Considering the importance of space battles in the Star Wars universe, it was disappointing that ship combat was given such a cursory role in Star Wars: The Old Republic. After all, I can't imagine A New Hope without the Battle of Yavin, which led to the destruction of the Death Star. (A useless gesture? I think not!) The Old Republic's single-player on-rails battles looked the part, but they didn't capture the essence of galactic warfare.
With Galactic Starfighter, that's set to change.
Star Wars: The Old Republic - Galactic Starfighter is the massively multiplayer game's upcoming expansion, and will allow you to take wing and engage in dogfights in 24-player aerial battles. I journeyed to Electronic Arts' offices earlier this week to get my hands on the expansion and duke it out with other games writers, though not before a rundown of the content's feature list and general mission statements behind Galactic Starfighter's creation. And part of BioWare Austin's mission is to make the expansion feel as "Star Wars" as possible--to recall Luke Skywalker's Death Star trench run and The Phantom Menace's Naboo space battle with the use of wide angles and riffs on recognizable ship designs. (I pray they don't also wish to capture the spirit of a young boy accidentally activating a starfighter and helping to shut down an entire droid army.)
I can confirm that Galactic Starfighter's visuals are a fine fit for The Old Republic's clean and stylized presentation, and in fact, the expansion looks a great deal like the game's current space battles. BioWare wants the content's visual landmarks to act as beacons for players, evoking our fond memories of the films' most exciting moments, and keeping us from getting disoriented in the three-dimensional vastness of space. One of the maps I explored featured mountainous spires that rose above the clouds, though I suppose this means that combat on this map wouldn't be a space battle as much as it would be a stratosphere battle. In any case, at no point did I feel lost or confused, and the sights were uniquely "Star Wars."
Another mark in Galactic Starfighter's favor is the way it meshes with the main game while not alienating newcomers and forcing them to dig through content before zooming into space. You can enjoy the expansion almost immediately without having to experience the ground game. There are benefits to dividing your time between both aspects of the game, however, given how you can assign your various crew members to different roles in space combat. When you choose a copilot, that companion character will shout out encouragement and react to events as they occur. I never chose a Wookiee companion, but I couldn't lose the mental picture of Chewbacca bellowing in Han Solo's ear. Nevertheless, Fideltin Rusk made a perfectly gruff and active copilot, and I eagerly switched to him after I tired of Kira Carsen's chatter.
Knowing that I was in danger made skimming through slim corridors and navigating tight spaces all the more exciting.
Before I charged into battle with my fellow writers, I had the chance to choose a ship and tailor it to my wants and needs. Galactic Starfighter features scouts, strike fighters and gunships, with scouts opting for speed over brawn and gunships acting as the cosmos' version of a sneaky sniper and artillery emplacement. I gravitated towards the strike fighter, which is the expansion's offensive powerhouse--a good mix of speed, firepower, and defense. Your ship is your cosmic avatar, so it's only fitting that you get all manner of ways of tailoring it, not just in cosmetic ways, but in ways that determine your role in battle. As I fiddled with my weapons and engines, I was glad to see my ship's appearance adjust to my decisions. At times, my ship looked much like an X-wing or Y-wing, while other setups had a unique look that nonetheless neatly fit into the overall Star Wars aura. You can alter colors as well, including those of your laser fire and trails, and in no time, I was soaring through space with a stream of green plasma tailing me.
Now it was time to prove the Imperial scum to be the nerf herders they were.
Armed with primary lasers and secondary torpedoes, and with a few different special abilities at my disposal, I was ready for dogfights and domination. I was immediately comfortable the moment I entered the match. It's a snap to maneuver your ship with a mouse and keyboard, making Galactic Starfighter play more like Freelancer than Freespace, though there are some details to bear in mind. One is that most vessels--though not all--have a defensive maneuver that allows you to roll out of the way of incoming missiles. Another is that you can use function keys to transfer power between engines, weapons, and shields. While I typically kept my power levels even across those three concerns, I did find myself dumping extra energy into my engines from time to time if I was in an extra hurry.
One of those moments comes at the start of the match, when you must rush to the defensive installations that the two teams fight over. In this sense, Galactic Starfighter Domination mode--the only one that's initially available--resembles a typical capture-and-hold mode in which the teams must take and retain control of a particular region. Once you boost your way towards one of these installations, it doesn't take long for conflict to reign. You can target the nearest enemy, the one in your field of view, or the one aiming its own weapons at your hull, making it easy to sniff out and eliminate the peskiest combatants. As in most space games, you must lead your target, but Galactic Starfighter pinpoints the proper aiming spot, and so you fire your weapons as you keep that vital mark under your reticle.
I had to manage my resources during battle, paying attention to my engines so that I didn't waste my boosting energy all in one go, and firing only when necessary so that my blasters wouldn't overheat. But my attention was focused on the opposition--not to mention on capturing those vital installations. Venturing off on my own to capture a point without backup, however, proved to be a disaster. When you capture an installation, attached defensive turrets protect the region; trying to take down several turrets by myself was a mistake. It was imperative I work with my teammates, and so I did, joining the biggest battles surrounding the central hotspots.
I died as much as I killed, though delightfully, many of those deaths were suicides resulting in collisions with asteroids or other obstacles. I say "delightfully," because navigating through perilous regions of space recalls great Star Wars moments, such as the Millennium Falcon's thrilling flight through an asteroid field. ("Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!") I enjoyed having to remain aware of my surroundings, even though the collision model led to my death several times as I attempted to lose the scouts that were hounding me. And knowing that I was in danger made skimming through slim corridors and navigating tight spaces all the more exciting.
It's a snap to maneuver your ship with a mouse and keyboard, making Galactic Starfighter play more like Freelancer than Freespace.
Interested? Well, Electronic Arts is rolling out Star Wars: The Old Republic - Galactic Starfighter in convoluted waves. If you're a paid subscriber, you receive access starting December 3, 2013, and exclusive access to the gunship. On January 14, 2014, preferred players--that is, people that spend money of any kind--gain access, sans gunship. Lastly, February 4, Galactic Starfighter rolls out to all players, though Bioware intends to support the content with more maps, more customization options, and more modes. For more information on the details of who gets what and when, check out EA's press release on the subject.
I greatly enjoyed Star Wars: The Old Republic, but it was never likely to be my permanent online home, given its highly structured nature. Three matches may not seem like many, but those matches were enough to stoke my curiosity. Galactic Starfighter may not excite me in the way that space MMOGs like Jumpgate and Earth & Beyond excited me, but I'm nonetheless primed to let loose my inner Porkins.