E3: We preview Star Wars: The Old Republic

LucasArts and Bioware offered a sneak peek at Star Wars: The Old Republic at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and SCI FI Wire was there. The backstory begins 3,500 years before the rise of Darth Vader, when a powerful Sith Empire appears out of deep space to invade our favorite galaxy far, far away.

Three centuries before the present game, Revan disappeared into space, looking for a Sith Empire run by an Emperor determined to destroy his ancient Jedi enemies. Revan never returned. But the Sith Empire did. The Old Republic takes place 300 years after the events of The Knights of the Old Republic.

The trailer looked amazing, especially for someone used to a massively multiplayer online game such as World of Warcraft. Tons of action, beautiful graphics and an excellent score. The look is "stylized realism." We were told that instead of going for photorealism, designers decided to concentrate on having a signature style, more like a painting than an actual photograph. The trailer reveals a pivotal moment in the war between the Jedi and the Sith, the "Taking of Coruscant," which sets you on your journey. The official Web site fills in the backstory from Dark Horse Comics.

The game is the first fully voiced MMO: Every class, male and female, and every single NPC and quest giver in the entire game will have a full voice-over. Like KOTOR, the conversation tree has three choices, and every choice you make affects gameplay, sometimes drastically. But since this game is in real time, there is no chance to save and see what would have changed if you had made another choice.

Everything we saw of gameplay was live. The first class we were shown was the bounty hunter (excellent for all you Boba Fett fans out there). Your bounty hunter starts out on the planet of Hutta, the homeworld of the Hutts. This is the first time Hutta has been fully realized in a Star Wars game. Your mission is to find your way into "The Great Hunt," which is an event sponsored by the Mandalorians to find the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Once you complete that quest, you have access to greater bounties and greater rewards. The bounty hunter is a ranged class, but he does have some armor and lots of gadgets. We watched as our bounty hunter demonstrated that he could also handle hand-to-hand combat with some dirty moves and weapons such as a flamethrower.

Announced for the first time anywhere is the smuggler class, based on the Han Solo character. He's a scrappy, jaded underdog who always gets the girl and always seems to come out on top, no matter what the odds. You begin on the planet Ord Mantel, a scrap-heap planet on the outer rim, filled with smugglers, mercenaries and exiles of all sorts. You mission is to run guns to the Republic. The smuggler is a ranged class as well. To aid in finding cover to shoot from, we have the first-ever cover mechanic used in an MMO. A little green character in the shape of a crouching man shows up on anything you can hide behind.

We were told that this is Knights of the Old Republic 3, 4 and 5 and so on, but one you can play through with your friends. In addition to the player-vs.-environment mode, it was confirmed that there will also be a player-vs.-player mode. And as in any good MMO, there is looting: You can steal anything from a corpse, including weapons. There will be character customization, raiding, guilds, grouping, an in-game economy and all the traditional features of massively multiplayer games, though no details were given for any of these.

Star Wars: The Old Republic's release date has not been announced. We were merely told that it would be released when it's ready.

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