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Star Wars: Galaxies - An Empire Divided (Windows)

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Written by  :  BurningStickMan (17745)
Written on  :  Jan 23, 2010
Rating  :  4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars4.4 Stars

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Summary

Episode I: Like 'Second Life,' but with a purpose.

The Good

It's a sunny afternoon among the towering skyscrapers of Coronet; capital city of Corellia, and one of the galaxy's busiest meeting places. I'm an older, silver haired gentleman in utilitarian white clothes, seated at an open desk in one of the four main rooms of Coronet's expansive medical center. It's a busy shift today. It's been an unspoken agreement that Corellia is a prime location for medical treatment. A steady stream of patients from all over the galaxy is always flowing through, which in turn keeps the place staffed by up-and-coming medical specialists. There's plenty of dangers on every habitable planet in the galaxy, and as hunters or explorers get poisoned, diseased, or knocked out enough times to have their abilities greatly reduced, they have to come to people like me. I'm a doctor.

Well, a doctor-in-training, as most of the people here are. Medical centers are one of the few places you can earn the specialized medical experience needed to advance in the medical professions - field work doesn't count - so every doctor has to come through an impromptu residency at one of the major medical centers. I have just come back from the Coronet bazaar, where I was able to purchase some high-quality steel a prospector had mined and packaged off for sale. This was the last resource I needed to craft higher-quality dispersal units - an injecting component needed in all the medicines I create (some buy from other doctors, I generally make my own by hand). Better components mean more efficient medicines, which means I can cure wounds in a shorter amount of time, while using up fewer charges on these disposable meds to boot.

And so, I am tinkering away at the medical center desk, experimenting to produce the best components I can, when in walks some poor sap with a tiny sliver of health remaining. His maximum health had been severely limited by the accumulation of cloning wounds we called "black rot." Without treatment, he was effectively useless in combat - a hefty sneeze from a Bantha would probably bowl him over. It was the worst case I had seen up to that point.

"What happened?" I asked, closing my crafting kit and rising from the desk.

He looked down at the floor and shook his head back and forth. "Krayt dragons" he stated simply, taking a seat at an open medical bed. I laughed. No more needed to be said. Krayt Dragons roamed the northeastern deserts of Tatooine. The older ones were four or five times the size of a man - and about ten times as nasty. But they guarded valuable items, making them worth taking on if you could hack it. This guy must have tried taking one on solo. And then again and again after cloning.

We chatted a bit about his fight while I injected the medicines that were already clearing up his grievous wounds. I even managed to share a tip on how to fight them. I'd never been out Dragon hunting myself, but another hunter passing through for treatment had recommended using droids to draw the creatures' attention. I knew a droidsmith on Dantooine who offered quality droids at fair prices (I was saving up for a medical unit, myself!) and gave the now-recovered hunter datapad coordinates to her shop. He thanked me for my help, tipped me for my services, and headed out to see if he could best those damn Dragons. As he was leaving, a new patient walked in with their health being drained away by combat poisons. I dug through my inventory for my separate set of anti-toxins as he told his story of finding a secret Imperial research facility whose experiments had broken loose.

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What's most important about the above is that absolutely none of it is exaggerated or imagined. Put everything above into game terms - my character was sitting at a desk actually playing with a crafting interface for medicines, there are emotes and Krayt Dragons and damage-over-time diseases, etc - and it's a true slice of what really happened on a day-to-day basis in SWG. That it sounds like fan-fiction is part of what made the common moments of the game impressive (and why I started the review this way). Galaxies really and truly let you live out a Star Wars fantasy without an excess of imagination required.

Galaxies, as released initially, had less in common with directed, quest-based RPGs like Everquest, and more with sandbox MMOs like Eve Online. Your goals were intentionally left open; your character mostly free to pursue as you saw fit. The "world" of Star Wars was truly opened up and well-designed. Every planet was incredibly vast, had a distinct look, and every city had a recognizable layout and its own canonical landmarks. You could even sightsee effectively if you wanted to, from visiting the royal palace on Naboo, to the crashed Lucky Despot in Mos Eisley, to checking out Ewok villages in the forests of Endor.

But the world Galaxies created also extended beyond simply replicating areas from the films or novels; it truly gave you an opportunity to live in that world. You could actually become a moisture farmer with your own house on Tatooine. While it sounds goofy at first, consider it for a moment: You start with a highly customizable character generator, with "Image Designer" players who could sell you a further expanded range of hairstyles or colors. As long as the land wasn't claimed by someone else, you could scout out the perfect location for your house and drop it anywhere on the planet. You could purchase furniture built by other players to decorate the interior of your 3D building as you saw fit (or visit others' houses and take in their decorative creativity). You could purchase crafted clothing that fit the style of your character. You could buy a vehicle to get around, and customize its colors. And that moisture your harvesters are automatically farming would actually go toward helping another player create an item for yet another player to use.

There were no levels in the traditional sense, only abilities that were unlocked as you progressed up skill trees. There were also no restrictions on what you could learn in these trees and no “classes,” only a cap of skill points that allowed you to master, roughly, any two professions. What those were, were entirely up to you. A seamstress skilled in the martial art Teras Kasi? A smuggler who could track animals and live off the wild? A dancer who was also a master pikeman? Done, done, and done. Or, you could ignore the goal of mastery and spread your points around a wider selection of lower level skills.

That sense of ownership, of creating YOUR character and making YOUR place in the world is something Galaxies truly excelled at. Rather than simply running the same quest that everyone else in the game could run, and getting the same looted item that everyone else who ran the quest receives, you really had a chance to be an individual. You actually could craft (or have crafted for you) an item with stats that no one else on the server would have. Or instead of pulling the same "Farthomire's Sword of Strength +25" from a heroic, that happened to be the flavor of the month in PvP, you could have a customized weapon really restricted only by how dedicated your crafter is, and how much money you had available to spend.

If combat was more your style, there were seven complete, distinct planets for you to explore, each with their own native fauna to hunt. With the right skills, you could harvest resources from these creatures to sell - not because some NPC told you to go kill 30 blarphamets and bring back their hooves, but because you could sell the useful resources you got to crafters for in-game credits. It's a different sense when you're actually contributing to an in-game economy, and relationships were frequently forged between the crafters and the combatants this way. And though the game wasn’t quest-based, you could find random, one-shot missions in your journeys, or elaborate hidden facilities with dangers (and shinies!) inside.

You could also elect to join the Galactic Civil War as either a Rebel or Imperial soldier. The GCW was primarily based around PvP. Though you could raid a city and shoot up the Stormtroopers patrolling it, killing factional NPCs temporarily flagged you for PvP, and any PvP opponents in the area would have no qualms about coming to the defense of their helpless NPC buddies. Players could also drop factional bases to influence control of the planet, and base-busting was a frequent GCW pastime. The developers would even sometimes host factional battles, dropping in Imperial walkers and controlling iconic characters like Darth Vader as they joined the fray.

Players could also group together in guilds, or live in a collection of player houses grouped as official cities. These could be guild-sponsored, or simply people living together in a pretty or valuable location. Mayors ran the cities, with frequent elections determining the current mayor. Mayors granted citizenship to anyone interested in joining their city, and set options like city bonuses (e.g., boosts to crafting or healing) and taxes that went into the city’s treasury. Cities could even declare war on other cities or individuals, with players who volunteered to join the city militia able to attack the flagged players should they trespass into city territory.

And of course, you could go for Jedi. It was truly an epic journey, but with impressive rewards. Original Jedi could take on five or so fully skilled PvP opponents at once, had access to unique Force powers, and could even compete among themselves at Jedi and Sith temples through the Force Ranking System. This determined the makeup and hierarchy of an actual Jedi Council made up of other players.

The Bad

With a system this complex, of course, there were flaws. While the non-combat parts of the game were rich and inspired, the combat half was not. Leveling was not based on quests (in fact, there were hardly any in the game at all). Instead, the player was left to take repeatable hunting missions from terminals in every city; grinding out XP on spawns of critters sporting basic AI. This was truly the only effective way to level a combat character, and though true to the sandbox style, it certainly offered no sense of taking place in a Star Wars adventure - let alone any adventure at all!

Meanwhile, non-combat professions had no inherent combat skills in their trees. While you could take combat skills from other trees, they took up skill points that restricted your ability to master your main professions. If you chose to take two non-combat professions, you had to be extremely careful outside the cities. I remember a nest of wild "gurrcats" spawned outside my house. They would kill me as I went up to the door. While I could physically shoot a gun, I had no offensive or defensive skills to support it, so the aggressive cats would shred me every time. I actually had to call a combat player over to act as an exterminator for a small fee. He laughed his ass off the entire time. And while it is another neat example of the simulation trying to be made here, it’s pretty damn annoying not to be able to walk to your house. I doubt many players treating SWG as a game meant to supply fun would have appreciated the humor.

Though you could officially join either the Rebellion or the Empire, the incentives to do so were basically non-existent. Planetary control was decided by the activity and number of bases of a faction on that planet, but actually controlling a planet simply changed the alignment of the NPC guards in a city, making it more inconvenient for a member of the opposing faction to travel through… and that’s it. There were some good public battles, but hardly a sense of a war going on that was making progress for either side. Promises of expanding the GCW (which was also the only real PvP system in the game) were frequently made, but never executed.

Combat itself was standard MMO, with an autofiring basic attack supplemented with specials fired from the toolbar (or consumable inventory items, such as grenades and poisons). Over time, the combat became more and more unbalanced as the dev team tried to squash one exploit at the cost of another. The key flaw for most of the early game was the "Mind" pool. Characters had three bars - one for health, one for energy, and one for mind. Health is obvious, and actions or special attacks expended portions of either the energy or mind bar (depending on the action). Doctors and chefs could buff health and energy to a ridiculous degree, and stims could repair that damage in combat, but mind really couldn't be healed during a fight. If any of these bars dropped to 0, that player would be knocked unconscious. This fact, combined with certain weapons (rifles and some close combat) and class powers (the Swordsman's Two-Handed Head Hit) that targeted the Mind bar specifically, meant that PvP became focused exclusively on alpha strikes to the vulnerable Mind pool. This really didn't get cleared up until the first Combat Upgrade merged mind and action into one bar.

"Uber" equipment also homogenized warfare. If you didn't wear server-capped composite armor and roll in with capped Doctor buffs and as many buffing foods as your character could eat, there was no need to even show up for the battle. You'd lose. Those that did meet this requirement became titans with such absurd stats that duels would last minutes at a time, or slugged it out with creatures whose stats had been raised to provide a challenge to these new defenses.

It also meant that getting into PvP became a barrier for new players strapped for cash (there was a reason so many players had crafter alts). And since crafting any item took a fair amount of time and resources, crafters generally ignored the low-level items they could in favor of making and selling the best equipment for the lucrative end-game PvP market. Without quests to kit out up-and-coming players with standardized loot, many players had to slog through their development with shitty starter weapons until they could afford something the crafters could charge enough for to make it worth crafting.

Item decay was another controversial part of the crafting system. As items were used, or a player died with items on them, the item would decay. When its decay value reached 0, it could no longer be used. This was to force players to keep injecting money into the player economy, but really just incited frustration. Crafters charged a premium for their time and efforts (the price rising significantly as inflation took over), and players became irritated at dropping a million credits on weapons or armor they were then afraid to actually USE in combat. Likewise, forcing combat players to visit non-combat players between battles (doctors to heal wounds, dancers to heal "combat fatigue") became equally annoying. A combat character literally had to STOP PLAYING if they were wounded, and wait for a doctor to log on and heal them. There was no alternate way to remove the wounds. Rather than promoting interaction between the combatants and non-combatants, decay and wounds really just bred animosity.

Finally, the Jedi. Jedi were just as cool as everyone wanted them to be, but the grind to get there was wildly punishing. The idea was to ensure that only the most dedicated players got Star Wars’ best reward, but the practice fell short. Galaxies was one of the few MMOs that allowed players to write their own UI macros (and did not punish players for using them). These ran from macros that could automate most steps of crafting, to ones that could entirely automate combat. Players wanted Jedi. They didn’t want to deal with the arduous grind. Hence, the proliferation of “hologrinding,” or simply letting a macro level your character while you did something else (Doctors were notorious for this too, further infuriating players who came to med centers expecting treatment). And from a business sense, it didn’t make much sense to rope off your best content, to the extreme that most subscribers would never hold a glowbat (lightsaber). Most people rightfully aren’t going to pay a monthly fee for three to six months to do busy work.

I think Raph Koster legitimately believed that many players would be perfectly okay with never being elite themselves; would understand that their rarity gave the Jedi value, and not feel that they were entitled to everything in the game simply because they paid the monthly fee. And this is just one of many examples of Raph’s adorable, apparent naivety regarding the mentality of the Internet Generation.

The Bottom Line

Galaxies tried things that hadn’t been done before, and in some cases, have yet to be done again. And a lot of what it did worked. Some of it didn’t, but could probably have been fixed within the existing system. Unfortunately, it may all have been a bit too quirky for a mainstream title. It certainly found a niche, but one that wasn’t pulling in as much money as LucasArts/SoE felt they could make with the powerful Star Wars brand.

Maybe they were correct that Star Wars was too big a name to waste on a sandbox world/trading simulation. I just know that I had a hell of a lot of fun healing real players as a doctor providing a valuable service (healing NPCs all day, such as in Theme Hospital, would have just been goofy). I looked for a long time after SWG changed tactics around the release of the Galaxies Starter Kit, but I have never felt so much a part of a virtual world since.