In a private meeting room above the E3 showfloor, I had the chance to play many of the zones in The Old Republic: the massively anticipated, massively multiplayer Star Wars game. And guess what? It's the most polished game at the show.
The area I played was the start of the Sith Inquisitor storyline. It's set in the deserts of Korriban, which are dominated by a massive Sith temple. You play as an apprentice, a former slave who has risen up the ranks of the Sith, and is now facing the Sith trials.
What's impressive, already, is the mix and flow of Bioware style storytelling, and the usual MMO open world questing. The first trial sees you dealing with looters in a long abandoned tomb. As a level four character, you already have strong skills available. An 'on next attack' melee swing that does significant extra damage. Force lightning, and force shock. At level 5 you learn Force slam - an area of effect skill that scatters and stuns any NPCs caught in the blast.
When the open world trials are done, you head back to base. And you're presented with a story interlude. You have two problems. First - you have a rival, a studied, learned, and smug Sith apprentice called Fon who already walks, talks, and has the red skin of a long-accomplished Sith. And an Sith Lord who thinks you're slave scum.
You have to work extra-hard to prove yourself. When your master calls for the second task, he sends Fon to the library to translate some dusty texts. But you're sent to wildlands to discover and free an ancient artifact. This artifact "has remained sealed for centuries". Tough gig.
Between the trials, you're asked to 'interrogate' a prisoner who witnessed an 'unauthorised killing'. I wanted to try and complete the quest without torturing the poor sap, and was able to. At every stage of the interrogation you're presented with multiple conversation options - and you can talk your way to victory.
Multiple new features for the game have been announced at the show, even if they're not playable. All players will get their own starships - Republic players get a Vanguard class Corvette, while the Empire players get a TIE style 'Fury' interceptor. Think of the ships as The Old Republic's equivalent of the Normandy - they're where you can hang out between missions and where you can talk to your companion characters. The Sith Fury has the standard Imperial war-room and conference table. Force choking is inevitable. As are comparisons of the power of the Force compared to that of a battlestation. Here's their trailer for the feature:
BioWare's Greg Zeschuck says “we want a player ship not only to represent a rite of passage in the game, but also an expression of his or her own personal style.”
Also announced, but not demo'd here at the show, is the game's first 'warzone' - TOR's equivalent of a battleground. It's a lovely little planet called Alderaan - I have a good feeling about this place. The Alderaan warzone is the focus of their ridiculously exciting new CGI trailer for the game, which I'm sure is exactly how the game will play .
The developers I spoke to wouldn't explain how the PvP progression system works, or whether PvP XP would translate into the PvE character progression. But they're not a hollow addition - and their impact is being thought through. Much of the combat in TOR revolves around stuns - and they're wary of how that will play out in a PvP situation. There's nothing more frustrating that being stunlocked to death in an MMO.
The demo then segued into a look at the armour sets for a bounty hunter character. At the start of the game, the bounty hunter character simply has a hodge-podge of improvised armour. But there's a definite progression and style to what he can earn - taking him via customised trooper gear, right through to the Old Republic version of Jango Fett who can hover with his jetpack and rain down explosive shurikens on his foes. See for yourself:
There were two weak spots in the demo. The first comes from how tiresome MMO combat can look when you're not actively involved, and it hit when the team demonstrated a four player dungeon sequence. The mission was to hold off a steady stream of droids. The tank, in this case a Trooper, was responsible for pulling the aggro of groups of large walker droids. We watched as the damage classes - a Smuggler and a Bounty Hunter - pew pewed the droids down, but it felt very MMO. A Jedi Consular was the healer of the group - and he just didn't seem to be having much fun.
The second: there are significant unanswered questions. What does the end-game look like? How will raids work? How will crafting work? Will you be able to upgrade and decorate your spaceship? And how long do we have to wait until we can play it at home?
There is at least part of an answer to the last question. In the E3 demo, the Bioware team repeatedly emphasised that the game would be on-sale in Spring 2011.
Until then, consider this: the developers at Bioware and Lucasarts have nailed the feel of questing in The Old Republic. They've managed to perfectly combine their story systems with an open world, and they've made an MMO that's as fun to play as a single game. This thing is going to be enormous.