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Written by  :  BurningStickMan (18027)
Written on  :  Nov 17, 2009
Rating  :  2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars2.33 Stars

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Episode V: The (WoW) Clone Wars

The Good

The Star Wars Galaxies Starter Kit represents the first boxed release under the "New Game Experience" (NGE) - a comprehensive super-patch that fundamentally altered most of the game's major mechanics. A highly controversial move at best, and the very disemboweling of the game at worst, the NGE was Sony Online's attempt to streamline Galaxies' sometimes cumbersome gameplay while hopefully making the game more attractive to new and/or casual MMO fans. After all, if World of Warcraft was raking in millions of subscribers based on a universe formerly unknown outside of strategy gamers, surely all Sony/LucasArts needed to do was attach a similar formula to the powerful Star Wars name.

What is commonly known as the NGE includes the cumulative effect of the earlier Combat Upgrade, so the changes discussed here cover the timeline of both releases. You could also make the argument that the release of the NGE is still ongoing, as much of its intentions were not fully realized until a significant number of Chapter Updates and balance passes in 2008-2009. But for the sake of accuracy, this review discusses the changes only as they existed when this compilation hit stores.

If the idea was to increase the game's accessibility to newcomers, then that goal was achieved. The game's 30 (sometimes overlapping) professions were merged to 9, though 4 unique brands of Trader make this closer to 13. Each new profession represented a core of Star Wars and the essential draws of the original professions that were combined to create them. Players could still focus their characters on what interested them - dancers still danced, traders still made and sold goods, and smugglers still... didn't smuggle anything - though players now had to conform to a particular template. The days of trained martial artist combat medic outdoorsmen were over.

A well-intentioned, but truly absurd, pre-NGE grind to Jedi was also removed; replaced with Jedi as a starting profession. The new Jedi class combines aspects of the previous martial arts disciplines with the ability to waste little time exploring the rich Jedi mysticism the series is known for. Sensible, fair, canonical, or none of the above, opening Jedi up from the start obviously brought in new players who probably would not have considered signing up without the promise of a lightsaber.

On the same idea of streamlining and accessibility, the new player tutorial was redesigned and vastly expanded. The original Galaxies design relied heavily on player training and peer guides; for everything from learning necessary profession skills from a mentor, to collectable skills like the Wookie language (allowing a player to decipher a Wookie character's otherwise-unintelligible growls). But to be fair, Raph Koster's idea of a vast and eagerly helpful community of players was probably a bit too optimistic for the realities of an active, competitive MMO space. Just as regular members of popular forums get tired of answering the same questions over and over again, so were new players increasingly left to fend for themselves as the game failed to provide introductory knowledge to even some of the simplest aspects of their professions.

So, the green helper droid is out and replaced with the new NGE tutorial. It gives starting characters a lengthy set of guided quests; building from very simple movement and interface commands and ending with a few missions tailored to explain the basics of their chosen profession. An isolated newbie zone (Tansarii Point Station) offers enough unique quests to level all the way to level 10 in relative safety, while granting useful loot and a nice amount of early cash in the process. Players can even get the hang of space combat, and earn a badge for completing their first set of space missions. My only complaint is that these tutorials are awfully overzealous in their attempts to bring you into the world of the films. C-3PO acts as your instructor, Han and Chewbacca personally rescue you, you work for Jabba and salvage parts for Watto - it often comes off like greasy, self-serving fan fiction ("And then, HAN SOLO showed up and gave me a speeder! It's TRUE!"). Still, it definitely serves as a helpful entry into the mechanics of the game to come.

Finally, the entire leveling system has shifted toward story threads and strings of related quests. Previously, quests were rare, and treated more like random encounters that bestowed limited credits or trinkets (ranging from the powerful Nym's Carbine to Anakin Skywalker's decorative podracer helmet). Pre-NGE leveling was only seriously accomplished by signing up with hunting groups; taking generated destroy missions from city terminals and grinding out kills on the local wildlife. But aside from the XP and possible creature resources, hunting was pointless and (unless you had a particularly social group) incredibly boring. The quests at least give you a purpose, a story to pay attention to, and more XP per mission than a terminal provides.

The Bad

Unless a real piece of investigative journalism (or a historical tell-all) ever comes out, it's going to be impossible to know if SOE really had a complete plan, or if the NGE actually met their expectations upon release. What seems clear is that the NGE was released in an unfinished, unpolished state, and SOE snubbed the existing playerbase to grasp at the phantoms of theoretical new subscribers.

The primary source of NGE hatred is that many proven methods, prized items, and classic skills had become truly useless overnight. The range of how the NGE affected everyone is so wide that it's hard to separate the legitimate gripes from unreasonable nerd rage - but many of the most venomous protests stem from what could be considered fair complaints. Armor that cost millions to make or purchase was now useless after an automated script "translated" all old items to new game values. At best, top-tier items were now equivalent to much cheaper armor when stats and resistances shifted to the NGE's new system of balances. Drinks that boosted crafting skill and cost hundreds of thousands of credits now boosted something completely different and arbitrary. Medic buffs and medicines were totally obsolete - Doctors' crafting abilities were completely stripped and replaced with simple recharging "spells." Players who had gotten used to interesting profession combos, like a swordfighting smuggler, found themselves having to toss their template and adapt to one of the 9 cookie-cutter molds. And how about the players who spent up to an entire year to earn their Jedi, only to see their hard work now equivalently available to any yokel with a credit card and $14.99?

To be fair, the NGE did address some long-standing issues with the game. Composite armor and hour-long durations had turned buffs from something that could give a slight edge in combat into something that was absolutely mandatory to survive. Players were so busy racing to make Doctor and get a piece of this lucrative new economy that they all but ignored their critical role of healing other players' accumulated combat damage. Fighters could wait hours for the only characters in the game who could heal them to actually take notice, and their fury at being forced to rely on unreliable players rightfully built. Item decay - intended to encourage interaction between fighters and traders - meant that expensive armor or weapons would eventually become useless and need to be repaired (with the random chance they could be irrecoverably destroyed in unskilled hands!). Loot drops were relatively unheard of, as were quest rewards, so new players were often left without decent weapons, while traders focused on the glamorous high-level PvP market. Requiring characters to stop by cantinas and watch entertainers to heal "battle fatigue" went from being a chance to interact with other nearby players, to silent, grumpy, forced downtime - not to mention yet another credit sink vacuuming up combat rewards.

These were all taken care of with the NGE, but SOE used a bazooka to do so. Doctors and Entertainers instantly became all but useless. Wounds and battle fatigue were out, and buffs offered a microscopic fraction of the power they used to have. Entertainers could still dance to remove a slight death debuff, but players could also simply pay a vendor a small fee to have this removed, or wait all of ten minutes for it to wear off on its own. Without much to offer, cantinas quickly ran dry.

But as bad as Dancers had it, the Trader community was completely decapitated. Quest loot was, at first, better or equal to anything that could be crafted. Consumable items (like grenade packs) were removed in favor of recharging abilities, and the removal of item decay meant the loss of repeat customers. With plenty to make, but little to sell, Traders built ships (the Jump to Lightspeed mechanics were essentially left alone) or abandoned the game in droves.

Perhaps the most laughable aspect was the fast-paced action combat system that had been grafted atop the old engine. Pre-NGE, combat fell in line with most other MMOs - select nearby targets, trigger an auto-attack, and supplement your weapon strikes with learned specials off your toolbar. The NGE tried to do something more akin to a third person shooter. You had to manually aim at enemies with your mouse, and hold down the left mouse button to shoot. Lag was an obvious problem, as was PvE AI that ran and warped all over the place and became a serious annoyance to track. Blaster bolts would actually curve through the air to follow your character (as hits and dodging still followed the old networking code), but you had to manually move to keep enemies in valid range (making melee combat a needless headache). It felt like a system obviously trying to be something it was never designed for - and I even remember one of the earliest releases of the CU actually requiring your character to frequently pause and play an animation as you automatically reloaded your blaster. What was that about? Ever see anyone reload in the films?

It really was a New Game; one that no existing player had signed up for, and that little of their previous Experience translated to. Guilds disbanded, popular hangouts became ghost towns, forums were trolled and policed with equal ruthlessness. My overall (and non-libelous!) opinion at the time was that SOE felt completely unapologetic for these changes; deciding that any vets that couldn't adapt were acceptable losses compared to the horde of new players they were now sure to pull away from WoW. I feel especially bad for players who had already signed up for a six month or year plan, and hope they were able to get out of those contracts if they wanted. But then, it often felt like those prepaid accounts were the only reason there were players on the servers at all.

The Bottom Line

The game did get much better, and most of the NGE ideas even actually worked once they were refined and executed (around 2007/2008). But this pack represents Star Wars Galaxies at its darkest. The new players it targeted were going to find a game in turmoil, some would even say dying, and certainly not an exciting, optimistic, or encouraging virtual universe to join. It's this version that probably tarnished SWG's reputation beyond repair, and nearly destroyed the game in its reckless attempt to improve itself.