How the Imperial Agent told the best story in The Old Republic

The Imperial Agent's plotline occupies an unusual grey area in the black-and-white, good-versus-evil Star Wars universe.

If you want to be an off-brand Han Solo then Star Wars: The Old Republic has you covered with its Smuggler class. You can create your own Boba Fett with the Bounty Hunter class, or make a Jedi Knight and pretend you're playing Knights of the Old Republic 3. But one class in The Old Republic had no precedent in the Star Wars movies or Bioware's previous games – the Imperial Agent.

Prior MMO Star Wars Galaxies initially let players be ordinary citizens of its universe before opening the gates to let them more easily become lightsaber-swinging badasses. Playing an Imperial Agent in The Old Republic positions you between those two extremes. As your boss at Imperial Intelligence explains it, “We're sanitation workers. We clean up after the military and the Sith.” The conflict with the Republic goes on over there, ordinary people try to live their lives over here, and you stop the two from bleeding together. The janitors on the Death Star? Protecting them is your job. You might have to take part in some necessary evils to manage it, however.

Bioware games have a rocky history when it comes to portraying moral grayness. They're fine with do-gooders and cackling cartoon villains, but trying to inhabit a space in-between normally means doing exactly what the shining hero does, then turning around and extorting money out of everyone. In the original Knights of the Old Republic there was the Light Side, the Dark Side, and the Mercenary Side.

Being an Imperial Agent, however, means facing some genuine dilemmas. Sure, you can side with the villain who is about to set off a megaweapon if you're full Dark Side. Or you can disarm it, though that will give him time to escape. Or you can pretend to side with him, turn on the weapon and let it kill thousands of people as it powers up, nab the villain while he's distracted, then disarm it afterward. You prevent a dangerous bad guy from potentially killing even more people later, but at the cost of thousands dying by your hand.

The moment the Imperial Agent's storyline becomes something special is when you return from your first job – a slightly bland infiltration of a Hutt's court to frame the Republic for all his problems – and see what Imperial Intelligence is really like. While you're being debriefed, a terrorist detonates a bomb on a cruiser, and all the officers in their gray suits bark information back and forth from their computer screens as they deal with the crisis. The people whose job in the movies would be to get choked by Darth Vader turn out to be competent experts who knuckle down and deal with a disaster like it's a scene out of The West Wing.

The Imperial Agent's storyline draws from diverse sources. Sometimes being a spy for the Empire feels more like The Manchurian Candidate or The Prisoner than Star Wars. In the aftermath of that bombing you're promoted and given the codename Cipher Nine, with a supervisor named Watcher Two. Just like in The Prisoner, you become a number. There's even a version of the Village, only here it's Shadow Town, where ex-agents are exiled because they know too much to be allowed to retire freely. Here you meet Watcher X, a paranoid former operative who serves as a grim warning about your own future. Even though there are people trying to do good from within the cogs of the Empire, they do so at great risk.

You get another taste of this when you're sent undercover as a Republic spy. The Republic are obviously suspicious when you pretend to defect, but they've unearthed one of Imperial Intelligence's secrets. They know agents are routinely brainwashed without their knowledge and given keywords that force compliance. Unknown you you, all anyone has to do is say your keyword  (“onomatophobia”) to make you obey. Using mind control on their own people is just the kind of thing the Empire does – but then, the Republic uses it to control you as well.

In addition to loss of free will, the conditioning has a side effect of brain damage. You discover this when the hallucinations kick in. A droid floats past, a monster lurks in the background, and one character shoots out of another's mouth in one of the strangest cutscenes ever. With help from Watcher X, or possibly a hallucination of him – it's really messing with your head by this point – you later free yourself from the conditioning. But then what? Do you let your old boss explain why everything that happened to you was necessary, and return to the fold? Or do you defect to the Republic for real, even though they also used the keyword on you?

The decisions you make ripple with meaning, even though you end up doing the same missions afterward. Whether you go back to Imperial Intelligence as a loyal servant of the Empire, one who hopes to reign in their worst excesses, or a triple agent leaking secrets to the Republic, the context that everything else happens in is altered. It's also possible to ally yourself with the Dark Council of Sith, despite every single one of them being a Starscream who wishes they were Megatron. You can even work toward cutting yourself loose from everyone and become a free agent.

All this good stuff happens in the class story missions for the Imperial Agent, playing out in the fully-voiced branching dialogues that Bioware do so well. But around the edges of that is the rest of The Old Republic, a fairly traditional MMO. You have to ignore filler sidequests about clicking on 10 things, huge warehouse-sized rooms designed for servers full of people, respawning enemies loitering in carefully-spaced groups, your companions standing on the furniture, a taskbar overstuffed with cooldown abilities that stopped being useful three levels ago, and especially the other players jumping everywhere, filling the chat with nonsense, and murdering the same people as you.

Playing the Imperial Agent's storyline, it's impossible not to think it would be suited to as a single-player game, that the format of Knights of the Old Republic worked better without the cruft of online gaming getting in its way. And yet, the Imperial Agent wouldn't exist if The Old Republic wasn't an MMO. The single-player games in the series focus on Jedi and Sith out of necessity, because those are the popular Star Wars archetypes. When they go beyond that, it's to throw in other cliches like handsome scoundrels and courteous droids and dangerous Wookiees, because that's what the most players want.

If it weren't for the need to to focus on both sides of a conflict so the PVP isn't one-sided and to provide players with enough unique classes that they can carve out their own space, the Imperial Agent wouldn't have been created. It might be better as a single-player game, but it would never have existed as one. From this angle The Old Republic seems like another one of those necessary evils that ultimately serves the greater good.