A mere story above the bustling commotion of the E3 trade floor, LucasArts had claimed two adjoining conference rooms as their base of operations, and it was our privilege to visit them there in order to preview the up coming Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic. Glad to be finally above the constant music beat and modern day circus barking of the show booths below, the lovely Mandifesto and I found ourselves disoriented by the sudden near silence, and it took us several minutes before we turned the corner to reach our destination. Standing sentry at the door were two Jedi knights, both adorned in Mandalorian armor beneath their flowing brown cloaks. This was the right place, all right, and with a knowing nod, we were admitted entry. After a few minutes of interrogation to confirm our credentials and to assure that we were not in fact Bothan spies, we were lead down the tight, weaving corridor that wound its way deeper into their sanctum.
Entering the next to last chamber before the hallway reached its end, we came upon a briefing already in progress, with a room full of other periodical representatives staring affixed to the projections on the far wall. Several of the key features of the game were being listed off, including the new announcements that had been made earlier in the week - The inclusion of a Player vs Player (PvP) battleground system, as well as the fact that every player will have their own starship that will act as both transportation and as a base of operations during their adventures throughout SW:TOR. My mind immediately swam with the possibilities of possessing and customizing my own starship; I found myself silently planning out where to place the secret smuggling compartments and holographic chessboard.
Further bullet points were addressed, including the customization of characters via armor upgrades. A short video was then presented, showing the Bounty Hunter class as he leveled up and obtained new armor sets that clearly displayed his growing prowess. Afterwards, the displace was switched over to the live view of one of four players as they began to demonstrate an example of how party combat is intended to play out.
The most notable difference between SW:TOR's group combat and the way group combat is handled in the current MMO king, World of Warcraft, is how character roles are emphasized. While all the characters fit into the classic archetype trinity (Tank, Healer, and DPS), players were called upon to switch roles quite frequently depending on the encounter. As a simple example, when a Sith "lieutenant" came charging out along with the rest of the droids they were battling, it was then up to the Jedi in the group to go keep him busy while the other foes were taken down. There were also several times along the battle when even the Jedi healer had to take up her light saber and help put an enemy or two back in its place. Fortunately, the group playing knew what they ere doing, and were able to transition between roles almost seamlessly - I can only hope to see such resourcefulness in pick up groups when the game has gone live.
After the live demonstration, we were escorted back out into the hall, and down to the last room beyond the one we had previously entered. There we were able to spend some time with the game, hands on and one-on-one, and I eagerly placed myself in front of the first available machine. There I was given control over a blue skinned Imperial Agent, and after a few conversations, I quickly came to realize that this is the James Bond class of SW:TOR, right down to the British accent and smarmy responses.
Once my mission briefing came to an end, I was let loose into the town with the objective of retrieving some items stolen during a botched smuggling job. The town itself had been overrun by several small-time rival gangs, and while each faction had a name and allegiance, they in essence boiled down into two distinct groups - those that were in my way, and those that got to live. To that extent, I quickly had the chance to familiarize myself with the cover system available to Agents and Smugglers, which we had been informed during the presentation is the first fully functional cover system in an MMO. The functionality was quite simple - tapping the Shift key revealed semi-transparent markers along walls or objects that indicated places to take cover. Hitting the Cover ability then caused you to move quickly to the nearest cover point, in most cases ducking, running or rolling to reach it as expediently as possible. Once cover had been taken, the abilities on my action bar had changed accordingly, giving me access to a powerful Snipe attack that worked great on unsuspecting targets.
While I had a good 20 minutes worth of play time before we had to leave for our next appointment, most of which was spent shooting various thugs in the face, and occasionally talking to those whose faces were still intact, I really don't feel I got to see enough of the game to make any real judgement calls about how it truly plays. Seeing as there were only a hand full of us playing at that time, and we were all starting off fresh characters that were spread across a variety of starting zones, the game felts more like a single player game due to the lack of interaction. Upon launch, however, I expect each and every one of those zones to be swarming with new players, with the pros and cons that come with that level of interaction. Until I get a chance to experience that version of the game, alive and breathing (and perhaps even darkly rasping) with the energy that could only be brought about by countless Star Wars fanatics, I can only stand back and awe at SW:The Old Republics vast potential with a new hope that even a quarter of it will be fulfilled.