It's been more than two years since the massively multiplayer game known as Star Wars Galaxies was launched. Even now, the game continues to let you play as a human, wookiee, zabrak, twi'lek, or other alien race, and go on adventures in the universe created by the original Star Wars Trilogy motion pictures, where the evil Sith lord known as Darth Vader hunts for his two estranged, fully grown children, and a wisecracking smuggler named Han Solo helps fight the evil Empire while swearing up and down that he's only in it for the money. But the game has changed greatly over time, and later this month, the game will undergo even greater changes to reflect the fact that Star Wars Galaxies, like other online games, is constantly growing and evolving. Senior director Nancy MacIntyre conceded that many of these changes "may seem extremely risky," but assured us that they're based on player feedback and the development team's overall goal to focus more on the rich fiction and trademark action of the motion pictures and less on highly complicated skill systems and interfaces. In terms of the development team's list of goals for the game, MacIntyre explained, "[LucasArts is] putting Star Wars at the top of the hierarchy."
The most obvious change to the game right off the bat is its revamped character-profession system. Previously, characters could choose basic professions, but could also learn any other skill in the game, from creating entertainment music to healing wounded players to capturing and creating wildlife pets with creature-handling skills. After the new changes are made, the game will have nine major character professions: force-sensitive, bounty hunter, commando, trader, officer, smuggler, spy, medic, and entertainer. That's right, you'll be able to start a new game right on the path to becoming a mystical Jedi if you care to. According to extensive research that LucasArts has conducted with its fan community, these professions, and the skills they possess, represent about 98% of all active players. Unfortunately, the extra 2% of players who use other skills, such as creature handling, will need to choose a different profession, because after the changes are made, all characters in Galaxies will belong to one of these nine professions. Though this may seem like a sweeping change, all character professions will still be able to learn other skills--with some exceptions. For instance, traders will be the only characters that can craft items such as clothing, weapons, armor, and architecture. However, the specialized skills that each profession possesses will offer special bonuses that will make them much more worthwhile.
For instance, the new profession we're revealing today, the new-and-improved bounty hunter, will focus on ranged and melee combat, bounty-hunting skills, and techniques to apprehend their quarry. Bounty hunters will be especially skilled with rapid-firing carbine-class weapons (rather than shorter-ranged but cheaper pistols), and will possess a number of special skills that will aid them in battle. For instance, the bounty hunter will possess special attacks like ambush, a very damaging ranged ability; razor net, which damages enemies over time while hindering their movement; and merciless onslaught, an exceptionally damaging attack ability.
Part of the reason behind this change of focus was the success of the recent Rage of the Wookiees expansion pack (and the positive feedback garnered from the fan community). LucasArts has asked the fans what they want, and its seems that a great majority seek the kind of cohesive, directed experience that the story-driven expansion pack provided. As a result, the revamped Star Wars Galaxies will feature a brand-new in-game movie engine that will allow for many more cinematic scenes in the game. Also, the game will actually have an extensive story arc, starting in February 2006 and going into winter of next year, in which you'll be able to revisit many of your favorite characters from the original trilogy motion pictures.
In addition, the earlier levels of the game are being completely overhauled--you'll be able to play a brand-new character through levels 1 to 10 in a self-contained tutorial area that will also let you sample everything that each of the nine new professions has to offer. Once you're done with the tutorial, levels 10 to 30 will offer a highly directed experience with numerous quests that will not only be more specifically appropriate to the profession you've chosen, but also span several of your character's experience levels and hopefully bring you closer to the story. These quests will offer much more feedback for players and not only give them more context about why they're doing what they're doing (for instance, meeting famed bounty hunter Boba Fett to receive an assassination mission on a wealthy merchant, rather than simply being assigned to exterminate a nest of alien critters). Characters that give out quests will also often spell out their rewards in advance, similar to the quests in World of Warcraft.
New Players, New Galaxies
We had a chance to take a sneak peek the revamped beginner area, which is referred to internally at LucasArts as the working title "NPE," or "New Player Experience." The publisher plans to take the bold step of making the NPE free to download and play for anyone who wishes to try out the game. This new package features a brand-new character customization interface that puts the game's 10 different playable races front-and-center with a series of icons on the right, and your character's current appearance (complete with starting clothes that can be changed into different outfits), on the left. Once you've chosen your character's race and name, you'll then move on to Galaxies' well-known character appearance chooser, which still affords many options with respect to eye color and size, nose length, hairstyles, and even cosmetics for female characters.
After creating their new characters, players will awaken to the sounds of blaster fire and crackling circuits. Your character has apparently been abducted by the Empire because of your exceptional talents, and you and must escape the ship with the help of none other than the prim and proper protocol droid, C-3PO, who walks you through the basics of the game's modified, streamlined interface, and helps lead you to your eventual rescuer, a fellow by the name of Han Solo, whom you may have heard of. In fact, you're rescued by Han and his good buddy Chewbacca, as well as the diminutive droid, R2-D2, who lead you to the docking bay. There, you'll eventually board the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs--the Millennium Falcon, but not before you fight your way past a group of stormtroopers using the game's new combat system.
MacIntyre states that although not everyone greets changes with open arms, "the game is a living, breathing thing. And we want to get this to a movie-caliber experience," which is perhaps part of the reasoning behind the redesigned combat that Galaxies will offer. For starters, even though the original game used an "autoattack" system that caused your character to repeatedly attack enemies automatically as soon as you gave the order, the new version of the game will feature real-time, mouse-click combat. That's right, you'll actually target your enemies (and allies, and other objects in the world) with a mouse-controlled reticule, similar to a first-person shooter (but far, far less demanding in terms of reflexes). You'll then left-click your mouse to attack with your selected weapon, and right-click to attack with your currently active special attack ability--you'll be able to swap special attacks in and out on the fly.
The mouse-clicking scheme actually seems similar to that of Diablo II, in that you can either click repeatedly or click and hold your mouse button to attack repeatedly. You'll need to keep your reticule on enemies that flee, though from what we've seen, this won't be terribly challenging in terms of requiring twitch reflexes. We're told that this new combat system will still be built around groups of characters with different strengths. Certain characters will still be better than others at soaking up damage from enemy attacks and should remain up front, while support characters, like medics, will still want to hang back from the front lines.
Character development and adventuring will also be streamlined, along with the game's interface. The game's original three character "meters," which originally represented the strength of your torso (red meter), legs (green meter), and head (blue meter), had already been streamlined so that your character's health pool was governed entirely by the red health meter, while the blue and green meters instead acted as a reserve to power your characters' special abilities. This will remain the case, although the way characters gain experience levels will change as well. Characters will gain experience through combat, and will gain generalized character levels, though they will also be gain character skill levels, which will let them advance along a tree of skills that will be instantaneously unlocked as soon as they've gained enough experience (rather than having to run back to a trainer character). The new character screens are part of the game's streamlined interface which, where possible, is being modified so that everything can be accomplished in a single click of the mouse, rather than relying on Galaxies' traditional radial menus.
Details on other aspects of the game, such as the ultimate basis of the upcoming story, as well as exactly what will happen to the game's space travel and space combat gameplay, remain scarce. However, MacIntyre suggests that the fact that the game has incorporated elements from other Star Wars games (such as how the homicidal droid HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic appears in the Trials of Obi-Wan expansion pack) may be telling, and that players shouldn't be surprised to see Galaxies look to other such games for inspiration, if that inspiration can, in fact, lead to a more-cohesive Star Wars experience. For example, MacIntyre suggests that the on-foot-in-vehicle mechanics of LucasArts' upcoming shooter, Battlefront II, might figure into the way space vehicles will work. We'll have to wait to see what's in store for those systems later. For now, the massive update to Galaxies, and the free-to-play new player experience, are scheduled for launch on November 15.