I'm a telepathic warrior-diplomat in a skirt, and my best friend is an eightfoot lizardman with a stick. Take away the big words, and the fantasy of inhabiting the Star Wars universe is an odd one: yet in my case it's something that has survived nearly fifteen years of dodgy movies and hit-and-miss games. You could write three paragraphs of deeply personal insults and I wouldn't mind as long as they flew past me in giant yellow letters accompanied by a horn section.
I'm approaching Star Wars: The Old Republic with a fan's compound enthusiasm and fear. As I make my way through character creation, I worry that perhaps my eagerness for the setting will get in the way of serious engagement with the game. A Republic shuttle disengages from an orbiting cruiser and approaches the atmosphere of Tython, the temperate homeworld of the Jedi Order. UI elements start to appear, this first of which is a chat window in the topleft of the screen. The shuttle's landing ramp descends with a hiss, and my Jedi Consular steps off: a dark-haired human in a Padawan's tight-waisted robes.
As a Consular I don't have a Knight's affinity for lightsabering. I do, however, possess a deep affinity for the Force. I know this for a fact because I'm told by two different Jedi masters in my first conversation. I offer to help my new master retrieve some Jedi archives from the nearby ruins, and as I head out for the first time, the affirmation of how special I am puts a spring in my step.
In order to retrieve the lost recordings, I'll need to defeat Flesh Raiders, the savage native inhabitants of Tython who have been kidnapping young Jedi. They hunt in packs, and some are armed with blaster rifles. My preferred strategy is to dispatch ranged foes through the careful application of big rocks, while keeping the others at bay with a channelled barrage of much smaller, more numerous rocks. If any get too close, I hit them with my training vibrosword until they fall over. Combat is quick, dynamic, and feels heroic – despite the fact that all the fathomless mystical energy at my command is being used to do the work of a leaf blower and a small catapult.
I do a single lap of the ruins, rescuing Padawans and clearing out Flesh Raiders at an easy pace. The zone is well designed, setting a precedent for smooth questing that applies to the vast majority of the areas I've seen. Predictably, the quest for the missing archives doesn't end there, and I'm soon sent to the Jedi Academy proper to continue my search. Inside, I catch up with my master: but she's got a guest. An eight-foot-tall, heavily armed, reptilian guest.
My master, it turns out, has a penchant for making use of unorthodox help: and she's earned herself a reputation as a bit of a renegade. I wish I was a bit of a renegade. Her friend is Qyzen Fess, a Trandoshan bounty hunter who she's tasked with uncovering information about the stolen records. He speaks in a mixture of gibberish and yellow subtitles, and seems quite nice really. I am very polite and do not draw attention to the fact that he is a giant lizard, though I appreciate that the game gives me the option to do so.
We split up to broaden our search, and it is in this pursuit that I cover the rest of Tython. My personal story interweaves with that of the Jedi Knight and the planet itself, introducing the key Consular themes of discovery, diplomacy, and the seductive power of the Force. Each area unfolds like that first one: a primary objective supported by a number of side-missions that I share with the other young Jedi. I don't talk to my classmates much, but I occasionally chuck a helpful rock in the direction of a Jedi Knight who has blundered arrogantly into one Flesh Raider too many. Later, I'm asked to recover another set of Jedi archives – I'm getting good at this – and told to bring friends. It's a Heroic mission, optional group content that comes in two and four-player varieties. A tentative enquiry in the general chat gets me an instant group invite, and I find myself in the company of two Knights and another Consular. We tear through droids; the Knights leaping into the fray, we Consular throwing things from a distance. I sometimes use my new Force shockwave ability to scatter enemies out of melee range, passive-aggressively demonstrating the superior versatility of hurled debris. My new friends quickly tell me to stop.
Finding an ancient computer triggers my first group conversation. Seeing myself rendered in Jedi form, having an adventure, is a simple thrill. I am in the game! Unfortunately, the dice roll that determines whether I get to speak comes up snake-eyes. I hover awkwardly at the back and fail to get a word in edgeways. I am in the game.
Having established myself as the most socially inept trainee at the academy, I'm relieved when I finally get my own NPC companion. Qyzen, the giant lizard, gets in some trouble, and when I rescue him he is so taken with my abilities that he proclaims me the Herald of his people's god of the hunt, the Scorekeeper. Qyzen's job is to look more intimidating than me (this is not hard) so that I can throw rocks at people from a distance. In this regard, our relationship blossoms. I can also send him to sell my junk loot with a dismissive hand-wave. He is for all intents and purposes my terrifying butler.
The search for the missing data builds to a showdown in a lost valley. Along the way I've recovered the component parts of the lightsaber I'll need to defeat my enemy, a rogue Force-wielder who has claimed the powers of an antediluvian Dark Lord. Qyzen and I find a small temple, and he waits outside. In a cutscene, my Consular closes his eyes and assembles the lightsaber pieces through the Force. A horn section makes its presence known. Pommel meets hand, and a green blade ignites. I get goosebumps, and sort of resent BioWare for it. The Old Republic warms up its fanservice engine slowly, but when it gets going there's little stopping it.
This is the end of my time on Tython, it turns out, and consequently the end of the tutorial. The next step is to accompany my master to Coruscant: she chose my Jedi inauguration as the ideal moment to faint melodramatically, and the Republic capital is apparently the place to find decent medical care.
Check out Page 2 of of our Old Republic preview for crafting, grouping and flashpoints.
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.