After being billed as a narrative-centric MMO and dubbed by the Internet "that massively single-player RPG", a traditional PVP system seems almost incongruous to everything BioWare has been working towards. But the PVP Warzone it's featuring is more traditional than not - which is something MMO conventionalists should be breathing a sigh of sweet relief over. To the traditionalists who worry about MMOs designing away social gameplay: don't worry, at least your PVP is still intact.
Alderaan Civil War is an 8v8 Battleground on a planet that's become the target of political manoeuvring. This pits Republicans against Imperial forces in a head-to-head battle to decide the planet's future. Or so goes the premise in what's essentially that old faithful, Capture the Flag.
Both sides are attempting to take command of Alderaan's enormous planetary defence cannon, a weapon that gives you domination over the planet's sky while under your control. Republicans and Imperial forces capture points from the ground before getting a hold of the gun - so right off the bat the game veers away from the typical arbitrary objectives and gives you something a bit more tangible to aim for.
Once the cannon is under your control it will immediately change its target and start taking shots at the enemy's ship, but lose control and it rotates around, setting its sights on yours up above. The result is a back-and-forth of control, then loss of control, but keep the cannon on your side for long enough through capture points across the Warzone and you'll take out the opposing team's air craft.
The PVP system itself tips its hat to Warhammer, thanks to a reward system known as Valor. Like Warhammer's Renown this is a stat-based reward earned for killing players, assisting in kills and healing team mates – usually in the form of armour or buffs. Working in parallel is a Badge system, which rewards you for kill streaks with a temporary title – alerting the opposing team that you're both a hard ass and someone to target.
Team mates get their say too. By the end of the game other players can Commend a player who might have stood out, which gives them additional rewards and adds a social incentive for carrying your own weight in a Warzone.
But it's not entirely a matter of keyboard-mashing your way to the finish line. Built in is a system of "diminishing return" which prevents the over-use of crowd control – something that's occasionally been a spectre hanging over PVP. Crowd Control without restriction can mean your character can very quickly get frozen in position as enemies repeatedly stun you or plant traps. SWTOR offers a dedicated bar which shows how many times a character can be CC'd within a period of time. As he starts getting stunned by the enemy, and having his movement slowed down, the bar will fill until the player is finally immune for a period. The bar is visible to all other players, meaning they can make tactical decisions over who to CC.
For a game that gets accused of stubbornly trundling down too atypical a path, SWTOR's attempt at PVP is surprisingly – and impressively – built on solid traditions. BioWare seems to be aware of what you need in PVP, and what's missing from the role-call of standard PVP features. But whether or not this social side of Old Republic ends up feeling inconsistent with the rest of their storytelling focus is another story.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is due for release in the second half of 2011.