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Star Wars Galaxies

Friday, October 24, 2003 by Helly || [0 Comments]

Star Wars Galaxies
Overall: 3
Graphics: 5
Interface: 4
Multiplayer: 1
You sit around for a bit getting your head together. Then you go to work, check on your projects, maybe make some sales or process some orders…whatever your cup of tea may be. After work, maybe you go out to a club and do some dancing or drinking. Later on, maybe you’ll trek out into the backwoods and kick the living crap out of some flightless birds. Welcome to Star Wars Galaxies, the biggest MMORPG I’ve ever played, and perhaps the one with the least to do.

OK, that’s not fair, nor wholly accurate. Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) is a huge MMORPG replete with 7 planets (more to come, apparently), each of which features its own environmental design, creatures and cities. You have a wide selection of races to pick from when creating your character, each with their own peculiar features such as the spiky-headed Zabraks (think Darth Maul) to the lizard-like Trandoshans to the overgrown rugs, AKA Wookies. There’s a massive set of skill trees to pick from and enough opportunity to focus on two or more separate skill trees, allowing you to create a unique character with a wide variety of playable options (say a rifleman who is also a master Chef, or a fencer who is also a dancer). Crafting is a truly viable career option and one that can set you up as an extremely wealthy character with mansions and lotsa loot without ever picking up a blaster. Add to that all the familiar Star Wars touches (Stormtroopers, AT-STs, Rebels, Imperials, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc., etc.) and you’ve got yourself one immersive, expansive and easily recognizable universe in which to get lost.

Too bad it’s so labor-intensive.

True, there are those who believe that nothing good comes easily and this is a point that is truly understood by the developers over at LucasArts. However, when it comes to fantasy gaming and video game escapism, the last thing I, as a player, want is to spend all my online time grinding away at an unrewarding task to either earn money or gain experience. I do that at work all day, I don’t need to come home and do the same thing. Unfortunately, in their attempt to make SWG a more realistic game with a player-run economy and a truly viable crafter’s skill path, work is pretty much the name of the game.

Let’s take a look at the innards of the game.

Graphics/Display:

With the proper equipment, this is a gorgeous game. I’m running a P4 3.0GHz with 1 GB RAM and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB video card, and I’ve got decent frame rates (around 29 FPS at the highest) with near-maximum detail settings, and it’s beautiful. The sun shining off the ripples on bodies of water is stunning, leaves drifting down to the ground in a copse of trees reminds you of approaching Autumn and the streaks of blaster fire off in the distance fills your chest with warm, Star Wars memories (not the mention the trademark sounds).

Of course, when I ran the game on an Athlon 1.33 with 512 RAM and a GeForce MX440 64 MB video card, I got a much less impressive, but still respectable looking, visual experience. Your mileage will vary with your machines configuration, but suffice it to say that SWG will take advantage of whatever memory you throw at it, so the more the merrier. Of course, a prime video card will make your game look excellent but, as noted above, its respectable on a lower-end video card (you will probably notice more lag in cities and in places where, for example, leaves drop to the ground in the copse of trees and all my other prose).


Our Narrator

City of Keren on Naboo


Sounds are also impressive, especially since LucasArts developed the game and, therefore, was able to tap into the sound library. Blaster fire sounds just like blaster fire from the movies, John Williams’ score erupts during battles and R2 droids beep-boop-beep appropriately. You’ll also notice cool effects like the rumbling steps of a large creature nearby mixing in with a shaking of the visual field akin to running next to an elephant, or what I imagine that would be like.

Some downsides: the engine draws as you go, so you’ll be looking at flat, nothingness in the distance while grass and flowers and rocks spawn around you as you run. This isn't really an issue, and technically a dang good solution to avoiding zones, but a side-effect of this is the annoying tendency of mob spawns to pop up from their lairs just as you run by, assuming you don’t stop when you see the lair appear on your radar and watch for the server to catch up with your travel and populate the lair. This isn’t a big deal unless you happen to be running away from something and suddenly discover yourself in the midst of a spawn of aggressive mobs. There are definitely lag problems with the video depending on what’s going on around you, and especially in cities. However, you can fully customize your graphics settings in game in order to lessen those negative effects.

Interface/Controls:

The controls of the game are pretty decent, and are all remappable should you so desire. The game features hotbars for shortcuts to combat moves, inventory items and custom commands. As this suggests, macros are available and are widely used to ease the drudgery of crafting (we’ll get into this later). The game also features a wide variety of animated emotes, as well as mood options, which precede your general talk, eg: ’(Happy) It's good to see you!’ Movement is mouse-based, as in many MMORPGs and there are plenty of maps (both world maps and a transparent city map that overlays your view, making it easier to find things in large cities).


Park that thing anywhere

The Fattest Stormtrooper


Chat channels, when they’re working, are standard fare such as group chat, guild chat and so forth. There is a cool in-game email system that allows you to send messages to offline folks for them to see when they get online and include attachments, such as gold or waypoints. There’s also an in-depth match making system which allows you to customize the kind of folks you'd like to meet, in-game...no kidding. There’s a built-in tipping function that allows you to give money to a player, no matter where they are or even if they're online, for something they’ve done for you. Etiquette states that when a medic or an entertainer heals your wounds, they deserve a tip (as they have no easy way to make money and experience at the same time, unlike combat characters) so SWG has the option built-in. You can even access your funds in the bank if your a little light on pocket change, for a 5% surchage.

Other in-game controls/concepts are Insurance and Cloning. Death in SWG isn’t fully implemented, due to (of all things) bugs that were preventing players from retrieving their corpses and items after death. It’s supposed to work like this: you pay 1,000 to clone in a city near where you’re hunting/grouping so if you get killed, you can be cloned nearby with a minimum of wounds. You can also buy insurance on anything in your inventory, which guarantees that it will remain in your inventory when you die, but this is very expensive. As I mentioned, you currently lose no items due to death bugs, so Insurance is unnecessary. Cloning remains important because without it, you’ll clone at the nearest facility but with significant wounds that must be healed, or you’ll be at half health, action and mind pools.


Is Chewie checking out my butt?

A bar in a friend’s house


Which brings us to the HAM (health, action, mind) and what they mean to your character. These pools, which are split up amongst sub-attributes, determine the kinds of things your character can do and withstand. Combat guys need high Health and Action pools and Medics or Entertainers need higher Mind pools. Any action you take, be it using a skill or a special move has a cost associated with your HAM. Also, damage targets your HAM (and can be specifically focused at one bar, which is why one character class uses nothing but Eye Shot to wound the mind bar in PVP, because mind tends to be the lowest bar in combat classes, therefore the easiest to whack someone with). If you run out of any HAM bar, you’re incapacitated and on a time to stand back up, however in this state you can also be deathblowed, which leads to the Cloning terminal mentioned above.

Overall, the controls function well, and there are many options for creating shortcuts on your HUD allowing you to monitor the progress of specific skills, to customizing waypoint views to laying out your hotbars.

Multiplayer (if any):

It's all multiplayer, but what is there to do?

A fine question, my Padawan learner (and yes, Jedi’s will be available to play but access to that skill tree is going to be rare and hard to achieve; it involves finding random holocron drops off force-sensitive mobs and then completing a randomly generated skill progression to master level. As one of my coworkers put it, can you imagine Yoda saying, ’the force is strong in that one, but I fear he must learn style hair (become a master Image Designer) before he will be ready to wield the lightsaber’? Your main priority is going to be to level up your skills, which requires a bit of explanation. SWG has a unique set of skill trees that allow you to specialize as much or as little in a particular skill set as you’d like. For example, each profession features a novice skill that branches out into 4 separate skill lines with 4 skills each culminating in one Master skill. Example: A person interested in learning Scouting skills goes to a train and pays to have Novice Scout trained. With that trained, he gains basic skills and unlocks the tree. As he gains experience using his new Scout skills, he can train whatever further Scout skills he wants. He can train all four trees and then train Master Scout and become a Master Scout, or he can simply train the Terrain Navigation skill tree that has immediate benefits for running quicker over rough terrain in game. Each skill requires Skill Points (of which everyone has a hard number of 250) and experience of a specific type (example: trapping skill is acquired by crafting and using traps, and is the only way to gain more experience/skills in trapping).


Cute puppy!

Bridge to Nym’s Stronghold on Lok


Each base profession (eg: Scout, Brawler, Artisan) features several advanced professions. To continue our Scout example, once our Scout has learned all the necessary skills to become a master hunter, he can now begin to train in the Creature Handler skill tree. This is another set of 12 skills in 4 trees topped by a Master skill. These professions are heavily varied and can be anything from Image Designer (an Entertainer who’s mastered the art of changing people’s appearances in-game) to Droid Engineer (someone’s gotta build those R2 units) to Commando (flamethrower, anyone?). So with all these skills available, and enough skill points to master in two or more sets, you could find yourself coming up with bizarre combinations. A wookie Entertainer who spends its spare time shooting things up with its master Pistoleer skills, or a Combat Medic who also happens to have a flair for whipping together beverages, and so on. There’s a great deal to choose from, but unfortunately some of the professions are extremely bugged in that their special skills either do not work at all, or are broken to the point of uselessness (which after spending hours and hours grinding away for experience to earn that skill is a bit frustrating). There’s also the main problem in this game: not enough fantasty.

So you’re an entertainer and you want to learn a new dance move. You’re limited in how you’re going to gain this experience. You have to go to a cantina and dance for people, or alternatively take entertainer missions (which are dynamically generated) and go dance for NPCs in the distance. You may earn tips, you will earn experience, but basically you are doing the same thing over and over and over again, often in one place. This holds true for the crafting careers as well. Artisans need to harvest massive amounts of raw materials to create higher level items (be they weapons, clothes, armor, food or houses) and, therefore, can build harvesting units and factories to spit out final products with the raw materials. But finding good places to set these harvesters up and then maintaining them by feeding them credits to keep them in good repair is tedious. Follow that with sitting around clicking on recipes, plugging in the raw materials and creating finished products you’re talking about an extremely tedious game playing experience. But crafters and their ilk are a necessity to the game because it’s a player-run economy: no crafters means no high-level gear. Crafters know this, and make outrageous amounts of credits selling their items. And of course, the melee and ranged fighter classes must spend all their time either running around soloing spawns or grouped up on the more “advanced” planets doing missions in order to gain cash and experience.

That's skills, and you'll spend most, if not all of your time, hunting or crafting or entertaining or healing to gain points in them.


Evil Ewoks = Jindas

Don’t Let the Sun…Set on Meeeee!


Ok, so there's a lot of skills to learn, but what else? There’s not one, but seven large worlds waiting for you to explore them. There’s different flora, different fauna and even the architecture is different from world to world. But what’s to do in them? Well that’s where the grind becomes an inescapable issue.

Despite the wide expanse of exploration, what you have available to do in each world is relatively the same. As a combat character, you can take missions from mission terminals (and there are profession, faction, and world specific mission terminals available) that generate dynamic delivery or destroy missions. Cash, plus whatever you can harvest/loot off the bodies, is the main reward for these missions. These missions don’t lead you into exotic places, they merely point you to a dynamically spawned creature lair in the middle of the wilderness somewhere. So it’s this grind: get mission, run, kill, return, rinse, repeat.

Ok, you say, fighting is always a grind and that’s the way of it in these games; what about crafters? As I mentioned earlier, there’s not much to do except survey for resources, place and maintain harvesters and dodge aggressive spawns near your mining operations. Some crafters, like chefs, need ingredients from many different worlds and must either buy what others have harvested and are selling, or harvest it themselves. With a large operation going, a crafter can easily spend all their game time placing and maintaining harvesters, broken up by actually crafting the items or feeding factories. It’s a lot like a real job, and often as entertaining.

Ok, you say, crafting is a grind in every game that offers it, but what about doctors’ and entertainers’ lives? Sadly, you’re in an even more difficult position in these professions. While you can get profession-specific missions, you generally find yourself hidden away in a cantina (Entertainers are severely limited to where they can actually perform their craft) or a medical center healing/entertaining away. Interestingly, SWG has made the damage system such that Entertainers and Doctors are absolutely necessary character classes, but they’ve made them difficult and oftentimes uninteresting to play. Unless you truly roleplay your character, doing dance moves for hours on end in a Cantina, slowly earning experience and hoping that some kind soul will tip you some dough so you don’t have to run missions is a relatively mind numbing gaming experience. Many people simply macro their moves and their rest periods and go out IRL for some fun, then come back home to check on how their 'game' is progressing.

There are some unique missions that earn you different rewards than standard cash and loot. SWG uses a faction system for determining how NPC respond to you in game. Kill a Thug on Naboo and the Nabooian Townsfolk like you more, while the Thugs and their bosses like you less. This holds true for Imperials versus Rebels and many other factions as well. For characters who choose to go either Imperial or Rebel, gaining faction points in your particular line also affords you opportunities to purchase items, training, supplies and “pets” from your Faction Trainer. For example, several folks in my guild have earned enough Faction to spend it on buying their own Stormtrooper “pets” and AT-ST “pets”, which follow them around and kill things for them. Some of these faction specific missions are given by NPCs and allow you to work your way up the faction ladder so that you can talk to a known character, such as Darth Vader or Princess Leia. Regardless of the novelty of these missions, they are basically the same destroy or deliver missions available at any other mission terminal and are generally about as interesting. This holds true for the higher-level Theme Parks, from what I've been told by other players (which I never actually visited, due to their being bugged most of my game time).

So, after all of that, the game boils down to this:

  1. Kill the same things over and over to gain combat skills
  2. Craft the same things over and over to gain artisan skills
  3. Sell your haul (be it harvested from bodies or the ground) for some cash
  4. Run some missions for some more cash (see 1 for mission details)
  5. Level up your skills until you hit master…then sit around or
  6. PVP until you fall over...or redo your character from scratch.


Obviously, there are other things to do, but they generally fall, in one way or another, into the categories above. Another thing that exacerbates the problem is that, although you can give up skills at any time and go another path, you're only allowed one character per server. This means you can't keep your master Teras Kesai Artist who's a Trandoshan in your guild with your in-game friends and also work on a Human Bio-engineer with the same group of people. No other MMORPG that I've played has this limitation, and it's yet another way to frustrate players. SOE just tells you to create a character on another server, but seems to completely miss the point that this fractures player associations.


What graphics bugs?

Evidence of the Grind


Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts have released some real stinker patches on their customers. A recent one has just had the patch patched to fix the bugs introduced in the patch not once, but twice. It’s not that they don’t test (they have a test server), it’s that this is a huge and complex game. Still, I played for an hour last night and submitted three bug reports for things that cost me experience, money and time, and this is on a system that just had the patch’s patch put on earlier that day.

Patches that are scheduled for a two-hour downtime ending up becoming entire day and night affairs, completely deriving customers from the opportunity to play. Requests for help can take days to weeks to get responses. Customer service (being SOE) is typically anti-customer service. Let me give you an example: when I started playing AC2, there were many bugs and may times when I couldn’t even play. Microsoft’s support was not only available by phone, but promptly gave me a free month of play to make up for the awful in-game (if you’re lucky) experience. When SWG launched, it was impossible to sign up for days, and even after I finally was able to give them my money I was unable to stay connected to my galaxy (AKA: server, or cluster of servers) for any length of time. The game was definitely not stable, nor was I able to connect much of the time. Being a full-time professional, I have limited play hours and was discovering that during these play hours, I was unable to play. My requests to SOE were forced to go through email and response time was greater than a week for each email. Each time, my request for some sort of reparations was denied and the support person pasted a copy of a “relevant” section of the EULA into the email. So basically SOE was telling me that no matter how bad the availability of their game was, the EULA’s extremely broad strokes covered them in all situations and I was owed nothing, this for a game that cost $50 up front and $15 a month to play. Suffice it to say, Microsoft’s support receives much higher marks and I will be much more willing to sign up for another Microsoft sponsored MMORPG than one run by SOE.

Summary:

Ok, I've written quite a bit, and have included a lot of detail about what goes on in-game, and how. What we've got is a game where several professions are broken, several skills are broken, and every patch exacerbates existing problems or introduces new ones. Pile upon this load of crap the execrable support available from SOE (and this is an ongoing sentiment from players in any other SOE-run MMORPG, such as Everquest) and you have a game that you pray gets stable so you never have to deal with their technical team again. This is unacceptable for a game that charges a monthly fee.

I gave SWG a 3 out of 5, despite my overall negative review. This score reflects my belief that SWG has potential to become a better game in the future. However since most players don’t want to pay the highest monthly fees out of all MMORPGs in order to continue the beta testing of a product, I will say that anyone interested in playing should wait until they get their act together, as I have no doubt that they'll begin to get a handle on the technical end of their problems. At the three-month mark, many players that I know had quit the game in disgust, frustrated that their character classes were bugged to uselessness and annoyed at the lack of content and the general boredom of grinding the same thing over and over. But for every one who quit, there are others who are looking to the future and waiting for Player Cities, mounts/vehicles (which should have been in at release) and other promised inclusions. As the game stands now, while it is a beautiful looking game based on an excellent brand, I can't recommend it to anyone. But hey, from what I hear Anarchy Online is an excellent game now, and it started off significantly worse than SWG. There's always hope that SOE and LucasArts will find a way to make this game a compelling experience for players, but right now the only compulsion I feel is to cancel my subscription (which I've already done).

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