Call of Duty: Star Warfare

Call of Duty: Star Warfare
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... No, I mean a really long time ago. Like 3,500 or so years before Princess Leia sported a gold bikini, Han Solo made the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs and Luke Skywalker bulls-eyed womp rats in his T-16. That's the temporal setting of the latest and largest Star Wars game, The Old Republic.

This subscriber-based massively-multiplayer online game from beloved Edmonton studio BioWare arrived in late December to confront a threat even greater than Darth Vader. World of Warcraft is so dominant in the MMO universe that all previous rebellions – including 2003's little-liked Star Wars Galaxies, set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, which finally shut down its lonely servers when The Old Republic came online – have been basically blown up like the planet of Alderaan.

But much as Luke first had to defeat his own dark side, The Old Republic must face its franchise's prequel-sullied legacy, which is why setting the game a few millennia back is so genius. It ties directly to the most critically acclaimed Star Wars game ever, BioWare's last-gen single-player RPG Knights of the Old Republic, while disassociating itself from Jar Jar Binks, emo Anakin and stupid midichlorians.

Star Wars' bearded creator George Lucas was brilliant to begin with Episode IV and use backstory to make his small-scale saga – ultimately the story of one man's fall from and return to grace – feel like a mere peek into a living, breathing galaxy.

Yes, the more Lucas filed in the blanks – Clone Wars, Boba Fett, how the Force functioned – the less interesting his answers got. But what has kept his galaxy such a pivotal part of modern pop culture is not just his peerless original trilogy, but the expanded universe that others have contributed in his wake. Initially, this beyond-the-beard canon came via novels and comics, but arguably the most resonant expansions have occurred in the gaming quadrant of the Lucas empire because they bring you into the story.

Admittedly, the Star Wars games have been as uneven as the films – not surprising considering LucasArts has released over 120 titles – but many have been more than worth their virtual weight in imperial credits.

For old-schoolers, it's hard to best the original sit-down arcade edition from 1983, which allowed fans to fly the first film's climactic Death Star run. Though the most technologically primitive of all the Star Wars games, aside from Atari's "adaptations," it's all-enveloping cabinet felt like you were right inside Luke's X-Wing and the vector graphics nicely replicated its radar screens.

Throughout the '80s, LucasArts offered only trilogy rehashes. But in 1993, the games began contributing to the expanded universe with the X-Wing/Tie Fighter story-based space-combat simulators, which gave gamers a glimpse beyond the celluloid. Subsequently, LucasArts' best works were side-stories like the DOOM-inspired FPS Dark Forces, action game Shadows of the Empire and space-combat Rogue Squadron, especially its GameCube sequel Rogue Leader. (They even later tried bridging the two trilogies together with 2008's ambitious if uneven The Force Unleashed.)

LucasArts succumbed to the dark side as the prequels rolled out and, appropriately enough, poor-quality cash-ins flooded the market. But BioWare brought balance back in 2003 with KOTOR, which allowed gamers to role-play on either side of the war and went far back enough along the timeline to overpower prequel taint. The same could be said for the Lego Star Wars games, which started with the prequel trilogy but overcame its source material with originality and parody.

The reason people stick with Star Wars no matter how many times they've been cash-grabbed – see this month's Episode One 3D re-release – is partly because the expanded universe has made it an unparalleled creative entity, a modern myth so indelibly detailed and epoch-spanning that one could easily imagine living within it.

That's the ultimate attraction of The Old Republic, which already has a population of about two million gamers who are following the eight initial storylines – four classes each for the Sith-run Empire and Jedi-fuelled Republic – and could explore this persistent galaxy for years.

Unlike a traditional game, MMOs can never be completed, are powered by community as much as content and are in a constant state of evolution and expansion. Though the launch has had technical and content issues, The Old Republic's essential structure feels perfectly positioned to turn fantasy into virtual reality.

In other words, it offers Star Wars fans a new hope.