Like most massively multiplayer online games, Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided has been in a constant state of change since it launched in July 2003. Significant additions to the original game have included, but certainly aren't limited to: vehicles and mounts, player-created cities, new dungeons, and a series of quests for Jedi wannabes that, although lengthy and challenging, are infinitely better than the original system that required you to obtain "holocrons" and master multiple professions (from a list of 30) until you found the one that would unlock your second character. The most significant addition to Star Wars Galaxies since its launch, though, was undoubtedly the release of the Jump to Lightspeed expansion pack last year, which finally let you fight battles in space and, just as importantly, travel between planets without having to stand around waiting for shuttles.
More recently, Star Wars Galaxies has benefited from not one, but three significant updates in the form of the controversial Combat Upgrade patch, the unimaginatively though accurately named Publish 17, and, of course, its second expansion pack, Episode III Rage of the Wookiees. For the record, we're of the opinion that all three of these updates have played a part in making Star Wars Galaxies a better game than it was a little more than a month ago. The Combat Upgrade, for example, made previously redundant combat professions viable again, balanced the previously overpowered classes that were able to solo just about anything in the game, encouraged group play by defining combat roles for different professions more clearly and by awarding as many experience points to grouped players as to soloists, and introduced new armor types and armor restrictions that made battlefields full of players in nothing but composite armor a thing of the past. The flip side, unfortunately, was that many players found themselves with equipment that was no longer useful or that they weren't even certified to use anymore.
Our own experience logging in for the first time after the Combat Upgrade wasn't nearly as smooth as we'd hoped it would be, for example. A message relentlessly flashed up on the screen every couple of seconds to tell us that we wouldn't be able to move our character until we reallocated our skill points. So we no longer had more skills at our disposal than we were entitled to under the new system. As we attempted to equip our trusty T-21 rifle another message flashed to tell us that we were no longer certified to use our favorite weapon. Also, an attempt to summon one of our master creature handler's many bioengineered pets resulted in yet another message flashing, stating something to the effect that we could choose to either reduce their stats to bring them in line with other animals in the game, or that we could keep their stats the same but have their "level" change to reflect their vastly superior-to-anything-in-nature attributes. The latter option appeared to be the more attractive given how much money we'd invested in our BE pets, except that the new levels given to the pets would make them impossible for us to control. We got under way eventually, but not before we noticed that our character was now subject to some pretty severe movement-speed penalties simply because he carries a ranged weapon and chooses to wear composite armor.
It's not surprising, then, that the April 27 Combat Upgrade didn't prove popular with many Galaxies veterans, and that the player populations on some servers have dwindled as a result. Ironically, though, the number of players with Jedi characters is increasing all the time, making the once unusual and secretive Force users (and to a lesser extent, their lightsabers) quite a common sight. Incredibly, when walking around with wounds that demand medical attention, you're as likely to be healed by a passing Jedi with healing skills as you are by a doctor--at least that has been our experience of late. Fortunately, Jedi players who use their powers too overtly become profitable targets for bounty hunters, which not only makes the bounty hunter profession one of the most interesting in the game at this point, but also ensures that the majority of Jedi are suitably discrete.
Much less controversial than the Combat Upgrade was the recent Publish 17, which, in addition to numerous new quests and bug fixes, introduced multipassenger vehicles to Star Wars Galaxies for the first time. Three of the seven multipassenger rides in the game are speeders that you've been able to ride solo for months previously, while four of them are new. The six two-player rides are definitely a lot of fun, but the most useful of the new speeders is undoubtedly the V-35 SoroSuub Carrier that lets you cruise the surface of your chosen planet with no fewer than six passengers. An additional passenger seat would have been welcome given that player groups are now limited to eight people, but it's highly unlikely that you'll ever find yourself in a group where more than a couple of players don't have their own ride.
The lack of vehicles or mounts in your group is even more unlikely to be an issue on the wookiee planet of Kashyyyk, incidentally. Because like much of the content that's been added to Star Wars Galaxies since its launch, Episode III Rage of the Wookiees caters primarily to experienced players. That's not a criticism, but if you're thinking of playing Star Wars Galaxies for the first time, you should know that the latest expansion's content is not designed for you, and it won't even be accessible to you until you have your own hyperdrive-enabled ship.
Unlike every other planet in Star Wars Galaxies, Kashyyyk cannot be reached via shuttle or even by using your own ship's instant "travel" command. Why you have to fly to Kashyyyk manually (or at least using your autopilot) isn't clear, particularly since the space that surrounds it is no more dangerous than the areas around other planets. The fact that you can't take a shuttle to Kashyyyk does mean that you'll need the Jump to Lightspeed expansion to play Rage of the Wookiees, though, and you'll find a lot more space missions in the expansion in addition to those on the wookiee home planet's surface. Rage of the Wookiees also introduces asteroid mining to Star Wars Galaxies, which gives crafters, and any of you more interested in making credits than enemies, a good reason to get up into space.
The surface of Kashyyyk is very different to that of any other planet in Star Wars Galaxies, not only because its treetop villages are far more interesting than the scenery anywhere else in the game, but also because your exploration is far more controlled. On other planets, you can literally go wherever you want, because even the least powerful speeders are able to scale near-vertical inclines. On Kashyyyk, however, much of your exploration is limited to networks of valleys and rivers, and you'll invariably run into an invisible wall if you attempt to stray too far from the obvious routes. This is actually a good thing, because although the Kashyyyk "theme park" is anything but linear, it's far more structured and story-driven than any other location in the game, and it certainly wouldn't be a bad thing if some of these traits found their way onto other planets in the future.
Kashyyyk has only one starport, and you won't find many of the facilities that you take for granted on other planets anywhere on its surface. What you will find, though, are a series of instanced adventure areas in which you'll encounter new characters and creatures. You'll get to choose which faction (the wookiees or the trandoshan slavers) you want to side with, and you'll complete some occasionally varied (though most still involve either collecting, delivering, or killing stuff) quests in order to get your hands on all-new loot. Like just about everything in Star Wars Galaxies post-Combat Upgrade, many of the missions on Kashyyyk aren't impossible or even unreasonably difficult to complete solo. However, doing so is incredibly time consuming, and it really begs the question of why you're playing a massively multiplayer game in the first place. The instanced areas on Kashyyyk are somewhat unusual, though, in that there are only a limited number of instances for each one (numbered 1 through 6, or 1 through 10, for example), so there's no guarantee that you won't encounter other groups of players once you've chosen a number and gone inside. Enemies that are killed respawn quite quickly, though, which makes playing solo more difficult and means that the activities of other groups won't necessarily impact your own.
Much of the loot that you'll be acquiring as you play through Kashyyyk's various zones takes the form of decorations and furniture for your home, assuming that you have one. There are some more interesting goodies you can get ahold of as well, though, including ship modifications; profession-specific rewards, such as an egg that hatches into a level-65 mount for master creature handlers; new ships, including a Jedi starfighter; clone armor; and cybernetic limbs, which don't look nearly as good as those in the Star Wars movies, frankly, but which offer performance enhancements such as improved weapon accuracy. You might also end up with a cybernetic limb if you die on one of the galaxy's less-developed planets without creating a clone of yourself. Although, these limbs are detrimental to your performance rather than beneficial, so you end up paying for expensive surgery when you want them removed.
Although the cybernetic limbs and some of the indigenous creatures on Kashyyyk really don't look great, the planet is certainly one of the easiest on the eyes. It's unfortunate that Star Wars Galaxies' visuals are showing their age now, because while Kashyyyk looks great in the galaxy it's in, its visuals don't even come close to those that you might have enjoyed in more recent games like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. The game's audio, on the other hand, is faithful to the movies and, as such, is generally very good. The dynamically changing music score works well, and many of the locations that you'll visit are now made much more believable by ambient sound effects, such as jungle wildlife and the noises of a busy city.
If you've played Star Wars Galaxies previously and left the game, it'll come as no surprise to hear that the game still has more than its fair share of minor bugs, and what's really unfortunate is that a number of them have already found their way to Kashyyyk. The most obvious of these is definitely that you'll regularly encounter non-player characters and creatures floating in midair. But right now you can also look forward to seeing a "You cannot mount while riding a mount" message whenever you mount a saddled pet. We also encountered a problem on Kashyyyk where, on a few occasions and for no particular reason, none of the pets we tried to summon to help us in combat actually showed up.
One of the best features of Star Wars Galaxies, at least in our experience, has always been its players. For whatever reason, players in SWG generally seem far happier to help each other out than those in other massively multiplayer games. Your entire experience in George Lucas' sci-fi universe will be shaped as much by the other players that you meet as it is by the efforts of the developer. If you're a new player, for example, you can always ask for assistance from players who choose to have the word "helper" appear above their heads. Asking other players for money won't make you any friends, of course, but requests for advice are rarely ignored, and you shouldn't be surprised if complete strangers offer to give you their old equipment (including speeders) from time to time. Do they ask you for anything in return? Normally just that you do the same for another new player once you've sorted yourself out.
Star Wars Galaxies, then, is in the best shape of its life right now, thanks in no small part to the recently released Episode III Rage of the Wookiees expansion. If you're a Star Wars Galaxies fan you've probably been exploring all that Kashyyyk has to offer for weeks already, riding on the back of the Episode III-inspired varactyl mount. If you've previously left the game and are contemplating returning to it, we'd certainly recommend that you do, provided you're prepared to "unlearn what you have learned" and spend some time familiarizing yourself with all of the game's new features. If you're a newcomer to Star Wars Galaxies, you'll find that Mos Eisley is a far more intimidating place to start than the newbie areas in most MMO games, and that the recently revamped new-player tutorials do a good job of easing you into both your new life and whichever starting profession you end up opting for.
Star Wars Galaxies isn't nearly as user-friendly as games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, but its depth, or at least its complexity, is undoubtedly one of the things that will likely keep you playing for months and months once you've gotten the hang of it. If you're a fan of George Lucas' movies and you play well with others, then you could do a lot worse than to check out the much-improved Star Wars Galaxies.