Star Wars Galaxies
George looks at the recently revamped MMO. A New Hope?
It should have been a blockbuster.
The ingredients were all there. Take the publisher that bought you Everquest, give it the Star Wars licence to play with, and make an MMORPG set in the timeline between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.
All of you Star Wars fans reading this should be playing it already.
But you're not. You're playing World of Warcraft instead, it seems.
The reason, Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts opine, is down to the complexity of the game. That it took too long to progress. That many of you wanted to be Jedi from day one. That it lacked the 'Star Wars-y' feel it needed.
Over two years on, the original Star Wars Galaxies has been revamped. These are not minor changes. Indeed we cannot remember a live MMORPG undergoing such a massive and fundamental change in such a short period of time. For example, the 32 professions have been absorbed into just nine 'iconic' ones: Trader, Bounty Hunter, Smuggler, Entertainer, Commando, Officer, Spy, Medic and Jedi.
This means the cutting back or culling of complete professions such as Creature Handler or Teras Kasi Master. A lot of veteran players aren't happy to say the least. Yet at the same time it gives the game focus, greater balance, greater scope for added content and makes it feel more like Star Wars.
And yes, you read that right. Jedi - a profession that took a year or more for the hardcore to earn - is now available from the start. It's just a mouse click away, folks, and there's no danger from bounty hunters anymore. Come join the padawan party. This part - where everyone and anyone can be a Jedi - obviously does not feel like Star Wars!
At the start of this 'remastered' version you're tasked with escaping from an Imperial outpost, giving C-3PO an excuse to introduce you to the controls; in this case the familiar WASD FPS system for movement and number keys for specials currently sitting in your toolbar. Right on cue, Han, Chewie and R2-D2 arrive to help you on your way. This turns out to be pretty exciting, as you battle past imperial troops alongside the smuggler and his Wookiee chum, board the Millennium Falcon and keep TIE Fighters off its tail while Han and Chewie make those essential repairs - in other words, you get to do the dirty work. Meanwhile, the cinematics are certainly impressive, as are the more-than-passable voiceovers, and the fast-paced combat certainly help make the action 'feel' more like Star Wars. A good start.
Next up, a transfer to Tansarri Point station will set you on a series of quests for various people with some dependant on the profession you pick, and these seem well thought out. While essentially they boil down to delivery or execution-style missions, they capture the feel of your chosen profession and the confined space of the station means you won't have to go far to find your objective. It helps that some famous faces give you the quests of course; Boba Fett if you're a bounty hunter, Han Solo if you're a smuggler for example. Such familiar stars of the series pop up all the time, in fact.
Importantly, players are told what they will receive as a reward in advance of completing the quest - an important motivation tool, as it goes - and these normally take the form of an item that will help you on your journey and XP. Talking of which, the new system gives XP for levelling up not by just killing a billion rabbits ad infinitum, but by completing quests. This is another brave move, and one that works to drag you into the universe very well. You'll be levelling up in no time, and hardly aware of it, just by killing bad guys while completing quests and learning the ropes.
The combat, meanwhile, has been completely revamped too. Just six months after the last combat upgrade, fighting has become a lot more twitch-based, with no more auto-targeting and queuing commands up. You have to keep the cursor over a target and left-click your mouse to hit it, while right-clicking your mouse activates any profession-specific special attacks you've selected. It's not quite Doom 3: think more along the lines of Diablo 2.
There are problems, of course. For example, it can be difficult to shoot at one target, and if something else gets between you and your enemy, your shots will be blocked and you'll be in trouble. Indeed, targeting is a problem as there's no 'lock on' feature which makes even socialising as an entertainer more difficult than before.
But making the combat more twitch-based has also made it more engaging. While grinding in a good group in the old system, we were able to use a macro to effectively do all the combat for us while we went and made a cup of tea. Nowadays, when your carbine lets off a constant flow of shots, it seems a lot more thrilling than the slower turn-based combat of yore.
But combat quibbles aren't the only issue, with lag rearing its ugly head. Introducing a twitch-based system is fine, if it compensates for lag, but currently it's very difficult to judge when you should heal yourself - or, indeed, if the target has moved considerably while you're shooting it.
There are bugs too - lots of them - but to be fair, this is to be expected for a completely overhauled system, so we'll let them off a bit on that score.
Overall, the changes do seem a little unbalanced at the moment. For example, ranged professions such as Bounty Hunter or Spy rule the day in combat, while officers can even call in TIE Bombers to initiate low-level air strikes. What's odd, though, is that Jedi have gone from an alpha class to being incredibly underpowered compared to other combat professions, and as the only real melee class, it's difficult to keep an enemy targeted properly at close quarters as opposed to 30 meters or more away with a ranged profession. Teething troubles for sure, but still troubles.
And we'd best issue a few words of warning to new players: once you've settled on your chosen career path, there's no going back unless you delete your character. Part of Star Wars Galaxies' original appeal was that you could change your character's skills at will, but not here. There doesn't seem to be a justifiable reason for this being implemented as far as we can see, even when the promised second character slots are made available to everyone.
Admittedly, Sony has done a great job of holding new players by the hand and introducing Star Wars Galaxies in a way that makes you feel part of the action - much more so than before. Progress is fast and painless at lower levels and is actually interesting, the quests are fun, the combat engaging. Even the space-based expansion 'Jump to Lightspeed' is included in the basic package and forms part of the tutorial itself, so it's better value, too.
But be warned: right now there's a lack of real content above level 30, so keeping these new and returning players could be tricky unless content is added regularly to keep people playing.
You can find a 10 day trial version of Star Wars Galaxies on the official website.