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'Star Wars' universe is getting a lot bigger

9:02 PM, Dec 19, 2011   |    comments
Photo courtesy of USA TODAY
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Mike Snider, USA TODAY

That disturbance in the Force is millions of voices crying out in delight as they join the battle of Jedi vs. Sith in Star Wars: The Old Republic, a huge new online game and universe.

The PC multiplayer role-playing game ($60, rated T for ages 13-up) plants you in the middle of your own Star Wars saga, in the millennia before Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

"You're taking on an iconic role from thousands of years before the Star Wars movies, and you really get to become that character," says Ray Muzyka, co-founder of developer BioWare, which worked with LucasArts. "You can be a hero or a villain in an epic timeline. There's a lot of Sith and Jedi around in a time of galactic war."

The Edmonton, Alberta-based developers are hardly video-game padawans. BioWare's recent role-playing successes include series such as the fantasy Dragon Age and the sci-fi saga Mass Effect. And the company has a history with the Star Wars universe, having developed 2003's Knights of the Old Republic, a highly regarded role-playing game set in the Star Wars timeline before the events in this new release.

The Old Republic, however, is a "persistent" world that exists even when you stop playing, and after an initial 30-day period it requires a monthly subscription ($14.99, or $77.94 for six months). So the design must embrace players early and invest them in their characters.

Few newcomers have succeeded in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing-game category since the arrival of World of Warcraft, which after seven years has seen its subscriber base slip below the 11 million mark. Still, WOW brings in more than $1 billion a year for publisher Activision Blizzard, analysts estimate. If Republic's designers are successful, they can cultivate a devoted player community that spans a decade, as is the case with EverQuest, which launched in 1999.

Work began five years ago as a team of more than 20 writers crafted years' worth of plot developments for the main story and its numerous branchings and voice actors recorded 260,000 lines of dialogue.

The game is bigger than all of BioWare's previous games combined. "When you get to the point where you get your ship and you see this galaxy map, it hits home that it really is an immense game," says BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk.

The backstory: Forty years have passed since the Sith have returned, after hiding in the far reaches of the galaxy for 1,000 years. Upon their return they attacked the Republic capital of Coruscant and destroyed the Jedi temple. Then the Sith mysteriously sought a treaty, and since then an uneasy peace has been in place. "But everybody is pretty clear that war is coming again," says lead writer Daniel Erickson. "The players play the next generation coming up."

Players first pick a side, the Galactic Republic or the Sith Empire. On the Republic side, the choice of roles includes Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler and Trooper; the Sith includes Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior.

Each character has an initial story arc that serves as a tutorial to help players learn the basics. "We have to teach you who you are and what your role in the galaxy is," says Erickson, who helped develop the game's 1,000-page backstory. "As the game goes on, the percentage of your class story compared to the multiplayer content goes way down, because we want you in community. We want you playing with your friends."

The game hits stores today, but those who pre-ordered were able to try it last week. "This game is pure Star Wars. It's an MMO that (doesn't) feel like a normal MMO grind," says Ray Walters of Geek.com. "It's fun, and the quests at the early stages help you progress without having to kill the same creatures over and over."

BioWare has launched with an "amazing story for both the solo player and for someone who wants to build groups of players," says Andy McNamara of Game Informer magazine.

Over its first 15 months, industry analyst Edward Williams of BMO Capital Markets expects 1.5 million to 2 million subscribers, far more than the break-even point of 500,000 for publisher Electronic Arts. "The tremendous buzz suggests that the product is well-positioned to be a strong performer," he said in a recent report.

BioWare aims to make The Old Republic a destination for eons to come. "Part of that commitment is building additional content over time and releasing it at regular intervals," Muzyka says. "The service will evolve based on feedback, the types of players that are coming in and the kind of things they say they are enjoying."


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