One of the things I've said a couple of times over the new year period was that quitting World of Warcraft was a great decision, as it freed up a lot of time that we then spent consuming games and TV that otherwise we would have missed out on. So naturally, signing up for another MMO sounds like an act of madness, right? Well perhaps. But the one thing that kept up playing WoW long beyond we would otherwise have got bored of it was it was a game we shared - a game we not only played together but a game we played with a wide array other people. And we're both big Star Wars nerds, and big fans of Bioware games, so Star Wars: The Old Republic was like a big gaming lighthouse, calling us in.
The first thing you see, when you load up The Old Republic, is a cutscene showcasing exactly why Bioware have the storytelling reputation that they do. A short story that is essentially a flurry of shots lifted from the movies "greatest hits" compilation to the rousing score blaring straight from childhood memory, it's a dazzling display of showmanship that really sets the stage for the game. And then, as soon as you pick your allegiance (Galactic Republic/Sith Empire) you get another one, which leaves you desperate to get through character creation and into the game it has got you psyched for.
One of the "big ideas" of TOR is to give each character an individual, high-quality story, something that MMOs have sorely lacked as they've evolved. Each class has a series of "story missions" that they play through, right to the endgame, and right from the start I found myself having meetings with people in my own little side-instances and greeting the now-familiar dialogue wheel like and old friend. Instead of pulling up a text box, all the quests are fully voiced and cutscened, and its surprised me how much of a difference this makes - after all, you're still pretty much going into a field and killing rats but there is a real effort to make you understand which field and why the rats are so bad.
This works even better when you're in a group, as you all appear in the cutscene, and "fight" over who gets to answer the various stages of the conversation. It gives the impression that you are working together, that you're on the same quest, not simply parallel playing. In a nice, Star-Wars-ey touch, if you are too far away when the conversation starts you get the option of "holocalling", and a blue, stripey version of you appears in the scene. Oh, and you get "social points" for such endevours that unlocks rewards based on you being a nice social, play-with-others type.
I've put a fair bit of emphasis on this because in many respects the game is a familiar blend of 3rd person RPG and MMO levelling. I've got crafting and gathering (although only just, so I can't really comment on them), I've got a talent spec to build, instances and later on, raids, as well as PvP shenanigans to look forward to. Structurally it feels slightly overly familiar and a lot will depend not on originality of new ideas, but the slickness and delivery of well-worn ones.
Initially at least, The Old Republic impresses. It feels right - a hard quality to define - but the locations and story are suitably Star Wars, and the games' flow is clean and intuitive. 10 levels isn't enough to properly know a game as big as this, but it sets out its stall well, and I'm looking forward to the next chunk of content with high hopes.