Back in March, I got to play The Old Republic as the Bounty Hunter and Imperial Agent classes, for around 17 hours total. I played mostly as the Bounty Hunter, and these were my impressions. Josh spent more time with the Imperial Agent, and his preview is here . This preview previously appeared in issue 226 of PC Gamer in the UK.
Imagine a version of the Star Wars universe where you can become almost any kind of character, explore dozens of worlds, even acquire your own spaceship and recruit a crew. Now try not to imagine Star Wars: Galaxies – the first awkward take on that vision, which drove itself into the ground trying to attract new players with endless unsuccessful redesigns.
The Old Republic won't have that problem: it's a BioWare game, and BioWare already have an audience. Mass Effect is becoming this generation's Star Wars. Everyone already knows they love its story-driven structure, the way it builds a cast of interesting companion characters, and the freedom it offers to play an asshole or a saint.
The Old Republic has all of that, and it actually is Star Wars – albeit 3,500 years before the films. But it's also a massively multiplayer game: thousands upon thousands of players will all be playing through these stories together in the same world. 'Story' means major developments, unique to your character, with permanent consequences. How on Earth do you make that work for 5,000 people in the same place? Aren't the consequences going to conflict? Won't they realise their personal moments are the same as those of hundreds of others?
A lot hinges on those questions. Big singleplayer RPGs are expensive to make, but gamers don't pay more for them than the next five-hour shooter. BioWare's games thrive on being huge, while financial pressure is shrinking other mainstream games around them. About the only thing gamers are happy to pay more than £30 for is a massively multiplayer game.
If BioWare are at all nervous about their approach to making story work in an MMO, it's not showing. They invited me to play it not for an hour, or an afternoon, but for two days.
As it turns out, the answer to the big question is easy. How do they make personal stories coherent for thousands of people at once? They don't.
You choose from eight classes when creating a character in The Old Republic: The Republic Trooper, Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular and Smuggler are the good guys, and the Imperial Agent, Sith Warrior, Sith Inquisitor and Bounty Hunter are the Empire's. Writing director Daniel Erickson says the faction you belong to “is very much about where were you born, more than anything else.” Virtuous people on both sides try to save lives in their line of work, and cruel people everywhere are never short of excuses to kill.
Your choice of class, however, is crucial. Your main quest, your occupation, your reason for being, the people you'll meet, the ship you can get and the overall story of your character from start to finish are all specific to your class. It even influences your voice and your personality. To that extent, The Old Republic does give different players different stories. But of course, thousands and thousands divided by eight is still hundreds and hundreds, so it doesn't solve the underlying problem of people playing through the same content in the same world.
I picked Bounty Hunter, because I liked the wrap-them-in-string ability shown off in the class trailer. Josh, playing alongside me, chose the other class available to us: Imperial Agent.
That put us both on Hutta, a wretched swamp of scum and villainy run by things with names ending in 'the Hutt'. And yet we scarcely crossed paths. Since class determines your main story, players of different classes are playing different games. There are plenty of sidequests scattered around that we could have done arranged to do together, but your class story is always the focus.
As a Bounty Hunter, my class story was all about The Great Hunt. It's an interplanetary contest for mercs like me to make a name for themselves by going after the most elusive targets in the galaxy. But it's exclusive: I needed a powerful sponsor to put me forward. I needed Nemro the Hutt, and he is not a good space slug to need.
Rather than run between my story and Josh's Imperial Agent one, it made more sense to team up with a fellow Bounty Hunter. I say it made sense, it made no sense. The plot hinges on the fact that Nemro can only endorse one aspiring hunter in this competition, so the idea that we'd help each other earn his favour is a complete contradiction of our characters.
That's what I mean when I say TOR doesn't attempt to reconcile players' stories to each other. But in game terms it was convenient: we were always heading to the same place so we could fight side by side.
Bounty Hunters can only use blaster pistols, small weapons that fire in quick bursts, so the real damage is done by gadgets like your wrist-mounted rocket launcher. Many Bounty Hunter abilities have no significant cooldown time, and there's no energy cost to worry about, but they do generate heat. Once you hit your heat limit, you're stuck with your basic blaster-burst ability until you cool off.
Early on, it's painful. The Old Republic has a cover system, but oddly it's restricted to certain classes. The Bounty Hunter isn't one of them, so when you've only got a few abilities you're really just standing there in a large open area hitting number keys. I've heard BioWare call this 'heroic combat', but I wasn't really feeling it. When I hid behind a nearby wall to cool off during a boss fight, the boss couldn't figure out how to get to me and immediately went into 'Evade' mode, rendering him invincible and healing all the damage I'd dealt so far.
Around level 8 your abilities round out. It's still awkward to be out in the open, but the combinations you can pull off are fun. For a tough mob, I'd start by hitting the most dangerous enemy with my missile launcher. That knocks him and the surrounding enemies to the floor, giving me a chance to close the distance while blasting them.
If the threat has got back to his feet by the time I'm there, I hit him with a stun dart to immobilise him, then Rail Shot him – a sniper blast that does extra damage to stunned targets. Then I move to the edge of the mob, target the nearest enemy, and let off the flamethrower. It catches everyone in its cone of effect, first hurting then immobilising them as they thrash around in the fire. If anyone's left alive, I can use my jetpack to deliver a thruster-powered uppercut.
Playing with another Bounty Hunter is just the same formula multiplied. Our favourite tag-team move was to both open with Death from Above: we launch into the air on our jetpacks and rain missiles down in tandem. It knocks everyone to the ground and deals damage over a wide area – not much, but significant when doubled.
Working for Nemro the Hutt tends to involve quest dialogues that end with “...his head on my floor!” Some of the quests are interesting, some are straightforward, and most of them feel very BioWare. It's a lot like playing Knights of the Old Republic in co-op – not like playing a specially made co-op version of that game, just literally having another player there in the singleplayer story.
Once we'd secured Nemro's endorsement for the Great Hunt, we were done with Hutta and headed to the spaceport. Every class eventually gets their own ship in The Old Republic, but not just yet: you're told to leave the first planet by public transport. But a droid informed us that an Imperial vessel was on its way to our destination, Dromund Kaas, and we might like to hitch a lift.
That led to a Flashpoint, a very actiondriven longer quest that takes place entirely in an instance. An Imperial Grand Moff contacted us to say that the captain of the vessel we were on had disobeyed a direct order, and we were to kill him. You're probably supposed to relent and spare him once you discover his reasons, but I like friends in high places, so I kicked him to the floor and shot him.
Soon after the ship is boarded by Republic forces, which you fight as their transports punch in through the hull. We then took a shuttle to the Republic capital ship and fought our way through it from the inside, defeating an Admiral Ackbar-type commander, a giant defence droid and ultimately a Jedi.
It's an excitingly swashbuckling adventure, though with an exhausting amount of combat. Some journalists playing on their own struggled with it for a long, long time. It was easier with two, but I'd still plan on getting an even larger group together for these in the final game. Although it was part of our class story as Bounty Hunters, the Imperial Agent story includes the same section. Josh spared the captain, which apparently saved him the whole ordeal on the Republic ship.
Most of the rest of the game takes place in public spaces, where you might run into any of the thousands of other people playing on the same server. When you're approaching a key moment in your plot, you go through a green barrier that puts you in your own instance. If you're in a group with other classes, they can come through with you and join in. If you're grouped with others of the same class, as I was, they each go into their own instance of the event, and rejoin when they come out.
My fellow Bounty Hunter Andy and I, for example, were asked by an admiral to kill his daughter – for reasons I won't spoil. We fought through the compound to get to her together, but once we reached the room itself, we each went into our own separate versions of that encounter alone. Andy froze the daughter in carbonite instead, as any reasonable person would, while I shot her as instructed. We each came out and fought our way back to the admiral with completely different stories to tell.
Where it gets slightly awkward is the combat: that room has three extremely tough bosses in it, ones who completely trounced me on my own. I needed help. You can choose to join someone's instance even if you can't join in with their plot, which Andy did to help me with the fight. It meant he went through the whole emotional confrontation with the daughter all over again, the daughter he also had as an inventory item frozen in carbonite. BioWare would be wise to avoid putting challenging fights in plot instances, because grouping up to defeat them makes for some awkward story moments.
Less important plot points can be played through together, in 'multiplayer conversations'. The mechanic is pretty rudimentary: everyone picks the dialogue option they want to say in response to the line you all just heard, and a die is rolled for each player: highest number is the one whose line gets said. If you agreed, you get some mysterious party points that don't seem to do anything yet.
If you're not near the NPC a teammate is talking to, you can appear as a hologram proxy and join in anyway. BioWare realise they still need to disable options like “[Kill him]” for holograms – we had some funny moments with those.
Even if you play alone, your character always has company. You acquire companion characters throughout the game, your first after just a few levels, and you always have one with you from then on. Mine was Mako, an Asianlooking human tech expert. Andy's was Mako, an Asian-looking human tech expert. You can see where this gets weird – same class, same plot, same companions. Since we didn't get to create our own characters, Andy and I looked almost identical ourselves, so the four of us trundling around together started to freak people out.
Companions flesh out the plot, and generally seem to round out the class: Bounty Hunters are damage dealers, so Mako is a healer. Josh's Imperial Agent had heals of his own, and his companion was essentially a Bounty Hunter. In both cases, within three words of meeting them, anyone who's played a BioWare game can tell your first companion's going to be a love interest.
I asked Daniel if that would develop as far as the romances in, say, Mass Effect.
“Oh, far beyond. The more romances you have in the game, the less typical the romance has to be, does that make sense? We have literally dozens of romances, fully fleshed out. Which means we have the train wreck romances, we have the intimacy problem romances, we have the slightly strange power-play romances...”
One of these love interests, Daniel says, immediately sleeps with someone else when she starts to fall for you. You just find a shirtless man walking out of her quarters on your ship. You can also lose companions, kill companions, make them hate you to the point of never speaking to you again, and even turn them to the dark or light side depending on your actions.
The only problem with companions is that you can only have four people in a group, and they count. So when Andy, Josh and I did manage to team up, both of them had to give up their companions to do so. For Josh, it wasn't worth it, and he ended up leaving our group and fighting alongside us separately. It's a bizarre restriction.
If you're tempted to play Bounty Hunter to live out that Boba Fett fantasy, I advise against it. When my character walked into the first room, Mako and my new boss greeted him. I chose the least dickish response, “Hello all”, and what I actually said was “Cute girls and big guns! I like it!” Oh God. This must be what it's like to be an asshole – you try to say something normal and that comes out. I wanted the unspeaking, relentless badass from the movies, and I got a sort of inept Duke Nukem.
Later, when I tried an Imperial Agent, that aspect of the game turned around completely. He's quiet, to-thepoint and professional. He's also British, but only when talking to his superiors. As Daniel puts it, “the Imperial Agent is very often spending his time trying to pretend he is not an Imperial Agent,” and nothing says 'evil' like an English accent.
The Agent also has a cooler story – while I was fiddling around trying to qualify for a Bounty Hunter competition, Josh was sleeping with a girl to sway her into betraying her father. The Imperial Agent's objectives are clear and make sense for the Empire, whereas the Bounty Hunter is always working for an unspecified quantity of credits. A big part of the Agent arc is working to protect a society of largely innocent people, however cruel their rulers – it's a muddier war than the easy dichotomy of the films.
Each class's story arc is huge. They're divided into three stories, each as long as the entirety of the original Knights of the Old Republic RPG. That makes The Old Republic 24 times as big, for anyone who's not keeping count. And since every class and gender combination has a different voice actor, it features 16 lead performances. The scale is mind-blowing.
More interestingly, you can steer each story towards a light or dark side ending. Regardless of your class or faction, you always have the option of trying to help people or going purely for personal gain.
Before my time was up I also got to play a player-versus-player Warzone: the Alderaan civil war. Two teams scrap over three control points, each being a gun turret that shoots at the enemy capital ship while you hold it. The visual effects of combat between eight players are fast, flashy and tough to read, but the actual business of killing people is slow. That means it may have some tactical depth at the higher levels of skill and coordination, but it isn't hugely satisfying to play.
A lot of the compromises and oddities of The Old Republic come from BioWare's determination not to let anything get in the way of them telling a traditional, singleplayer RPG story. Despite everything, it's the right call.
It makes grouping up awkward – if you play different classes, you can't both make story progress together. If you play the same class, the story makes less sense and you have clone companions. But if BioWare had sacrificed the story-driven aspect of their game, there wouldn't be much reason to play The Old Republic. Other MMOs have better combat models and more impressive worlds.
Instead, they've gone with an awkward fit, but one I do want to play. I want to see that Imperial Agent story through, and I think everyone's going to have at least one class whose character and story clicks with them well enough to make this a great BioWare adventure.