Monday, 30 July 2007

As the stars fell down and the fields burned away

It's hard to get a handle on Star Wars Galaxies. While all MMOGs evolve over time, I can't think of anything as fundamental and far-reaching as the Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements of SWG.

Never having played SWG before, I didn't take a particularly close interest, but you couldn't really avoid the backlash. Penny Arcade aren't big fans, in the recent announcement that Pirates of the Burning Sea would be distributed by SOE they included, as a FAQ, "I hate SOE and I will never play your game" (OK, it's not technically a question, but never mind), a few guildmates who seem to be perfectly rational people have declared they'll never touch an SOE game again; I was chatting to a friend and mentioned I was trying SWG, and he asked "Why? Isn't it rubbish?" I think it's probably fair to say Star Wars Galaxies doesn't have the greatest reputation.

From an outsider's perspective, the impression I got is that, in its original incarnation, SWG was at the "world" end of the "game <-> world" scale, very free-form, a sandbox (quite literally on Tatooine). Naturally it had flaws (notably the randomly-unlocked-Jedi), but generally worked well enough for people who liked that sort of thing. The Combat Upgrade, and particularly the New Game Enhancements, aimed to slide it much further towards the "game" end of the scale with faster paced combat, quests, combat levels and the like. I can only imagine what sort of overhaul of the engine was needed to implement them. Game code isn't great at the best of times, let alone after you've layered a level-based system over the top of a skill-based system, so it doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to believe there might have been a few teething problems with the updates (or the game being a filthy bug-infested pile of banta dung, if you're reading the forums). So, at a stroke you've potentially alienated players who really liked the game the way it was, and then annoyed everyone who stuck around (or joined up from the publicity of the "enhancements") by essentially sticking them in a beta. On top of all that we're talking MMOGs here, a genre in which a few minor adjustments to a couple of abilities are more than enough to garner threats of apocalyptic doom and massed protests, so sellotape the insane, wildly over-reacting lunatics to genuine grievances and... well, it's unlikely to be pretty.

Now bearing in mind these are obviously first impressions from barely a week of playing, so there may still be soul-crushing game-destroying problems lurking up ahead... Star Wars Galaxies as it is today seems to have amazing potential. A year and a half on from the NGE, I presume the worst of the bugs have been shaken out, and I gather some of the more popular features that were removed (like creature handling/beast mastery) have since been put back in some form.

It's not perfect, of course. The graphics are good enough, without being spectacular, and the animations can be a bit strange. Laser bolts fly around nicely enough in combat, but special abilities are visually lacking; as far as I can make out most of them give a hint of an effect, a few radiating lines or something, around yourself and/or the target. This slightly undoes the manual aiming/fast paced nature of fighting, as the result on the screen is a few static people going "PEW PEW!" from time to time. Player cities, though nice for the homeowners, are strangely desolate places to visit, perhaps a case of "more is less" as far as 'realism' goes; yes, you avoid "cheating" with instances/teleports/etc., but every player city I passed through was a ghost town, needing only a few bits of tumbleweed and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and that's after the the Galactic Wrecking Crew have had their fun.

Those are fairly minor niggles, though, when you look at the big picture: the scope is vast (all those planets, *plus* the space-y bits between them!), but at the same time travel is easier (land speeders, shuttleports, free spacecraft for interplanetary travel) than the tedious low-level trudging of many other games. There's quests if you want them, crafting, houses, shops, dancing, hairdressing, exploration, bounty hunting, space combat. If you like PvP, there's a Galactic Civil War going on (though I haven't stuck my lowbie nose in that to see what it's actually like). When I said I liked games that are "structured but free-form", SWG seems to have that to a tee, the Legacy Quest gives it the structure, but with more than ample scope for wandering off and doing your own thing when you want a break from it. Whether I'd bog down after that (I gather it takes you to level 40-50 out of 90), I'm not sure, but there's always the space combat, and I've been loving the space combat.

With all that said... I don't think I'm going to subscribe. At least, not just at the moment; with Issue 10 hitting City of Heroes, there's plenty there to keep me occupied, and the Freespace Source Code Project should be enough to sate my rekindled joystick-waggling desires (as it were). In its favour is Sony's Station Access; SWG has proved quite "dippable" over the trial, it's been possible to hop in for relatively short periods of time and get something done, so if Pirates of the Burning Sea and/or The Agency prove to be fun and leave a little spare time, I might take up Station Access and pop back to Yavin IV to continue the struggle against the Empire.

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