and when the friendly cute Sith wannabe girl gets slain in front of you after you opted to flirt with her at the start of the game, it means something more to you, and it reminds you just what it means to be bound to the dark side of the force.

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