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Concept art from Star Wars: The Old Republic (Electronic Arts)
Concept art from Star Wars: The Old Republic (Electronic Arts)

EA's Star Wars: The Old Republic will hit stores five days before Christmas Add to ...

It will be a merry Christmas after all for fans of Star Wars and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). BioWare has officially announced that its hugely anticipated MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic will launch on December 20th in North America and December 22nd in Europe.

I don’t often post release date announcements, but this one is a bit special – and not just because I assumed BioWare's game wouldn’t make the 2011 schedule and left it off my list of 50 games to play this fall.

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Announced in October, 2008, anticipation of this mammoth MMORPG has been slowly building to frenzied proportions over the last three years. With the most critically acclaimed Star Wars game yet made (2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) already under its belt, Edmonton-based BioWare has seen wide support from the fan community in its development of a never-ending, online game set in George Lucas’ sci-fi universe.

More than that, some see Star Wars: The Old Republic as perhaps the first true rival for Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, the game that has dominated the MMORPG scene for seven years.

Though frequently challenged by other games backed by big licenses – The Lord of the Rings Online, DC Universe Online, Age of Conan, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Star Trek OnlineWorld of Warcraft still dwarfs its rivals. It also continues to reap the riches of a mandatory monthly subscription fee from millions of users when most of its competition has switched to free-to-play models in an effort to maintain or boost their subscriber numbers.

But BioWare’s game may have all of the right ingredients to square off against Blizzard’s behemoth.

It’s arriving at a time when even some hardcore World of Warcraft fans are beginning to feel as though their beloved game is looking a bit dated, meaning they could be tempted to jump to the Dark Side (many MMORPG players tend to play just one game at a time, sometimes for years on end – part of the reason World of Warcraft has dominated for so long). Plus, it’s based on the most popular geek license in existence, assuring interest not just from hardcore players but also casual and non-gamers. To top it all off, it’s built by one of the Western hemisphere’s most talented and respected RPG developers (though, it’s worth noting, BioWare has relatively little experience with MMORPGs).

The date makes sense, too. Most publishers try to get their wares out early in the holiday shopping season, but Star Wars: The Old Republic will hit shelves just as high-school kids, university students, and millions of working-age folks begin looking for something to entertain them over Christmas. There is arguably no better time of the year for a geek to put in the hours required to get hooked on a brand new long-term game. It may not arrive in time to find its way under many trees, but there’s nothing stopping gamers from buying it themselves.

The only bad news is that it will launch at the expense of families looking to spend some quality holiday time in the company of their loved ones. BioWare would do well to bundle in the box a card apologizing to gamers’ wives, husbands, and kids.

In other release announcement news, Blizzard confirmed over the weekend that Diablo III will slip to early 2012. Though the American game maker’s action RPG has never had a firm launch date, many speculated and hoped that its latest years-in-the-making title would arrive this fall. On the bright side, Blizzard says it is using the extra time to ensure a better quality game. Perhaps its designers are listening to the ire of the Internet (including the results of modest polls like ours) over the game’s online-only design and incorporating some form of offline play.

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