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5 things to know about ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’

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Click for a photo tour of The Old Republic!

It's been a whirlwind holiday season.  We've seen Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword storming onto store shelves, making this one of the most memorable gaming years in a long time.

So that's gotta be it, right? Surely 2011 has nothing left in its bag of tricks?

No.  There is another.

On December 20, EA's massively-multiplayer online role-playing game 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' launches.  Fans have been salivating over this one for years: it marries one of the most revered franchises in pop culture with one of the most acclaimed development studios working today.  We're all hoping the Force will be with this one, but while you wait for a chance to try it yourself, here are some essential facts.

1. It's take two for a Star Wars online world.

Though there have been Star Wars video games dating back almost 30 years, several of them classics of their genres, it wasn't until 2003 that the lucrative franchise was married to a massively-multiplayer online world.

The result, Sony Online Entertainment's 'Star Wars Galaxies,' was initially hyped as a genre-defining event, but ultimately disappointed.  Players were turned off by a lack of quest content, an emphasis on esoteric and repetitive crafting gameplay, and (until 2004's 'Jump to Light Speed' expansion) the puzzling shortage of either 'stars' or 'wars.'

This time around, the franchise has been entrusted to legendary role-playing game developer Bioware, who've thus far excelled in story-based single-player content ('Baldur's Gate', 'Dragon Age', 'Mass Effect'). Hopes are high that the writing will be substantially stronger than that of the three most recent Star Wars films, too.

2. It may be the most expensive video game ever made.

According to The Daily Mail, 'The Old Republic's' budget is rumored to be north of $130 million, which could make it the costliest game of all time. (By comparison, the first 'Transformers' movie cost $150 million.)

Part of that spend went to rounding up an enormous cast of voice actors -- 105, by last count.  The cast includes such actors as '90s 'it girl' Rachael Leigh Cook (playing Jaesa Willsaam, a companion character for Sith warriors) and Alex Fernandez, possibly the hardest-working video game actor ever: he's credited with voicing 50 distinct roles, from "NK-33 Droid" to "Senator Sydia."  Now that's range.

3. Same galaxy far far away, but an even longer time ago.

The Star Wars films have always been set, rather counter-intuitively, in the distant past. The Old Republic, however, is set in what might be called 'the past of the past' -- over three thousand years before the events of the films.

That means you won't be interacting with Star Wars stalwarts like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Instead, you'll get to play characters who are to Luke and Darth what the ancient Egyptians are to us.  If the ancient Egyptians had space ships, that is.

Still, familiar places and faces abound, as Bioware worked in conjunction with LucasArts to keep the lore accurate. Planets like Tatooine, Hoth, and even Princess Leia's homeworld of Alderaan (which was famously blown up by the first Death Star in 'A New Hope') are fully explorable, to name just a few.

4. It's set when those dastardly Sith were a force to be reckoned with.  Moreso.

If you only watched the first few Star Wars films, you might think of the Sith as a couple of disgruntled guys in garish makeup, waxing nostalgic about their glory days.

Well, in 'The Old Republic' you actually get to see those glory days, a time when the ominous Sith Empire battled it out with the Jedi and the Republic for control of the galaxy.  Players can pick either side to play from -- think Horde vs. Alliance in 'World of WarCraft,' but with force powers and lightsabers.

5. The script is huge. As in, gigantic. We mean really, really big.

Unlike most massively multiplayer online worlds, 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' is fully-voiced. Every line of dialogue spoken by every character had to be recorded. And that was quite a task.

According to Bioware audio director Shauna Perry, the game's massive script is "at least ten times" the size of 2003's acclaimed single-player game 'Knights of the Old Republic.'  That game had about 250,000 words of dialogue, so a thumbnail calculation gives us 2.5 million for the new title.  By comparison, 'War and Peace' clocked in at 587,287 words, while 'The Catcher in the Rye' had a modest 73,404.  Clearly, Leo Tolstoy and J.D. Salinger were lightweights.

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