It's been more than a year since Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided launched, and in that time, the game has undergone a lot of major changes. Vehicles, mounts, player-created cities, and new dungeons have been introduced, while professions have been revamped, and Jedi players have become a relatively common sight. The most significant and eagerly anticipated addition to the Lucas-inspired massively multiplayer online role-playing game, though, is space flight, which finally became a reality when the Jump to Lightspeed expansion pack shipped. Star Wars Galaxies is undoubtedly a better game now that it features X-Wings, TIE Fighters, and all the other starships that have been conspicuous in their absences from the game for the past 15 months. However, Jump to Lightspeed isn't an expansion that can be recommended unreservedly--not yet, anyway.
If you're familiar with Star Wars Galaxies, you'll know that the preexpansion game boasted some 30 different character professions, many of which (although not horribly out of place in the Star Wars universe) have very little in common with the movies on which the game is based. There have always been plenty of combat-based professions in the game, but if you've played during the past 15 months, the chances are that--at some point--you might have contemplated a career as an architect, dancer, musician, tailor, doctor, or chef. If you have scout skills, you might have even spent some time milking wild animals before killing them for their hides, bones, or meat. Jump to Lightspeed adds four new professions to Star Wars Galaxies: shipwright, freelance pilot, Alliance starfighter pilot, and Imperial Navy pilot. The shipwright profession works in much the same way as the existing artisan professions, and, as such, it requires you to spend a number of your character's 250 skill points if you wish to pursue it. The pilot professions, on the other hand, are free of charge (as far as points are concerned), although for obvious reasons you'll only be able to pursue one of them at a time.
You'll have to decide which of the three pilot professions you're interested in the first time you play Jump to Lightspeed, and, although it is possible to change your mind at a later date, doing so will cost you all of your hard-earned pilot experience points. Furthermore, since each of the 21 starships in the game can be used by only one faction, any ships that you own will no longer be of any use to you--with the exception of the Sorosuub luxury yacht that you'll be given as a veteran reward if you've been playing Star Wars Galaxies for at least 180 days when you log in with Jump to Lightspeed enabled.
Once you've chosen your pilot profession and one of three different planets from which to fly your early missions, you'll be assigned to a non-player character trainer. Next you'll be given a starter craft (which can't be upgraded or, since it lacks a hyperdrive, flown between planets), and then you'll be offered some relatively easy missions (which consist of, for example, shooting down enemies that can be seen by everyone but only destroyed by you) to complete while you familiarize yourself with the starships controls and earn your first pilot experience points. Jump to Lightspeed can be played with a joystick, gamepad, or mouse, but you'll also need to memorize plenty of keyboard controls as your experience points afford you access to additional equipment and space combat abilities. Starship combat in Jump to Lightspeed is far more twitch-based than anything that has appeared in Star Wars Galaxies to date, and it initially comprises little more than targeting an enemy craft with the push of a button, pursuing it with the aid of an onscreen arrow and radar, and then shooting at the intelligent crosshair that appears ahead of the target, which actually takes into account the target's speed and direction of movement as soon as you're within range of it.
Later, the enemies will become much more challenging, so you'll need to put every skill you've learned to good use if you're to succeed. Since you'll need to earn a lot of experience points before you can get your hands on new craft and before you can employ new abilities, the learning curve in Jump to Lightspeed is very gradual; in fact, it's too gradual. You'll literally have to destroy hundreds of enemies at the same skill level as you before you have enough experience points to learn each new skill. While defeating enemies that are significantly better than you theoretically rewards you with experience more rapidly, you'll quickly discover that the tier ratings assigned to enemies refer primarily to the strengths of the crafts that you're facing rather than the skills of the NPC pilots. If your ship's weapons aren't up to the job, you'll often find it difficult to penetrate your target's continually recharging shields, let alone inflict any real damage--even if you have no trouble keeping the enemy in your sights.
Player-versus-player combat is exactly the same, incidentally, and no matter how skilled you are, it's unlikely that you'll ever defeat a player who has unlocked significantly more skill boxes than you. This is not because he or she is a better player; instead it's because his or her ship will be equipped with superior components that afford more-responsive controls, more-powerful weapons and shields, and special pilot commands that--depending on the pilot's faction--will allow him or her to carry out repairs midflight, call for ammunition from a reload ship, or even request assistance from friendly NPC craft in the vicinity, for example. Fortunately, unlike the ground game, player-versus-player combat in Jump to Lightspeed is purely consensual, meaning that you can attack as many enemy NPCs as you like...but without becoming a viable target for other players. If you wish to dogfight with other players, you'll need to visit one of your faction's space stations and switch your faction status from covert to overt, much like you would if you were planning to assault an enemy base on the ground. The downside of this system is that it's not unusual to see players in TIE Fighters and Rebel starships paying no attention to one another as they pursue non-player targets, which is clearly not in keeping with Lucas' universe.
The combat that makes up practically all of the gameplay in Jump to Lightspeed is actually quite enjoyable, but it's also very repetitive and not nearly as fast-paced as the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter games. Like just about every other aspect of Star Wars Galaxies, space combat is best enjoyed (and safer) as part of a group. The downside to grouping with other players is that you'll often end up chasing after the same targets, and, because it can be tricky to communicate with one another effectively while flying, your interaction with teammates can often be limited to trying to avoid collisions with them and perhaps expressing your displeasure at the fact that they're getting all the loot from fallen enemies because they have a better ship than you.
One of the most enjoyable ways to play Jump to Lightspeed is in a multiperson craft, such as the two-man Y-Wing, in which you can have a second player man a turret while you perform the flying and firing of your fixed weapons. Playing as the gunner can be tricky, because you're never quite sure what your pilot is going to do next. However, there are few things more satisfying than shooting down an enemy who has taken up a position behind you, particularly since he or she can be difficult to shake when flying solo. Larger ships, such as the freelancers' YT-1300 upon which the Millennium Falcon is based, boast three gun positions and are actually big enough that you can leave your pilot seats to walk around.
Of course, getting your hands on a craft like the YT-1300 (there are Rebel and Imperial equivalents) is no mean feat. Not only will you need a lot of experience points before you're certified to fly one, but also you'll need the money to pay a shipwright player for the blueprints, in addition to paying more money to pay a non-player ship broker to turn those blueprints into a chassis. Moreover, you'll need to pay even more money for a number of components (which can be purchased from shipwrights or looted from enemies) that turn your chassis into something that can actually be flown. Ship component types in Jump to Lightspeed include reactors, engines, capacitors, weapons, armor, shields, and countermeasure launchers--all of which are essential if you want to get in to space and then last more than five minutes once the fighting starts. Flight computers and astromech droids are less important, at least in the early stages of your pilot career, but you'll certainly want them eventually. And, as is the case with everything in Star Wars Galaxies' player-driven economy, you can expect to pay through the nose for high-quality goods, unless you're fortunate enough to have befriended a kindly shipwright.
Ship components can be likened to the weapons and armor that have made millionaires of so many crafters in the preexpansion game. However, only the most skilled, conscientious, and well-equipped shipwrights will be able to craft components considered good enough for serious player-versus-player encounters, and only pilots who have previously made their fortunes on the ground (space combat doesn't pay terribly well) are going to be able to afford to outfit their ships as well as they'd like, in addition to paying for repairs every time they're shot down (not to mention tipping doctors and entertainers who can heal the wounds sustained by your character whenever you "die" in space).
If you've not played Star Wars Galaxies before and have become interested since the launch of Jump to Lightspeed, the bad news is that space combat is so expensive in terms of in-game credits that it's really not possible to participate in it without first spending a significant amount of time on the ground earning money (alternatively, some players have resorted to purchasing in-game credits in exchange for real-life currency--a practice that violates Sony Online's terms of service). The same can also be said of the shipwright profession, since experienced artisans with other players working for them are already stockpiling all the best raw materials needed for starship construction, as well as establishing starship vendors in player-run malls and even using droids to advertise their services at major starports. Of course, you won't need the very best raw materials to build functional ship components, but since it's true for almost every other product in the game, it seems inevitable that, in time, there will really be only two markets for the components you make: one that offers bargain-priced parts for new players and one that offers items crafted from rare "über" materials that carry price tags beyond the bank balances of all but the wealthiest of experienced players.
Although it can be a lot of fun swapping different components in to and out of your chassis to come up with the best ship configuration possible (without exceeding mass and power restrictions), it's unfortunate that Sony Online Entertainment didn't see fit to make the Jump to Lightspeed expansion easier for new or relatively inexperienced players to get into. As a result, first-time players will not really be able to compete with hardcore players on level ground--or "level" space, anyway. Shouldn't Rebel and Imperial craft adhere to certain fixed specifications? Should Rebel and Imperial pilots really have to purchase and maintain their own craft? The shipwright profession is every bit as enjoyable to pursue as the other artisan professions in Star Wars Galaxies, but its very existence is what makes Jump to Lightspeed's space combat less accessible and skill-based than it might otherwise have been. As a result, the expansion is difficult to recommend unreservedly.
Predictably, the expansion pack also launched with its fair share of bugs, and although the development team has already addressed a number of issues that survived the beta test, there are still plenty of players forking over credits for blueprints and chassis that simply fail to generate a ship for them, for example, and the non-player enemies you encounter will more often than not decide that their best course of action is to collide with you head-on at some point. (That is, if they're not too busy getting caught up in asteroid fields.)
If you've been playing and enjoying (or tolerating) Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided for some time, then Jump to Lightspeed really isn't difficult to recommend. The expansion pack boasts great-looking ships and planets, it features authentic Star Wars movielike space combat sounds and music, and it basically makes the game feel much more like Star Wars than it ever has previously. Jump to Lightspeed also does away with the need to wait for a shuttle every time you want to travel to a different planet, and it will keep you occupied (though not necessarily entertained, especially since leveling up can still feel like a grind) for as many hours as you're willing to invest in it. If you're thinking of getting into Star Wars Galaxies for the first time, though, Jump to Lightspeed really isn't reason enough for you to do so...at least not yet. The fact of the matter is that, although it offers newcomers two brand-new species to play as, Jump to Lightspeed (like so much of the content added to the game in recent updates) has been designed to reward dedicated, hardcore players rather than appeal to new ones, and that's exactly what it does.