Apologies to BioWare fanboys, but I have to admit that I was skeptical of a Star Wars MMO. I never played Star Wars Galaxies and I had a hard time putting my finger on why the idea didn't appeal to me until the fine folks at Red Letter Media summed it up for me: lightsabers lose their impact when everyone has one.
For instance, in the original trilogy they were a rarity, wielded only by Jedi knights. By the time the prequels came out everyone and their mother had one. In an MMO, just any Joe schmo can get one, making the once-beloved weapon rather passe.
Star Wars: The Old Republic also has a Clone Wars-like aesthetic, which didn't help. The Tatooine area I saw looked like it was built of plastic sand and green screens. Resembling the reviled prequels over their beloved predecessors, The Old Republic makes a bad first impression.
It is a BioWare game, though, and they're notorious for making high-quality RPGs. They even turned the impressive trick of making non-trilogy Star Wars cool again with Knights of The Old Republic in 2003. So if anyone can make this tenuous concept work, it's BioWare.
According to the developer, the foundation of a compelling role-playing experience is exploration, progress, combat, and story. They claimed that lots of MMOs succeed at the former three, but BioWare themselves wanted to create a story-driven experience in this space as well.
To achieve this, each class has their own unique story in the Star Wars universe. From there, plenty of choices will affect your specific story. So you could play the game for 100 hours with a Jedi Knight, then start over as a bounty hunter and have a completely different experience. "We're giving players Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in one MMO package," said the demo rep.
Like other BioWare hits, The Old Republic will feature moral choices. The one shown off today portrayed a Jedi Knight deciding whether to slay a defeated Sith Lord or spare him. The former obviously results in bloodshed, while the latter ends with him joining your cause.
It also leads to some embarrassingly cheesy dialogue like, "It's a strange thing, saving lives instead of taking them. It feels right." It feels pandering, more like. Hopefully other choices won't be as blatantly black and white.
For better or worse, The Old Republic is the first fully-voiced MMO. Every class and every NPC will speak. From what I saw, most of the voice-acting was decent, but not up to the standard of Mass Effect or Dragon Age.
The dialogue operates almost exactly like in Mass Effect, with a wheel in the middle dictating whether your responses lean toward the dark side or the order of the jedi. Keeping track is a karma meter, letting you know at any time where you stand.
Combat is much as one would expect, with different attack options and abilities for lightsabers, guns, and force powers. Vehicles are also a major component, and trailer gave a brief glimpse at space combat which looked more exciting than on-foot action. Sadly, these sections were not available to play.
Elsewhere, Bioware is promising dozens of worlds, complete with many famous locations from the movies. We even get to see Alderaan thousands of year before it got blown up by the Death Star.
It's unclear who The Old Republic is supposed to appeal to. Its complex mechanics and the dark tone of its trailers seems to indicate an older crowd, but the bright, cartoony look, obvious moral choices, and hokey dialogue would appeal more towards a younger audience.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg and given BioWare's pedigree it's likely that the script will get exponentially more mature as it goes. It's certainly an ambitious undertaking at any rate and though I remain skeptical, I have to give BioWare credit for attempting such an arduous task. As Han Solo once said, "Never tell me the odds."