This is part two of PC Zone's reveal of Star Wars: The Old Republic. For the first part of the preview click here, or buy PC Zone issue 200 in shops now.
From Baldur's Gate right through to Mass Effect, companion characters have been a staple of BioWare's games. The expertly constructed NPCs (from sassy assassin droids to intemperate hulking aliens) will fight alongside you, offering a helping hand when it's needed and engaging in awkward elevator conversations while the game loads the next area. They act as conduits for relating story too, at any point you can strike up a chat with a companion and they'll have at least a snippet of character-infused narrative to fire at you.
Nothing's changing with The Old Republic. "Companion characters are a big part of how we do our storytelling," claims Erickson. "There'll be a very large variety and amount of companion characters that are available for all of the different classes. Everybody will be adventuring with companions. They won't be like World of Warcraft pets - they'll be people you interact with, like in a typical BioWare game."
A writing team four times larger than BioWare's standard (which is already significantly girthier than your typical game writing team, being in the "double figures") drawing from all of the developer's past titles ensures there'll be wealth of different characters in The Old Republic. Though how you'll meet them and how they'll stay unique to you is unclear. "We had a challenge when we realised that players running about in a public world will eventually see their companion running about with another player," admits Ohlen. "Athough we've solved it." How? Procedurally generated party hats? He laughs: "I can't tell you how, but we've solved it."
If you think this is sounding more like a single player RPG than a persistent online game, that's because it really does, The Old Republic is deeply rooted in BioWare's experience in offline adventuring. Even the company's morality system has survived the genre transition, pegging you as a light or dark character based on your actions, regardless of your chosen faction. Even in the first few hours of the game the quests will have multiple outcomes based on player choice. Those outcomes will impact on the story, something no popular MMO has ever attempted.
The delineation of sides won't be as neat as your usual Alliance and Horde division. As in KOTOR, you'll find Dark Jedi trying to spoil their faction's well-preened image. Similarly, Sith characters can do good deeds like any other, even if they'll presumably have less lightning at their fingertips.
Whether or not BioWare will employ KOTOR's sliding scale of morality (in which good deeds negate bad) or Mass Effect's cumulative one (in which both good and bad deeds aggregate) isn't known. Fans seem to have favoured Mass Effect's system, as it made a great deal more sense, so it seems a safe bet that it'll reappear in The Old Republic.
A fog of rude mystery currently hangs over the specifics of The Old Republic's more traditional MMO features. Crafting will be in there, as well as PvP, with ongoing battles of an unknown scale taking place between the Sith Empire and the Old Republic.
Character development will be "familiar to BioWare fans and MMO fans alike", and when pressed for information on how classes will differ in terms of skills and abilities, BioWare simply nod and say, "Have we told you about our companion characters yet?"