Use your credit card, Luke.
I'm a Star Wars fan, but other than a few weirdos, who isn't? Now I'm not the rabid type of fan who dresses up as my favorite character, but I know a sarlacc from a tauntaun, and I care enough to be angry that Greedo shoots first in the Special Edition release.
Which is why, along with thousands of others, I was really looking forward to the appearance of Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided. And ultimately, it's why I am disappointed with the final product. On the other hand, it's still much better than Episode I.
Galaxies takes place just after the events of Episode IV, when the galactic civil war is at its height. Spend enough time online, and you can find and even interact with some of the characters from the movies. From there it's up to you to forge your own destiny and determine who you will be.
There are eight races to choose from: Bothan, Mon Calamari, Rodian, Trandoshan, Twi'lek, Wookiee, Zabrak and of course Human. All have slightly different combinations of the three major statistics in the game: Health, Mind, and Action, each of which also has two minor stats that influence the primary. However, your attributes are nearly infinitely malleable, even able to be readjusted later in the game, so any race is suitable for any of the game's major or minor professions, despite the fact that Wookiees are generally stronger and Mon Calamari are generally smarter.
Speaking of malleable, the character generation system is very, very impressive. It's only slightly less detailed than EVE Online's character maker, allowing you to adjust everything from height and weight to facial features. But in Galaxies, you actually get to run around as your character.
So now that you're a skinny little Bothan, it's time to pick a profession. At the outset you have six choices: Brawler, Marksman, Artisan, Medic, Scout and Entertainer, each of which can lead to more advanced professions. Choose wisely, because you can only have one character per "galaxy" (the equivalent of "shards" in other MMORPG's). With mixed success, LucasArts has tried to design the game to require parties to utilize characters of all these classes. More on that later.
I began as a female Twi'lek marksman, and, equipped with my standard beginner blaster, ran off to shoot something. At first the controls and interface seem pretty awkward, but a quick trip to the options menu lets you choose familiar Everquest or even FPS-style controls. Kudos to the developers for letting people play the game nearly any way they like. However, no matter what the control scheme, there are too many nerdball typed commands like "/who [character]" or "/group notify death on," a clear sign that the folks who built this spend too much time in IRC channels.
But before you notice the controls, you'll be taken aback by the graphics. Not only does your character look good, but the scenery is terrific, with great terrain and more lush flora and fauna than any game I've seen. Enemies are widely varied and look equally impressive.
This all comes at a steep hardware price, though. I tested the game on a 2.5 Ghz, GeForce 4 monster rig, but Galaxies really challenges the machine and the framerate breaks down sometimes. Those of you with older computers should be wary of Galaxies, even if you meet those steep Minimum System Requirements.
The sound is more mixed. The classic score from the movies and some new pieces in the same vein play just often enough to inspire you without driving you crazy. Sound effects like blaster fire are straight from the films, which is great, but they grow tiresome with their endless repetition. Environmental noises are often oddly missing.
However, the impressive delivery broke down once I started fighting. My first round of blaster fire seemed to go off okay, but as combat progressed, my character seemed to fire randomly or not at all, while the enemy would still get damaged. The animations just didn't match the combat at all. The brawlers, who specialize in hand to hand combat, look better while fighting.
Glitches in the game became more obvious at this time, too. I wouldn't be able to target an enemy because their foot was in a box. In fact, clipping errors abound in Galaxies, and you can just walk right through most in-game items like tables and chairs. Servers have been up and down quite a bit, and while I give MMORPGs a little extra leeway for early bugs, Galaxies just doesn't feel like it was ready for launch.
But after shooting a lot of Womp Rats (there are a lot of diverse enemies in Galaxies, but I'm going to just call them all Womp Rats), you can eventually get better at it. You gain experience particular to the activity you are doing and there are no overall character "levels." So shooting a pistol will only make you better at shooting a pistol; if you want to dance better, you've got to go dancing. You can't be all things to all people; each profession has a "tree" structure for learning skills, but you can only learn some skills from the other professions.
My progress up that tree was going pretty slowly. Shooting Womp Rats for 10 hours can get tedious. There are also mission terminals where you can pick up missions, but they're all pretty much the same: deliver a package from point A to point B for money but no experience, or combat missions where you shoot Womp Rats and then destroy their hollow log.
The only breaks in this cycle occur when you need healing. It's a bit complicated. First, there's regular damage which you can heal simply by resting. Then there are wounds, which can happen to all your stats (Mind, Action and Health), and a Medic character must heal these in a medical facility. Finally, there is battle fatigue. This is a bit weird, but you can only cure battle fatigue by going to the cantina and watching some dancers and listening to the cantina band. I'm going to send a letter of recommendation to the Army…
So healing, when you need it, takes a fair bit of time (especially when there's a long line at the doctor's office) and requires other characters, making those other classes necessary to the game. I realized that although it is my nature to shoot things, I was missing out on half of the community in Galaxies.
So I went undercover as an eight-foot tall, five hundred pound pink Wookiee dancer named Sal Magicpants. My goal was to explore the seamy underworld of cantina life. Most of the dancers are hot human females, so I had a bit of a hard time making tips. Dance moves that normally look graceful are, shall we say, awkward when performed by a fat Wookiee.
But I learned a lot while I was there. It's a more open and free community than the fighters, and once you have enough experience, the other dancers will happily teach you new skills for free. As a marksman, I had to pay for every new pistol skill I learned.
They're also very sexually free. Innuendo is part of nearly every dialogue and lesbianism abounds. I saw one dancer who would strip if the battle-fatigued warriors would pay for it or even perform simulated fellatio. Pretty spicy stuff for a game that censors the word "sex."
On the other hand, here were characters that never needed to shoot a single Womp Rat to progress. I'm impressed with the sheer number of dances, more of which you can learn as you progress. The motion-captured dances look great and are very well animated. Frankly, it looks much better than the fighting.
But as it turns out, dancing is just a lot of boring typing. First you type "/startdance" and pick a dance, then you type "/flourish 2" over and over again to perform one of 8 special dance moves. After two hours I was dreaming longingly of Womp Rats - to hell with weeks and weeks of dancing to reach Dancing Level IV. This was more like being in a steamy teen chat room than playing a game.
Unfortunately, the importance of the Entertainer class as the only way to cure "battle fatigue" just seems forced, and it's not the only time Galaxies tries and fails. Each race has its own language, and if you don't know another race's language, you can't understand them; a Wookiee might type something, but will just look like "Grrraaaawww" to you. Cool idea, but within an hour of starting your first character, someone will teach you every language, making the whole thing pointless.
There are no vendors in Galaxies since they are trying to make the economy strictly player driven. Instead, there are "Bazaar Terminals" around town where you can buy stuff off other players through an eBay-type auction system. Without computer vendors to supply even basic equipment, it doesn't work very well and it's nowhere near as versatile as EVE Online's ultra-complex player economy.
Higher level characters will be able to join the Empire or the Rebellion and engage in some Player vs. Player combat (or dance competitions, I guess), but with no storyline currently driving that conflict, it feels hollow. I never got the sense while playing that there was a galaxy at war or any kind of conflict at all.
But what's really wrong with Galaxies is not with what's there, but what's missing. I realize that some of this stuff is planned for later patches or expansions, but we review games right out of the box, not after a million patches.
Want to make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs? You can't, because there are no ships or vehicles of any kind in the game yet. Forget X-wings; you can't even get a land speeder or ride a bantha. It doesn't feel much like the Star Wars universe when you have to run everywhere. There are 10 planets to explore, but you just buy a starship ticket to get to the next one, where you get to run the same marathon all over again.
Want to be a Jedi? Of course you do…but you can't, not for a long time anyway. LucasArts won't tell you how, but through an unknown, mysterious, long and difficult process with your main character, you can open up an extra character slot for a new "force sensitive" character that can eventually become a Jedi. But that might prove to be even harder, since death for that Jedi character will be permanent.
That's a whole lot of time and effort if you ever want to be a Jedi, and in Galaxies, time equals money; $15 per month to be exact, unless you make a year-long commitment at about 12 bucks a month. Where's a farmboy from Tatooine supposed to come up with that kind of dough?
Star Wars Galaxies just doesn't offer anything new to the MMORPG genre and it never really feels much like Star Wars. Watch a group of brawlers running around hitting creatures with axes and sticks and you might never even guess it's a Star Wars game at all, unless you notice that one of them is a Wookiee. Galaxies promised us more than "Everquest in space," but doesn't deliver much more than the same old MMORPG grind with a few Star Wars characters thrown in for good measure. With all the planned patches and expansions, the game will almost certainly improve over the coming years, but as of right now, you'd have to be a Star Wars fanatic far beyond my level to truly get your money's worth out of this Galaxy.