Star Wars: Galaxies - An Empire Divided
It's a deep, complex gaming experience that feels utterly disconnected from the excitement and mystique of the universe it's based upon.
But not all hope is lost. In the online world, games can improve in just a few months. Unfortunately, Star Wars Galaxies has a long way to go if it's going to warm gamers' hearts the way Hamill, Ford and the gang did way back in 77.
Boba Fett? Where?
You begin by creating a character from a wide range of races and character classes. You can play as Human, Bothan, Mon Calamari, Rodian, Trandoshan, Twi'lek, Wookiee, or Darth Maul lookie-likees the Zabrak. Each race has certain innate abilities and attribute modifiers - Bothans, for example, are quick but not very strong, while the reptilian Trandoshans are stronger than average, but clumsy and dumb. Even better, Galaxies offers so many options for customising your character's looks that it is rare to encounter a character who looks just like you. Quite a feat where the Wookiees are involved.
After choosing a race, you select a profession. While eventually your character can become anything from a bounty hunter to a bio-engineer, you begin with a more simple choice of six starting professions -artisan, brawler, entertainer, marksman, medic or scout. Thankfully, these first choices do not lock you into one career path. Instead, they provide your character with initial skills that you can hone or forego in favour of new ones, en route to becoming a bigger, better you.
The Wookiee Watusi
Particularly interesting in Galaxies are non-combat oriented professions such as artisans and entertainers. Artisans are essentially crafters, skilled at building items and locating resources. Cleverly, they are encouraged to build and sell weapons and other objects through a simple reward mechanism: every kill a player makes with a weapon crafted by an artisan delivers a small amount of experience points to the character who built the weapon. Later in the game, when a Galactic Civil war has been hinted at, artisans who have begun to explore the Hybrid and Elite-level professions will be able to build special battlefield structures that can turn the tide of war.
The entertainer profession is equally interesting. Entertainers can dance, play music, and even design holographic images for other characters, healing minds and bodies with their art. Like J-Lo. Watching street performers dance their way to experience points in cities and populated settlements across the galaxy clearly shows the design team's Ultima Online roots. Unfortunately, these noncombat professions are not that accessible to gamers new to online role-playing because they require intimidating special commands like "/FLOURISH 6". Being an entertainer or an artisan requires patience and more than a little creativity, but offers up a welcome departure from the usual early game rat and snake killing.
After you choose your character and make your way through a tutorial that explains basic mechanics, it's time to choose a destination from which to begin your new life. Naboo, Coreilia, Talus, and Tatooine await. Your first step into the great wide open will likely be an impressive one, because Galaxies is easily the bestlooking MMORPG currently on the market. Settings Star Wars fans know and love well, such as the cantinas and other low-hung buildings at Mos Eisley, and Naboo's majestic towers and skyscrapers, have been faithfully recreated in such a way that it's hard not to gawk. At moments like these, playing Galaxies will make you feel like you're walking around a giant real-life studio.
The characters, creatures, and monsters in the game - both Al-controlled and human - look similarly fantastic, with smooth texture-mapping and fluid animations. While the occasional clipping does occur, and not all the animations are quite right, Galaxies easily exceeds the current standard.
Unfortunately, as Master Yoda would say, "Pretty pictures a great game do not make." For many, the awe and wonder at the gorgeous settings, hundreds of character types, and wide open universe will quickly mutate into frustration, confusion, and emptiness as it becomes apparent the only way to develop your character's abilities and skills involves a MMORPG shortcoming so prevalent it has its own nickname: Grinding.
Hunt And Grind
Four and a half years after the release of EverQuest, you'd think Sony Online would have figured out a more exciting way to immerse gamers in the Star Wars universe besides forcing us to s-l-o-w-l-y grind our way towards level-ups and character improvements by taking on the same old boring starter missions time and time again.
Bequeathed at Mission kiosks scattered across the universe and by talking to NPCs on various worlds, the quests here are no different than anything gamers have already seen: escort this person, destroy the insect creatures' nest, deliver these documents - isn't the Star Wars universe supposed to be more exciting than this? To be fair, later missions in the game do involve more action and group dynamics, but it requires an enormous amount of patience to get this far.
To break up the monotony of grinding, you can work on other skills such as land surveying and building weapons. Or you can chat with some of the half a million other subscribers, although seeing a Wookiee say, "What's up, dude?" is a horrible downside, completely puncturing the Star Wars vibe.
Worse than the tedium of grinding out mission after mission is the buggy state of the game's quest system, which often breaks mid-mission. Example: after spending 45 minutes wandering the desert of Tatooine searching for Jabba's henchman (needed to negotiate a treaty), you finally find the guy, bring him back, and blam! Suddenly no one knows who you are. Including the mayor who gave you the quest.
Rest assured that Sony Online and LucasArts are working hard to fix this, but at launch this problem was so widespread that literally thousands of incidents were reported on the Galaxies message boards. Even though most of the missions aren't very exciting, if you find the right NPC characters, you'll wind up engaging in an escalating series of missions that may land you in various 'theme parks' - sets and environments straight from the movies like Jabba's Palace.
Don't Get Cocky Kid
Combat in SWG is handled in a simplified fashion that mirrors EverQuest. You target your enemy via the game's radial menu system, and the game engine determines the results by calculating postures, to-hit percentages, and a myriad of other RPG factors.
Unfortunately, this works much better in low-tech swords-and-sorcery worlds like EverQuest than in a sci-fi environment. When laser pistols and energy crossbows are the weapons, the well-trained inner gamer inside us quickly snaps into first-person shooter mode.
When you do kill a monster, the only rewards besides experience points are credits. In line with Galaxies' 'players only' philosophy - which is hyperfocused on a player-generated economy - no 'magical' weapons or items are dropped by opponents you kill.
At odds with that philosophy though, random violence does not exist in the Galaxies universe. One-on-one PvP only occurs when someone accepts your challenge to duel. And when it does occur, these shortterm battles are strictly head-to-head. Gamers expecting the thrill of leading the life of an outland robber will be sorely disappointed.
Wide-scale player versus player combat does exist, but only in designated areas named Battlefields. Here, the Empire and Rebel Alliance fight one another in an interesting game form that's part Diablo, part Counter-Strike.
Thankfully, death is gracefully handled. Instead of immediately kicking the space bucket the moment your ratings hit zero, your character becomes incapacitated (or 'incapped' in SWG parlance) for around a minute. If someone strikes you with a deathblow while you're incapped, you die and are reincarnated at the last city centre you visited or, if you were smart, the last cloning facility you activated.
By allowing players to insure their items (for a price) before leaving a city centre, Galaxies allows you to avoid having to retrieve your belongings in the unfortunate case of death. Another nice touch is the game's new players' exemption, which grants newbies item insurance without the cost.
Your Powers Are Weak
Star Wars Galaxies is unquestionably deep, perhaps the deepest of all MMOGs. With a massive eBay-like bartering system, a player-generated economy, and a plethora of career choices, it's also more than a little flexible.
But at its heart, the whole experience doesn't feel all that different from EverQuest, which is a big problem for LucasArts, which has high hopes for converting non-online players to online gaming. To the newbie, however, monotonous quests and complicated character sheets are more intimidating than a flight simulator.
EverQuest fans and gamers familiar with the online experience will doubtless find some value in Galaxies, particularly as Sony fixes, improves and tweaks away. Who knows? In a year, it might be a worthwhile experience for all of us.
A Global Market Divided
As Is Probably Apparent By Now, Star Wars Galaxies Is A Us-Only Release At Present.
Quite why Sony/LucasArts decided to bring the release date forward by half a year is open to more speculation than the Dale Winton marriage, but what is in no doubt is that releasing in such an obviously unfinished state has meant a wealth of problems for both the developers and the subscribers.
As we go to press, Activision (LucasArts publisher in the UK) has no official word on a European release (although it is available to buy and play on import) and there are no plans to offer support for anyone outside North America. Rumblings on the grapevine seem to suggest that we might well see SWG in our neck of the woods by Christmas. By which time most of the bugs, problems and omissions may well have been taken care of. If this is the case then we'll take another look at the game closer to that time. At the moment though, SWG is for die-hard Star Wars fans with access to a good importer only.
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Confession time. I always thought the stormtroopers in Star Wars were robots. Seriously. I simply imagined Luke and Han spent half an hour or so stripping all the wires out of the two they lured into the Falcon in Episode IV, before putting on their outer casings. I just figured Obi-Wan was manipulating their programming with the Jedi mind trick on Tatooine. And to be honest, I still do. Clones? Not for me, suckers.
You see, that was always the beauty of the Star Wars universe prior to The Phantom Menace - it belonged to us. We made up the rules of the universe as we wanted them to be. But with all this clone rubbish and midi-chlorian bullshit, Lucas has basically raped our childhoods, taken our imaginations and stamped his great big boot of authorisation all over them. In the process, he's milked every last drop of credibility from his reputation by merchandising anything not bolted down. And then, just to top it all off like a giant turd on the mountain of our broken dreams, he created Jar Jar Binks.
Feel The Force
The potential that lay behind Star Wars Galaxies, therefore, was always going to outweigh any realistic implementation of its gameplay. This was, after all, a chance for us to put a comforting arm around the sobbing child in our minds, to reshape Star Wars the way we wanted it. Sure, there'd be rules to follow - it's a game, after all. But we could finally put the nightmare of Episodes I, II & III behind us. And yes, we know Star Wars: Episode III has yet to appear, but honestly, with the track record so far... Unfortunately, we saw the American launch of the game six months or so ago, and it confirmed our worst fears. Far from being set free, the sobbing child was kicked in the ribs and our spirits sank further still.
The biggest problem for most was simply that, aside from the outer casings, this had as much to do with the fictional universe we still hopefully clung to as Luke and Han did to those stormtroopers. Sure, there was Tatooine and there were the wookiees and there was that funny blue fella with the elephant nose that plays the piano. But seriously, what was with all this campsite crafting and butterfly hunting and resource surveying hogwash? Where were all the epic struggles against the Empire, the rescuing of princesses from Death Stars and where, for the love of Michael Aspel, were the X-Wings? This was Star Wars, remember?
Here's The Rub
Of course, what LucasArts/Sony had done was take the easy way out. Rather than radically rethink the entire MMOG ethos in order to create a compelling online experience for Jedi wannabes everywhere, they instead took the existing, profitable, Everquest model and slapped a Star Wars skin on top. Some reworking of the game rules here and there, although nothing that hasn't been seen anywhere else, and a better graphics engine, and that's your lot. Off you go, grinding out those levels through the same k, old action repetition, the occasional nod towards the films your only reward.
So it's rubbish, then? Well, that's the odd part. No, it isn't. In no sense can you describe Star Wars Galaxies as a rubbish MMOG. You can criticise it all you want for not being the grand Star Wars MMOG experience we all wanted it to be. However, if you push all the licensed baggage to one side and just view it as a generic sci-fi themed RPG, there's a lot to admire.
Most of the problems associated with the US launch have been eradicated and the two European servers are the places to be if you want a friendly, social experience. Within my first two hours in SWG, I'd been taught every language in the game and a host of advanced skills by helpful players, something encouraged by the very competent skill system at work. You're rewarded for doing just about anything, including helping others.
It's still mired in the same basic set-up as every other MMOG - most notably EverQuest as you'd expect being from Sony. And with the recent additions to the game - player housing, mounts, vehicles and the no-longer mythical Jedi, it's starting to carve out an identity of its own. Indeed, player-created towns and villages add colour and character that wouldn't have been possible if LucasArts had insisted that the universe stays true to the Star Wars back-story.
Here's The Rub
In fact, that's perhaps the biggest lesson that LucasArts has had to learn - and thankfully it appears not to have dropped the ball this time. The more it tries to stay faithful to Star Wars, the less appealing it's going to be because, despite our childhood dreams, the truth is that as an entity. Star Wars isn't suited to persistent world gameplay. It's a saga that needs structured storylines with beginnings, middles and ends.
As George Lucas continues to pollute the worlds' he created, the best thing Star Wars Galaxies can do is continue to grow apart from the increasingly flawed universe it came from and find its own destiny in the stars.
The ultimate power in the online universe is almost ready to be unleashed. Once Star Wars Galaxies becomes fully operational you will be blown away, much like the unfortunate residents of Alderaan. Beta-testing for LucasArts' first foray into online gaming is well underway, and though many have died to bring us this information, our spies are more than a little impressed. Most who have come into direct contact with the game are, being American, keen to stress the awesome" nature of the graphics, but the really exciting news is that the game apparently manages to be accessible to online role-playing newbies without ever patronising the hardcore.
But we should back up a bit just in case a few of you are yet to become excited about this game, clearly the best reason yet to give up your dayjob and start a new life in the virtual realm. Set after the destruction of the first Death Star, Galaxies will initially offer eight different species to play as (from Rodianan to Wookiee), with at least eight planets on which to begin your Star Wars career, this number is to grow into the teens in the months following launch. Initial planets will include Tatooine and Endor, plus a couple of worlds new to most fans (but not Alderaan, clearly). If you wish you can elect to be a droid engineer, a doctor, a musician or even a chef. However, only the most dedicated (and lucky) can ever hope to become a Jedi Knight. As to owning Speeders, Droids, pets and houses, setting up businesses or fighting for the Empire, the answer is yes. The only thing you won't be able to do is assassinate the Star Wars cast or bullseye womp rats in yourT-16, although you may if you're in the right place at the wrong time, find yourself holding the door open for Darth Vader, just don't expect him to thank you for it.