Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided Review
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 933 MHz, 256 MB RAM (realistically, start thinking about that upgrade to 512 MB or more), 32 MB video card, internet connection, DirextX 9.0a
The Star Wars license has invaded nearly every other genre of computer and video game in existence, now comes its turn in persistent world online game. With a choice of eight playable species and professions ranging from chef to bounty hunter, here is a chance not just to play in the Star Wars universe, but to live and work in it.
Rob de los Reyes
Although friendlier in many ways to non-powergamers and non-MMOGers than other persistent world games, Star Wars Galaxies remains, like other massively multiplayer online games, not for the faint of heart. Especially now. Nearly a month after its launch, SWG is very much in the throes of gangly adolescence. Though it's possible to spot the mature game creeping out from underneath, it takes the adoring eyes of a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan to look past the bugs, imbalances and half-finished content to see the underlying attractiveness. That attractive game is there now in places, and more attractive features lie just beyond reach, visibly installed, but not yet working as intended.
When it's all working, SWG boasts an impressive undergirding. The learning curve remains as steep as any other in the genre, but the player communication system and user interface are slick, the flexibility in character design impressive, and the opportunities to roleplay deeply imbedded. With any luck, a month from now, you'll be able to append "lots of things to do" to that list since much of what lies ahead is already halfway in-game. For now, arcade excitement comes in bursts – if you're looking for TIE-Fighter or Jedi Knight II, look elsewhere. But the sense of being a person in the Star Wars universe is thick in the air, both compelling and exciting in its own way. It may turn out to be for the best that hardcore fans dive in first. With so much of the action player-driven, SWG desperately needs players to reach the upper echelons of their chosen professions in order to fill out the world. The hardcore can tolerate the grind of being the ones to fill the void; the rest may find SWG easier and more fun to navigate once something of a trail has been cleared.
Early confusion for the new player is partially a result of some of SWG's innovation. In most games in the genre, you create a character by picking a species and picking a character class or profession that will be yours until you stop playing. If you want to play a different class, you create a different character. Here, you'll pick a base profession at creation, but almost certainly want to learn a couple more base professions as soon as you get into the game proper. While there are defined paths to certain advanced professions, nearly all of them leave you with the ability to take on extra skills from professions outside your primary. In other words, you might be a shooter who crafts, a crafter who shoots or a medic who dances and scouts. And you're not stuck with any of those choices. At any point, you can trade skills in to recoup their cost to you (other than the experience accrued) and spend them elsewhere. What is true for your skills is also true for your stats. If you choose to be a dancer at character creation, the game will tilt your personal statistics to aid that choice. But if you change your mind and want to be a fighter, you can trigger a "stat migration" to rearrange them as befits your new direction. This system can leave new players puzzled at first, but is also an interesting change of pace for long-time MMOGers.
But here's the kicker. Unlike other games, you only get one character slot per server. As with many of SWG's designs, this is both a blessing and a curse. Players do, in fact, seem somewhat more mindful of their in-game reputations knowing that they can't simply slip in and out of their "good guy" and "bad guy" characters on the same server. Some people are born jerks no matter what you do, but those on the bubble seem to understand the incentives here. One character per server also makes it easier to find that player you like to hunt with. If he's on, he's on as the same character you hunted with before. Finally, the system cuts down on self-twinking (where you use your higher level character to provide otherwise unattainable levels of cash or items for your lower level character) in favor of coordinated efforts among players, particularly within player associations, to reach expensive goals. These are good things.
On the other hand, one-character-per-server punishes experimenters and tears at player associations. So you've made it most of the way up the ladder as a Combat Medic, and it's taken you a month to do it. And guess what, you decide you hate it because your poisons are underpowered or your heals too expensive or whatever. Most gamers, having invested that much time in a character are loathe to let him go. In other games, you put that character on a shelf, hope for some changes down the line that improve the profession, and create a new character to play in the meantime. In SWG, however, you're faced with a horrible quandary. You can trade in those skills and lose all the experience that went into them, you can create a character on a different server and lose your player association or other network of friends, or you can keep slogging away hoping for a patch sooner rather than later. In a game like Shadowbane, where your character levels up relatively quickly, letting go of one to try another doesn't seem so tragic. The pace of growth is slower in SWG, however, and giving up well-advanced position is agonizing. Worse, maybe you actually enjoy your character and would never give him up, but you just want to try something else. You'll have to do it on another server and probably without your friends.
That same "one step forward, one step back" feeling marks other game systems, as well. Gone from SWG is the nuisance of "spawn camping" where you wait in line to take your turn at bashing a particular monster that yields good experience or good loot. Monsters spawn semi-randomly throughout the world and vanish after a certain level of beating, or are created and destroyed as part of a random mission generation system. Better still, when you take a mission to hunt down creatures (or deliver goods), a waypoint lights up to guide you to your goal rather than forcing you to wander aimlessly in search of your goal. You can also create and name your own waypoints wherever you like to mark areas of interest as you stumble across them – it's both a simple and powerful tool. Now for the step back. The random nature of spawning costs the maps some of their personality. In Dark Age of Camelot, you knew those giants were in the hills in the northeast – don't go there unless you bring a group! – and that to find NPC X, you head west from the fallen tree with that named witch-like mob. Those same defined features that contribute to the spawn camping problem also give the world its personality because you can come to "know" it. It's difficult to get to know the SWG worlds because so much of them are temporary. The effect is to genericize much of the landscape. Static dungeons, "theme parks" and (elective) player-vs-player battlegrounds dot the countryside, but the latter two are substantially non-functional at this point, rendering them non-factors. Getting them up and running will not only add personality, but aid substantially the "things to do" problem. Of course, Dark Age of Camelot was also rife with the now de rigueur "content" problem at launch and found its way into the clear. SWG figures to be headed the same way.
The list goes on. Combat is more advanced in the sense that mobs (a general term for NPC monsters) are smarter in SWG. Animal creatures exhibit interesting behaviors from pack hunting to herd jumpiness. Humanoid creatures will lie flat for defense or take off running in appropriate ways. It's impressive... but often annoying. Running mobs pull groups apart as the melee characters give chase, the riflemen stay put and the medics run around hopelessly trying to keep pace since they have to be almost on top of someone to heal him. And hunting isn't just chaotic, but also a bit generic. One of the great lessons of Diablo II is the thrill of the lottery – kill that mob and he might drop a cool new toy for you to play with. Many mobs in SWG drop nothing at all and the ones who do rarely drop anything worth keeping. It's all very realistic and perhaps even necessary in order to support the crafting professions – which it does fabulously well – but it also sterilizes part of the excitement of the hunt.
But the good news about SWG is that so many of its issues are tied in with genuine advances. It's a problem many games might wish for. Moreover, many of the advances are unburdened. For example, SWG is just plain pretty. Landscapes and cityscapes boast some impressive and varied views, and, with huge varieties of player clothing and base appearance, people-watching is a sport in itself. In addition, SWG is chockablock with easy to use emotes, moods, macros, and interactive scenery that throw open the doors to immersion and roleplaying. Cantinas really are dens of iniquity – I witnessed a dancer carve out a lucrative day's work doing private dances in a side room. Whatever your feelings about the event as such, it's hard not to be impressed with a game that gives the player enough control and enough realism to let it happen. Less ribald, but also interesting, are the medical centers where wounded fighters stumble in from the field and relate their stories while being treated. These areas become effective foci for the trading of skills, sale of goods and formation of hunting parties.
In addition, players can have a tangible effect on the world that is still unusual in the genre. Part of the elaborate system of crafting items includes the establishment and running of personal mines, harvesters and even factories. Together with player housing that can be placed virtually anywhere, such operations tend to result in little ad hoc mining towns, often put together by a single player association. Player-run vendors based in these towns can even appear on the world map given enough time and traffic. When well-run, these towns/shops take on a real life of their own. Finally, you can choose sides in the imperials versus rebels conflict by performing missions for your group of choice. Joining a faction is entirely voluntary, but opens the way not only to player-vs-player combat but other Star Wars-themed goodies as well, such as uniforms, military ranks, and the ability to take control of NPC troopers and combat machinery.
In short, the world of Star Wars is richly in evidence... save two things. Outer space is just that thing above your head, not something you fly around in blasting enemies. If you dream of flying an X-Wing fighter, load up your DOS prompt instead of SWG. No two ways around it, the absence of a space element is a disappointment as is the absence of (non-decorative) land vehicles. Neither substantially detracts from the game experience that is present, but the first game that eliminates mind-numbing 20-minute runs to points of interest wins this reviewer's lifetime subscription. The second absent element is jedi. You cannot choose right off the bat to play as a jedi. Rather, through some undisclosed mechanism that Sony says people are months from triggering, you can eventually open a second, "force-sensitive" character slot on the server you play on. The code is in, they say, but no one has seen or played as a jedi. Here again, the dearth of jedi is totally in keeping with the realism of the world, but like that non-existent loot issue, something of a nuisance. More so because everyone knows there will be jedi at some point. It's difficult to characterize for those who haven't been playing so far, but this prospect of "someday jedi" is like a soft, high-pitched sound at the edge of your hearing range that you can't turn off. To let everyone be a jedi straightaway probably would have been a mistake for a game that is working at the feeling of living in the Star Wars universe. But maybe letting players be a jedi at all is a mistake, too. Where the one-character-per-system works so hard to get players attached to their characters, many players will have the unshakable feeling that they're just marking time until they unlock the force sensitive slot. In any event, the emergence of jedi figures to have a profound impact on SWG one way or the other. You can take your chances now or hold off and see how it pans out.
But first thing's first. Although nowhere near as unstable at this point as many other persistent world games have been at launch, SWG is still far more unstable than it ought to be. Crashes must be fixed, missions de-bugged, and chat mechanisms repaired. Banish these things, and it becomes much easier to be patient about content and skill-balancing issues. With these systems properly cleaned up, players can get on about their business they way they always do in these games and entertain themselves while substantive gameplay issues are resolved. Certainly, SWG already gives you a wealth of tools to tell your own story and make your own mark on the world. The trick is, you'll have to care about that in order to enjoy the game. At some level, you'll have to take some pleasure in the social, roleplaying and "doll house" elements of play, or you'll grow weary well before your first month of play is up. The Star Wars license seems like a burden in some ways because, although it instantly establishes a context for storytelling, it carries the burden of lightsabers and TIE-fighters, neither of which are currently available. Had SWG simply been an original property sci-fi MMORPG, things might be different. Still, for all the elements SWG lacks that other Star Wars games offer, Star Wars Galaxies offers the genuine and unique thrill of inserting yourself into the Star Wars saga in a manner of your own choosing. As long as you don't choose pilot.