Working from the press room at GDC is a bit like manning a typewriter while you're sinking in quicksand -- you're sucked in just a bit further with each keystroke until you're completely immersed and unable to wriggle free.
With that lovely imagery in mind, I'd like to give a big thanks to the good folks at LucasArts, who, even if it was just for about an hour or so, whisked me away from the madness-infused inner sanctums of the Moscone Center all the way up to San Francisco's lovely Presidio district for a short hands-on appointment with BioWare's highly anticipated Star Wars MMO, The Old Republicc.
From the outset, it's evident that LucasArts and BioWare have a haughty task ahead of them. A massively multiplayer Star Wars universe was attempted once before with Sony Online's Star Wars Galaxies, which, while not a disaster by any means, was still met with mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. And what of the ever-expanding Star Wars universe? Doing justice to the franchise's positively epic canon in a massively multiplayer environment is surely no simple task, especially when faced against established MMO franchises such as World of Warcraft or even sci-fi focused newcomers like Star Trek Online. Daniel Erickson, The Old Republic's lead writer, was on hand to dispel any doubts I had going into the game and shed some light on BioWare's creative process.
"We've always looked at what we're doing," explained Erickson. "We didn't look towards any of the other MMO spaces for more than 'Hey, we like this, we don't like this,' any more than we've looked at any of the other Star Wars games. We love MMOs, and we love RPGS; we always wondered why the MMORPG didn't have the role-playing part in it -- the stories and the characters -- and then we looked at what we love about Star Wars. It's always been about making the best game we can more than saying, 'Oh, we do want to do this,' or, 'We don't want to do this,' with things that have come before us."
I took a seat at one of seven pimped-out PCs where a level six Republic Trooper was ready and waiting, battle rifle in hand. As a rising star in the Republic-funded special-ops task force Havoc Squad, I found myself deployed to the lush locale of Ord Mantell, tasked with infiltrating a Separatist base and disarming a deadly explosive. Before I dove into my mission, I approached a nearby NPC who, like all of the NPCs in Old Republic, was fully voiced and fluidly animated. The NPC, a snarky reporter named Lamalla Rann, shared her spite for the Separatists before asking me to help her hunt down some missing data, as well as her missing assistant. I was thrilled to see a familiar BioWare staple in a Mass Effect-inspired dialogue wheel, and as I agreed to help Lamalla and her plight, I couldn't help but wonder how this cinematic conversation could be repeated in the grand scheme of the game -- specifically with so many dialogue trees and choices at one's disposal.
"We said, 'If we're going to do story, we have to do story like BioWare does it," said Erickson. "Interactivity without choice is pointless. One thing I've always kept in my head since I was studying design was something Sid Meier said -- 'If my choice is not real and is not impactful, don't make me press a button.' It's the choices that make [the characters] real." My conversation ended, and two or three paces later, I was sharing the screen with a sword-wielding Separatist ready to throw down. Well, kind of -- The Old Republic looks great, don't get me wrong, but there are still quite a few bugs that need to be worked out; namely, enemies didn't so much as blink at my Trooper until he'd sidled up directly beside them. But after that? Well, as they say, all hell broke loose.
If I can say one thing about The Old Republic's combat, it's that it really didn't feel too much like an MMO. Sure, I had a bar of refreshable attacks at my disposal in typical MMO fashion, but the lack of an auto-attack coupled with the frenetic mixture of ranged and melee attacks was enough to make me forget about the persistent online world altogether -- an idea I'm anxious to explore against other living, breathing players. Working from a pool of Action Points, I let loose a steady stream of lasers, oftentimes following it up with a devastating sticky grenade -- or, if I was close enough, a good old-fashioned whack to the face with the butt of my rifle. The combat was surprisingly balanced; my Trooper was strong, but not overpowered, and my enemies were challenging, but not damage sponges.
And as soon as my high-risk base infiltration started, it ended; the mixed gravitational pulls of the GDC press room and prior appointments drawing me towards the shuttle waiting outside of Lucas, leaving Rann's plight unfinished and the Separatist bomb still very much armed. While my time with The Old Republic was far too limited, I walked away with just enough of a taste to not only pique my interest, but convince me just a little bit more that if anyone can handle the daunting task of translating the Star Wars universe into a persistent online environment, it's the talented folks at BioWare.
"Star Wars is a huge, huge IP," noted Erickson. "There has been a massive amount of things that have already been written -- there's a huge amount of canon, there's a huge amount of interesting stories, and there are so many different takes on it already. I want to do good by Star Wars. I want to do something where people say, 'That's Star Wars. They get it.'" The Old Republic has shaped up beautifully since E3 2009, and while its launch date is still a ways away, Erickson and company are well on their way to making good on that promise. My tiny glimpse of the finished product has done nothing but whet my appetite (and my bank account) for yet another massively multiplayer addiction.