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RANT: The Old Republic Impressions

I played a ton of the new Star Wars MMO this weekend. While I'm aware of the psychology of MMO gameplay and deal with my own ongoing issues with Warcraft addiction, I've waited too long with too much anticipation to NOT try out The Old Republic, especially when I had Early Access privileges for preordering the game. That meant I could jump into a server this weekend, before the game was actually on store shelves, and fly around the galaxy on adventure without the burden of a monthly subscription fee. The game surprised me in a lot of ways, almost all of them good. Here's my big takeaways from the experience.

1) The WoW is strong in this one

The moment to moment experience of playing The Old Republic is, at a tactile level, identical to World of Warcraft. Friends who had played the beta had stressed to me how close to WoW the game felt, but I didn't quite perceive just how identical it feels until I got my own hands on the keyboard. The controls are near-identical. The user interface is quite seriously lifted almost totally wholesale. Keybindings are mirrored almost one-for-one - I can perform obscure commands in The Old Republic simply by calling to mind how I did them in Warcraft. The character skill trees, the command interface, the action slots, the inventory system, the use of stats, the in-game economy - it's almost one for one. The HUD itself has some rearrangement for the sake of rearrangement, but while some elements are clearly revised to be more of a Star Wars look-and-feel, the experience it largely unchanged.

What really surprised me about this approach is that I didn't find it off-putting in any way - in fact, the familiarity of the controls allowed me to jump into the actual game itself a lot more quickly. Really, from a design standpoint, it makes a ton of sense - Bioware knows that a ton of its new players are going to be refugees from Warcraft anyway. Why not welcome them by making them feel at home? While the designer in me wants to call out The Old Republic for having a lazy design aesthetic, in the world of MMO design, the controls are not a department that cries out for change and innovation.

There are definitely changes from WoW's experience (at least, from WoW as I last knew it, over a year ago.) Perhaps the single biggest difference is that The Old Republic doesn't seem to offer auto-attack as a combat option, requiring you to instead manually attack even when you're just making a basic strike that doesn't consume a special energy meter. I chalk this up to the fact that The Old Republic's enemies are, by and large, easier than WoW's. In an effort to make you feel a bit more like a uniquely powerful hero, The Old Republic uses waves of weaker enemies instead of WoW's singular enemies that can go toe-to-toe with an average player. I'm not a huge fan of having to micromanage my individual attacks that way (simply because I do so much of it) but so far it hasn't interrupted my experience too badly.

2) Story-driven gameplay works, and works well

Many fans complained that while a new Star Wars MMO sounded cool, all they really wanted was another Knights of the Old Republic game. Unless the subscription fee really sticks in the throat of those players, they'll be well satisfied by The Old Republic. The cinematic presentation of your character's personal journey is nothing short of astounding for a game of this breadth. There are scenes everywhere, with intelligently written (for Star Wars, anyway) characters and logical, compelling reasons to go places and do things. Even for side quests that the player may or may not partake in, there's big scenes - many of which are, in classic Bioware fashion, only available if you walk the path of the dark side, opening up hugely entertaining scenes of cruelty and malice.

Scenes where your character engages lots of other non-player characters take place in "phases": sectioned-off areas of the world where only your character can participate in the current story moment. Other party members can accompany you, but they serve as audience members to your story development. I'm playing a Jedi Knight (I haven't waited all of these years to play a moisture farmer) and the scenes for my class are a lot of fun so far, with the threat of the Sith Empire creeping ever-closer. My character, a fabulously corpulent Jedi named Milliardo, is the Jedi equivalent of a rogue cop - a man interested in justice who plays by his own rules, especially when playing his own rules means breaking criminals' knees unnecessarily or eating danishes.

In contrast to the class-specific scenes, I also participated in a "flashpoint" adventure which plays out much like a Warcraft dungeon. However, this adventure - a battle between a Republic ship that was caught in the tractor beam of a much-larger Sith Empire battlecruiser - had a ton of character interaction and plot development. What's more, the entire team was allowed to participate in the dialogues. Whenever a dialogue choice would come up, every player would pick a response, and a random dice roll would determine who got the chance to speak up. This worked amazingly well, leading to a natural-sounding, fluid conversation between the player controlled entities and the NPCs. I really hope I encounter more of those types of adventures soon.

3) An amazing in-game community experience

This last note is less inherent to the mechanics of the game itself, but it was a surprising factor nonetheless - I've had nothing but positive experiences with the other people playing The Old Republic so far, all of whom have been strangers. I'm not playing with any friends at this point, but regardless, I've had no problem whatsoever getting directions, finding a teammate, or just talking about the game while I'm playing. Maybe it's because the game is so new, or because the early adopters actively want the game to be a good experience, but compared to the chat experience on virtually every other massively-populated video game I've ever played, I've been blown away by how helpful and engaging TOR's community has been so far. Unfortunately, it's not in my Jedi's character to be helpful himself, so he'll probably continue chopping off the ears of political prisoners with his lightsaber and taking long drags from his cigarette before extinguishing the stub on their foreheads.

Are you guys playing? What're your thoughts so far?

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