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Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on September 21st, 2014

Star Wars: Galaxies - Jump to Lightspeed (Windows)

Episode II: Personal Space

The Good
Truth is, I didn't get into Star Wars Galaxies until Jump to Lightspeed. I had heard of SWG, but was wary of this "new" MMO idea, and wasn't clear on the compelling reasons to pay a monthly fee for a game. Then, JtL came out and I couldn't jump on board fast enough.

This was entirely because I adored the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series, and I thought JtL was a grand-scale sequel to those games. It wasn't - which we'll touch on in a minute - but I had completely intended to get absorbed in the flight game and treat anything ground-related as a mere pit stop, or overly elaborate chat room. Flaws in JtL's systems, and the fascinating sandbox stuff original SWG was doing, mean the opposite ended up being true.

Jump to Lightspeed is, simply, the space combat that was promised on launch and held back when it was discovered that plan would be too ambitious. The expansion introduces new space zones around every planet in the game, plus two PvP areas - Kessel and Deep Space. Players gained the option to swear allegiance to either the Rebels, Imperial Navy, or a few different pilot trainers as a Freelancer, and ranked up through exclusive ship tiers in each of the three factions. New crafting options, and two new playable species (Sullustians and Ithorians), created a new Shipwright economy for engineers that didn't take long to get really booming - and unique aspects to that field made it one of the most interesting crafting options in the entire game.

Graphically, it was a powerhouse, and remains impressive even today. Planets were absolutely huge - some of the biggest views ever in a space game - and even featured layers of rolling atmospheric effects if you stopped to watch. Lighting was affected by whatever suns were in that system, and cast dynamically. Zones themselves were actually quite large, and featured plenty of sights like nebulae, debris fields from previous battles, and space stations with missions sometimes available. Ships and asteroids featured basic bump mapping, so the sunlight highlight pits and edges. Each planetary zone also looked distinct and different from the others, and all had their own plausible beauty without resorting to bombastic space phenomena or boring endless starfields.

Each ship had a fully 3D cockpit. While instruments were not live and functional, you could still look around freely or use a third person view. An extension of this, and the star of JtL's show, were the "Player On Board" ships. These featured fully 3D interiors which players could walk around freely inside at any time - even while the ship was moving. Functionally, they acted much like houses in space, and could be decorated and explored as such. The pilot returned to the JtL flight interface by sitting in the pilot's seat, while the rest of his passengers were free to watch out the windows (a live and accurate view), roam, chat, or assist in combat. Damaged ships could blow power conduits, venting fire into the passenger compartments. Passengers could repair these with disposable kits, and return that damaged part to working order as well. One passenger could also act as the "co-pilot" and manage all the droid commands. As for the rest of the crew? Send them up into the working turrets to fend off attackers while you focus on flying!

Next, the gameplay itself. In stark contrast to Galaxies' traditional auto-attack and toolbar ground combat, JtL is off-rails and twitch-based. The mechanics are identical to any of the great space shooters that came before it - Freespace, Wing Commander, X-Wing - and it amazingly worked just as well. The ground game occasionally suffered from some wonky lag-related effects, but JtL almost always ran clean. Combat was as fast and smooth as if you were playing a single player game. Though to achieve this, ships were only drawn in a somewhat limited spherical range around your ship. This made it easy to lose friends if they flew too far away, or for enemies to suddenly spawn in nearby.

Ships were customizable based on hardpoints, similar to other flight or mech games. Players unlocked the rights to fly increasingly powerful chassis as they progressed, starting with lowly patrol craft and working their way up to X-Wings and advanced TIE fighters. This was just the bare frame of the ship though, and all parts needed to be acquired and installed - engines, shields, weapons, capacitors, armor and droid computers. Aside from the hardpoints limiting the actual number of weapons you could install, each chassis also had a weight limit forcing you to make compromises regarding what you put in. Further, each ship required a reactor with its own weight statistic, which generated a fixed amount of power. None of your installed electronics could go over this power limit either.

Parts were looted in space from destroying other craft, or bought from traders. Loot here was actually some of the best implementation of loot in Galaxies up to that point (the ground game at this point was reluctant to hand out anything that would be poaching on the player economy). You could more than serviceably kit out a ship just with looted parts, so actually getting the materials necessary to fly was rarely an issue. You could also sell any unwanted loot to an NPC for a low, fixed price, or sell it to player shipwright at whatever price they were willing to pay. I set up a good relationship with a crafter just dumping off all the parts I didn't need, and I'm sure others (especially guilds) worked out similar agreements.

If you wanted to get advanced (and who didn't want to trick out their ship?), it was time for the shipwrights to step in. Shipwrights could craft parts in a system identical to any other object in the game; using recipes, components, resources, and experimentation points to specialize specific stats. Shipwrights could also reverse engineer, which was a new process no other crafter could do. Shipwrights needed a number of parts equivalent to that tier (so Tier 8 equipment needed eight looted copies of that part model). They would then load all eight parts into a reverse engineer device that made one part with the best stats from each of the component parts. These RE-ed parts were highly prized by pilots, and created an obvious crafter demand for any and all loot.

In addition to unlocking licenses for new ships and equipment tiers, pilots would also learn new piloting tricks that gave them and edge in combat. These were supplemental powers fired from the toolbar, and again faction-specific. Rebels could call for resupplies, Imperials could call in bomb runs from A.I. TIEs, and Freelancers could do appropriately smuggly things like scramble sensors or fire off a short-range EMP blast.

All pilots could further use droid commands, which involved the droidsmith crafting profession.
Droidsmiths could now make flight computers (for Imperials or Freelancers), or program R2 units (who could be called as pets on the ground) with similar commands. These commands were printed onto blank memory chips and loaded into the installed ship computer's memory. This is where tweaks like doubling up forward shields, dumping energy from one system to another, or overcharging a system (at the cost of increasing its decay) could be done, and they were naturally vital to a pilot's survival at higher-level engagements. More advanced droid computers could hold more programs and had shorter recharge times when executing them.

This wasn't exactly advertised, but each faction had multiple trainers at each level to choose from. Players could choose from three basic paths within their faction, getting different assignments, bases, and story missions for each. Freelancers had you working for the Naboo royal guard, Corellia's police force, or as a smuggler for the Hutts. Rebels and Imperials put you in different squadrons from Star Wars literature (such as the feared Imperial Storm Squadron), each with different, unpublished difficulty levels. If you were really into the space game, there was a lot of content to explore.

Progress in your pilot skills was completely independent from the ground game, and did not take away from those points. This was truly welcome as it allowed anyone who wanted to get involved in the space game the ability to, without sacrificing their ground progress. The free-range, twitch style of combat was also appreciated. While you could gain an advantage through excellent parts or droid commands, there was always a base element of skill involved (the ground game by this point was primarily driven by who spent the most on gear). It was just damn fun, and exactly the addition Galaxies needed.

The Bad
Without a doubt, the worst part of JtL was the grind. There is so much awesome about this expansion (as liberally detailed above), that there's no shortage of things to love about it.
However, the one thing that drew me in - thinking it was functional sequel to X-Wing vs TIE Fighter - is also the pack's biggest failure.

There are story missions, yes, and they're pretty good for that matter. Each of the factions' three different paths also give different story missions, which keeps re-rolls interesting. What is not advertised is how rare a story mission is. It's been a long time since I leveled a pilot, but I think a fair estimate is less than 20 story missions total over 50+ hours put into maxing a pilot.

The amount of pilot XP you needed to hit the next level was excruciating, and leveling up was almost always where your next story mission came in. In the meantime, you only had the option to take "Duty Missions." These are randomly-generated, tedious busy work, like running through patrol waypoints or escorting a cargo transport. Waves of enemies would appear, you would shoot them, repeat over and over for about 30 minutes until the mission mercifully ended. You were certainly free to go off and explore/kill on your own (and some argued that this was faster), but the duty missions at least gave you a fat bonus at the end for doing the same activities.

JtL was also a magnificent bastard at being a credit sink. Every component on your ship had a decay rating, just like any other item in Galaxies. They can, and would, take damage in combat. Components could also be targeting individually, even by the A.I., so your shield or engine repair budget was frequently astronomical. Crafters could create disposable repair kits, but these were always priced so high that I assumed they must have been a hassle to make. You could just as easily putter your broken ship back to any orbital station (the gateway between the space game and the ground) and pay a not-insignificant fee to repair those parts. And God help you if you ever died in combat. Not only did your ship blow up, causing every part to need hefty repairs, but your character also suffered health damage (black rot) that to be healed.

JtL was also unabashedly brutal. Starter TIEs had no shields, and all starter ships had no hyperdrives. If your engine was shot out, you were left to eject (damaging all your parts) or limp back to the nearest dock on thrusters (which could take almost an hour if you were out far enough - I know because I did it :/ ). Gangs would readily swarm and overtake you if you weren't careful, and high level enemies had some decent tactics to go along with their incredibly powerful weapons.

Spawning enemies was another huge annoyance. Each zone acted similar to a fully 3D district of any other MMO. This means that specific enemies would be generated for your mission, along with the randomly spawned enemies that just populated the area. More often than not, these two would overlap. I can't count the times I was in a mission-related dogfight, only to have an ambient spawn of unrelated enemies pop nearby. Now I've unavoidably aggroed these guys too, completely blowing the odds of the mission as designed, and usually resulting in a protracted death (at least I always went down fighting!) It was equally easy to stumble upon enemies of a much higher tier than you, as they didn't pop on the scanners (or into the world, for that matter) until it was too late.

JtL's rules about who you could shoot and when were also a little flaky. Random spawns were generally fair game, but mission-related enemies were tagged to that player (or their group).
If you spotted someone in a serious jam, you couldn't swoop in to assist if it was part of their mission. Likewise, you couldn't valiantly defend the honor of your faction - even if you're in an X-Wing and they're in a TIE - unless you both had visited a specific faction station and flagged yourselves for space PvP.

While the devs talked about (and generally stuck with) a rigid delineation between ground and space progress and consequences, the one area where this didn't apply was in your choice of faction. If you wanted to fly the Rebel path, you had to be in good standing with the Rebels on the ground. As you took missions and whacked TIEs, you earned faction points that affected your standing on the ground as well. Remember that this was back when the Temporary Enemy Flag would force PvE players into PvP for engaging in hostile PvE actions. This meant you couldn't just be "curious" about the Rebel storyline - you needed to be prepared to play as a Rebel on the ground too, because those Imperial NPCs were going to be gunning for you based your actions in space.

A minor annoyance, but one worth voicing anyway - the POB ships were awarded at the end of each faction's storyline, after completing the most difficult mission in the game (taking down a Corellian Corvette). The YT-1300, aka Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, was naturally the most coveted and awesome POB ship you could have. However, it was locked as the award for beating the Freelancer campaign, and there was no other way to get it or fly it. At all. Ever. So naturally, I spent my time grinding through a bunch of boring police missions, piloting some of the ugliest freelancer ships ever designed, just so I could fly that sweet, sweet 1300. (And to be fair, it was awesome.)

This is a problem because the game only lets you pick one faction and mission series per character. I've already mentioned how you can't mix and match factions, so if you're like me and interested in the Imperial story, but want that YT at the end, that's two different characters to grind. If you want to experience all the storylines, that nine different characters doing mindless patrol grinds at 50+ hours a piece. No thank you. An NPC was later added that let you drop your affiliation and pilot ranking, at the cost of losing all your skills and starting completely over - you couldn't even fly the ships you owned because those licenses were locked to that faction - so, no different than starting a new pilot from scratch.
This more than anything was what kept me from exploring JtL to the fullest, or even just as much as I wanted to.

The Bottom Line
Like most everything about Galaxies, Jump to Lightspeed was equal parts brilliant and broken.
On the one hand, it added so much to the core experience. Story missions were great fun, kitting out your ship to the max was an enjoyable challenge, and it seemed like shipwrighting struck a perfect balance between combat players and crafters (Thanks, Starmaker Ishii, for my bugged, zero-weight, server-capped max speed engine. My YT couldn't have made the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs without it!).

On the other, that grind. Oh, the grind! When they started integrating ground missions with space missions in Rage of the Wookies, it only taunted you more to get up in space and work on your pilot. They absolutely had the groundwork here to make that phenomenal X-Wing vs TIE Fighter sequel I was expecting, but then I suppose the business model of an MMO (maximum player time with minimum content) was never going to make that possible. And like I said, I definitely came to Galaxies for the space combat, but I ended up staying for everything else.

By BurningStickMan on April 1st, 2013

Rage (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on October 12th, 2011

Crysis 2 (Limited Edition) (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on October 6th, 2011

Crysis 2 (Limited Edition) (Windows)

By BurningStickMan on October 6th, 2011

Crysis 2 (Limited Edition) (PlayStation 3)

By BurningStickMan on October 6th, 2011

Dead to Rights II (PlayStation 2)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

Dead to Rights (PlayStation 2)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

Full Spectrum Warrior (Windows)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Wii)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

The Operative: No One Lives Forever (PlayStation 2)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

Red Faction (PlayStation 2)

By BurningStickMan on October 4th, 2011

Hellgate: London (Windows)

The servers are dead, but the single-player lives on

The Good
If you've heard anything about Hellgate: London, it’s likely been negative. Regarded as one of the biggest flops of 2007, the high-profile involvement of several Diablo II alums only resulted in high-profile fallout when the studio collapsed shortly after Hellgate‘s release.The demise of Flagship Studios ended up overshadowing the actual gameplay of Hellgate, and while you can no longer play this online, the single-player game is still quite available. This single-player aspect is what we’ll be taking a look at today.

Hellgate takes place in a near-future London, during a dismal time after humanity’s card has been well and truly pulled. “Hellgates” have opened around the world, issuing forth swarms of demons out to purge humanity in a process called The Burn. Those humans who survived the initial onslaught retreated underground, living in and traveling through the remains of city subways. You play as a new soldier in the ranks of London’s militant survivors staging a guerrilla war against the occupying demons. A revitalized Templar order offers fractured oversight to the resistance, and as you play through the game’s 30-ish hour campaign, you’ll meet its leaders and play a key role in humanity’s dim future.

Hellgate is very much a modern Diablo. You head out into randomized dungeons, hack and slash (or shoot) until your pack fills with randomized loot, then use a “town portal” style device to zap back to your last station and sell your collected wares. Repeat and repeat, with questgivers directing your hacking and slashing toward particular numbers or types of demons. It worked well in Diablo, and it works well here – with the thrill of “just one more” masking most issues of repetition or simplistic gameplay, at least for a while.

You choose from a fixed set of character classes that cover the expected bases – ranged specialists, melee specialists, magicians, engineers, minion controllers – and specialize by dumping experience points into a skill tree. Each node on the tree can also be specialized in more than once, increasing the power of that ability. Abilities run on a toolbar along the bottom of the screen and are deployed with the number keys.

I played as a standard soldier, and ended up with various grenades types with different debuffs, a marking ability to increase damage to a selected foe, a root ability that fixed you in place but raised your accuracy and damage, etc. You can certainly see how the various classes could support each other in a group, and overall, they feel balanced and enjoyable (in single player, at least). About the only annoyance is that the game was clearly designed to stick around, so you won’t get too far along that skill tree on only one playthrough.

Another nice feature is that ranged and melee combat both seem equally competent. Ranged defaults to a first-person view, and works like a typical FPS. All guns have infinite ammo here, but fire at different speeds and lose varying amounts of accuracy (shown with expanding crosshairs) with sustained fire. Melee restricts you to a third-person view, and you hack-and-slash much like in Jedi Knight. I didn’t get far enough on a melee character to discover any significant strategy or stances – instead, they seemed intended to spec out in a Tank role. Many of a sword-and-shield Templar’s skills are based around drawing aggro and soaking up damage, which essentially sidestep the whole issue of needing a fluid melee system.

Skills are, of course, supplemented with loot. Again, nothing surprising or broken here. Equipment is color coded based on rarity, and can be bought and sold in shops at the stations. Almost every piece of equipment has slots to accept drop-in modifications (also looted and color coded). These bestow skills boosts, rare powers (like a lightning blast when you’re hit), and damage upgrades. Both gear and mods can also be broken down into constituent parts, which can be reforged by crafting NPCs offering randomized recipes. You can also pay in-game money to enhance any particular piece of gear you may be fond of, granting it additional stats or extra mod slots. Of course, any unused gear, boots, or crafting bits can be stored in lockers in every station, and of course, paying subscribers got extra storage.

The setting is really the main draw of Hellgate, and it’s a welcome departure from the typical high-fantasy tropes that dominate the genre. London’s shattered streets are besieged by rain, ash, and snow, and an ever-present haze suggests hellfires burning in all directions. Underground tunnels are similarly dingy and atmospheric; lit with trash bin fires and strewn with rubble and disused subway cars. Many of these areas actually look quite lovely. The game was also an early adopter of DirectX 10 technology, so players with the cards can appreciate enhanced steam and smoke effects, moonlit reflections, physics-controlled gibs and explosions, to name a few.

Monsters look suitably demonic, and actually break out into a caste that roughly defines their abilities and weakness. Most are a little too shiny and plastic (typical for the time), but there are certainly no questions when a horde of zombies shamble toward you, or spectral creatures phase in to attack. There’s also a randomized “legendary monster” system that sometimes spawns in tougher, mini-boss level enemies into the world. These are usually just gold-named versions of existing creatures, but sometimes you’ll get something you haven’t seen before, or one of the game’s surprisingly large monster models. Kill them, and you’ll get a large loot drop.

The campaign’s story isn’t that bad, and frequently based around humor. A running gag involving a self-proclaimed demon researcher and an unwitting techsmith provides the most laughs, and there’s a few legitimately good lines and odd situations. However, when it’s time for the plot to get serious, it gets pretty generic (“We’ve lost contact with such and such station – hurry and check it out!”). The overall plot, based around a prophecy that might close the Hellgates, is also little more than an excuse to travel around London and solve some puzzles toward the end. Side missions similarly stick with the old formula of “Find this named boss and kill him” or “Bring me back 10 demon toenails for my research.”

The Bad
These quests are also where the gameplay side of Hellgate starts to falter. Like the original Diablo, the game is entirely based around extremely repetitive combat. As a ranged character, you simply move up to the next group of monsters, stop, and hold the fire key until they’re all dead. Same for melee, except that you stop a little closer to them. A recharging shield for all players, and frequent health powerups (or passive regeneration skills) also mean most players won’t see much of a challenge. The gameplay’s not necessarily bad, just frequently boring and simplistic, and you can certainly see the necessity of friends or a group to offer some kind of distraction. The usual draw of getting new loot also doesn’t entirely work, as scaling enemies mean you always end up taking the same amount of time to kill something.

It's also where I should note that the single-player campaign is the game. Talk of Hellgate being an MMO stirs up confusion that heavily contributed to its demise in the first place. You create a character and take that character through a linear series of story-based missions, with fixed, optional side-quests able to be grabbed in every station. There are no random missions. When you finish your personal campaign, you can only opt to restart it in a “New Game Plus” situation, and work to fill yet more of your skill tree. The difference is that there are other online players going through their campaigns too, and you can cross paths and optionally team up at the various station hubs. That’s the multiplayer component – more of a Demon’s Souls than a WoW, that you were still expected to pay a monthly fee for.

The game also works on the old system of inventory slots, with each item taking up a set number (and shape) of slots in your pack. I think I spent more time playing Inventory Tetris than slaying beasts. The pack fills up quickly too, so there’s a constant need to portal back and sell your wares, or dump off your crafting bits if you go the disassembly route. Some people may enjoy this, but I was just getting frustrated with finding my inventory full yet again in the middle of a mission. Then again, maybe I was just being greedy.

The Bottom Line
If you were to pick up a boxed copy of the original Hellgate today, this is what you’d be in for. It’s a very Diablo experience, with all the good and repetitive that brings. You also don’t even have to play the multiplayer to see where other players fit in, and where the daft concept of charging a monthy fee for the privilege doesn’t. It will be interesting to see how the free-to-play model works here, and with an additional story and maybe some enhanced difficulty (a hardcore or permadeath mode might offer enough tension to keep interested) might make the reborn F2P Hellgate something worth checking out.

By BurningStickMan on September 27th, 2011

Resident Evil 4 (GameCube)

By BurningStickMan on September 11th, 2011

Starship Troopers: Battlespace (Windows)

By BurningStickMan on August 18th, 2011

Tecmo Bowl Throwback (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

The Life Stage (3DO)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Final Fight: Double Impact (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Final Fight: Double Impact (PlayStation 3)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Fight Night Champion (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Homefront (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Doom II (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Darwinia+ (Xbox 360)

By BurningStickMan on April 20th, 2011

Plumbers Don't Wear Ties (3DO)

By BurningStickMan on April 1st, 2011

Star Wars: Galaxies - Starter Kit (Windows)

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.

By BurningStickMan on February 14th, 2011

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