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Star Wars Galaxies: First Impressions

Monday, July 07, 2003 by Helly

Ok, I’ll admit it: I’ve screwed up some of my game reviews. Not all of them, not even most of them, but the fact remains that I’ve taken that pony for a ride on a couple of occasions. When I wrote the reviews, I was honestly impressed with the games and stand by what I wrote, but as time went on I became more and more disillusioned. Only a particular genre of game can start off so strong and end up in mediocrity (or worse): the MMORPG. No other style of game has the potential to have so much of its original nature and quality changed down the road of its existence.

I’m the resident MMORPG nerd here at XPD8.net, so it falls on my shoulders to play and review the big, new MMORPGs on the market. But I’ve been burned and, by proxy, have burned you, the readers. Dark Age of Camelot seemed so exciting and promising when it first came out, but quickly devolved into a Nerf-fest and leveling hell. Asheron’s Call 2 had all the promise of the original Asheron’s Call but was so buggy, so simplistic and so rushed (not to mention it’s own horrendous Nerf-fest) that it became unreliable and annoying to play within weeks. Both games got good reviews from me, because when I began playing them they were fresh, entertaining and full of promise. After a few weeks or months, however, and the games had become shells of their promised glory.

Suffice it to say that I approach reviewing MMORPGs with a new caution, because as a player and fan I neither want to steer you wrong, nor end up regretting what I’ve written.

Needless to say, Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided has been on my radar screen for a long time, as it has been for many an MMORPG player (and Star Wars fans in general). Besides being a place where those freaky “furries” fetishists can live out their fantasies by becoming virtual Wookies, Star Wars Galaxies is a huge, complex and risky venture for Lucas Arts and Sony Online Entertainment. I’ve been playing since launch, and several of my future PA (Player Association – the SWG equivalent of Guilds or Clans) associates have been playing in beta, so we’ve got some good ideas on the game’s potential. We’re also, all of us, veteran MMORPG players so we’re cynical enough not to give SWG a blindly fan-boish thumbs up.

Things, however (he says hesitantly), look promising for this game. The Star Wars brand has suffered a lot of hits lately, what with the poor movies and the lackluster games, so SWG was walking into a potential minefield. Yet they’ve managed to pull of an excellent melding of storyline and game, pulling various elements from other MMORPGs, expanding upon them and putting them into the mix. Examples, you say? Well, there are missions, a la Anarchy Online; death penalties like in AC or EQ; and a viable PvP system with built-in enemies, a la AO and DAoC. One of the more promising, and so far functional, aspects of SWG is a truly viable player economy, much like what was attempted in DAoC. However, it is working here, and there is already a built-in system for artisans to hawk their wares without necessarily being available personally. Overall the recipe works for me.

But it’s early yet, and SWG has got some issues. There was the opening day debacle wherein players were unable to subscribe to the game, cutting off the majority of gameplay for the first day and beyond. There is the ongoing server instability where chat systems fall apart and entire servers fall over. Then there’s the constant patching of the servers to fix many a minor (and some more than minor) bugs. The biggest issue so far is that this constant instability leads to rollbacks, albeit short rollbacks. However, for an artisan attempting to gain materials to continue crafting, these rollbacks are extremely frustrating. Add into this problem bugs with the inventory where large quantities of items just disappear (and which the in-game support staff is unable to restore), and you’ve got a lot of people throwing up their hands in disgust. I hesitate to say that SWG was rushed out the door, because they have been diligently pushing back the release date and extending beta testing for a good, long time. Yet it seems as though some of the more basic problems of a game like this (and some which have been experienced by other MMORPGS, from who’s mistakes we hoped they would have learned) have found their way into the release despite these efforts.

The worst of the server instability is still in effect on several servers (or was as of last night). In fact, I’m working on this article because I can’t login to my chosen galaxy (server), and haven’t been able to reliably stay online for days. Several of my guildmates are reporting items missing from their inventory, and placed items, such as harvesters, disappearing altogether. This is extraordinarily frustrating because of the cost, both of time and in game money, and the fact that the progress being made for guild’s goals is lost. Angry words are being posted on message boards and instead of being the usual, vitriolic trolling found on public boards, these rants are based upon legitimate problems. At least in some cases. The fallout is only going to get worse until the developers learn to keep the community in the loop as to what the problems are and what’s being done to fix them. This problem was especially apparent last night when several servers were unavailable for at least half the day, but were reporting as online and lightly populated. Well, technically they were lightly populated because next to no one could log in while the rest of us were stuck at the “now connecting to galaxy” screen. It took until relatively late in the night for the developers to make any kind of announcement or post as to what the problem was, what they were doing to fix it and to set an ETA for said fix (they didn’t really have one, but at least there was some communication). To their credit, they did apologize for the lack of communication, stating that they were focused on fixing the problem. Maybe they need to hire a Community Relations Specialist like Sanya over in the DAoC world? This is, after all, Sony Online Entertainment, they should have the resources to hire one more person.

Enough with the problems already, let’s get on to what works for me in this game. It’s huge. I mean massive. I haven’t yet ventured beyond two cities on Naboo with my primary character as I’m busy helping my PA get a foothold on the system (PA’s can only be formed when a master artisan builds the Guild Hall, and that takes a lot of work and resources, so we’re focusing our guild’s efforts on assisting our master artisan with this goal). However, I’ve done some sneaking around on other planets (yes, there is more than one planet, and each planet is a huge place full of unique creatures, hunting and cities) and have even spent some time in Mos Eisley...yes, that Mos Eisley.

The sounds are amazing, but this should be expected given the amazing Star Wars sounds that so many of us have come to know and love. The graphics are equally amazing; as good if not better than the graphics in AC2. My system can no longer hang with these big game specs (I know you all want to donate to the Get Helly a New System cause, right? Dang.), so I’ve got everything dialed down and it still looks amazing. There’s something sublime about hanging back in long grass and taking pot shots at rebel scum with your blaster...just revel in that trademark Star Wars blaster sound.

There are literally dozens to hundreds of things to do in this game. The player-based economy extends well beyond crafting. There are no doctors who will fix you up (although you can hang out in the medical centers and you will slowly, sloooooowly heal) except for the player created doctors and medics. Your character will suffer something called Battle Fatigue that can only be healed by watching or listening to entertainers. Medics and Entertainers earn XP doing their gig, crafters earn XP by building things successfully and fighters earn XP the old-fashioned way by beating things up. However, with all the various professions, you could literally never fight and still be a very viable, and valuable, character and member of a group. However, the joy in SWG is that you can pick up as many skills as you’d like (and your pool of skill points will allow) because you only earn XP for those skills by performing them.

For example: I’m a brawler primarily and focusing on the unarmed aspect, so when I smack things around, I earn XP. But when I’m grouping, I take more of a beating than the rest of the group, so I tend to die faster. Plus, it’s not always advantageous for me to run up to everything for a face-to-face fight. So I picked up Novice Marksman and taught myself to fire a carbine. So now I pick things off at a distance then, when they find me, I kick their butts with my fists (or claws – I’m a Trandoshan). But that’s not all: I have basic Scout, Artisan and Medic skills so I can, at a very basic level, build traps to make creatures more vulnerable to my melee attacks (scout), survey for minerals and harvest hides/bones/meat from creatures in order to assist my PA’s master artisan (scout and artisan) and heal myself of some damage (medic). When I get to a higher level, I can surrender these skills to earn back my spent skill points and invest them into my main career path. For now, I’m a wonderfully viable solo’er as well as a good addition to any group. Heck, if I wanted to I could become a dancer who kicks people’s butts in the alleys behind the cantina! It’s wide open, which is wonderful.

One of my guildmates posted on our message boards asking a very simple question: what’s the point of SWG. Well, the generic answer is “It’s a MMORPG, so there technically is no point”. But I know what he meant: there is no leveling, per se, in the game so you’ll never hear people complaining that 50’s are beating up on the 30’s. There is no endgame to be reached, no ultimate goal like in DAoC where you wanted your realm to own all three realm’s relics for as long as possible. It is my opinion, however, that the “goal” of SWG is both more subtle and yet more potentially enjoyable than either of these games, or most other MMORPGs for that matter. There is no rush to reach 50 because there is no level cap. However, there is a rush to become a Bounty Hunter, or Teras Kasi practitioner, or Image Designer, but all of these goals require learning multiple skills, which means you have to actually use those skills, which encourages players to go out and try multiple aspects of the gaming experience in SWG. There is also faction play, much like the factions in AC2 and AO, but in this case your faction choices are neutral, Rebel or Imperial. The PvP aspects of the game probably won’t come into focus for a couple of months (but we all know how motivated MMORPGers are to reach the highest possible levels as quickly as possible), but eventually one can imagine guilds of Rebels fighting guilds of Imperials on planets throughout the galaxy. So while the “point” may not be obvious, there is hope for the future of the game.

This isn’t an official “review” of SWG, rather it’s more of a “First Impressions” piece. I’m tired of getting excited about a game only to have the developers over-promise and under-deliver, so I’m reserving the right to review this game in a couple of months, once the devs have had a chance to whip out the nerf stick and the true gameplay bugs come in from under the door. Until then, plop your $50 down with care. This has been a fun game for me so far, but mainly because I have a built-in group of players to meet up and play with in game. Soon now we’ll be an established guild and I’ll be focusing on developing my character’s true professions, so I’ve got things to look forward to in this game. I am enjoying SWG so far, but I also enjoyed AC2 and DAoC for a while, so I could be getting screwed again. For all I know, I'm going to end up gaining a whole bunch of skills and suddenly discover that there is nothing for me to do with them. But at the same time, I hold out hope for player-built cities, owning my own AT-ST and generally ridding Naboo of those hippie rebels.

It's a confounding fate, playing an MMORPG. You have so much hope that it will be the next best thing, but yet you harbor so much fear of the dreaded dev posts where they discuss ''balancing skills'', thereby whipping out the nerf stick and invalidating a lot or work. And SOE has a lot to live up to with this particular title: Star Wars fans may not be so freakishly cult-like as Star Trek fans, but they ain't far behind. You better believe that those fans are going to have their say about every miniscule detail of this game.

So I’ll just play and wait and hope that the game lives up to it’s potential. When I finally feel like I can honestly review this game fully, I'll be back. Until then caveat emptor - it is an MMORPG, after all, and what fickle beasts they be.

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