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Hands On: The Old Republic - Part One

Coruscan or Coruscant?

I've had access to The Old Republic for the last couple of weeks. Which is good. Below is the first of a series of articles I'm going to write about it, thinking about different aspects, and playing as different Republic classes. Today it's Jedi Knight, and just how it is that BioWare's moral choices and quest styles fit into a massively multiplayer world.

In the end, no matter what makes The Old Republic different from the MMOs before it, what you’re doing eventually comes down to killing ten rats. But here’s the thing: you care about why you’re killing ten rats. And that, above anything else, is what makes TOR different enough to be properly interesting. It’s impossible not to appreciate the difference voicing a game makes. It’s extraordinary to appreciate the difference being able to answer back makes. The Old Republic is unquestionably a BioWare game.

Of course, it’s a BioWare game in an MMO. Which never stops feeling like a bear trying to wear a centipede costume. Undeniably WOW-like in its approach to structure, the more I play of TOR, the more I feel like I’m embroiled in the developers’ struggle to squeeze their sort of game into someone else’s mould. And to a decent extent, it’s working.

BioWare let me into the beta for the last couple of weeks, with free reign to play with the four Republic classes, Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler and Trooper, right up until each of them finds a spaceship. Well, it’s an enormous game, and I’m the sort that even when previewing on a beta, can’t just skip a sidequest. That woman will die! That corrupt politician will get away with it! So obviously I picked Jedi Knight, because I’m not insane, and have pretty much focused on that.

Which of course means being a Padawan, and then showing just remarkable ability in the Force! Not precisely an original idea, but perhaps an inevitable one. The earliest quests are themed around the attacks of Flesh Raiders, a formerly intellectually benign race, who are turning on the locals with seemingly organised attacks. So someone must be organising them.

Of course, what you’re actually doing is killing ten Flesh Raiders. Then maybe setting free ten people from Flesh Raider cages. Then killing a bigger, scarier person, and running back to the mission giver to collect your XP and prize. What you’re actually doing isn’t starkly different from anything you’ll do elsewhere. But the difference is that paragraph above – the one which tells you why you’re doing it, and why you should care.

Sure, most MMOs will attempt that now, but few are as convincing. Certainly in my experience I can never remember why I’m completing a quest in other games. But here, having a voiced cast of genuine characters, with emotional reactions and ongoing roles, something shifts. Really, just having conversation choices at all feels exceptional – having the game react to those choices more so.

You can turn down a quest, unless it’s core, but if you take it you’re either going to take it gracefully or like a dick. Either way, you’ll still be doing the quest, of course. How you feel about yourself is by far the most affecting factor, and it’s an effective one. But then of course, there’s the familiar KotOR Dark/Light divide, and that’s at play here too. Certain decisions you make, that usually define how you’ll end a quest, will score you points on either side, and upset or please the person you’re dealing with appropriately. Then on top of that, you’ve got companions, and how you behave will change your relationship with them – albeit in a crude numerical system, but it means you’re constantly aware that your behaviour is having an effect, no matter how hypothetical it may be in that moment.

As my investigations continued, it revealed an ancient race of droids, dating back to the original Force War. What this means for the Jedi, desperately attempting to recover from a large war, is unknown, but plenty of people want you to find out more. Of course now you’re just hitting droids instead of Flesh Raiders, but… You get the idea.

This is all moving toward passing the tests, that (like in every other game BioWare have ever made) you don’t do because something more serious breaks out, and your eventually proving yourself to be a bit rather special. That rings no more true here than it ever has before. In fact, it rings a lot less true, because you can see all the other a bit rather special Jedi wannabes running around you doing the same quest. But hey, we’re all capable of suspending our disbelief for such things, and so consider mine suspended. (I like to think that all the other players are getting back and being told, “Well, you did a terrible job compared to John.)

And being a Jedi means: lightsabre! Which is why it was the only option. Oh, and you get an R2 droid as a companion, who bleeps and bloops to you as you trundle about. That's rather fab. Come level 10 you’re endowed with a specialist class, a choice from two for each class. I chose Sentinel, because, well, it gives you a second lightsabre. You can probably see my approach.

At this point you’re on Coruscant, an absolutely enormous playing area, interconnected by travelling points, bulging with sidequests, cantinas, spaceports and vast, elegant structures. The scale on which it’s built is remarkable, even if most of the rooms inside a place are empty. However, a bustling marketplace is jam-packed, and most times you head off in a new direction you’ll find an extra quest from someone wanting the help of a Jedi.

And they’re not always wanting the sort of help you’d imagine a Jedi would want to give. This, again, is where TOR is very different. Sometimes you’ll not do certain things because they’re unethical. Or indeed you may certainly do things because they’re unethical, depending upon how you’re playing. And even if you’re a tedious goodie-two-shoes like me, there will still be times when making the “Dark” choice is the only one you’ll be willing to pick.

For instance, will you interfere in the democratic process to prevent someone with extremist views from pursuing them? Often it’s an ideological difference, and you’re on planets where the locals aren’t really too bought into the Jedi ideology just now. They’ve had the shit kicked out of them in a war, and many see the Jedi as having let them down, while the Sith appear strong. And just because you’re amongst them, it doesn’t mean you can’t agree with those you’re talking to. If you want to.

That’s the point I want to get across with this: the story works, if the format feels strange. It’s enormously frustrating that you have to kill things on the way back out of supposedly shutting down some nefarious group’s activities. It’s daft to see 50 other people doing the same. But as awkward as the bear may seem in that centipede costume, it’s still a bear.

All the classes are currently frustratingly slow to start, especially the Smuggler who I shall be telling you about next time. But once things kick off, and you’ve got ten quests down the right side of the screen and six different people pissed off at you for something, four flashpoints available for when you find someone else to play with, and have I mentioned, two lightsabres, it’s jolly hard not to want to keep going for more.

I'll be back with more in a few days, thinking about the Smuggler, and talking a bit more about how I feel levelling and skills are working, along with crafting and companions.

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