Last year, before BioWare was busy breaking pre-order records and congratulating one another with carts of champagne, Star Wars: The Old Republic was a hard sell; an MMO that so stubbornly went against the traditions of World of Warcraft, it would take roughly $150 million and the general sanity of their QA staff to make.
Its PvE system - a combination between MMO styled mouse-bash combat and basically Mass Effect - got it nicknamed a Massively Single Player title. The game has been marketed in a way that pushes the character-driven narrative so far out to the foreground it's difficult to see why you would consider playing the game in groups, and you can't help but feel sympathy pains for the team of scriptwriters who have had to churn out thousands of NPC dialogue trees.
But the most recent demonstration of the game at gamescom 2011 is one reason it's always a good idea to bide your time until you see legitimate group quests before you judge an MMO for its lax take on group-work.
The Eternity Vault is what BioWare has to say in response to criticism of the lack of social play. It's the most recent of their "Operations" game modes – essentially 8 to 16 player raids for high-level characters. The Vault is a prison compound built to contain a powerful force wielder who, as the objective has it, you're told to save.
The Operation starts with a dozen Sith Empire characters hurtling toward a frozen planet in the comfort of drop-pods which have been released from a nearby ship, a sequence that probably echoes film visuals more than your average Raid.
This leads to the first battle which has been designed for the purposes of the demonstration to show how differing classes compliment each other in combat. Outside the gates of The Eternity Vault, we're shown droid guards who work in concert with strategically placed automatic turrets. The Juggernaut character barrels into the central group of droids - a tank class by any other name - while the Operative heals from the sidelines. A Mercenary character is left to deal damage to the remaining droids while Sorcerer and Powertech classes turn their attention to the turrets. If it sounds like a fairly standard set up - good. If BioWare can prove it can appeal to the MMO traditionalist then it has got their market sorted.
The ace up its sleeve is the boss that follows. It's an enormous annihilation droid, a variation on Robocop's ED 209 really, and he can both focus fire on a single player and throw the entire group back with a swing of his arm. Other times he would beam out a red targeting reticule indicating what area he would begin bombing, which changed the team's strategy from fight to flee. We haven't even entered The Eternity Vault yet, it should be said.
In addition to The Eternity Vault we were shown the Flashpoint Taral V. Flashpoints are the game's other instance mode, and tend to have more of a narrative basis than most MMOs tend to carry. A trailer highlighted some of the significant story-based events of the instance, with a small group entering a chamber, only to be told "you're standing in a tomb - I'm burying you in it".
The new Warzone, Huttball, rounds out BioWare's progress in group play. If Warzones are the game's PvP arenas then Huttball is essentially Rollerball without the skates. It's a spectator sport, we're told, sponsored by the Hutt Cartel. Teams are randomised with Sith and Jedi fighting together against more Sith and Jedi to capture a ball and carry it across the goal line of the opponent without being killed in the process. Traps are strewn about the arena to add additional challenges to the basic sport.
For all of BioWare's marketing warbling about creating an MMO like no other, the addition of traditional social play is exactly what the game needs.