Star Wars Galaxies was released in June 2003 to a public hungry for a MMORPG based in that galaxy far, far, away. To say it received a mixed reception is a Jabba-sized understatement. While many critics praised its ambition, the overriding sentiment was that Galaxies was clearly an incomplete product. Over the next year, LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment would respond to those critics by releasing creature mounts and vehicles, player cities, advanced dungeons, and Jedi, along with a slew of profession revamps and combat fixes. But you still couldn't fly a spaceship. That is, until last month's release of the Jump to Lightspeed expansion pack.
A full-featured space expansion in the vein of Wing Commander, and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, Jump to Lightspeed is Sony Online Entertainment's "New Hope"—they hope it will bring new players who were fans of those classic games, and bring back veteran players who've abandoned Galaxies altogether.
It took me a week and half to finish this expansion pack, and by "finish" I mean attain the Master Pilot rank and all the goodies that come with it. This feature will recount my Jump to Lightspeed experience from start to finish.
Does Jump to Lightspeed "fix" Galaxies?
Well, this presupposes that you feel Galaxies is a bad game, which as a 14-month veteran I do not. Still, Galaxies has taken a lot of heat for being boring and lacking in content, and there is some truth in that. My pleasure in the game now comes from interacting with the community, helping new guildies, and occasionally grinding combat experience to unlock my Jedi powers (which, at the rate I'm going, will take months).
So a lot of gamers were holding out hope that the "Space Expansion" would be Galaxies' savior; that it would provide fresh content and excitement and put the "star" back in Star Wars. And certainly it does that. But it's critical to understand that Jump to Lightspeed is virtually a separate game from Galaxies proper. It doesn't "fix" or "enhance" anything in the ground game, beyond adding two new species and a "Shipwright" profession.
Bounty Hunter players can't track bounties in space. Smuggler players can't smuggle goods in space. Other than money, friends, and familiarity with the interface, there is no advantage that I had loading up the space expansion over a newbie to the game. That's good news for new players—they can be flying missions within minutes of logging in—but veterans or returning players looking for a more complete experience may be let down.
So how does Jump to Lightspeed compare to classic LucasArts space sims like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter?
I'd say it's comparable to those older games. It does feel a bit slower paced, in that none of the dogfights will leave you sweaty and out of breath, but the combat is still exciting and challenging.
The graphics and sound in Jump to Lightspeed put the older games to shame, of course. Everything in space is three-dimensional. Nebulas in particular are nothing short of breathtaking, with lightning effects that will make you jump out of your seat. Planets are appropriately enormous, and have layers of rotating cloud covers. And with all these gorgeous effects, there's absolutely no lag whatsoever, even in the more populated space zones. It's a refreshing change from the often lag-ridden cities on the ground.
But where the game takes a massive leap forward from the old LucasArts games is in the area of ship customization. It's initially daunting, quite frankly, but ultimately rich and rewarding; number crunchers and stat freaks will go nuts with all the options. More on this later.
Is progression in Jump to Lightspeed quest-based,or is it just another exercise in endless grinding?
Unlike the new Jedi system, which is advertised as quest-based but is actually the most insane grind ever, Jump to Lightspeed's content is primarily quest-oriented with a smattering of grinding thrown in. Depending on which pilot faction you join (there are nine "squadrons" to choose from: three Rebel, three Imperial, and three Neutral) you will report to different trainers across various planets in the galaxy. They will assign you typical space-sim style missions (destroy, escort, patrol, etc.) all couched in a fairly intriguing story.
As you complete the missions, you'll be trained in one of 18 skill boxes. Sometimes you'll complete a box after flying a single mission; other times you'll have to build up experience points before training. This is the "grinding," which from newbie to master will take a total of about 10 hours. The quests take about another 10 hours, so you can achieve master of your chosen faction in about 20 hours of gameplay.
The grinding, of course, is twitched-based and actually pretty fun. As you shoot down fighters, you'll acquire money and loot (in a huge change from the ground game, the loot is actually useful—some of the best components in the space game are looted). It's much preferable to the click, click, click of the mouse button which permeates the ground game grinding (have I mentioned I'm sick of the Jedi grind yet?)
Can the missions be soloed, or is there forced grouping?
You'll be hard pressed to finish some of the higher-level missions alone. I generally had a two-to-three person group to complete those. The nice thing about Jump to Lightspeed is that there's an incentive for grouping; if you get even one hit on a ship, and that ship is eventually destroyed, you receive full XP for that kill. So as a newbie player, it's to your benefit to group with higher-level players. Of course, a new player in a starter ship isn't going to last long against a wing of Advanced TIE Fighters, but cautious "grouping up" does alleviate some of the grinding time.
The whole reason I play this game (and really, the reason anyone should play an MMORPG) is to interact with other people, so this grouping suited me just fine. My guild on the Corbantis server spread the Jump to Lightspeed love all around; I had a blast working with guildies I hadn't really gotten a chance to know. Good times.
How about player vs. player? Can griefers kill me at their pleasure?
By default, no, player-versus-player is turned off. You can't kill other players without "declaring" yourself at a Rebel or Imperial station. Also, there's no "kill stealing"—other players can't interfere with your mission targets. (This wasn't the case in beta, by the way; the developers changed this at the demand of the player base.) Only people in your group can assist you.
So what are my options for player vs. player?
I'm not a huge player-versus-player person, but I've dabbled in it and can tell you that the system is totally broken right now. When both parties are declared, player
ships can be instantly killed with one or two shots—it's basically "whoever shoots first, wins." A fix for this is in the works, but for now don't bother.
Also, there are two "sectors" devoted entirely to player-versus-player; if you go to either one, you are automatically declared and totally fair game. A current controversy is that the missions to obtain Master Pilot take place in one of the player-versus-player systems; which means that basically you are forced to participate in player-versus-player to achieve Master. I got lucky when completing my Master badge, as I was in a 15-person group, but I've heard horror stories of players working on soloing a Master mission for 90 minutes, only to get shot and killed by a griefer right at the end. This has caused much heated debate and angst on the Galaxies boards.
What about that ship customization?
A new player profession, the Shipwright, is responsible for building everyone's ships and components. Each component (reactors, engines, capacitors, shield generators, weapons, armor, droid interfaces, missile launchers, and more) has any number of variable statistics, depending on the quality of the materials used in crafting them (and the skill level of the Shipwright).
So for example, I might ask a shipwright to build a blaster cannon for my X-Wing fighter. That blaster can be rigged to work better versus shields, or armor, or be equally effective against both. I can have its maximum damage increased, but of course it will use more power from my capacitor. I can increase the amount of armor on my cannon, but that will increase its mass and leave less room on the chassis for other components. I can even choose what color I want the laser to be. That's not even everything I can do to a cannon. And you have that level of
customization available for every ship component. It's insane. And awesome.
By far, the most of important statistic is mass, since each ship chassis has a maximum possible mass that can be taken up by components. Each chassis also has different acceleration and turn rates. So for example, my B-Wing has an incredibly high mass, but it turns like a slug compared to the A-Wing, which has a fairly small mass. You can have up to three ships active at any one time, so you can have different ships available for different situations. There's no one "best" ship—each one has advantages and disadvantages. Across all the pilot professions there are over 20 ships available.
At Master level you'll gain access to the "biggies," like the Millennium Falcon style YT-1300 freighter. You can group with up to ten people and all get aboard and walk around. You can decorate your ship just as you can a house, or simply use it for item storage. Your friends can chill in the lounge while you fly the ship, or they can man turrets. To be honest, turret control is really, really boring, and you take an XP penalty for it, so there's really no reason to bother. One cool thing, though: the players walking around the ship can access ship components to repair them during battle (think Han with the goggles in The Empire Strikes Back). We tried this once and one player actually sustained plasma wounds while repairing my engine. Nice attention to detail.
Cut to the chase: would you recommend this game or not?
As a pure space sim, it's an above-average experience. I'm a veteran of the Wing Commander, Freespace, and the X-Wing series, and I'm very picky when it comes to this style of game. I feel Jump to Lightspeed holds its own. The flight model is solid, the graphics and sound are pure Star Wars, and as I said, the possibilities of ship customization are endless. The story is nothing special; it plays out entirely through conversations with NPC's, and it's mildly engaging.
For me, the real pleasure of Jump to Lightspeed was having something new to experience with all my Galaxies guildmates and friends. We assembled a 20-person team to take out a rogue Corellian Corvette, and it was just an incredible experience. To have something in Galaxies that encourages and rewards grouping, and allows you to jump right into the action (as opposed to the ground game which requires you to wait for buffs if you are performing high-level content) is so incredibly refreshing.
That being said, I've mastered my pilot profession in a week and a half, and aside from helping other guildies with their grind, there's not a heck of a lot left to do in space. Player-versus-player is broken, and there's not really any other content yet. I've mostly been using my ships to travel from planet to planet (an unbelievable timesaver, and worth the price of the expansion if you're already playing Galaxies).
If you are hungry for Star Wars action, or any space simulation action, then yes, I'm going to cautiously recommend this to you. Even if you despise MMORPG's, you can play the space game without doing much of anything on the ground, other than interacting with Shipwrights. But if you've tried Galaxies and didn't care for it, and were hoping Jump to Lightspeed would fix it, well, sorry, you'll be disappointed. They really are two separate games right now.
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