Updated Sun, May 06, 2007 by Ethec
If any publicity is good publicity, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) must be rolling in good publicity. Most games release expansions, and SOE / LucasArts have been fairly liberal with their content updates, sporting "Jump to Lightspeed" (which introduced spaceship combat / travel in October 2004), and two recent expansions timed to release harmoniously with the theatrical and DVD debut of Star Wars: Episode III, respectively: "Rage of the Wookies" (May 2005) and "Trials of Obi-Wan" (November 2005).
But, in contrast to other MMOs, where expansions make a big splash in the press, SWG's retail expansions have hardly registered a media blip. Instead, SWG's developers have, for better or worse, twice foisted a set of from-the-ground-up sweeping changes upon their alternately hopeful and exasperated gaming community. First. in April 2005 came the nefarious "Combat Changes" - a move that made combat more... involved (and, some might say, "button-mashing console gamer friendly" - a departure from slower-paced, more tactical combat of traditional MMOs) and put many a dancing, mind-healing entertainer out of business with its newly casual take on long-term combat wounds.
If the first retooling was unprecedented in a major MMORPG, the second left many gamers and media pundits stunned. LucasArts reputedly pressed SOE into a another round of deeper changes directed towards making the "meat" of the game even more accessible to the casual gamer, and the New Game Enhancements (or "NGE") bounded onto the scene in explosive fashion. NGE came a mere two weeks after the anachronistic "Trials of Obi-Wan" release, prompting SOE to provide optional expansion refunds and some free time to the reportedly large percentage of gamers that stuck around. When the faithful logged in on November 16th, they found that SWG's 32 professions (or "classes" in traditional MMO parlance; roles which you assume and/or grow into as your character trains and develops) was reduced to the 9 professions the powers that be deemed most popular and best themed to the "Star Wars universe." Some roles, like "Commando" and the ubiquitous "Jedi" were kept, others were consolidated ("Combat Medic" and "Doctor" became "Medic," for example, and the numerous artistic professions were merged into "Entertainer"), and some professions were abandoned ("Animal Trainer" and "Bio-Engineer," for two).
While SOE / LucasArts maintains that subscriber numbers (especially re-subscriber numbers) have shown steady growth since the NGE was implemented, many fans expressed shock and horror, at least at first. Mainstream media outlets picked up on the discontent; running headlines like "Dumbing Down Virtual 'Star Wars' May Backfire" (Christian Science Monitor), "For Online Star Wars Game, It's Revenge of the Fans" (New York Times), and "Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy" (Wired).
We watched and waited for the upheaval to die down a bit, then it was time for TenTonHammer to investigate. As I'm just trying to get a handle on the new profession structure and combat system, I'll admit to playing only the free trial. If I like what I see, I'll play and review more. If not... well, if the developers saved their most compelling stuff for the paying game, they get an "F" in marketing! Most gamers are "hooked or cooked" in the first session of MMORPG gameplay, so here I go. It's a galaxy far, far away from my last SWG experience two years ago.
When I played SWG just after it was released, I was generally pleased with its innovative attempt at multiclassing. Unlike traditional MMOs, pre-NGE you didn't pick a linear path at the start of the game, but rather trained a skill by learning from other players and NPC trainers after you'd collected enough experience points by using the skill. For example, my Bothan scout built up his wilderness survival skill by setting up camps outside cities, where doctors and entertainers could heal wounds. When he had enough training points, he'd seek out a NPC or a master scout who, for a nominal fee, would raise his skill. A single character could become a master doctor, smuggler extraordinaire, experienced bounty hunter, and play just about any other role in the game simply by changing out his or her profession tree path and pursuing new interests.
Granted, under the pre-NGE system: 1) figuring out the right blend of training to become what you wanted to be was fairly complex, 2) a lot of skill tree paths pretty much led to dead ends ("wilderness survival" being one) that simply became a liability to your scarce allotment of training points, and 3) it hurt to surrender hard-earned status point to change professions. But pain is part of the glory, and for the alt-adverse such as myself, it was handy to keep the same "look" if you decided to explore a different path.
As for the "dead end" issue; NGE was supposed to burn out the dross, the loose ends and wild goose chases, in the system. It did, but as I logged into the game and created a new character, I felt a little boxed in. The cure might have been worse than the disease, for to me, the open-endedness in pre-NGE SWG helped the game to become more like a world and less like I was inching along a linear storyboard. You pick a profession when you create your character, and you're stuck with it forever after. I suppose you can create alternate characters to try out all the facets of the game, and some people love a stable full of alts. But developing characters takes time, and for most of us who have limited time to play and want to make serious progress, it's a high level main character or bust. Therefore, I choose my profession or class carefully.
But the "pick a profession" page left me with more questions than answers. "Jedi" I know, the role of a "Medic" I can understand, a "Commando" I can place, but how does a "Spy" or a "Bounty Hunter" fit into the communal experience of an MMORPG? It seems like these professions need an entire portion of the game dedicated to them, which seems to put a nix on the "massively multiplayer" part of the game. This was fine in the olden days when just about everyone was experimenting with their particular niche, but in post-NGE times, building content around one profession seems wrong, especially when Jedi are nothing special. And the Officer profession, shouldn't this be something you grow into through service to the Empire or the Rebel cause, or is the Galactic Civil War just a sideshow these days?
Furthermore, do Traders spec'ed in "domestic goods" just sit around making clothing and food all day? This doesn't sound like compelling gameplay; while clothing and food have their kitschy place in any MMO, it's best left to a fun metagame feature that any adventuring class can participate in. Open the Trader and Entertainer professions up to the mainstream players as a leisurely pursuit, an occasional distraction from the levelling treadmill. This has been the formula for tradeskill / fluff content since the genre was invented, and it works precisely because it multiplies the number of unique game mechanics available to a given character. (Game mechanics are the interesting facets of the game any individual player can explore. The going theory is that the number, quality, and depth of a game's unique mechanics is directly proportional to a gamer's sense of fun).
But, bah, I'm being a little too harsh without playing the game, right? Let's jump in! I picked (what else?) Jedi; who doesn't want to be a Jedi? Apparently no one on the newbie station, but we'll get to that.
The developers set out to create a mindblowingly fast-paced newbie experience that places you squarely in the Star Wars universe, an experience that makes you feel like a hero from the get-go. As far as immersion factor, they did well. You wake up on an exploding Imperial space station to learn the basics of movement and combat. Before you know it, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 arrive to rescue you. In my previous SWG experience, I played for about a month before I found C3PO hiding out in a secret Rebel installation, so finding a movie character so early was something of a novelty. On top of that, there's the distinct John Williams-inspired soundtrack to greet your every move. The harrowing themes are part and parcel with the Star Wars experience, and offer perhaps the strongest tie between the game and its roots.
Seeing so many Star Wars characters so soon (these 3, plus Boba Fett on the neutral space station you escape to next) is a natural high, but couldn't it cheapen the experience as you progress? This isn't a console RPG, you will be off to explore entire planets at your own pace before long, and the initial onslaught of themed characters might be something of a premature climax; players might be less willing to engage the storyline later on if they're disappointed with the less-than-convincing voiceover talent and artwork experienced early on.
While we're on the subject of graphics, I have to say that SWG's graphics were an immediate disappointment, and offered nothing like the sweeping, otherworldly vistas I remembered from my first SWG experience. Onboard the Millenium Falcon, after escaping from the Imperial station, you're asked to man the turrets. Background textures (nebula and such) aside, I'd swear I was playing X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter on my old Tandy computer. This, by the way, was a great game with immense fun and replay value (I soon found out that space combat in SWG was equally fun, but became mindnumbingly rote after a level or two), but come on! If I spot the devs a few years and say this is 2003, I still shouldn't be able to count individual square pixels. If this was an attempt at the retro stylings of Episodes 4-6, in my book the attempt failed.
When we arrived at the neutral station, the nastiest surprise was lag, lots of lag. My rig handles today's graphics-intensive games with ease, but for SWG I had to viciously scale back settings before the frame rate got above a barely playable 10 / sec. Even afterwards, the game seemed to move faster than it could load. The elevators jerk you down or up a level in a split-second (literally - they put the "hyper" in hyperlift), but you'll go tear-assing into the cantina (characters seem to move at something like 200% movement speed all the time) and you'll have to wait a few seconds for the NPCs to appear. Also, after trying out several character models I've noticed an unsettling "slippery floor" quirk, resulting from the character's gait being unnaturally faster than the actual movement rate. Another painful quirk; the dialog boxes which come up when you converse with NPCs actually move with their (sometimes spasmodic) gestures. When I talk to an NPC, I sometimes feel like I'm trying to shoot Bin Laden in one of those "Win a PS3!" banner ads.
Combat is all about how quick you can click. Through level five I found no reason to resort to my special abilities; just avoid drawing the attention of more than one enemy, then left-click that enemy to death (it'll take about 12 clicks with the newbie bowcaster my jedi wookie could (for some reason) equip -- I thought Jedi had rules about using blasters and such!). Again, this is not compelling combat; I've had fiercer battles with pop-up ads. In most MMOs, it's foolhardy to try and grind early levels; you do much better by completing missions, in terms of experience bonuses and loot. In SWG, the loot's there, but I'm not so sure about the bonus xp. It might be faster to kill enemies than run the circuitous route from the "job requisitions officer" to the mission-giver to the objective to the mission-giver to the "job-requisitions officer." If it sounds tedious, it is. And the flying missions are even worse. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to dock at a neighboring station before I realized that the pop-up admonishment to "click and hold" the alt key to bring up mouse-mode (and thereby gain the coveted ability click on the "I want to dock, dammit!" option) actually meant "click and release as fast as possible." I checked the calendar just to be sure, and it wasn't April Fool's Day.
It's not all bad news. The graphics include plenty of themed elements (there's something about burnt orange stripes that just screams Star Wars), and the writing (if not the presentation) of dialogues you encounter is convincing. The user interface has always been one of SWG's best points, in my opinion, and I was especially glad to see that the map overlay (no other MMO does mapping better) survived the changes.
A New Hope?
In many minds, Star Wars Galaxies is the genre's biggest disappointment. Undoubtedly, no developer has, in the course of a game's lifetime, endeavored to give its community such an ambitious range of virtual experiences based on a reality that resonates over time and culture. From piloting spacecraft manufactured by another player; to the struggles of Jedi and Sith, Rebel and Empire; to giving real meaning to the role of dancer or musician; to one-of-a-kind professions such as bounty hunter... once upon a time, many of us thought that Star Wars Galaxies would be the One to bring MMORPG to the masses. But nowadays, all SWG can boast of is the number of different games it became in the course of its lifetime.
As I played SWG in its current form, I could almost feel the tension between SOE, the SWG subscriber community, and LucasArts. If I didn't know better, I'd say that the game was sabotaged; undermined in a final effort to mollify LucasArts and the fanbase. It was as if SOE threw up its hands and yelled, "You want an MMORPG that plays like Knights of the Old Republic? You want easy Jedi and a simple, shallow character progression scheme? Here ya go!" If nothing else, SWG stands as a powerful warning to other developers seeking to make licensed MMORPGs (perpetual-world games based on Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien's Middle Earth, the Star Trek universe, and Warhammer lore are in the works or nearing completion). If two constituencies (shareholders and subscriber-base) are company, three is a crowd. The third voice, the licensor, is arguably the strongest.
With industry buzz and rumors flying that SOE may not renew its license with LucasArts in early 2006, Star Wars Galaxies may end just like Episode III -- suddenly, and not with a bang, but a whimper. Perhaps in a decade, with the 16th re-release of the epic series on whatever movie format we use in that day, we might get word that a bright young developer has some fresh ideas about bringing us the Galactic Civil War in interactive fashion. If so, I'll be the first in line.
|Ten Ton Recommendation:|
Have an all-night movie marathon to get your Star Wars fix, and let this MMO become one with the force.