Star Wars: The Old Republic beta weekend

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The Inquisitor looked at me expectantly, hoping to see what nugget of information I would pry loose from the victim strapped to the table. The man coolly went about his business while my prey writhed in fear of what was to come. But after a few words of calm and a promise of help, his will melted before this unexpected kindness. And I kept my word, seeing that he would leave Korriban’s tombs and its Academy politic far behind him.

I was Sith. Sith, with a heart of compassion for those that deserved it…and an unrelenting storm to those that did not.

It was one of many things that I wasn’t expecting to see in SWTOR’s beta. Between the two absolutes that players have to choose at the start, to side with either the Republic or the Sith, neither one forces them to stay unerringly true to their ethos. As a Sith Inquisitor for the Empire, showing compassion and understanding could earn me “light side” points, tilting my character’s personal moral compass towards that end despite my affiliation. 
The same easily goes for Jedi with the Dark Side depending on their actions, but that was already expected. To have the same options for the seemingly fanatical Sith was a refreshing example of BioWare’s commitment to writing stories that involve the player’s decisions to make them feel like a much larger part of the world. As much as this MMO is about groups and parties of players working together, there is a sense that there is also as much there for the solo adventurer.
I also tried out the Jedi Consular before jumping right back to the Sith as an Imperial Agent assigned to a little subversion to convince a local Hutt crime lord that working for the Empire was much more profitable than the Republic. But instead of sneaking about at all hours, there was quite a bit of fighting to be had regardless of class. Once hitting level 10 with any of them, though, you can specialize in another class which opens up even more possibilities with a massive skill tree of abilities to pick from.
BioWare’s artists have also done an incredible job in fleshing out the starting worlds – the Imperial Capital at Dromund Kaas does it justice with its imposing Sith Sanctuary stabbing the landscape, imposing its own ordered lines and colors amidst the depressingly swampy countryside. The Jedi Sanctuary on Tython and the lush green wilds around it insinuate the subtle calm and peace that its defenders strive to perfect outside of the occasional droid and beast bashing. There was plenty here to feast the eyes on.
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But is it the WoW killer? Too early to say, or even guess at, as one of the last people on the planet who might have never played WoW, SWTOR’s seemingly grindless approach and story-heavy wraps were what stood out for me aside from its amazingly full-voiced presentation. For Star Wars fans, at the very least, I can’t see a downside to jumping into this one. It felt like the single-player Knights of the Old Republic game from years ago, only now with MMO features, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.
My WoW friends, however, were less impressed, seeing the same mechanics that were in WoW simply dressed up in Star Wars here. But they did appreciate the attention to detail that SWTOR had created – with every line spoken and how much it tugs at the history of the Jedi and the Sith, urging players to explore either side to get the full story. That seemed to be the biggest win in their eyes. 
SWTOR is a huge launch – and an an even bigger gamble – for BioWare. Working with both EA and Lucasarts, they’re throwing the Star Wars dice to bring a new experience into the MMO space and so far, it’s looking good. It has to. The MMO space shows little mercy to high priced bets that fail expectations as the stories behind Tabula Rasa or Star Wars Galaxies can attest to.
The real test will be in the months afterwards. If prospective Force users, smugglers, agents, and bounty hunters keep coming back for more when they take on their own adventures in a galaxy, far, far away, then scribing SWTOR’s history will have only begun in adding new chapters to an emerging side of the Star Wars mythos set in the distant past.
SWTOR officially releases on December 20th. Pre-order customers, though, will get a five day head start to rule the galaxy or save it from darkness.
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