Star Wars: The Old Republic hands-on
From Tython I head to a Republic station, where the first order of business is selecting an Advanced Class. Each class has two, and in my case these are the Sage (healer, thrower of rocks) and Shadow (stealther, master of illusion). After some consideration, I opt for the former. Qyzen’s presence has reassured me that I don’t need the Shadow’s compensatory double-bladed lightsaber. Also, the Sage can upgrade his rock-throwing to throw two rocks at once. That is literally twice as many rocks.
Then there’s the matter of Crew Skills. These are extracurricular abilities that come in three distinct flavours: crafting, gathering, and missions. The latter two are used to acquire the ingredients necessary to make new items: gathering skills are used on resource nodes in the wild, and missions are tasks that can be assigned to companions, removing them from play for a fixed period of time. I choose Synthweaving as my crafting skill, which allows me to create light armour and not, disappointingly, noodly electronic music. Crafting itself is undertaken by companions, adding “making shoes” to the increasingly long list of improbable things that I make Qyzen do.
To Coruscant, then. I’m told that while a shuttle is available right away, there’s another, larger ship that gets there ‘quicker’ but passes through dangerous space. I may need to bring a group, they say. This, if you hadn’t guessed, is a hint. The ship is The Esseles, also known as the first Republic Flashpoint.
Flashpoints can be repeated, but are themselves tightly choreographed narrative experiences that benefit from a bit of preparation. Wanting the best possible first run, I arranged a group with one of each Republic class. It’s something I recommend. On the Esseles, the character I’ve built over the course of Tython – a rigid devotee of the Force with a secret resentment of Jedi Knights and their trousers – gets to shine. When the ship is attacked by the Empire, it’s my Consular that reassures an important passenger that we’ll do everything in our power to keep her safe. When the group is faced with with the choice of releasing the Sith lockdown by venting the engineering deck into space, it’s my Consular that flatly refuses to endanger innocent lives. By the time we face down a Sith apprentice in the docking bay of an Imperial Star Destroyer, I’ve really grown to like this person that I’ve made.
I’m following the path laid out for me, of course. I could just as easily have done the Esseles with four other male Consulars, our identical voices forming an incredibly polite barbershop quartet.
City-planets like Coruscant are always going to pose a challenge for developers. Here it’s rendered as a series of large zones separated by long rides in a flying car. Clever use of perspective provides the impression of a vast metropolis without crippling your framerate or imposing extra loading screens. Stepping out onto the Senate Plaza for the first time, the scale is quite something. “That’s a big building”, Qyzen gibbers. Yes, Qyzen. Yes it is.
My mission in Coruscant is to find three Jedi artefacts that, when combined, will grant me the skills I need to cure my master. Each artefact contains the collective knowledge and personalities of previous Jedi: an opportunity for BioWare to indulge in some embarrassingly effective KOTOR fanservice. As on Tython, I work methodically, taking side-quests in my stride and continuing to flesh out my Consular as I go. By level fifteen I’m reliably throwing multiple rocks at once, in addition to an array of Force blasts, heals, and the ability to give enemies a terrible migraine. This last skill doesn’t feel particularly compassionate or heroic, so I reserve it for droids, on whom it inexplicably works.
At the climax of my time on Coruscant I face off against a Sith. It opens with another cutscene: a standoff, leading to sabers drawn. I dodge a blast of lightning; I stand and charge. Sometime in the last twenty hours of play, I’ve totally committed to this guy in a dress and his reptilian best friend. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m an idiot with a near-Pavlovian response to a range of Star Wars-themed stimuli. I suspect, however, that I’m not the only one. With SW:TOR, BioWare have tapped a rich vein. It may leverage some heavily prescriptive mechanics in order to do it, but, as a fantasy realised, it’s looking to be worth it.