Alas, these questions remain unanswered. However, our GDC demo did clarify one hang-up we've been concerned about since the game was announced: Why would anyone play as a non-Force user? The answer is now clear. It's because the Galactic Republic's Trooper class is awesome.
Prolific MMO players should be familiar with the Trooper's combat mechanics. Basic rifle shots build up action points that you can use to execute stronger attacks, such as a concussive shot that knocks enemies to the floor, a sticky grenade which incapacitates an enemy before dealing tons of burst damage and a rapid fire ability which riddles an enemy with lasers. There's also a melee attack which knocks enemies who get too close for comfort to the ground but, with a long cooldown timer, this is a last-ditch measure.
None of these abilities -- not even the basic attack -- can be set to auto-fire. You're constantly choosing the best option on a moment-to-moment basis. Got a big group of enemies? Sticky bomb the one closest to the middle to wipe them all out. Got a wave of melee attackers coming for you? Slow their progress with some concussive bursts. Got a pesky enemy taking cover behind a pillar? Rush him, knock him to the ground, and give him a few laser beams.
If The Old Republic's other classes are this action-centric, I could easily see this game becoming a big hit with the non-MMO-playing crowd. It's remarkably accessible -- at the GDC preview event, LucasArts basically plunked me down in front of a computer with little instruction on how to play. Everything just feels natural, looks extremely polished and moves along at a faster pace than any other online RPG I've ever played.
The heavy focus on voiced dialogue was apparent during the single mission I played through during my time with the game. After every few encounters, I'd come across an NPC who would strike up a conversation with me, usually offering me three Mass Effect-ish dialogue options ranging from congenial to just plain mean. These dialogue options would resolve the scene in different ways. Do you kill the wounded enemy insurgents, or let them walk away?
It's tough to fully evaluate the merits of an MMORPG with just one hour behind the wheel, but I'm starting to get a clear picture of what BioWare is going for with The Old Republic. It is, at its core, a BioWare RPG -- filled with vibrant landscapes, interesting characters and top-notch writing and voice acting. It's clear that these principles weren't compromised to fit the game into an established MMO archetype. The Old Republic is a whole new breed, and I can't wait to spend more time exploring it.