In the years since World of Warcraft redefined what a successful MMO meant, dozens of similar titles have carved out their niches of loyal fans to moderate success. But with Star Wars: The Old Republic, both BioWare and EA are taking aim directly at the reigning king of the genre, promising an experience that simply can’t be missed. Since it was announced, details on the game have been hard to come by, but BioWare has delivered at E3 2011. We got a behind-the-scenes look at The Old Republic in action, and a chance to play it ourselves, but does it have what it takes to give WoW a run for its money?

If the sheer number of Beta participants is anything to go by, it seems that plenty of Star Wars and MMO fans alike are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But after recently announcing that TOR may once again be sliding backward into 2012, now is the time for EA to show off something to convince fans it’s worth the wait.

BioWare has answered the call this week, providing brand new details on game direction and recent improvements, and offering us a chance to play through a mission ourselves. BioWare’s Blaine Christine, the Producer of The Old Republic started their demonstration by reminding us all of the reason why the minds behind Mass Effect and Dragon Age are perfect for the MMO scene: they know story.

The studio believes that an MMO’s mechanics and progression are just as important as the overall narrative, and while games like WoW have the gameplay down pat, it’s a compelling and emotionally powerful story that keeps players satisfied. As anyone can see from The Old Republic‘s opening cinematic, they know how to craft an intriguing story and intense action.

Players won’t just be getting one epic tale like those of their other series, but eight different stories crafted uniquely for each playable class. Christine explained that while each character class will progress through various upgrades, each individual story is made up of a unique trilogy or a narrative delivered in three distinct acts. Christine compared the journey of every class, be it bounty hunter or Sith Lord will be similar to Luke Skywalker’s story arc spanning the original Star Wars trilogy.

With “hundreds of hours” of gameplay for each class, and eight classes to choose from, there’s certainly not going to be any shortage of content. It’s this expansive amount of missions that Christine says is BioWare truly delivering on the concept of a Knights of the Old Republic 3. The Old Republic is seen by BioWare as encompassing KOTOR 3,4,5,6, and so on.

The Old Republic E3 2011 Preview

The studio’s commitment to getting players’ choices meaning big things for the overall story will be continued with TOR, showing off a clip of potential choices following the player’s Jedi Knight defeating a Sith in battle. Choosing to eliminate the Sith (a shift to the Dark Side) would push the protagonist further toward darkness, while convincing the Sith to repent led to him appearing later in the game as a Jedi in training.

The extension of choices and consequences is a welcome addition to the at-times false pretenses of an MMO, with Christine reiterating that the player is able to make decisions that matter in the long run: “your story is different, based on the decisions you make.”

The game isn’t abandoning the other important aspects of an MMO, providing players with their very own spaceship with which to navigate and explore hundreds of unique planets and locations. One such place is the planet Alderaan, previously unseen prior to its destruction at the hands of Darth Vader’s Death Star. That location was the setting for an extended mission video that depicted a few new attacks and skills being put to use.

MMO combat can become somewhat of a grind, but it’s hard to think of bounty hunters deploying portable shield cover and Jedis force leaping across the screen as getting tiresome. The game seems to have received a few tweaks since it was last seen, with improved environments of a much larger scale, and a much sleeker user interface. The character models are also not as Clone Wars-esque as the previous conversation trailers seemed to suggest.

For the actual hands-on portion of the preview, we were given a mission to complete on the planet Tatooine. The game isn’t lacking anything in fidelity, and the gameplay was similar enough to nearly any other MMO of the same caliber. But BioWare did make it clear that they’re not interested in reinventing the wheel, so the story will need to be what gets gamers interested.

It’s hard to go into much detail on the combat, since it truly was intuitive and accessible to anyone who has played any online RPG in recent years. But with BioWare making such heavy promises for the story and drama, the best thing for them to do would keep as much familiar as possible, and it seems they have.

Star Wars The Old Republic E3 Demo

Christine also confirmed that vehicles will be making an appearance in The Old Republic, but exact details on which ones and in what capacity are still unknown. One of the most nagging questions fans have was also answered in the demo, concerning the nature of The Old Republic‘s system for setting up ‘Raids.’ Called ‘Operations’ in TOR, the raiding party is made up of several four-player groups, constituting one super group.

The raid shown to us was the ‘Eternity Vault,’ a massive store of riches that requires dozens of players to break down a fortress’ towers, mechs, guards, and finally a boss. Again, BioWare isn’t going to be fixing something that isn’t broken, and with hard, intense raids to fuel end-game play time, the chance to gather some “badass loot” will likely prove to strong to resist.

We may not quite know when The Old Republic will be arriving, but the fact that the developers are taking an established formula for a successful MMO and adding in some seriously heavy dramatic tension looks like a recipe for success.

A great story may not be enough to pull fans away from their investments of time and money into another property, but those of you Star Wars fans who have been hoping for a success should breathe a sigh of relief.

The game may not achieve instant dominance in the marketplace, but from what we saw, fans have every right to expect a quality title. With an open beta to fine-tune the experience prior to launch, and the chance to work out any bugs before then, the odds are certainly stacked in BioWare‘s favor.

The developers will be applying lessons learned from the Beta, which may see Star Wars: The Old Republic release in either 2011 or 2012 for the PC.

Stick with Game Rant for more triple-A previews from E3 2011.

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