Sometimes it's nice to come back to a game after a period of inactivity to see what's all new and exciting in the world you love. For me, it's been a busy summer and I haven't had a lot of time to stay in step with my regular games, so now that the weather is miserable and I'm spending more time indoors again, I find myself playing catch-up.
This has been pretty easy in Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare/EA has been quite generous with their regular updates to the game, and there's loads of new content to get me all caught up and geared well enough that I don't feel half-naked when trying new things. The most recent update, 2.4: The Dread War, introduces a new moon, Oricon, which is a much different experience than the Czerka-controlled moon that was introduced with 2.3: Titans of Industry. 2.3 was all about the new self-contained dailies without a whole lot of story getting in the way. 2.4 continues the story of the Dread Masters, and tasks the player with confronting them on the volcanic moon of Oricon.
Better yet, the single-player missions on Oricon have direct, high-value rewards rather than just grind-for-'em tokens. There are 5 single-player story missions leading up to a pair of operations, and each of the missions rewards a piece of artifact-quality armor with level 66 mods. Since Ogregunk was still rocking a few embarrassing 58s, every mission was a fairly substantial gear upgrade. By the end of it, Ogregunk was pretty much geared up for the operations that cap off the Oricon experience.
It seems wise to do my catching-up now, because there are interesting things in store for SWTOR over the coming months. The game's second expansion, Galactic Starfighter, is scheduled for a December release (for subscribers; everyone else has to wait until January or February), and will finally take space combat off the rails. This is the "Super-Secret Space Project" (or SSSP) that BioWare/EA has been talking about for a long time - pretty much since launch, when people started complaining about the bottled, on-rails space missions not feeling very much like Star Wars.
For whatever reason, though, the much-anticipated free-range space combat won't use the tricked-out starships the characters have been flying since leaving their faction homeworlds. And it will be Player-versus-Player only, with big 12-on-12 battles. It's not going to be the exhilarating sandbox in space that so many of us have been expecting.
The really bizarre thing about the Galactic Starfighter expansion is that
it is planned to launch without much in the way of PvE content of any
kind. According to one post
by Community Manager Eric Musco on the SWTOR forums:
There will not be a new planet and there is no increase to the level cap with this expansion. We really wanted to focus this expansion around space off of rails where you get to fight your friends (and enemies!)
To that point, there will not be any Space based PvE content with the Digital Expansion. It is only going to be PvP.
It's worth noting that he's isn't saying that there will be zero PvE content at all coming with the new expansion. There's no new planet and no level cap increase, and the PvP-only, off-the-rails space combat is the focus of the expansion, but that doesn't mean they might not sneak in a flashpoint or something. Although, by the tone of the message, and by the complete lack of any mention of PvE content in any of the company's press regarding the announced expansion, there probably won't be.
Normally, I hate PvP, and I haven't engaged in much of it in my entire SWTOR career. And I'm certainly not alone in my distaste for PvP. A big chunk of the SWTOR community is there for the story and the Player-versus-Environment gameplay. Many of these players are very vocal about expressing their disappointment over non-PvE space combat. But the idea that Ogregunk could emulate Darth Vader even more by becoming an ace starfighter pilot has a raw appeal that can't be denied. And maybe my Powertech will become the Sith Empire's version of Wedge Antilles... but they're both vastly more likely to flame out and die like Biggs or Porkins.
Even though SWTOR's new space combat will be limited to PvP, it has the potential to greatly change the overall tone of the game. The space battle sequences from the movies are one of the top reasons that the Star Wars franchise has so many fans in the first place, and that's been a core experience that has been missing from the game since launch. The "space combat on rails" system that's currently in place has felt rather flat for the past two years. There's no room for real Han Solo-esque feats of derring-do, or using the Force to guide the proton torpedo into the 2-meter ventilation shaft opening. You can do barrel-rolls all day long, but you cannot deviate from the pre-programmed flight plan - no unexpected charging the Star Destroyer bridge and then button-hooking around to latch onto the hull to avoid detection. Clearly, Han Solo was an exploiter.
The new Galactic Starfighter space combat will have its own system of leveling and progression, according to another post by Eric Muso. This, and the enigmatic reference to "Maximum leveling and progression" on the official Galactic Starfighter page (at the bottom of the Subscriber Early Access column), likely refers to ship upgrades and such - a series of unlocks that one attains via ranking, or by earning space combat tokens and buying starfighter upgrades from a new vendor on fleet, or something along these lines. Evidently, with whatever system they end up using, subscribers will get some kind of bonus and will be able to advance faster than preferred or F2P players.
The Galactic Starfighter space battles will use small ships in a variety of combat roles - think in terms of Star Trek Online's starships, how the science vessels have very different loadouts and capabilities than the gigantic, cumbersome cruisers, which are flying cities built for very long voyages, or the tiny, agile escorts that seem to have one starship weapon per crew member.
SWTOR seems to be following a similar pattern, offering at least three combat roles: Gunships, Strike Fighters and Scouts. Just like in STO, the starship's role is separate from the combat role of the pilot - it is conceivable that a Jedi Guardian could pilot a sneaky Scout starship to track enemy movement and then book out to safety without being seen, and an Imperial Operative could come raging into a dogfight at the helm of a Gunship with all blaster barrels blazing.
Personally, I feel that this kind of new content can only be good for the game, even if it is slated for PvP only. It's something new and fresh that should draw in new players, or coax a few former players into giving the game another shot, and inspire more growth in the rest of the game. It adds a new facet to the PvP game, one that might be more appealing to some players who have otherwise felt uninspired by the current PvP.
Perhaps the new system can even serve as a proving ground for implementing a similar sandbox-style space combat system in the PvE game at a later date. It would take a lot of tweaking and inventive design, I'm guessing, and content would likely have to be designed around it rather than shoehorning the whole complicated mess into the existing on-rails space combat system. But it's a starting point, at least - a foundation upon which great works can be built. That's the essence of every expansion.
And really, the best part of Galactic Starfighter is that the expansion will be completely free... eventually. It will be a tiered release - Subscribers get first access in December, then Preferred Access players a month later in January, and finally F2P players in February. And February is going to be crunch time for SWTOR: Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar are due out shortly after that, and BioWare/EA is going to need to up their game to stay competitive next spring.
What are your thoughts on space combat being PvP-only in the Galactic Starfighter expansion? Let us know in the comments!