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Hands-on Preview: Star Wars: The Old Republic
It's one of the most anticipated games of all time and potentially the MMORPG to finally dethrone World of Warcraft. Can Star Wars: The Old Republic live up to the deafening hype?

It's one of the most anticipated games of all time and potentially the MMORPG to finally dethrone World of Warcraft. Can Star Wars: The Old Republic live up to the deafening hype?

By Leo Stiles

Anything related to Star Wars is almost universally seen as a ‘sure thing’ by commentators and in many cases, that’s actually fair comment, with recent sales of the Blu-ray films confirming that the rabidly disgruntled fan base are a minority in the ‘Wars buying public.

Yet even after playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, the last thing I would call BioWare’s first MMORPG is a sure thing. As Star Wars Galaxies proved, you can’t just slap Star Wars on the title and expect fans to stick around regardless of quality. Instead, you have to keep them for the long-term by letting them live their own private Star Wars dream, giving them something authentic and delivering a game they want to play at the same time.

As far as MMORPGs go, first impressions last and are one of the key ingredients that will ensure that gamers graduate from buying the boxed game to buying into the virtual world with their first subscription. That experience has to deliver something deep and fulfilling for the experienced player while also remaining accessible for the new gamers it need to constantly recruit to maintain its stability.

We recently went hands-on with the game at BioWare’s impressive new home in Galway and while we couldn’t say for sure whether SWTOR has what it takes long term, it certainly has enough fresh ideas and essential Star Wars magic to win a legion of new fan on day one.

We took over the role of a bounty hunter (to live out my Boba Fett dreams) as I tried to get on the first rung of the bounty hunting ladder. Immediately, we were treated to a cutscene-led introduction with fully voiced characters and the kind of dialog trees that will be familiar to anyone who has played a BioWare title (especially Mass Effect). The voice work is pretty good and a sprinkling of subtitled Huttese had me fighting back a fan-induced grin.

Nope, this isn't Boba Fett and Han Solo, though they do look pretty similar

The biggest surprise of the opening minutes was the exceptional polish of the graphics, with the frame rate holding steady and a remarkable solidity to the character models and their environments. The slightly cartoony style of the design that I had reservations with from the official screenshots made perfect sense in motion and delivered more character than I expected.

The staging area for the Bounty Hunter class is also host to a number of factions, with ongoing turf wars between gangsters lending a good deal of atmosphere and it must be said that even without a live population, the game world feels dynamic and alive. This was immediately apparent when I blundered into a dispute and got clobbered for my trouble.

Getting stuck into the story driven nature of the game certainly makes for an impressive introduction, with the first few quests asking me to find and confront a bounty target. Off I went to track him down and by the time that I had subdued him, I was so caught up in the events, that it was only later that we realised that underneath all the story, we were still fetching and collecting.

Crucially, we never once felt like we were grinding away at quests to fill an XP bar. Instead we were part of a story and this would seem to validate BioWare’s decision to inject the narrative elements and unprecedented voice work into the MMO template.

Combat is what you would expect from a Star Wars game and nests somewhere between projectile weaponry and the acrobatic whirr of lightsabers. Again, the level of polish shows just how well the designers have nailed the universe, with animations and sound effects all unmistakably Star Wars. Some of the special attacks especially deserve mention, with enemies being thrown about by the concussive impact of rockets.

Death was never too far away as a newbie but rather than being a punitive aspect of the game, death in SWTOR is a more forgiving affair. Rather than the usual graveyard dump foisted upon players as the consequence of being on the wrong end of a blaster, you are given the options of a return to a safe area or the dispatch of a medical droid.

The first option works just like you might expect but the droid option resurrects you with very limited health and about 15 seconds of time to get out of dodge or at least find some cover to activate your regenerative health ability.

During the playtest the cool-down period to deploy the droid was disabled but a member of the BioWare team informed me that repeated use of the droid will incur more lengthy cool-down periods, during which time enemies could well re-spawn. Its a sensible and elegant solution to the old school grind and along with the more story driven nature of the quests makes SWTOR feel like a game rather than a teeth-gritting grind.

Polished gameplay

The brevity of our time with the game prevents us from digging down into the finer details of the game but purely from the focus of a solo adventurer who is new to the game, SWTOR impresses with the kind of polish and confidence that we haven’t experience from an MMO before.

Obviously, questions still linger about character progression, the impact of choices on the story and how eventual interplanetary travel will play out but for now BioWare have more than earned the benefit of the doubt.

As far as day one satisfaction goes, we cant imagine that The Old Republic will be anything other that a complete success, as it manages to successfully deploy some of that fondly remembered Star Wars magic. The real challenge the game faces will be how it does when players are entrenched in the game world.

Will it maintain the quality of its quests, combat and essence of Star Wars? Who knows, but on this evidence, BioWare would seem to be on the path of the Jedi with The Old Republic and you can be assured that when the game launches in December, we will find out the answers to these questions with our full review. The force is strong with this one.

Star Wars: The Old Republic launches on Microsoft Windows on December 22.

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