Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided Updated Preview

We visit Sony Online's studio in Austin, Texas for a close-up look at Star Wars Galaxies.

Let's get this out of the way right now: Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided is one of the most highly anticipated games ever. It's a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and like other online RPGs, Star Wars Galaxies will let you create an in-game character to venture out into an online world with other like-minded players. But no other online RPG has ever taken place in the Star Wars universe--specifically, in the time frame between the original Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back motion pictures. And no other online RPG has ever offered players as many intriguing options as to how they can play their characters, whether they wish to play as architects, smugglers, bounty hunters, or even would-be Jedi knights. Sony Online Entertainment and LucasArts graciously invited us to Sony's Austin, Texas, office to take a firsthand look at how the game is shaping up.

Is this the online role-playing game you're looking for?

Star Wars Galaxies is in development at Sony Online Entertainment, the company formerly known as Verant Interactive and the creator of the most influential online RPG to date, EverQuest. The developer is now applying its considerable experience to Star Wars Galaxies, and as we've already seen, the game will attempt to reproduce some of the best aspects of EverQuest, including its addictive hack-and-slash battles and its social aspects, but the game will also have several innovative features.

For instance, consider the game's unusual character class and development system. Star Wars Galaxies will not have character levels. That's right: Unlike in just about every other online role-playing game ever created, you won't struggle to gain experience levels up to some arbitrary number, like level 50. As a result, you won't run into the common online RPG problem of not being able to productively go on expeditions with characters who are either much more high-level or much more low-level than your character, so veterans can join beginners whenever they wish. Instead of strictly level-based advancement, you'll gain specific types of skill-based experience that will directly improve individual skills. In other words, if you play as characters that tend to get into a lot of fights, they'll become better at using blaster rifles and better at defending themselves from attacks, so your characters will still become tougher to beat in a fight as they progress in their careers.

At the beginning of the game, you'll be able to choose from one of eight playable races. As you might expect, humans will be the most well-rounded race, having no remarkable abilities, but no special penalties either. Bothans, a race previously unseen in the Star Wars universe except for a few references in previous movies and novels, will appear fully fleshed out in the game as a race of hairy humanoids known for their ability to gather intelligence. Twi'lek characters (the race to which Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hutt's steward in Return of the Jedi belonged) will be tall, slim humanoids that are exceptionally cunning. The Rodian race (to which Greedo from Star Wars: A New Hope belonged) is known both for its greed and its agility. The wise and peaceful Mon Calamari (the race to which Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi belonged) will also be available as a playable race. In addition, you'll be able to play as the feral Wookiee race (to which everyone's favorite Wookiee, Chewbacca, belonged) and the Wookiees' natural enemies, the brutal, reptilian Trandoshan. Finally, you'll even be able to play as a member of the Zabrak, a race known for its exceptional mental power (as evidenced by the most famous Zabrak in the Star Wars universe, Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace). You'll also be able to drastically alter the appearance of each and every race, including skin color, height, girth, and lots of different facial features, and some female characters can even touch up their faces with cosmetics, if you wish.

If you wish, you'll be able to play as a character of the same race as Darth Maul.

But despite anything you may have seen in the movies, though some races are more predisposed to certain types of activities and affiliations, any character of any race can be just about any kind of character you want. If you don't care to follow in the footsteps of the double-dealing thug Greedo and instead wish to play as an honest, hardworking Rodian craftsman, you'll be able to do that. If you want to play as a rough-and-tumble Twi'lek brawler, you can do that. It all begins with Star Wars Galaxies' open-ended character development system, which starts out every character in one of six basic classes: artisan, brawler, entertainer, marksman, medic, and scout. Artisans are apprentice craftsmen who can create various items, including weapons and armor; brawlers are fighters who like to get up-close and personal; entertainers are aspiring singers and dancers whose performances can actually help rejuvenate wounded and exhausted characters; marksmen are proficient with ranged weapons; medics treat injuries; and scouts specialize in navigation and unearthing resources for crafting.

Stay on Target...Staaaay on Target!

From these six basic professions, you'll be able to branch out into one of 29 different advanced classes, depending on what sort of skill sets you decide to specialize in. If you prefer the life of a frontline fighter, you might attempt to develop a commando, a character who specializes in powerful heavy weapons; or a teras kasi artist, a martial artist whose most dangerous weapons are bare fists. If you prefer to live a life of peace, you might choose to be an armorsmith who crafts wearable armor to trade and sell, or a miner, a character that specializes in unearthing rare resources that will be vital to crafting items. You'll also be able to develop interesting hybrid characters, like combat medics, who can heal their allies from a distance and defend themselves with ranged weapons, and creature handlers, who can capture young creatures and train them to be loyal companions in battle, raising them to be even larger and stronger than they would normally become in the wild. And like Turbine's 2002 game Asheron's Call 2, Star Wars Galaxies won't force you to stick with a specific profession or skill forever. If you get sick of what you're currently doing, you'll be able to "sell back" the skill points you've invested in your advanced profession and pick up another line of work instead.

Jedi characters will need to be especially cautious around Imperial troops.

Of course, the one profession that most Star Wars fans will be interested in will be the Jedi knight--powerful characters with force powers that must remain in hiding for fear of being hunted down by the ruthless Imperial army. To become a Jedi knight, you will need to overcome a series of secret challenges in order to unlock an alternate, "force-sensitive" character slot. This character slot will let you create a new character with the potential to eventually become a Jedi, but these force-sensitive characters must be secretive about their powers, since they'll be actively hunted by Imperial troops.

Regardless of what profession you choose for your characters, you'll find that Star Wars Galaxies is a good game to play as a solo character, though it offers a lot more to players who adventure in groups. Aside from the fact that the game will have no artificial experience-level distinctions, you'll also be able to open a menu for your characters and flag them with your own personal interests, such as rock music, movies, TV shows, and so on. You'll then be able to perform a search for any other characters in your area with similar interests, so if you feel like hunting with another player who also happens to enjoy hip-hop music, you'll be able to seek that player out and have something to chat about while your group heads out into the field.

However, if what we've seen in previous online RPGs is any indication, nothing gets a good hunting group going faster than monsters to kill and experience and loot for rewards. Star Wars Galaxies will have the addictive hack-and-slash gameplay of other online RPGs that have come before it, but it will also facilitate player grouping in a number of intriguing and user-friendly ways. Like Funcom's 2001 game Anarchy Online, Star Wars Galaxies will have mission kiosks that will let you pick either a solo mission or a team-based mission and get cracking. The game will have an in-game map and will also light important destinations, like a mission location, with an obvious signal beacon you'll be able to see off in the distance. Interestingly, you'll be able to place your own markings on your own map and even send your marked maps to your friends to help them find where you are and where you'd like them to go. Any markings you send to them will appear to them as signal beacons as well, so if you're lost, you'll be able to ask a more-experienced friend to come find you, and if you wish to arrange a meeting or have some buddies join you on a mission, you can send them the location, and they'll be able to see the signal beacon shining off in the distance.

You'll be able to generate missions on the fly.

As we saw, mission objectives can be as simple as killing off a single target or as complex as rescuing a group of hostages. As your characters become tougher and more experienced, you'll even be able to take on enemy bases, which are essentially spawning points for tough enemies like a band of angry smugglers or even a hostile pack of gungans. These bases serve dual purposes; they generate monsters on a regular basis for wandering hunters to do battle with, but they also act as powerful enemy placements that can sometimes be destroyed only by a concerted effort on the part of a well-coordinated group. In fact, the development team likened the monsters in these bases to the so-called "ubermonsters" of games such as EverQuest (like that game's dragons and gods)--incredibly powerful and rare monsters that high-level players hunt in large groups--though these bases spawn dynamically, rather than once every month or so.

You Just Watch Yourself. We're Wanted Men!

When push comes to shove in Star Wars Galaxies, you'll have plenty of different ways to defend yourself, depending on your character's race and profession. For instance, Wookiee characters will have access to their unique race-specific weapon, the bowcaster, but non-Wookiees will still have plenty of options, including blaster pistols and rifles, various melee weapons, and even unarmed combat. Though fans of Harrison Ford's blaster-toting character Han Solo will want to grab the biggest blaster they can carry into battle, Star Wars Galaxies will actually have a number of interesting tactical considerations that can affect the outcome of a fight. For instance, firing continuously while on the run can be a decent tactic if you need to make an escape, but it will be a poor offensive tactic, since running about decreases your accuracy considerably. Standing still is a much better way to draw a bead on your enemies, though your shots will be even more accurate if you choose to crouch or lie prone; you just won't be able to make a fast getaway or close in quickly for the kill.

Will you take a good blaster any day?

Fortunately for players who like to earn their experience points the hard way, you'll sometimes be able to cleanly kill your opponents outright with a special attack that's simply called a "headshot." Unfortunately for you, enemies that also have this ability can use it on you, though they won't likely succeed if they're weaker than you. In fact, you can't even get killed by enemies unless they specifically perform a killing blow on you after they've depleted all your character's health; otherwise, your character will simply fall to the ground, incapacitated. In fact, less intelligent creatures, like certain species of animals, may not even bother finishing you off if they get the best of you--a surprising change of pace for an online RPG, considering the fact that in most games like these, if your character is laid low by an enemy, your life is always automatically forfeited. Dying itself won't even be that much of a setback in Star Wars Galaxies, since you can purchase an insurance policy on your belongings and arrange to have yourself cloned if you die, just like in Anarchy Online.

And for players who don't relish the thought of dying repeatedly, Star Wars Galaxies will offer plenty of other, more-peaceful things to do. For instance, the game will place great emphasis on trade skills--the ability to create items, goods, and services that other players will want to buy from you. But if you do decide to be a craftsman in Star Wars Galaxies, you'll find that unlike with the trade skill systems in other online games, you generally won't craft entire products, but rather components. Instead of crafting entire swords, you may craft hilts or blades; instead of crafting entire guns, you may choose to specialize in gun barrels.

This animal carcass might actually be good for some crafting.

It may not sound terribly exciting, but specializing in a specific component will help you improve your skill and create that component much more quickly, and again, it encourages players to work together. It's much faster and more efficient for an expert blade crafter and a veteran hilt crafter to work together to produce high-quality daggers than it is for a lone character to attempt to slowly improve in the skills of crafting each. In certain situations, craftsmen will also find that they'll have to seek training from a much more skilled artisan to improve their own skills. Like in the original Asheron's Call from 1999, craftsmen will also be able to inscribe their names on any products they craft to help them make a name for themselves. Crafters will want to become famous quickly, because Star Wars Galaxies will have an unusual system for crafting experience points: You gain experience not when you successfully create an item, but only when another player uses your products regularly.

I Don't Have the Money With Me

Even if you do plan to be the best gun-barrel maker this side of Naboo, your skill won't do you much good without the proper materials. The game will also let you choose to play as a miner or surveyor character to help you track down and extract resources, such as metals and polymers, for use in crafting items. The game will have a dynamic resource model that constantly shifts and relocates different kinds of resources into different areas, and when surveying new territory for resources, you'll receive color-coded signals that will locate the nearest resource deposit, as well as the relative concentration of resources in the area. The developers envision enterprising teams of scouts and miners working together to constantly survey the land and root out the richest resource veins.

If anyone sees a bantha around here, it's mine.

You'll also be able to play as a character who provides other kinds of goods and services. As mentioned, creature handlers will be able to raise young animals, such as the woolly-mammoth-like banthas of Tattooine, from infants into adults. By patiently spending time with their pets, skilled creature handlers can get their pets to come when they're called and to recognize simple commands, and well-trained pets can grow to be much larger, tougher, and more valuable than their counterparts in the wild. Some creature handlers may simply want to raise and sell their pets to players who are looking for a little extra muscle (or just a traveling companion).

On the other hand, you may wish to play as an entertainer character, whose skill with song or dance can make for an entertaining show, especially in a group. Like in the already-released Asheron's Call 2, characters will be able to gather together to play music, which will change in tone and pitch when a group is playing. More importantly, singers and dancers will actually be able to heal and invigorate any wounded companions within range; the more entertainers putting on a show at once, the faster the rate of recovery. Skilled entertainers will even be able to use "flourishes," which will further improve the regenerative qualities of their performances. The developers have even built large theaters in several major cities where large groups of entertainers will be able to treat huge crowds of weary adventurers.

And as it turns out, the game's developers won't be the only ones capable of building properties in Star Wars Galaxies. If you wish, you can purchase specific real estate lots, then buy and build a house on your lot and furnish it however you like, much like in the already-released Anarchy Online. The development team hopes that fashion-conscious players will make interior decorating a game in itself by loading up on player-crafted furniture and fixtures. Of course, more-practical players will be able to use their houses to store their personal belongings or use them as home bases for player associations--Star Wars Galaxies' version of player guilds, which are long-term player groups. Just like the houses in Turbine's 2000 expansion pack Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty, houses in Star Wars Galaxies can have specific permissions set on them by their owners to be either open to the public or open only to the owners' friends or player association fellows.

The development team is focusing on making sure its current feature list is implemented properly.

Despite considerable delays, including the newest delay announced just a few days ago, Star Wars Galaxies does seem to be pulling itself together, which is no small feat for a game this huge and this complex. Though some fans have complained vocally about the game's drawn-out development, especially its recently postponed list of features, such as dark Jedi and player vehicles, the development team maintains that it would prefer to focus on core aspects of the game and develop them fully, rather than partially implement peripheral features and have them be of questionable use at launch. You can actually get all the details on the postponed features, and the nonpostponed features, directly from lead designer Raph Koster, producers John Donham and Haden Blackman, and executive producer Rich Vogel in our exclusive video interviews. Though Star Wars Galaxies' final release date is no longer confirmed, the game should still be released later this year.

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