reviews\ Jul 9, 2003 at 8:00 pm

Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided - PC - Review

After successfully, though not without problems, rescuing the princess from her detention cell on the Deathstar, our heroes clamber aboard the Millennium Falcon, and pilot her from the docking bay. The plan is a simple one, get clear quickly, jump to hyperspace and escape.

Hans Solo hits the controls to make the jump ... clunk ... clunk ... nothing.

In some regards, the debut of Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game from LucasArts and driven online by Sony Online Entertainment, mirrored that.

Clunk ... clunk ... nothing. Database problems forced the 12 servers offline early Thursday evening on the day the game released. Subscription server errors kept thousands and thousands from registering their hard-won copies of the game on its release date. The latter appeared fixed later that night.

Still the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, from LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment, has not been without its share of problems since its release. Inventories have disappeared. People have turned invisible to others. There have been a few hiccups in the chat system, and period crashes, or connection failures. There are even some dead spots in the world - hit one and you lock up and crash.

However, one of the things that does set this game apart (and mind you, this is only one of the things) is the continual upgrades that a robust development team constantly implements. The game evolves daily. Exploits are corrected, temporary fixes give players breathing space until the final fix is loaded.

Here is an example of the latter. Upon death (and there is a penalty for dying; your body lies where you fell, with all items on it and you will have to return to loot it, not to mention you take hits to your health, action, mind, focus, willpower and battle fatigue ratings), some players were finding their inventories wiped clean. The fix? Insert the newbie death exemption so that no one loses anything (as a newbie to the world you get three free death, then the penalty is instituted), inventories stay intact, fix the bug, then update the game and re-insert the death penalty.

This is a game that is updated almost daily.

While the first thing noticed are the incredible graphical elements, SWG is about so much more. The player avatar character depth is nothing short of involved and amazing.

Let’s take those one at a time ...

First the graphics. When Asheron’s Call 2 released, it set the bar for the graphical quality of MMOs. SWG raises that a notch. This game has some of the best special effects seen in the genre. You are hunting in a field and are a little weary (your health, action and mind bars are down) from the battles. Well, since you happen to be far enough outside of a city, you can set up a camp. Smoke rises from the campfire is a very realistic fashion. Surveying also produces some wonderful mist and smoke graphics. Swim in a river and you are likely to see vegetation at the bottom swaying with the current. The grasses of the field, the ferns of the forest all sway with gentle breezes. The weather effects are also incredible. On the Fourth of July, fireworks lit the skies over the worlds in a very realistic fashion.

Mob animations are also great. Some of the bigger beasts fall with a resounding thud that will have your monitor shaking. If you have a good sound system, you will feel the thumps of each footfall.

Player animations are also very good. Dancing skills are amazing to watch, and the musicians boogie down with the best. Hunters can go prone and crawl realistically through the underbrush. If not for the radar, it would be almost impossible to tell if other players were in the vicinity.

And the game actually has buildings players can enter, and own. You can buy and decorate your houses, or use them for storage, if you make the maintenance payments so they don’t degrade.

Armor and weapons will all degrade over time.

The character skill trees are incredible. Each player has a set number of skill points (250) that can be spent as you accrue the experience points to qualify you for new skills. Each skill has a cost value to learn. It is possible to master two trees, with a few skill points left over to minor in something else. From smuggler to bounty hunter, bio-engineer to droid engineer, gunfighter to ranger, and yes, even becoming a Jedi is possible, though incredibly hard.

However, if you are chosen to become a Jedi and you die, you don’t regenerate like other players. A death is that - the character becomes a blue ghost, nothing more.

The sound quality of the game can be repetitious in places, but is overall rich. Visit a cantina, any cantina, and you will hear the same music being played by novice musicians over and over, ad nauseam. Unfortunately, you have to "listen" to the music or watch the dancers in order to heal battle fatigue.

The game interface allows for language blocks, as well as reconfiguring the keymaps for controls, graphics and sound volumes. The game does have a learning curve, and players should expect to invest at least 30-40 minutes getting comfortable with the controls.

Because of the skill tree configuration, SWG ensures player interaction. This is not something that can be played solo. You may be solitary, but you will never be able to survive without some interaction with other players. The game has a guild system and the free enterprise structure is such that players can unionize and drive independents out of business through cut-rate prices. No one will truly corner the market on something, but they can make it tough for other players to rake in the credits (money).

This is also a game that requires serious time investment in order to advance up the skill tree. Each skill tree is divided into the lower-end skills and the specialization skills. For example, if you wish to be an architect, you have to complete the requirements of the Artisan tree, then specialize as an architect. Oh, but wait, just completing the lower tree doesn’t mean that you immediately move into the architect line. No, you have to gain another 33,000 experience points in engineering to be able to train (apprenticeship points and credits are the cost here) as a novice architect. And once you are a novice architect, you need to skill up that tree to the point of being able to make the really big buildings that will be sought down the road.

Developers have hinted that player-owned and run cities are coming, with shuttleports, banks and all that a city needs - including a police force that can take offense with anyone. You may be a Rebel and steering clear of Imperial forces in certain areas of the world, but you may also have to steer clear of certain towns which have a shoot-on-sight order issued on you.

What began with a clunk ... clunk ... nothing certainly has evolved into a highly addictive, amazingly rendered adventure. It may take place in a far-away galaxy a long time ago, but this game is bringing the world of MMORPGs up to where they should be, while showing what might be realized in the future. While the system requirements are a little steep, this is an incredibly deep game that is immensely enjoyable to play.

Gameplay: 8.5
There are server lags due to overpopulation, the ping rate is quite high at times, and the system requirements are causing some players to crawl through the worlds. The game is predicated on an evolving economic system - it takes credits to function here, and you must have the financial wherewithal to explore the vastness of this games galaxies. There are also load times with a static screen when shuttling from one area (on planet or off) to another.

Graphics: 9.6
Though there are some clipping problems, and some environment aspects do not look as good as the others, this game is overall, visually stunning. The mobs are amazing to look at, the animations are incredible (your screen will actually shake up and down with the thunderous footballs of the fambaa of Naboo), and the special effects are richly details. Smoke and mist are stunningly realistic. The environments are awesome.

Sound: 8.2
That basic cantina musician’s song is irritating after hearing it for the third time. The worst part is in order to heal battle fatigue, you must "listen" to it over, and over, and over ... The sound of blasters and tie fighters screaming overhead is solid and the general background mood music is also well done. This is an audio treat for Star Wars fans but it can become repetitious in a hurry.

Difficulty: Medium/Hard
This is a game that is easy to jump into, but it is a world fraught with dangers. You may survive traversing the hills and valleys of Corellia, only to get stomped by the lesser mobs on Endor. Even the tutorial does a haphazard job of explaining the skill tree progressions.

Concept: 8.9
The setting is richly based in a turbulent time in the Star Wars galaxies, and the game takes full advantage of that with its Imperial versus Rebel war. The interface can be easily configured to the style of other MMOs. The chat system could use some easier management, and the game does have some crash holes and bugs that are continually being worked on. A runtime error still pops up each time my avatar moves through a certain area, but only does it once. And there are load times, when taking shuttles, that seem a bit long.

Multiplayer: 9.5
This is a massively multiplayer game, so obviously people are supposed to play together. However what does make this a stronger MMO is the way that the skill trees are configured. No one can master everything, and it often takes interacting with other players to get the materials needed to advance your skills. While some players may pursue solitary paths through this world, sooner or later, everyone has to work with other players to continue.

Overall: 9
This game has bugs, even though they are being addressed on a daily basis, the ping rate is rather high (even with a deluxe DSL package), which causes a horrible drop in frame rate, and the system requirements (it calls for a 900 MHz minimum) are rather stiff. Counter that with a player-based economic system that is rich, a focused character development system and overlapping skill trees that have depth, incredible graphics all against a wondrous backdrop of the Star Wars universe. This is a gem in the galaxy of MMORPGs. It has a way to go to work out the kinks, but this is a game with depth of play and will likely have staying power.


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