A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, game developer BioWare, a studio founded by two medical doctors on the foundations of nerdy swords-and-sorcery role-playing, made the jump to deep space with Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars-themed role-playing game that told a story that predated the events of the motion pictures by several centuries. Some years later, the developer is now working on a massively multiplayer online game in the same universe--a game that will let you play as a Boba Fett-like bounty hunter, a Han Solo-like smuggler, or a Mace Windu-like Jedi knight…among others. We recently had a chance to get a bit more insight on the game from its developers, and we also had our first chance to play the game using the Sith inquisitor profession, which we'll discuss shortly.
For starters, all eight playable professions have now been revealed for the game. Previously, we'd revealed the Republic trooper, the smuggler, the Sith warrior, the bounty hunter, the Jedi knight, and the Imperial agent. The studio has now revealed the final two professions: the Sith inquisitor, an evil Force-powered character reminiscent of Emperor Palpatine who is capable with a lightsaber but possesses an array of even-deadlier Force powers; and the Jedi consular, which is patterned after the Knights of the Old Republic profession and is also good with a lightsaber but is better with light-side Force powers and tends to look for ways to resolve conflict with words, rather than with a fight.
The development team reiterated its commitment to deliver an enjoyable Star Wars experience above all else and suggested that this outlook also influenced the game's character design. Rather than focus on standard online role-playing game archetypes such as healer, tank (frontline fighter who soaks up damage from enemies), and DPS (or damage per second, a combat character that focuses on dealing as much damage as possible), the team is focusing on creating characters who are fun to play and provide the kind of experience you'd expect from playing such a character in a Star Wars game.
However, in the interest of game balance, the studio is adding several game features that will help make the game enjoyable to play without having lopsided character classes or forcing players to group with certain other professions to have any kind of chance. For starters, each class is being designed around a number of different themes that can apparently be specialized in to customize your character around your playing style. The example given was the smuggler profession, whose general themes include luck, recklessness, opportunity, and cowboy. These themes contributed to designing the class around two different archetypes: a gunslinger archetype that uses such skills as taking cover in combat and using a "dirty kick" attack in melee, while carrying dual pistols into battle and using smooth-talking skills to get out of sticky situations; and a scoundrel archetype that focuses more on stealth and critical headshot hits, as well as unconventional medical skills--reminiscent of the way Han Solo rescued a frostbitten Luke in The Empire Strikes Back by gutting a tauntaun and shoving Luke's body into the beast's warm carcass.
In addition to this open-ended character design, the team will add computer-controlled "companion" characters that your character will meet and join over time, and can call upon as needed. Two examples shown by the developers were Khem Val the Dashade, a Sith inquisitor whose powerful lightning-based abilities provide excellent ranged damage, and Xalek the Kaleesh, a Sith apprentice who deals heavy bursts of damage with his lightsaber attacks.
The presentation ended with a hands-off demonstration of the Jedi consular character in motion on the Jedi home planet of Tython as the character did battle with squat humanoid "flesh raider" enemies. The consular seems to be pretty handy with a lightsaber but is even better at using Force powers, including mind maze, which is an ability that temporarily stuns a group of enemies and prevents them from attacking, and Force slam, which is a telekinetic power that lifts an enemy in the air and then smashes it down into the ground. The consular also has a meditation skill that briefly incapacitates the character but quickly regenerates spent Force powers--a much-needed feature that would have been welcome in Knights of the Old Republic and will probably make the lives of Jedi characters much easier in The Old Republic.
We then moved from our hands-off demonstration to hands-on time with the Sith inquisitor profession on the starting planet of Korriban. Korriban, as you may recall from the Knights of the Old Republic games, is the homeworld of the evil Sith--effectively, the dark Jedi of the Star Wars universe. In both of those previous games, Korriban was a world in transition--while the Sith have established a home base and training ground on the planet, they also run an active excavation outfit in the Valley of the Dark Lords, a series of deserted desert tombs where mighty Sith warlords, and their mighty Sith secrets, lie entombed.
In the Knights of the Old Republic games, players ran missions for the Sith to explore these tombs in search of artifacts, escaped slave laborers, and treacherous rival Sith students. In the Old Republic, as a Sith inquisitor you'll end up with similar tasks, though you'll also take on new quests and find yourself working for, and against, numerous Sith academy trainers in short order. Our session began with our character's initial meeting to speak with our first Sith instructor. Once we did, the game initiated a dialogue sequence reminiscent of those in Knights of the Old Republic, complete with branching dialogue options (including straightforward answers and wise-guy remarks) and quick camera cuts between different characters. The instructor, who addressed us simply as "Slave," made a few casual death threats before sending us out to the Valley to retrieve a set of holocrons (basically, data discs) from the tomb of the fallen Sith lord Zash.
Eager to explore Korriban and zap as many people, places, and things with lightning as possible, we made our way to the shortest possible route to the valley entrance using the onscreen minimap, but not without passing by another quest-giving Sith trainer, who demanded we assist her with a different mission--that of smuggling a captured and brainwashed Jedi off the planet to help spread confusion and chaos on Tython. While the trainer very much seemed like a coldhearted Sith and repeatedly threatened us when we did not immediately accept the mission, it raised an interesting question: Who exactly had been brainwashed, the captured Jedi or the Sith trainer who demanded we smuggle the prisoner safely off Korriban? We pondered following through on the quest but decided that it might not offer as many opportunities to zap things with lightning, and we instead made a beeline for the exit.
The Valley of the Dark Lords in The Old Republic looks like a much huger, more-detailed version of the preliminary dig sites from the Knights of the Old Republic games. The entire area is still an inhospitable desert but, in this case, is bathed orange from the intense heat of the sun. The valley opens up into a series of huge dig sites laid out next to each other, and the central walkway is cluttered with metal girders, digging equipment, and other industrial debris. We made our way down to the valley and headed to the tomb to which we were assigned--which was helpfully marked by a waypoint on our minimap--to meet an archeologist character waiting on the outside. The character, who was not a Sith warrior but was still seemingly as cruel and impolite as any Sith, demanded we seek out something called the "Red Engine," essentially a multiple-location puzzle that could be fully activated only when each differently located fragment was anointed with the blood of a slain enemy. That was all we could stand, so we went running headlong into the tomb in search of something, anything, to start zapping.
Fortunately, the ruins were full of living things to make dead. On entering the tomb, we found a separate holocron left by a dead Sith initiate that claimed that rebellious slaves had turned on their captors and reprogrammed the local maintenance droids to attack Sith. So we not only had a reason to destroy escaped slaves and mutinous droids, but we also had a quest to do so. In addition, the tomb was infested by giant caterpillar-like monsters known as "K'Lor Slugs," which, to our delight, turned out to not be immune to lightning bolts.
Our character was apparently built up to be a few levels higher than a character in this area normally would be and was equipped not only with a deadly lightsaber, but also with numerous special abilities. Like in all massively multiplayer games, these abilities are bound to hotkeys on your keyboard, expend a certain amount of energy (in this case, your character's Force energy), and require a certain amount of time to "cool down" before they can be reused. However, unlike World of Warcraft and EverQuest, and more similar to games like City of Heroes and Champions Online, The Old Republic doesn't have a basic auto-attack that will automatically make your character repeatedly whack away at your currently targeted foe. Instead, our character had a basic "saber strike" melee attack and various lightning-based and telekinetic Force powers, such as a simple damaging blast known as "shock"; a powerful stunning attack called "overload," which caused our character to leap upward and strike the ground with his lightsaber while stunning all nearby enemies; and "whirlwind," a telekinetic power that incapacitates a single foe by lifting it off the ground with a gust of wind.
These powers helped us easily carve our enemies into mincemeat as we activated the first few parts of the Red Engine by slaying enemies nearby while picking up the first few holocrons for our main quest. Sadly, time flies when you're destroying enemies you have completely outclassed, so we were unable to complete any of our main quests within our allotted playtime. However, we had plenty of opportunities to crush our enemies and found that while the inquisitor class seems to have limited lightsaber skills, its Force powers more than compensate and definitely make you feel like you're playing a very powerful and dangerous character.
The Old Republic seems like it has much to offer--powerful character classes built on Star Wars fiction rather than stodgy old massively multiplayer archetypes; playable Jedi and Sith characters from the outset; and did we mention the lightning? Though we've finally had a chance to play, we can't help but feel like we've barely scratched the surface of what seems like a very deep game. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates.