Star Wars: The Old Republic has been an ever-changing chameleon since its inception, continually trading off features and mechanics with its jump to free-to-play powerhouse and subsequent release of the feature-rich Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion. Even though the focus of each additional chunk of content has shifted, the sentiment remains the same: exploring the Star Wars universe in new and unique ways should make you feel like a badass. Galactic Starfighter endeavors to make you feel just that, strapping you into the cockpit of your very own strike fighter and thrusting you into battle. If running down Sith fighters while engaging your turbo engines in a hail of blaster fire sounds like your idea of a party, this meaty experience is tailor-made for you.
The second full expansion to The Old Republic delivers a flurry of customizable ships, free-flight player-versus-player space combat, and feature upgrades that do an admirable job of fleshing out what Star Wars: The Old Republic wanted to be at launch, but couldn't quite deliver on. Space combat is an important tenet of the Star Wars universe, and up until now, it has languished as a disappointing and bare-bones minigame that has acted as a plodding grind for experience rather than a fully realized exercise in white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat dogfighting.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Galactic Starfighter's scale is in its 12-versus-12 matches that pit you against other players in one of two different areas: the Kuat Mesas and the Lost Shipyards. The Kuat Mesas map is near the planet itself, with asteroid fields as well as other types of errant debris dotting the numerous canyons and other structures that serve as intriguing landmarks to watch out for. The Lost Shipyards lie out further in space, with enormous space stations that serve as capture points and the perfect bastions for a quick breather in the middle of an intense brawl. Once you enter the group finder and launch a PVP match to become acquainted with the maps, it quickly becomes apparent just how effectively this standalone experience revingorates The Old Republic, which after its only expansion was feeling as though it could be on its last leg.
The edge-of-your-seat doesn't let up from the moment you round up a group to the moment you (hopefully) emerge victorious. Unfortunately, there's a rather steep learning curve to what has essentially evolved into a larger-than-life version of what was previously relegated to a pithy minigame. As with any free-range space combat game, the controls can be difficult to nail down until you've completed a few different fights. Full 360-degree range of motion make it disorienting at times, especially when you've barrel rolled yourself out of the line of sight of an oncoming Sith Strike Fighter.
When you've settled into navigation, mastering weaponry can be a challenge as well. Locking onto a target is a challenge, as it can be difficult to settle on a target that's zipping around you to and fro. With practice you can guide your fire the way you want, but the initial challenge is something to keep in mind: your first few bouts may be disappointing if you can't pour much time into easing into the controls. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there in space, and you'll crash and burn if you can't keep up.
Galactic Starfighter isn't such a rigid construct that there aren't different archetypes for players to mold into a ride that's perfect for them. The gunship, strike fighter, and scout are all formidable choices, and the bomber, a fourth choice, will be available mid-February. Players tend to flock to the strike fighter, which closely resembles the X-wing and Y-wing fighters even Star Wars casuals are likely familiar with. This model strikes a nice mixture of offense and defense, where the maneuverable scout is peppier and fantastic for those who just want to zip in guns blazing and get out of a tight situation fast. The indomitable gunship offers formidable cannons, but it's the slowest of the trio.
Each ship can be tailored to your play style by way of ship and fleet requisition. Ship requisition is currency earned through using specific ships that can then be converted into fleet requisition, which you can use to purchase new ships. You can spend time upgrading the way your ship looks, but it's more prudent to augment your passive and active abilities to wipe the floor with the competition. Upgradable components are bundled with talent trees that branch out just like your character's skills, but if you just want to make your ship look pretty, you can change its paint design, laser colors, and more.
Crew members are another way to keep things fresh, an interesting addition that makes space feel a bit less lonely, even when you're locked in combat. Companions unlocked in-game can be chosen to head up your very own crew. Additionally, copilots may be selected for special bonuses and abilities that could give you the upper hand when it comes to dealing with players who have invested a bit more time and currency into building the perfect ship. While some augments are available for purchase only through the Cartel Market, there are plenty available to unlock via normal play.
If you took issue previously with your companions spouting the same old lines over and over again after you ran through your class's storyline, you'll be delighted to know that new dialogue has been added for each possible character. They can be counted on for some friendly ribbing and lighthearted humor when you're cruising around, as well as for valuable information about your surroundings. While the new dialogue is hardly a game changer, it's a refreshing addition that helps tie your space conflicts to the planetside narratives, a helpful touch considering this expansion doesn't deal in story-based missions.
Space combat looks and feels excellent and never fails to attract competitors, though it's unfortunate that there is no absorbing story hook to draw you in. That disappointment is balanced by Galactic Starfighter's ease of access: all levels of players can engage in bouts without having ever completed the storyline or having had a previous character. As long as you've got an active account, you can get in on the fun without committing to a guild or even daily play. In essence, this is a standalone experience for Star Wars fans looking for a raucous thrill ride without all the massively multiplayer thrills. The Old Republic has needed this missing piece for some time now, and now that it has arrived, it's time to be the Jedi or Sith you've always wanted to be.