Star Wars Galaxies Review
Few games have been more anticipated over the last couple of years than Star Wars Galaxies, Sony's flagship MMORPG which is their most highly-touted product since Everquest. After a somewhat-successful beta, SWG has been out for over a month now; it's definitely a unique game, but is it worth it for a Star Wars fan to play? How about your average MMORPG player?
Galaxies uses a new game engine that is quite beautiful; the visuals give off a great first impression. Frame rates aren't the best, but then again, frame rates aren't the most important thing for these types of games. There are quite a few graphic options available for you to tune performance, although it seems that every once in a while, choppy gameplay is a bit unavoidable.
SWG started off with a rather rocky launch; it wasn't as bad as some other games, but several server issues turned people off of the game right away. It's been mostly smooth sailing from there on out, though, and improvements are being made to the game's overall stability at a very rapid rate.
The one key area that Sony has made little progress in is with the chat system; on the Bloodfin server (and possibly on other servers), chat channels will just stop working randomly, with no notice or feedback at all. This is unacceptable for a game where communication is key; having all private tells or guild chat go out on you is infuriating. How the game has gone this long without any headway towards a fix is unbelievable. Again, the assumption is that eventually Sony will get around to a fix, but the fact that it's been this long is very disappointing.
Star Wars Galaxies has a very complex interface that may take you a bit of time to get used to, but it's probably the best one out there for any online game. Just like Windows itself, the game includes plenty of configurable options that pop up for you to mess with, resize, and otherwise configure to your liking. The controls are robust and allow you to play it like a first person shooter, third person action game, or even from something like a top-down, Ultima Online like isometric perspective.
The learning curve on SWG is pretty high; first-time MMORPG players will undoubtedly get lost in the myriad of windows, menus, and more. And that's not even considering the gameplay. Sony does supply plenty of help, and the descriptions of each window that pop up are very useful. Still, the interface does take some getting used to, but once that has been tackled, it's an excellent platform from which to play.
Many of the best options that were added into Everquest's interface are here, although some of them have changed. You can configure your chat windows and text colors, although here multiple windows show up as "tabs" which you can switch through. Full control configuration and even a choice of HUD color schemes all add up to the best interface in any game in the genre.
I haven't played every massive game out there, but SWG is the first MMORPG I've seen with a full email system; you can even attach things like a waypoint to a specific location into a message. The best part is that just like internet email, the recipient doesn't have to be online to receive it. It baffles me that MMORPG's have gone without this highly useful feature for years. Anarchy Online did include a rudimentary offline messaging system, but it was nowhere near as robust as this one. Hopefully this will spur other companies into putting this into their games, as it is extremely handy.
As I said, SWG gives off a great first impression; visually, it feels very much like Star Wars. The character creation system is excellent, and the worlds themselves are a sight to behold. After a few days of seeing the highly expansive territory, though, you might start wondering where the uniqueness is.
Each planet has huge areas full of enemies and the like, but there are few unique landmarks or major sights to see. Basically, exploring just for the sake of going out to explore is boring in SWG. While the seamless, no-zoning world is great on paper and has been seen in a few MMORPGs so far, I have to wonder if it's really helped the genre overall. Everquest had separate zones, each of which was a unique experience with its own monsters, atmosphere, and look. In SWG, you can travel a mile and just see a few similar monster variations and the same hills and lakes as you do everywhere else.
The visual effects are overall pretty good, although you won't see them that often. Explosives look great, but so few players actually use them - most of the time you'll see melee attacks and some blaster shots. The cities are large and convincing, and there are several of them on each of the game's major planets. We also get a full day/night system that thankfully doesn't leave you totally blind at night. The rain effects aren't the best looking, but this game makes up for it visually in other ways.
The enemies you fight are disappointing at best, and they are far more like your average MMORPG than what you'd expect from the holy trilogy. You'll go up against all kinds of fantasy-style monsters, a mix of humanoid NPCs, and there are a few of the good Star Wars-type enemies like AT-ST walkers. Most of the time, though, I found myself going up against random monsters that have little to do with Star Wars at all; this sort of thing just kills the immersion for me. Simply having the familiar soundtrack playing during a fight doesn't convince me I'm in a Star Wars world.
The first thing to notice is that Galaxies is a completely skill-based game where there are no true levels. When you create your character, the stats you have aren't going to go up any more - although you can rearrange stat pointsd at the beginning and even after your character has been created. Even though there are no levels, you do gain experience which is gained in specific categories; kill enemies with your pistol and you will gain Pistol experience which allow you to level up that specific skill.
SWG is a pretty ambitious game when it comes to player interaction. Armor, weapons, clothes, buildings, food, and more are all created by players that harvest or mine raw materials to make these items out of. This is both good and bad; crafters will have to locate these raw materials, either from monster corpses, bought from other players, or mined from the ground. Then they must go through some tedious clickfests to build their skill, and then sell the finished items to other players.
SWG does offer up plenty of professions: melee weaponry, rifles, pistols, healers, creature handlers (Rancors included), droid expert, and the various crafting and entertainment classes. Characters have the option to pick any number of skills they want, and in any combination as long as they follow the skill trees. Want to be a Novice Dancer and an Expert Pistoleer? It's doable. There is a limit to the number of skills you can have, so you can't wind up being an expert at everything. Unlearning any skill is as easy as a click, although any experience points you learned for that specific skill get flushed down the toilet.
Combine this with the stat migration tool which allows you to slowly change your character by little amounts, and over time he or she could be totally different in almost every way. You are limited to having only one character on a server, though, which is really annoying when you want to stay on a specific server and experiment on a new skill without removing existing skills. The only other solution is to buy a second copy of SWG to have a second account.
One of the game's most brilliant yet under-used features is the Bazaar interface; it is a full auction system much like eBay, with Buy it Now options and everything. The problem is that the maximum sale price for anything in the Bazaar is 3000 credits, which makes selling almost anything better than junk-quality gear useless. Instead, players have to shout in towns or set up a shop way out in the boonies to sell their items.
The actual combat in SWG thankfully consists of more than pressing Auto-attack and waiting until the monster is dead. Many fights require you to juggle more than one enemy at once, and you will have to use a variety of special attacks in order to take out enemies. It's a step up from the combat in Everquest, that's for sure.
I find that for the most part, progress in SWG is very slow. If you found Everquest to be too big of a time sink, well, SWG isn't much better. Some skills will take days of play to gain some decent progress in, and money is also somewhat scarce now that a few of the easily exploited higher-level monsters have been fixed. The nice thing is that you can get something productive done in a half hour of gameplay, which was difficult to do in EQ.
If you have a combat-oriented character and want to head out to do some killing, you can either choose a direction and run to find monsters, or pick up some missions at a nearby Mission Terminal. Much like the terminals in Anarchy Online, these create new quests just for you. "Destroy" missions have you head out kill an enemy lair (complete with enemies), while "Deliver" missions have you pick up an item from point A and drop it off at point B. The deliver missions do have little pieces of story, but they mean nothing in the context of the game world. They're just vaguely Star Wars-related and can be completely ignored; all deliver missions are basically the same, just with different points A & B.
Unlike AO, Galaxies won't generate a separate indoor mission area for you; Deliver missions will have you run around inside existing cities, and Destroy missions create enemy lairs out on the landscape somewhere. From a technical standpoint, the system is pretty slick; the game will supply you with a waypoint to your mission goal, and you can deactivate or re-activate waypoints at any time. You can even create new waypoints that correspond to any point in the game world.
The idea of "dynamic" content like the quests these terminals generate sounds great, but after only a few of these missions, you'll find yourself bored with the repetitive mission system. Both Deliver and Destroy missions all follow their respective formula with little change. Sure, the locations, "story" behind the missions, and cash rewards will vary, but the pattern becomes easily noticeable. It's another aspect of SWG that is great on paper but not so fun when put into action; at least AO gave you a dynamically generated dungeon to go run around in. It's another area that hopefully will be improved upon, and one that seems to have a good chance at some changes in the future.
Healing in SWG is also different than in most games; while there are of course doctors and combat medics that do exactly what their profession says, your character can also generate Wounds as he or she gets hit (or dies). These wounds cause semi-permanent damage to your stats - to heal these, you have to be specifically healed in a player-set-up camp or a medical center. Medics can heal your Health & Action wounds, but Mind wounds will require you to watch a musician or dancer perform.
Battle Fatigue also sets in after some combat time, which will slow down your regeneration out in the field. This also can be healed by a dancer or musician. The whole system is unique, but a bit annoying; they did a good job of removing downtime when you're out fighting in the wild, but then force you to sit there for a while once you come back to town. And since this is all player-done, if there's no one available at the time to heal you, tough luck. Your only option otherwise is to spend a few skill points and become a novice entertainer or medic yourself.
Players who want to have a non-combat role will have a great time in SWG; crafters and performers have plenty of opportunities to build their skill, and they are well-needed in the game. I find that these professions are actually pretty dull, though, and I wonder how people would really have fun paying $15 per month to make clothes in a computer game. That's outside the scope of this review, though; enough players wanted it, so Sony delivered a game with this system in place.
Having had a taste of some extremely fun PvP in Shadowbane, I was anxious to see what Sony had in mind for SWG. Your character can eventually join either the Empire or Rebel faction, and then participate in PvP in either a Covert or Overt status. The problem comes with the fact that this game is obviously geared towards PvE (player vs. environment) especially when it comes to combat. It's common to die in one shot in PvP, or to get knocked down by an enemy's special attack repeatedly (which means you can't do anything but sit there) until you are dead. It's just not very fun or rewarding to do it this way. Sony isn't really known to care a whole lot about PvP balance in Everquest, so I have to wonder if SWG will ever focus on this area.
There is a change that just recently got put onto the test server that cuts all player damage in PvP by 75%; while this is a step in the right direction, there will need to be many more months of tuning in order to make PvP a balanced & rewarding activity. I hope that Sony finds it worth the time and energy to keep working on it.
Players can build their own cities in SWG, resulting in a guild-run town or the like. It seems that the PvP factors very little into this, though, which is disappointing to me after I've taken part in many city sieges in Shadowbane. Basically, if the only thing you are looking for is a balanced, robust PvP game, SWG will definitely disappoint.
My final complaint with SWG is the fact that it just feels very little like Star Wars. The occasional mention of Rebels or Imperials, a few familiar characters showing up as NPCs, and the unique Star Wars races like Wookiees and Twi'lek just don't cut it for me. As it is now, there are no Jedi, no landspeeders, and the enemies you fight look like generic MMORPG characters. I'm sure at least some of this will improve over time, but as it is now, it's depressing to see a flagship Star Wars game have so little to do with Star Wars.
As a total package, the game itself is not all that bad. As most MMORPG players know, massive multiplayer games rarely start off with great gameplay or a full set of features, and the best you can hope for is a wide range of things for players to do - in that respect, SWG delivers. Some MMORPGs are designed narrow-mindedly, leaving little room for improvement and relying on the players to make the game fun. SWG isn't like that at all, though. It's got quite a few areas that will surely improve in time, which might make it one of the best massive games available. The problem is with those players that bought the game on launch day and are still struggling to enjoy SWG; they might have to wait several months for some of the gameplay to be brought up to speed.
For those that love Star Wars yet are hesitant to play a MMORPG, I find it difficult to recommend this game. There is just too much MMORPG and not enough Star Wars in my opinion; while there are some great ideas that went into SWG, much of this effort might wind up lost on someone who just wants a fun Star Wars experience.
Here's one area where SWG is a winner. The game uses quite a bit of the classic John Williams soundtrack to a pretty nice effect; it's probably the one area that definitely feels 100% like Star Wars. It's too bad that it has to be the sound that is the most convincing part of the game.
The sound effects themselves are impressive, with many of the familiar blaster effects along with plenty of new sounds that fit right in. I'd love to tell you about how the lightsabers sound, except that there are very few in the game and I never got to see or hear one.
Star Wars Galaxies could be a great MMORPG in time, as it has some excellent potential and a solid technology base. For now, it is a haven for those who like to craft items in online games, and over time, it might wind up being the best massive multiplayer game out there. But if you want a balanced combination of exciting combat, quick progress, and fun PvP, and you want it right now, then SWG is not the game for you.