Star Wars: The Old Republic is the highly anticipated massively multiplayer online role-playing game based on the pre-A New Hope version of the Star Wars universe that developer BioWare first developed for its critically acclaimed 2003 RPG, Knights of the Old Republic. But you knew that. You know the game will let you be a Jedi, a Sith, a bounty hunter, and many other classes. You know the game will have warzones (player-versus-player arenas), flashpoints (instanced content similar to dungeons in other games), and operations (large-scale adventure areas similar to raids in other games). You probably know a whole lot about this game because it has been a long time coming. And you probably just want to play the game already, and we don't blame you. Unfortunately, it's not available just yet--but we do at least have some new details on the way companion characters in The Old Republic will work.
Companions, as you've probably heard, are computer-controlled characters that will join you in your adventures--not unlike the companions that have joined you in other BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Just like in those games, your companions will interact with you, pass judgment on your decisions, and even fall in love with you if you decide to romance them. Your character will eventually build up a stable of different companions but will be able to travel actively with only one at a time. However, the development team has recently fleshed out the way companions work to add lots of new options and abilities, such as customizing appearances and even gaining levels. Game director James Ohlen explains.
GameSpot: We understand that companions in Star Wars: The Old Republic have been greatly fleshed out since the last time we played with them--players will even be able to customize their appearances? How much freedom will players have to mess around with how their companions look? Any chance a companion's appearance will change with your character's alignment between the light and dark sides?
James Ohlen: Players are able to customize the appearance of their companions in two ways. Because companions are full characters with inventory slots, players can change the equipment their companions are wearing. You can give your tough-as-nails Mandalorian warrior companion some badass Mandalorian armor. Or you can put her in clothes reminiscent of Princess Leia's famous gold bikini. Players can also change the skin color, hair, and facial features of their companion characters. We wanted players to have more freedom than in any previous BioWare RPG when it came to companion customization.
GS: We also understand there will be a new companion controls system that assigns an actual class to your companions. Tell us about how this system works and what it will add to the game.
JO: Fans of BioWare games are used to their companions having almost as much depth as the main character. We felt it was important that we do the same thing in SW:TOR. Companions have a class and can also level up and gain a full suite of combat abilities. They have their own ability bar, just like the players do. Players can also modify the artificial intelligence of their companions' behavior on the fly.
GS: So now, companions will gain levels and even unlock skills. How in-depth will companion advancement be--is it as in-depth as player character advancement? Will they be able to choose advanced professions?
JO: While players won't be able to choose advanced professions for their companions, companions will be unlocking new abilities as they gain levels. Some of the abilities will be completely unique to companion characters. For example, the Wookiee companion character has an ability that lets him toss enemies around like rag dolls--just like Chewbacca did in the movies.
GS: Why was the decision made to flesh out companions and their development? Did part of the decision have to do with a need to more closely complement the skill set of individual characters, for instance?
JO: We were originally a little gun shy about making the companions too complex. In a single-player BioWare RPG, players have the option to pause the game and micromanage their companions' actions. In SW:TOR, the game takes place in real time, all the time. In high-stress scenarios, such as war zones and operations, the added complexity of managing a companion would be too much for a lot of players. However, the AI for our companions turned out better than expected. Players who didn't want to micromanage their companions didn't have to. In addition, we actually removed companions from war zones and operations, as we felt these activities should be entirely controlled by players. So we decided to add a lot of the depth that we had removed early on in the design process back into the game.
GS: We know that you don't have to manage your companions' actions all the time and can basically leave them on their own to pitch in with their standard attacks in battle. But we understand that part of the new companion content lets you get more specific in setting their behaviors. What kind of controls or artificial intelligence can you set for your sidekick? Can you give us some examples?
JO: We knew that there was going to be a large group of players that didn't want to micromanage their companion. Since every player has to use a companion, it was important that we didn't force a gameplay style on those players. We added a system where players can customize the AI of their companions. You can decide exactly which abilities your companions will use and which they won't use.
GS: Can you give us a general update on the game and its progress? What's being focused on in the beta at the moment?
JO: We're getting really close. You can play the game from start to finish. You can play the end game content, including flashpoints and operations. All the core game systems are in. Right now, we're making some balance changes to the space game, to the itemization progression, and to the leveling curve. We're improving enemy AI across the game. We're polishing late-game quests. But mostly we're focused on bugs. We want the game to hit the high standards set by previous BioWare games, and that means providing our fans with a polished experience.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about companions or about the game in general?
JO: Companion characters are going to be a significant innovation to MMORPGs. All of the testing feedback we've received so far on these characters has been extremely positive. We didn't expect something so core to the BioWare experience to be such a wonderful surprise to MMORPG players.
GS: Thanks, James.