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LucasArts / SOE Austin
MMORPG | Genre:Sci-Fi | Status:Cancelled  (est.rel 06/23/03)  | Pub:Sony Online Entertainment
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Star Wars Galaxies Editorial: Combat Upgrade or Combat Downgrade?

By Clint Nielson on May 11, 2005

Combat Upgrade or Combat Downgrade?
An in-depth look at the Star Wars Galaxies Combat Upgrade
"I can't comment, except to say that will be addressed in the Combat Upgrade."

Former Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) subscribers: Unless you’ve been living in a Squill cave for the last year, chances are you’ve heard these very words posted on Sony Online Entertainment’s (SOE) official SWG boards NUMEROUS times from official channels. It’s small wonder that you and your ex-SWG buddies have been ready to explode like fireworks on Life Day in anticipation. You’ve watched as the promise of the Combat Upgrade stretched on forever, even under going two name changes. Combat Balance or Revamp anyone? Perhaps the Combat Upgrade was SOE’s last chance to ever get your money again, and now it’s finally out. You’ve heard the rumors of forum riots and petitions, canned correspondents and in-game protests. So what’s this Combat Upgrade REALLY about, and why has it gotten so many people stirred up? Let’s find out.

First of all, the basis of this report is formulated from many hours on the test servers; however, I felt it wouldn’t be fair to give a review of the Combat Upgrade until it was released on the live servers and I had tested it out with my own characters. All opinions on game play are formulated from experiences AFTER the upgrade went live, and not before.

My Eyes! My Eyes!
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If the new icons aren’t the first thing that you see upon logging in the game, then you might want to go see an eye doctor and get tested for color blindness. Not only are the icons done in a comic style, but they are actually larger, consuming more space of SWG’s already cramped interface. Liked the old monochromatic icons better? Too bad! SOE has firmly put its foot down several times that the new icons ARE your only choice. So be it, Jedi.

The new icons range from ridiculous (horses--HORSES people), to downright cool, featuring familiar Star Wars elements. Are they easier on the eyes? Well, imagine street signs done by comic book artists and then ask yourself if monochromatic stick figures would be easier to make out than miniature graphic novels. You would be surprised how many times this complaint comes up on the SWG forums.

Dude, where’s my Queue?
You can also kiss the combat queue good bye and say hello to that corner of your screen. Good news? Not really. Instead of loading up attack patterns in your queue, you will now find all of your time consumed watching the new timers that specials run on. Since different specials run on different timers, you won’t be able to spam attacks to be optimally effective. Sneakily enough, the developers of SWG snuck in a mini-queue where you can select one extra attack in advance which is highlighted by a yellow bracket. Without the queue combat FEELS frenzied, if only marginally more than how it was before.

Initially you might be confused by the way auto attack works, where, essentially, you get to pick WHICH special is fires automatically. Don’t like the default attack that much? Try setting rapid fire or quick draw for more punch at the cost of faster draining action. Or, maybe you’re a control freak? You can do all your attacks manually if you so choose. In this particular aspect, SOE did it right by enabling extra functionality.

HAM? We Ate it All.
Star Wars Galaxies’ innovative (and inherently flawed) HAM system has been scrapped for something more traditional. All damage is now dealt to the health bar, while the action and mind bars are used solely for regulating special attacks and healing powers. Also, instead of having fixed values, the health grows as the character increases in level. Does it work? Of course it does! This type of system has been molded to near perfection by dozens of other MMORPGs. Unfortunately going with the flow has stolen some of SWG’s individuality.

Stay on Target!
You’ve seen them outside of Coronet, massacring meatlumps. Maybe you’ve been THEM. One thing is for certain, though. Everyone HATES AFK combatants. Well, AFK combatants have gotten the hook as auto-defend has been removed from the game. Unfortunately, so has auto target.

Couple these factors together and it becomes confusing to figure out where the attacker is coming from. More than a couple times you might find yourself taking down an angler only to find his buddy spitting acid at your heels. To make matters worse, a hill certainly seems to stop your blaster bolts, but don’t expect creatures to give that mound of dirt the same regard as you do.

That’s not skill based. It’s a level system!
And now I introduce the most hated feature of the Combat Upgrade. Enter the level system. “But wait,” you exclaim! “SWG has ALWAYS had levels!” This of course, is not entirely true. While levels originally functioned as an index, calculated from the stats of a creature, the new level system DETERMINES the stats of the creature, and more importantly how much damage is given and received.

Essentially what happens behind the screen is that two Jawas take your number and match it up with the number of the creature you are fighting. Who ever has the highest number wins, and if the numbers are the same or VERY similar, the fight is determined by little factors, like specials, buffs, armor and weapons. If you catch the feeling of the previous statement, you’ll understand that level is the bantha burger and everything else is the condiments that go on top. Perhaps the old system let you and I get away with too much, but the new system has a VERY restrictive feel to it.

Now breathe, it isn’t the end of the world. One good side effect of this system is that it is easier to determine what to fight. Under the old system you’d be fighting reds all the time. Unless you were familiar with that particular creature, you’d have to stop, click on your target and hover your mouse over it’s HAM to determine how strong it was. Now picking out creatures is as easy as looking at your radar. Unless of course you’re one of the color blind fellows that we mentioned before, to which I say, this just isn’t your game.

Just How Many of Us Are There?
So, you’re ready to go out and annihilate a poor defenseless colony of durni, right? Well, you could attempt to take on the creatures solo, which has proven to be a popular style of play in SWG. Generally speaking, why bother with a group when you can massacre almost anything in the game with a good set of buffs and armor? Well, in the Combat Upgrade, that isn’t really a viable option anymore. While it is possible to take on white or yellow creatures, blue cons will yield better results as creatures generally band together in packs making assaults on whites or yellows difficult. Even with a good strategy or healing abilities, soloing is slow and suffers from bouts of heavy down time in comparison to how the game was.

Indeed, the Combat Upgrade was designed to bring back the grouping experience found in the early days of SWG, and this is without a doubt where the new system shines brighter than a stormtrooper’s breast plate. As players band together, their levels are temporarily increased to that of the highest person in the group. While it does not compensate for poor stats, it does at least give lower level players a fighting chance.

Group experience is calculated in such a way that if you land a couple of blow you get full experience for the kill. What exactly is full experience? Well, if you get 1000 experience points for killing a white creature solo, then when grouped you will get 1000 experience points for killing a white creature. The only difference is that white creature grouped is equivalent to the level of the highest member of the group, making it one mean bugger. So why group at all? The answer is simple. With a decent group, experience gains are MUCH faster than solo, and have a nice group bonus to boot.

So what is a decent group? The beautiful thing about the Combat Upgrade is how different professions have different roles. Pistoleer and Smugglers now have crowd control, Teras Kasi Artists are designed for tanking, Riflemen are your nukers and Combat Medics and Doctors are your healers. Other profession fall in these basic forms of classifications, another tried and true formula borrowed from previous MMORPGs. Good group encounters involve lots and lots of creatures, and a well rounded group where everyone participates makes a world of difference in experience gains.

We’re Here to -PUMP- You Up
Oh no, not another line! Every day it’s the same experience for you. Stand in a buff line, watch some AFK entertainer and then force yourself to grind for two hours so you don’t waste your buffs. “If I see another buff line,” you mutter. “I’m going to puke!” Meanwhile your friend the doctor is off hunting, 10k from the nearest starport and having a great time hunting enraged rancors. There is, however, salvation in sight, and its called the Combat Upgrade!

Gone are the super powerful buffs. In fact, you don’t even need a buff to go out hunting! In its place are much smaller buffs which yield a gain on varies stats anywhere from 5 to 20%, however due to their short timers these buffs are mainly suited for groups. Unfortunately doctors have been stripped of all of their crafting abilities. On the bright side, they can perform their healing abilities without any type of medicine; however enhancers GREATLY increase the potencies of their powers.

Professional buffers of all creeds are crying tonight as their once profitable business turn up no rewards, except the kindness of generous tippers. Even entertainers are feeling the hefty effects of the new system. Instead of mind buffs, they now provide a singular ‘inspiration buff’ which slightly increases experience and faction gains. You might enjoy the fact that you don’t need to group with the entertainer to experience this new type of buff, however some entertainers are unhappy about this new method that is difficult to regulate in such a way that yields profit.

Bang! You’re dead!
If you like weapons you’re in luck. Of course if you plan on actually doing anything other than crafting and role playing in SWG, than you definitely have a thing for the hardware. The Combat Upgrade introduces several new weapons, and also removes restrictions across the bar. With the exception of a few iconic weapons, most weapons can be used by anyone. Of course a combatant with the proper skill mods will be MUCH more effective, but it’s just what you need when it comes time to master your second profession. Let’s face it, shooting gurrecks with a CDEF pistol isn’t going to help you master Pistoleer any when you’ve already mastered Rifleman.

Unfortunately weapons tend to feel a little more generic, especially where damage is primarily done in kinetic or energy. Although other values are still present, they play a minimal role in the grand scheme of things. Adversely, having weapons similar in DPS across the board gives you the opportunity to choose the weapon model and sound you like the best.

This stuff is heavy!
The armor system drastically changed, and if you were its mother you probably wouldn’t recognize it! Gone are the composite clones, in its place are three versions of armor: Reconnaissance, Battle and Assault. Each armor type has different effectiveness against kinetic and energy damage, and are certified to different elite professions. As you climb up the skill tree of your chose vocation, the penalties from armors reduce until they are non existent, encouraging you to wear armor at a master level.

Armor is also constructed differently, giving you the choice between several different appearances. Want Chitin instead of Composite, or perhaps some faction armor? No problem. All armor in each class has the potential to protect you the same, keeping you from looking exactly like the guy next you. Unless of course you and the guy next to you are both stormtroopers, and then looking alike is a good thing.

Sadly armorsmiths have lost some of the complexity of their profession, armor is even more expensive with greater resource requirements and factional armor still isn’t worth getting with its additional faction point requirements. Did I mention you can’t trade factional armor once you bio-link it to yourself? You better like that armor, because you’re going to be stuck with it until it falls off your back.

Conversions, Respec and Bugs (Oh My!)
Right now SWG is going through a hefty conversion process with bugs galore. But then again, what would SWG be without its bugs? Don’t answer that. For a limited time players also get the benefits of being able to respec their characters every twelve hours, and double XP in one of the following weeks. Now is definitely a good time to get to find out what type of character you like to play. Granted that is if you can stand not being able to find items on the bazaar because of a nasty bug that keeps pre-CU items from showing their stats until they are replaced back on the vendor. But day by day a new patch is released and the issues are being resolved.

I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This
So one question remains to be asked, my faithful reader: Is this upgrade any fun? To this I give an astounding ‘YES’, from a certain point of view. Soloing is slower, more difficult and slightly more frantic. If you prefer soloing you probably won’t appreciate the direction that the CU has gone, however it is possible that you may find a good amount of enjoyment in it. Unfortunately for SOE, they’ve slowly created a game in which the majority of the player base solos and hence part of the reason why the poor reception.

However, if you love grouping then your SWG experience has just increased tenfold. Group roles, great experience, somewhat frantic combat—what’s there not to love? Given a couple more weeks and a shift in gamer mentality, you’ll have your fill of groups to choose from.

So if the CU is so fun, why are so many people against it? No matter how you look at it, the Combat Upgrade will go down in history as probably one of the biggest flat out nerfs that any MMORPG has ever seen. It’s been simplified; functionality has been lost or changed in several professions and many highly coveted items have become mediocre at best. Sadly this is the kind of massive overhaul that’s SWG increasingly bloated systems need. Each pre-CU patch to fix the flawed HAM system yielded an increasing imbalanced game. SOE’s approach to the problem could be described as a ‘bulldozer job’ at best, but hey, something drastic had to be done.

So to former SWG subscribers and the curious alike I say: get in the game, get a group and play for a couple hours. Then tell me that’s not fun. I can’t wait to hear about your experiences, good or bad.

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