- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

With the combined might of three of the most influential companies in the video game galaxy — Electronic Arts, LucasArts and Bioware — a massive multiplayer online role-playing extravaganza finally has arrived to entrance disciples of George Lucas‘ sacred mythology.

Star Wars: The Old Republic ($59.95 plus $14.99 a month after 30 days, rated T for teen) is alive on PCs and ready to consume a player’s time as he enters a monumental conflict between the Galactic Republic and supremely evil Sith Empire. OK, start the John Williams’ fanfare and push the prologue scroll already.

What’s the story? Thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader, the Sith Empire tightens its grip on galaxy. The Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders lie weakened and vulnerable after the Empire’s military campaigns.

With a fragile peace negotiated, the Republic rebuilds while the Empire works to ensure its superiority in the next war. It’s time to prepare for an inevitable conflict of good versus evil of epic proportions.

Play the role: Within a story bigger than any one life (60 novels worth of writing, to be precise), action can be segmented into forty separate characters (eight tied to five servers) that a player can build from the nose ring on down to follow their own path of good, evil or a bit of both.

So here is four quick glimpses into the lives of my avatars to offer a taste of the variety and depth of stories.

* As the male Zabrak Sith warrior Zadzooks: I am on Korriban and am undergoing deadly trials in hoping to master the Dark Side. Among my tasks, I must seek out traitorous acolytes using a scanner and summarily execute them, interrogate three prisoners and help researcher Ephran Zell activate the ancient Sith device known as the “Red Engine” that contains the late Tulak Hord’s greatest secrets. That was about six hours of work and I don’t feel as if I have played through even a tiny bit of the adventure.

* As the male cyborg Republic Sergeant Zadboy: I am on Ord Mantell and out to stop an explosive device with the power to incinerate thousands of my fellow troopers. Quickly armed with explosive rounds, rifle and blaster, I’ll find myself questioning loyalties as I deliver stolen medicine to natives of the planet rather than my superiors and recover a necklace from a scavenger camp that could help or uncover an Imperial spy.

* As the female Rattikian bounty hunter Zadursia: I am on the planet Hutta as I try to convince Nem’ro the Hutt to sponsor me in the Great Hunt by killing rival bounty hunters. In my spare time I will pick up some credits from Var’soonta for convincing the Black Death to stop hunting Enocii, purify polluted waters at the Old Muckworks (or do I destroy the processors and stop the creature mutations?) and hang out with the Twilek bounty hunter trainer Zinny to upgrade my arsenal.

* As the male pureblood Sith Inquisitor Zadicus: A slave on Korriban, I must prove my worth to Dark Sith Lord Zash and Overseer Harkon as I carve out a swath of death and deceit with help from Force lightning and light saber. I may need to help the captured Jedi Quarian Dorjis escape (to let him return to the Republic with false information), test the blood purity of Sith overseers and find a holocron filled with dark secrets in the tomb of Marka Ragnos (a Dark Lord who lived during the first Sith Empire).

Get to the action: As a player travels to famed locales such as Coruscant, Hoth, Tattooine and the Valley of the Dark Lords on Korriban (too cool for the geeks), he uses a keyboard (and optional mouse) to converse with and observe characters (from Gamorrean security officers and Jawas to Rodian thugs, Ugnaughts and dozens of droid types); solve mysteries; help, save and double-cross multiple friends; and takes part in plenty of combat.

Combat is based on using dozens of powers tethered to bars of numerical keys and unlocked with help from trainers, progressing in the game and visiting merchants to spend credits. Dozens of choices eventually are available, ranging from a Kamino poison dart rifle to tornadic light saber attacks.

As in the deeper role-playing games, warriors can access maps, track missions, read a mythology codex and upgrade all parts of their armament and clothing to help tackle jobs with odd minutia available (I love my bantha-hide footwear) to use or sell to merchants.

As players increase their experience levels (get above 10 for the fun to really start), opportunities arise, including picking up computer-controlled companions, and owning a starship such as a Fury-Class Imperial Interceptor.

Memorable moments: Hanging out in Nem’ro the Hutt’s cantina, digging the band (packed with musicians) and watching the holographic dancers; listening to the John Williams-inspired orchestral score; using a personal holocron to deliver a message; meditating at the altar at the tomb of Naga Sadow to awaken Khem Val (a large reptilian humanoid); and taking a leisurely taxi ride to the Lower Wilds.

Violent encounters: Many a Sith dog, Republic scumbag and a variety of bizarre creatures (from Shyrack Howlers to Terentatek Maulers) will fall by dual light-saber strike and Jiguuna blaster shot. As they lay dead (no blood is shed) a player is encouraged to loot the body, reaping many credits and items.

Moral choices abound during the game, and will set the path for a character’s story as he accumulates light and dark points. It clearly takes the game to a “teen” rating and might include the senseless slaughter of docile beasts, killing a father in front of his son or the cold-blooded murder of prisoners.

As far as real-life acts of violence, a player’s blood pressure will increase slightly while loading the game. In the time it took, I could have watched at least half of a “Star Wars” movie. Also, plodding through the registration process combined with a level of security questions that I doubt even a junior officer reporting for work at the Death Star would require seemed a bit overboard.

However, the highest level of brutality will occur after a player fully understands that not only has he already spent $60 on the game, but on day 31 he also must plop down $14.99 a month in perpetuity to keep playing.

Star power: Although the voice acting and branching storylines never disappoint (with help from more than 250,000 lines of dialogue delivered by more than 300 actors), the power behind this game arrives in the equipment I used to appreciate it.

Specifically, one of Dell’s Alienware M17x laptops (starting at $1,499) built for the serious gamer in the family. My unit features a 17-inch HD 1080p display, Intel Core i7 quad-core processors (2760QM 2.4GHz with 3.5GHz w/Turbo Boost, 6MB Cache), Blu-ray player and a 2GB GDDR5 AMD Radeon HD 6990M graphics card.

It’s a portable powerhouse, scalable to unleash high performance or more balanced power and includes a zoned light show (illuminate parts of the keyboard, case and function areas with different colors) that even Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic would have to admire.

In more than 40 hours of Old Republic game play, I have not had a single glitch using the M17x. And that’s a pretty big statement for a guy who really hates playing games on a PC.

Pixel-popping scale: 7.5 out of 10. The opening trio of cinematics of the Old Republic are spectacular. They made up for the years of head-scratching I endured trying to read the dense plot points introduced in Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars miniseries that covered the ancient history of the Jedi vs. Sith conflict.

Packed into the beautiful computer-animated scenes are some stunning army battles and light-saber fights between Master Jedi and Lords of the Sith (Darth Malgus in particular) also starring a human bounty hunter who looks like he stole Cad Bane’s clothes.

Once the game starts, however, it’s a bit of a letdown. The graphics take on a hybrid between a watered-down Mass Effect 2, and a cartoony version of Cartoon Network’s “The Clone Wars,” complete with characters sporting wooden hair.

Multiplayer: The game allows players to talk to each other (via text chat) band together on missions and battle one another (in certain arenas). I’ll note that I already love the camaraderie displayed by my Sith brethren. On two occasions, I needed major help to fight off a brood of K’Lor slugs and twice was politely assisted by multiple warriors who helped finish the tasks. Also, discussions were always very cordial with no nasty language.

Read all about it: Dark Horse Comics provides multiple miniseries loaded with background to the game. I suggest the trade paperbacks Blood of the Empire ($15.99), featuring prose by Alexander Freed (one of the lead writers behind Star Wars: The Old Republic), and Threat of Peace ($15.99), which compiles 27 stories from the web comic.

What’s it worth? Star Wars: The Old Republic won’t be remembered for ground-breaking innovations, but instead as an overwhelming experience for the fan as he dives into, reportedly, one of the most expensive games ever created (between $100 million and $300 million).

Although it offers a financial model that is going the way of the Jedi, it still delivers hours and hours of immersive adventures that players should assume will keep getting better and deeper with new content as time goes on.

May the Force, and a wallet containing at least $14.99 every month, be with you.

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