Still in a bit of a gaming lull waiting for Issue 10 of City of Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Advanced Hatstand Simulator 2009 edition and the rest, I thought I might try the life of an itinerant MMOG–trialler, travelling through time and space, putting things right that once went wrong (and will continue to go wrong for a long as people work through the tutorial), and hoping each time that the next game will be the one the fulfills whatever arbitrary set of criteria I’m after at that point. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow (or the next ten to fourteen days of the free trial), I’ll just keep moving on.
Yes, I will be a cross between Doctor Sam Beckett and the Littlest Hobo. I wonder if the two of them ever met? What an unstoppable force for good they’d be… Or maybe the Littlest Hobo was a seldom mentioned part of Beckett’s experiment? You just never saw the holographic Al the dog who’d turn up and bark instructions at him…
Anyway, first stop: Star Wars Galaxies. This was almost my first MMOG, I remember reading a few previews and being interested, but never actually took the plunge at the time. I’ve therefore got no idea what is was like before the NGE furore, I’m coming to it totally fresh. I like the films without being a major Star Wars fanatic, and played a few tie-in games (X-Wing, Rogue Squadron, a couple of the FPS games I can’t remember the names of… loved the X-Wing series).
First steps are painless; off to the SWG website, click the “14 day trial” graphic, set up a Station Account with a few details and download a small launcher install file. Once the launcher’s up, it heads off to grab the other 4.5Gb of the game, so I left it overnight and came down in the morning to a shiny fresh Star Wars Galaxies install. Starting up the game instantly feels like Star Wars, with appropriately epic music even during character creation.
Character creation was pretty straightforward; pick a race (I went for Zabrak; I’m not sure if race has any effect on your statistics or is purely cosmetic), a class (I went for Commando, as it sounds like they get to play with big guns), and tweak up your appearance. Customisation is pretty reasonable, you can adjust height, weight and musculature as well as the usual skin tones, facial features etc. You also get to pick a starting outfit, purely for cosmetics; I went for what looked liked a ballgown for the comedy value of dishing out heavy weapon damage in formal eveningwear. Then into the game, and… POM! POMPOMPOM POMPOMPOMPOMPOM POM POM POM POMMMMMMMM POMM POM POM POM POMMMMM POM! (that’s the textual version of the main Star Wars theme, in case you were wondering, not “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters) “Star Wars”, text scrolling up the screen telling you what’s going on (something involving rebels, probably), then a pan down the starfield to a space station. Can’t fault it for an introduction, and within a couple of minutes of basic movement/UI instructions, there’s Han and Chewie busting you out of captivity and you’re blasting Stormtroopers out of the way so you can get to the Milennium Falcon, and Boba Fett’s hanging in the Cantina, grooving to the funky sounds of DA DA DA DA DADADA, DADADA DA DA DA (that’s the textual version of that cantina song, in case you were wondering, not “I’m In The Mood For Dancing” by the Nolan Sisters).
Gameplay was straightforward, as soon as the tutorial mentioned the Alt key for switching in and out of the shooter-y mouselook mode. All quite conventional, the slight twist being manual aiming and shooting instead of tab-to-target and auto-attack, which I rather liked, though that might be because all the opponents I’ve met so far have the mobility of statues with their feet glued to the floor, so it’s hardly extreme sniping. Everything so far has been remarkably passive as well, only getting mildly irritated if you actually shoot it. This made defeating a room full of pirates somewhat less daunting than it might have been; maybe they’re just colossally pre-occupied with weighty philosophical matters, and don’t notice their colleagues being atomised mere yards away: “Thus, solipsism presupposes the very thing which it seeks to deny: the fact that solipsistic thoughts are thinkable in the first instance implies the existence of the public, shared, intersubjective world which… hey, someone shot Geoff! ARGH!”
Introductory missions followed the standard pattern; get sent around to a few people, get tasked to kill some stuff, pick up some other stuff. Anyone who gets into a frothing rage over the temerity of LOLEEZYMOED games that dare indicate with large, glowing punctuation who you might want to talk to for quests will probably explode in outrage at the waypoint system, where a glowing trail leads you to wherever you need to go. Personally, I think it’s great.
I was almost wishing I’d chosen a different profession a couple of hours in. Much as dishing out damage is my first love, everything so far has been shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish, too, in a small barrel, where the other fish don’t even aggro after you shot their friend… I did manage to “die” once (I’d presumably shot some robot once but hadn’t really noticed, then continued not to notice him following me around and hitting me… “hmm, the screen’s flashing red, wonder what that means…”), but other than that, a few blaster shots were more than a match for any introductory foes, and I felt a bit bad when I went up levels and gained abilities. First there was a AoE “stun” grenade (which seems to “stun” mobs to death), then some sort of volley/salvo ability, which seemed to share the exact same animation as a single blaster shot, disappointingly, though the end result was wholesale death in a large frontal arc. I might try an Entertainer or Spy or something, to see what sort of missions they get sent on.
At one point, I got chatting to some Imperial bloke, who offered me a mission. Hey, I’m not fussy, and there was a nice blaster as a reward, so I took him up on the offer. I’m not sure if that’s irrecoverably set me on the path to the Dark Side, or whether I just haven’t yet found a similar Rebel-type chap. R2 suggested I might want to get some friends to help, but I ignored him entirely and… didn’t have the slightest bit of trouble with the quest anyway. I thought C3P0 was the worrier?
Finally, I went for a bit of a jaunt in space! I was vaguely aware there were space combat elements in SWG, but thought you might have to buy the “Jump to Lightspeed” expansion to indulge. A quick chat to a pilot trainer and a click on a computer, though, and there I was, flying around space! Like I mentioned earlier, I loved the X-Wing games, and space combat sims in general, but I haven’t played one for a long time. After some wobbling turns with the mouse, I decided it was time for… the joystick! Some rummaging in a cupboard turned up my dusty old Sidewinder, only on going to plug it in, I found I didn’t have a joystick port any more. I probably didn’t have one on the previous PC either, it must be longer than I thought since I last used it… maybe for Tachyon: The Fringe, or Conflict: Freespace 2. A PS2 controller on a USB converter sufficed for some temporary flying, and the first few space missions were rather fun (though I suspect the initial opponents were strongly related to their station-bound comrades in terms of their combat abilities). Space combat could certainly provide a nice change of pace in an MMO, I’m tempted to try and find a cheap USB joystick if I can do some more in the trial.
So, first impressions are very positive. I believe the first space station is the noob-tutorial type area, but I’m trying to complete all the available missions there before heading off with that Solo chap. We’ll see how things go from there!