Massively multiplayer gaming has never held much appeal for me beyond the restrictive confines of your typical online shooter’s versus map, but that attitude changed when Star Wars: The Old Republic was announced. The sci-fi universe created by George Lucas has always been close to my fanboy heart, and here was a game that promised me the opportunity to tromp around a galaxy far, far away as anything from a Force-using mystic to a tough-as-nails bounty hunter. The game officially launches today, and after spending almost a week immersed with the rest of the Early Access pre-order community, I’m ready to share some initial thoughts on the game.

Let’s also note at the outset: while this review does indeed have a score attached to it, the opinions expressed below are based on spending roughly 30 hours with my level 21 bounty hunter. I’ve sampled much of what the game has to offer, but I’ll be back in a month with some additional opinions and a read on how The Old Republic develops into its endgame phases. Expect a revised score then, if necessary.

If you understand the basics of MMO gameplay in titles like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, then you already know what to expect with The Old Republic. The action unfolds in real time using hotkey-based attacks that are, for the most part, limited only by two factors: cooldown timers and class-specific regenerating resources, such as Force points, ammo and the like. BioWare‘s effort is not without its innovations, but on the gameplay side at least, SW:TOR plays things as safe as safe can be. WoW fans will find themselves on familiar ground while solo RPG lovers won’t face much of a learning curve in getting a handle on the game’s basics.

It does a few things better than WoW right out of the gate, particularly on the presentation side. The visuals don’t compare with something like Battlefield 3, but considering that these games need to easily scale for a range of computer rigs, this is one of the better-looking MMOs out there. The art design helps too, especially as you start soaking in the surroundings on an increasing number of planets.

The writing is simlarly excellent, with highly involved, class-specific storylines that make even the more grind-y quests feel relevant to your characters place in the galaxy. I frequently found myself laughing out loud, or feeling deeply unsettled, or hanging on every word uttered by a key NPC as I played, partially because the writing is so good and partially because ALL of it is voiced.

It’s more than that though. The writing isn’t just GOOD, it’s also inescapable. Each of the game’s eight character classes has a fully developed story that stands apart from the rest. You won’t get a unique experience on the tutorial world and then be thrown into the same giant story that everyone else is playing once you can get off-planet. It’s ALL unique to the class you’re playing; everyone visits the same set of locations in roughly the same order, but the motivations depend entirely on who you choose to play as.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this has on your level of involvement with the game’s story. In many ways, it’s easiest to view Star Wars: The Old Republic as a single player BioWare RPG with some significant online play features. Actually, it’s more like eight BioWare RPGs in one, since each character class — four per faction between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire — follows its own narrative thread, with Light and Dark Side variations in each of those threads.

You can easily go into The Old Republic and play it solo. You’ll have other human-controlled characters running around alongside you, occasionally stealing your kills or getting to a mission objective before you (in which case you’ll wait a few minutes for the objective to reset), but the number of solo play-friendly missions definitely outweigh the number that are recommended for two or more players. The only thing to keep in mind is that you’ll generally want to add a few levels to whatever the recommended number is a for a given mission; if you’re not playing in a group, the “recommended level” ratings for each mission tend to be on the “too low” side.

Fortunately, group play is pretty easy to get into even if you don’t have any friends playing online. The general chat room in each location is typically filled with “LFG” (Looking For Group) requests from various players for the planet’s co-op-oriented missions. I’ll admit to being a complete and total noob when it comes to MMO play, and yet I’ve found during that past week that most of the folks playing SW:TOR right now are relatively patient and happy to share the benefit of their experiences.

MMO newcomers with a background in solo RPGs will also notice that the progression in SW:TOR is much slower than they might be used to. Expect to invest 10 or more hours into simply getting through the first 10 character levels, the point at which each class’s three skill trees first come into play. You’ll also leave the tutorial world for the first time at around this point, and gain your first companion.

Companions are the SW:TOR equivalent of pets in other MMOs, only here they double as surprisingly competent AI allies who all add to the story in one way or another. Again, lots of links here with the general setup of other BioWare RPGs. Your companions also open the door to Crew Skills, The Old Republic‘s entry point for crafting.

You’ll also eventually get your hands on a ship, which you’ll use to shuttle between planets and engage in the occasional space battle. These missions offer a nice diversion, especially since they can be replayed daily for bigger XP gains. Space combat is entirely on-rails, though you can use the mouse to move your ship around on the screen, in order to avoid obstacles. It’s simple, and clearly inspired by some of the older Star Wars coin-op games, but as a secondary in-game task, space combat offers a fun change of pace.

There’s still more, too. Multiple planets to explore (I’ve visited just five so far), story-focused co-op FlashPoint and Operations missions, PvP… the endgame promises to offer a lot of additional value; I’ll be talking plenty more about it when we revisit The Old Republic next month. I’ll also be putting more weight on the game’s post-launch troubles — notably, ridiculously lengthy server queues and a litany of random bugs and technical issues — once the game has had some time to settle.

The question on the table for today is whether or not Star Wars: The Old Republic delivers on the promise of a narrative-driven massively multiplayer role-playing game. The answer is an easy yes. Fans of Star Wars, MMOs and BioWare RPGs will find a whole lot to like here. Forgetting the subscription for a moment: $60 gets you one month of play in a game that includes eight RPG stories, all on the same basic scale as Knights of the Old Republic, and fully developed MMO features like PvP and endgame challenges. It’s a hard package to say no to. 

(This game was reviewed on the PC on a copy provided by EA)