Star Wars Galaxies - A New Hope or a Phantom Menace?

Arep | 22 March 2008 | Comments off

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”
Star Wars Galaxies is my high school girlfriend in MMO formI had this girlfriend in high school. When things were good, they were good. The opposite was also true and, in fact, it was bad a heck of a lot more than it was good. She cheated on me repeatedly, talked behind my back and generally treated my heart like a cat treats a litter box. I kept going back...I couldn’t help myself. It took college to finally get myself out of that deathtrap of a relationship. However, years later I still wonder what happened to her...not out of any kind of longing as I am very happily married and like to think that I’ve learned from my mistakes. Its just plain curiosity that makes me wonder...did she get fat, get married, have kids? Star Wars Galaxies is my high school girlfriend in MMO form.

SWG was the first MMO I spent any serious time playing. Like old what’s-her-face, when it was good it was good but it eventually got to the point where it wasn’t often good. However, in the beginning it was great. I remember fondly how my buddy and I entertained travelers in a cantina on Naboo with our music for the first couple of weeks the game was released. Soon, our server filled up and was down more than it was up (anyone remember the early days on Bloodfin?) so we moved elsewhere to new characters with new backgrounds.

Eventually, I became a low ranking member of the Imperial organization with a house on Tatooine. I had a stagnating droid engineer don’t know grinding until you’ve had to make thousands of mouse droids that nobody wanted. It was still alright most of the time but there was a rift growing between us and I should have seen the signs. The Jump To Lightspeed expansion came out and finally, in an MMO about epic space battles, we were allowed off the ground. My droid engineer business converted to spaceship parts and I was actually doing really well for a time. Space was a very nice addition and it was done fairly well. I was even glowing a little, which were the first signs of Jedi-ness.

By that time my buddy had long since stopped playing and the game was losing its hold on me. The grind! It was just like was worse than work! At work at least I could accomplish something at the end of the day. Besides that, there were bugs as faaaar as the eye could see that were just not getting fixed and the list grew with every patch. I left at probably the best time I could have. They released a third expansion and followed it up a few weeks later by completely reworking the game (and making that expansion near useless).

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”
It has now been about 4 years and a number of MMOs later when I download the trial and prepare to step back into Sony’s dark dream of George Lucas’ world. The first thing I notice is that there have been no new races added since I quit. No big deal but the potential in the Star Wars universe for playable races was huge. The next thing I noticed was a reflection of the big change that happened to the game after I left it. It used to be that your character was an open book. You could mix and match skills from thirty-four skill trees. This is gone and it has been replaced by classes...classes with LEVELS! I’ll go into the pros and cons of that a little later but it’s a very big difference from my previous time spent in SWG.

Smugglers have a picture of Han Solo, officers have Princess Leia, and Lando represents what must be the 'Smooth Operator' classTo choose a class you pick one of nine represented by archetypal characters from the Star Wars universe. Smugglers have a picture of Han Solo, officers have Princess Leia, and Lando represents what must be the ‘Smooth Operator’ class. I will not even talk about being able to roll a Jedi right out of the gate after spending so many countless hours trying to become one four years ago. I chose a spy (represented by disguised Leia) since I gravitate towards sneaky characters. Next I am treated to the newbie experience...wait, what?!? There wasn’t one of those before! Well, there was, it was just really short. You now spend some additional time running missions and learning the game before being kicked out into the universe.

Here is where I found my first real annoyance. It used to be you were just some average schmoe who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Imperials destroyed the shuttle you were traveling on and left you penniless to fend for yourself with an insincere apology. You could make your own story. Now you are ‘someone special’ which is demonstrated by you being personally rescued by Han, Chewie and the droids. From that point on throughout the newbie experience you have Star Wars thrown in your face. You run missions for Han, Boba Fett is the bounty hunter trainer, the NPCs mutter memorable quotes from the movies and the cantina has the same song you’ve heard since the first movie came out. Another example of the marketing department’s effort to cram Star Wars down your throat is when you are sent to destroy some droids and each one of them is a copy of a droid you’ve seen before...assassin droid IG-88, an astromech, a protocol droid, a probot all gathered in a room together constantly respawning. Its just a little...much. It feels contrived and almost leaves you muttering “Its Star Wars, alright I get it!” Heck, to fit the factional choice between Rebel and Empire in the dialogue they have Han telling you he doesn’t care which side you work for. Er, okaaay…

Once the newbie experience ends you are dumped off by Han on Tatooine and he sends you on a quest to get parts for your own landspeeder. In doing so, I discovered a small Tusken Raider village right outside Mos Eisley. Remembering how much of a punch those guys packed in the old days I was a bit taken aback. However, I charged in and mowed them down with little trouble. Once you’ve gathered the parts, Han tells you that Jabba is going to strong-arm you into working for him for the same mysterious reason the Imperials were interested in you. I would have thought Han had better things to do but he’s spent most of his time stalking me. It gives the major characters more life but back in the old days you had to work through the ranks of each faction in order to have meaningful contact with your childhood idols. From a pure marketing standpoint, I understand this change. It will just take some getting used to.

“Power! Unlimited power!”
The next day I started a new character and I just had to roll a Jedi. The one thing that angered a lot of folks with the epic change was that no longer did it require months of grinding and questing in order to access a Jedi as a playable character. However, the benefit is that it no longer takes months of grinding and questing to play as a Jedi. In the old system, the game secretly and randomly chose a number of skill trees your character had to master before being able to unlock a Jedi. Holocrons scattered as loot throughout the game would give you hints. Later on, they made the path to becoming a Jedi quest-based but it still came with an incredible grind. Yes, making Jedi a playable class from day one was a raw deal to veterans who worked so hard but for new (and returning) players it provides you with the chance to play an iconic character. Jedi are a big part of Star Wars and its difficult to justify not being able to play them. Again, its a controversial marketing decision that makes sense if you are trying to attract new players.

“They told me they fixed it! It’s not my fault!”
Unfortunately, some things have not changed. Mobs still spawn in rocks and walls, which is frustrating. You can still get shot through the landscape. There seems to still be a constant rebalancing of classes, followed by calls for nerfs and accusations of ‘flavors of the month’ where one class is perceived as being favored by the devs and everyone jumps to it. The interface seems clunky in comparison to newer MMOs. Don’t spend a lot of time reading the official forums because you will soon get dismayed. The ‘outspoken minority’ still seems to rule and they haven’t matured much in the last four years. One good point is that the visuals are pretty much as I remember and do the job quite nicely, on par with EverQuest 2.

There have been some other additions in the last four years besides the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancement, Sony’s marketing department’s terms for the big revamps that happened in 2005. They have adopted EQ2’s collection system. You can find items through quests and on the landscape that you put in your collection and when you have the entire set you get a reward. I liked that system in EQ2 so for me it’s a welcome addition here. They have also taken the character class customization system from EQ2 where you earn skill points you can assign to a number of upgradeable skills that vary depending on your class. The combat system is a lot like EQ2 as well, except that, by default, instead of auto-attacking you have to keep clicking. Thankfully, that can be changed. All we need now is the planet Norrath.

“I sense something, a presence I haven’t felt since...”
Once the pop-up clouds cleared I found myself sitting alone in the Tatooine desert and stripped completely naked! Yikes!After creating some new characters, it was now time to see how old ones had weathered the changes of the last 4 years. I reactivated my old subscription and was pleasantly surprised to find my characters still existed! I logged in my main character, the first Arep! He was the droid engineer/shipwright/swordsman/merchant and aspiring Jedi. I was greeted immediately with a number of pop-ups including the one that had me choose a new class. Not having had the time to fully explore the Jedi, I chose that one. I was immediately leveled up to 37 and it back-filled all of the skills I would have earned along the way. Once the pop-up clouds cleared I found myself sitting alone in the Tatooine desert and stripped completely naked! Yikes! Turns out that none of my former armor and weapons were compatible with my new class. My inventory was bursting with old resources, crafting equipment and the clothing I could no longer wear. I also had two Jedi quest items that I would have gotten at earlier levels. Those started me on my way to getting my lightsaber which didn’t take me too long to procure.

I had a number of other goodies, too. An AT-RT mount (the precursor to the AT-ST ‘chicken walker’ that you see in Episode III) which apparently is in high demand. I chose to keep it, though because it looked cool and was nice and fast. I also had a ‘respec’ token that was good for 10 class changes. Great googity-moogity! There are only nine classes in the about indecisive. Looking through my inventory, bank vault and datapad was like waxing nostalgic after finding a box of junk from your childhood. I also discovered that I was rich! I had over a million credits which probably didn’t really amount to much in game terms but it was a lot more than I remember having. It was more than enough to find a medium house and dump maintenance in it good for 231 days with still over a million credits left over. I’m sure its only a drop in the bucket for some of the nice equipment I am going to need. I plopped the house down near Bestine on Tatooine very close to where my old house was. I spent the evening claiming and placing in my house almost five years of veteran rewards. The crowning achievement was the Gungan encased in Carbonite that I now have mounted on my wall, seconded only by the Emperor’s chair.

“Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy”
Obviously, I still have a lot to learn (and relearn) about the new Star Wars Galaxies. It has only been a handful of days and it would take a lot longer than that to see everything that the game has to offer. I can say that this is not the nightmare that I had expected. They have addressed a lot of the problems that sent me packing in the first place. It is clear though that Sony’s has definitely placed SWG in ‘caretaker’ mode. There has been new periodic content released and efforts to address player concerns about classes but I really don’t see any big new development efforts happening such as new planets or classes. The timeline for the game is still stuck between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. *Editor’s note: since writing this they’ve announced a Battle of Hoth expansion...shows how much I know!*

The new character class system with level grinding in place of skill grinding will take some getting used to but on the surface I think it works well. The unfortunate result is that this game feels like EQ2 with Star Wars instead of something unique like it once was. However, unique is only good if it works well and the old SWG clearly did not. I would encourage any Star Wars fans and ex-SWG players reading this to give the 14-day trial a go. You might be surprised with what you find. Do not go into this with any preconceived notions of how the game used to play, far too much has changed for that. I think I am intrigued enough to stick around for a month or so beyond my trial to see if it brings back that lovin’ feeling...just don’t tell my wife. 

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