Five Year Re-Review
Perhaps no game in the short history of MMORPGs has generated as much controversy as Star Wars Galaxies. Since the title's debut in June of 2003, it has constantly evolved (even more so than is normal for this notoriously fickle genre), going through two combat engine changes and three development teams, as well as quite a lot of player turnover. While it’s tempting to offer up yet another summary of where the game went wrong, and how great it used to be (through those rose-colored collector's edition goggles, no doubt), this re-review will instead attempt to approach the title with a fresh perspective, ostensibly that of someone playing the game for the first time (an admittedly tall order for a launch day/beta veteran, so bear with me). Say what you will about Galaxies' meandering path to its present incarnation, but what you can't say is that there is a deeper game on the market, as it consistently accommodates a range of play styles by offering diverse options that the 'give me pew pew or give me death' mentality of the rest of the industry chooses to ignore.
To begin, we'll assume a basic familiarity with the story and trappings of the Star Wars universe on which the game is based, and this review will focus primarily on the game itself rather than the licensed property underneath. The Star Wars name is both the game's blessing and its curse. On the one hand, it’s doubtful that a sandbox title of this nature and size would have ever been made were it not for the prospect of financial success attached to any product with a Lucasfilm logo. On the other hand, the underlying intellectual property doesn't lend itself to a current generation MMORPG (where every player, according to the marketing types, has to save the galaxy), and so the game departs from its source material so frequently, and so radically, that it is at times completely comical. Suffice to say that Galaxies is Star Wars in name only, and as such suffers from an identity crisis both in terms of where it is going as a game and as a virtual world.
Originally released over five years ago, Galaxies has held up surprisingly well when it comes to visuals. It is orders of magnitude better looking than many newer games on the market, and the character customization options (which provide the player with the opportunity to make a truly unique avatar) remain the class of the industry. The graphical engine is starting to show its age, but players will still find themselves marveling over the binary sunsets on Tatooine, the lush forests of Endor, and the murky harsh realm that is the backwater planet of Dathomir as they embark on their own personal Star Wars journey.
Sound effects are varied and, in many instances, lifted directly from the source material films; from John Williams' stirring soundtrack to the signature scream of a TIE Fighter's twin ion engines, your ears will definitely think they're immersed in the Star Wars universe. In addition, Sony recently added integrated voice chat to the game, and, while some would question the necessity of such tools given the availability of Ventrilo and Teamspeak, it does nonetheless demonstrate a commitment to adding game features going forward.
The user interface is serviceable, but definitely not up to par in terms of compatibilities with third party modifications and extensions. While games like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and Everquest II have large interface modding communities, Galaxies basically gets by on the same vanilla HUD that's been in place since 2005, with a few pretty icons and not a lot beyond bare bones functionality.
Gameplay occurs in four distinct spheres: the ground combat game, the space combat game, the crafting game, and the social game. Upon character creation, players choose classes that directly affect three of the four (the space game exists more or less on its own), with the initial choice boiling down to whether you prefer killing, trading, or entertaining. The combat classes are fairly pedestrian, and, while the naming conventions and spiffy class selection screen make them seem radically different, you won't find much in the way of revolutionary mechanics here. The standard tanks (Jedi), damage dealers (Bounty Hunters and Commandos), and healers (Medic) are all present and accounted for, with most of the same strengths and weaknesses found in MMORPG classes since time immemorial. Hybrid classes like the Smuggler (crowd control and damage), the Spy (rogue-like stealth and damage), and the Officer (damage and group buffs) add a bit of spice, but there's nothing here that you haven't seen before.
As your character level advances (ninety being the current cap), you'll open a series of Expertise options which will seem slightly familiar to those of you who've played World of Warcraft and made use of its talent tree. The Galaxies system grants you 45 points to spend on tiered skill boxes, offering a bit of variation to your otherwise level-based character build. Smugglers, for example, can opt to pick up an assortment of ranged damage specials, melee damage specials, or a combination of the two along with class-specific buffs and quest-centric abilities. Jedi expertise is broken into light and dark paths, with the dark focusing on damage per second and the light side leaning more toward tanking utility. Each of the professions has its own uniquely named expertise choices, but the reality is that there are certain 'must-have' boxes and builds for each class, lending an air of superficiality to the customization and falling well short of the utility and variation offered in skill-based games.
Galaxies' pet-handling class also comes into play courtesy of the expertise system, in the form of Beast Mastery abilities. Players of any class can choose to become both beast handlers and beast creators in addition to their regular class choice (though you can't excel at both, given the limited number of expertise points). While many older players may remember the Creature Handler profession, the Beast Master expertise takes it a step further, particularly in the crafting of pets, in what is easily the most complex trade skill mechanic and resource management mini-game within the game. Due to the astronomical cost of materials and their relative scarcity, newer players will find it a challenge affording the higher level combat pets (like characters, these creatures level to ninety and have their own abilities and attacks).
Gameplay proper will seem familiar to anyone who has ever played in the genre before. Your ground-based avatar can kill roaming mobs and complete NPC-driven quests for experience points, earning new levels and associated abilities over time. Level-specific content in Galaxies is rather hit and miss. A lengthy arc known as the Legacy quest takes players from their early days to mid-level, after which point they can embark on the new Meatlump theme park quest series and also travel to the planets Kashyyyk and Mustafar for a good portion of their mid to high level grind. The two planets feature several quests with decent rewards, but the whole experience is an abrupt departure from the rest of the game, and represents a radical shift of the game's design and presentation. The two planets are extremely linear, with narrow pathing environments that exist in marked contrast to the large play fields on the remaining ten Galaxies planets (which are seamless environments, with loading screens rearing their heads only when you travel to other planets or fast-travel on the surface by using shuttles or personal instant travel vehicles).
In addition to Beast Master expertise crafting, Galaxies features a whole class based on trade skilling, item creation, and economics. Players choosing the Trader profession at character creation will be prompted to further decide between the Structures discipline (encompassing architecture and starship construction), the Engineering discipline (covering droid and basic weapons manufacturing), the Domestics discipline (cooking and tailoring), and the Munitions discipline (involving complex weapons and armorsmithing). Crafting in Star Wars Galaxies is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, the sheer number of craft-able items (as well as the nifty ability to color most of them, as well as give them unique names) is staggering, and worthy of a game unto itself. Similarly, the complexities of the various server economies offer an opportunity to sink your teeth into a deep trader class that is unmatched in any other MMORPG with the exception of EVE Online. Players can build and run their own storefronts, hiring NPC vendors to store and hawk their various wares, and many players can and do manipulate the markets for items, equipment, and rares.
Where the system breaks down is in Galaxies' gradual but inexorable move towards being a gear and loot-drop dependent game (as opposed to its original focus on a completely player-run economy). The new player will no doubt find it curious when all of the detail and complexity put into the crafting system and trader professions is rendered essentially moot by the combat-focused player's ability to go out and farm epic gear that beats the pants off of anything that can be crafted by players. The imbalance here is a long-suffering open wound for the game's veteran players, many of whom built their trader characters (and their fortunes) prior to the infamous New Game Enhancements that were, among other things, essentially giant, all-encompassing nerfs to player crafting.
To Sony's credit, they have recently taken steps to blunt some of the uselessness of dedicated traders, in the form of the recent Munitions revamp that introduced a variety of sub-component systems, reset the resource requirements for making weapons (nullifying the advantage that many long-time hoarders had over newer crafters), and added in appearance customization options that allow weaponsmiths to make extremely desirable equipment in a visual skin of the player's choosing. Domestics traders also have their part to play in the larger economy, as the many food and drink items provide buff benefits to combat focused players and are a must for the game's high level PvE and PvP action. Unfortunately though, and again due to fallout from the NGE, domestics traders often don't make much money from their efforts, simply because anyone can roll a trader on their alternate character slot and craft for themselves (supplying resources from their combat main), effectively bypassing the need for economic interaction with other players. Engineers find themselves in similar circumstances, as their droids only see a small amount of demand, mostly from due to the pilot community's need for astromech units and flight computers.
Continued on Page Two