Early Access: SWTOR Galactic Starfighter



By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), General Manager

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You know what the online PC industry needs more of? Space flight simulators! It’s so rare to find one, even rarer to find one that’s F2P, and to be both F2P and backed by a major development core in addition is just about unheard of. If you’re an old school gamer that had your hay day in the golden age of Star Fox and the X-Wing series, you’ll understand this nostalgic ache.  A few years back I thought hope had finally arrived in the form of Black Prophecy, but my dreams were dashed by serious latency issues that crippled the promising title. Next came War Thunder as well as the now launched World of Warplanes. But 1: Not in space, and 2: Too hardcore for my taste. Not to knock the games but they both focus heavily on the simulation side and it takes some serious dedication to even stand toe to toe with the veteran junkies known to master said simulations.  And so I imagined my waiting would continue indefinitely, at least until an unexpected cryptic invite to EA’s Redwood City office arrived. My answer was here at last. EA and Bioware’s SWTOR free expansion, Galactic Starfighter, is the arcady pick-up and play space flight sim I’ve waited over a decade for.

An Expansion? More like a Whole New Game!

Calling Galactic Starfighter an expansion to SWTOR is slightly misleading. It’s essentially a free to play standalone MMO PvP title being inserted into the universe of an already free to play MMORPG. I say this because it contains gameplay and controls entirely unlike anything already existing in the core SWTOR gameplay. Even the progression system is entirely separated from your base account, because as it turns out even Darth Vader flew his tie fighter passively in the early films. Blowing up in outer space sucks, no matter how hardcore of a combatant you are. Galactic Starfighter follows this theme by introducing the initiation quest for space battles at level 10 and starting everyone out with basic hardware that puts level 50s on equal footing. That’s not to say your time spent on foot/landspeeders/alien mount creatures doesn’t bring you any benefit in space but I’ll get into that when I go over crew customization.

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The Core Gameplay

As I mentioned the game mode starts off simple and easy to jump into on the fly. You start off facing your objectives (typically 3 control points) and fly head on against the enemy team in a clash of twelve versus twelve that should leave you shell shocked enough from the flurry of missiles and lasers whizzing by to give you new respect for those nameless pilots and clones in the movies. But destroying enemy ships can be time consuming and shouldn’t distract from the primary control point objectives.

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The goal is to beat the opposing team to acquiring 1,000 points gathered from capturing and holding control points and destroying enemy ships in the process. The control points vary in nature depending on the map but typically are large structures (both vertically and horizontally) that a pilot must circle close to in order to capture. This is easier said than done after the initial face-off as captured points will set-up floating turrets resembling miniature Death Stars to help defend the point in the absence of thinking players. Taking back a control point isn’t possible until these turrets are destroyed, meaning Rambo style soloing is not encouraged.

Being destroyed in battle has no penalty beyond giving the other team a few points (you’ll hardly even notice in the heat of a battle) and a lengthy time penalty. Luckily the developers made this time penalty less psychologically impacting by only holding players in a loading menu for five seconds. The rest of the penalty will come from the time it takes to fly back into the heat of battle, which can be anywhere from a few seconds to a good half minute depending on how hard the enemy is pushing your allies as well as how powerful your ship’s thrusters are.

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Ship Variety and Team Play

Yesterday’s press event had three ship categories on display with teasers of a fourth still reserved for closed beta NDA testing. Let’s look into your options, keeping in mind that you can swap between any of your owned ships during the five second respawn time.

Strike Fighter: These hardy ships are most recognized as X-Wings and Y-Wings. They excel at extended dog fights and, in capable hands, can defend a capture point against numerous attackers until back-up arrives. With proper set-up and weaponry, they can also pack a powerful enough punch to capture an uncontested control point on their own.

Scout: Think your standard A-Wing or Tie Fighter. Scouts are fast fast FAST. But they have to be as one hard hit is enough to get your repair droid screaming in your ear and three to four lasers typically spells the end of you. Without proper planning and maneuvering, you can be wiped out by even a single capture point turret. But with proper support, Scouts can be vital for tracking and sharing radar information of enemy movement as well as quickly capturing points before enemy forces can rush to the defense. Still you may want to start elsewhere until you get your bearings for space flight.

Gunships: Is toe to toe space combat a bit too fast-paced for your tastes? Perhaps you’ve fantasized about firing the massive triple conjoining laser blasts that level rebel fleets in an instant? The gunship fills the artillery role nicely, offering enough fire power and maximum range weaponry to cripple control point defenses from a safe distance on offensive or pick off fleeing pesky scouts while defending. This role seems ideal for a squad commander as you’ll need to rely on your allies’ protection to make up for your slow rate of fire and low maneuverability.

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Bombers: These bad boys of the stratosphere are still locked behind closed doors but based on the few images we saw, I imagine them to be the heavy hitting tankers that will need to be destroyed before they level entire regions of the map with rocket propelled missiles. Heck half the bomber ship shown looked to be made out of bombs. I bet their death animations are going to be phenomenal!

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Do A Barrel Roll!

Staying in line with the MMORPG genre, Galactic Starfighter features a skill hotkey bar offering brief but powerful boons to give micromanaging pilots an edge in close skirmishes. These seem primarily focused on stat adjustments ranging from increasing accuracy of yourself and other nearby pilots to increasing evasiveness to bolstering your shields or hull defenses. A few particularly fun actives come into play though that harken back to my Star Fox days as pilots can escape hairy situations with spiraling uncontrollable barrel roles, sharp u-turns, and retro-thrusters so intense they practically warp jump your ship backwards just to name a few options. These skills are the only way to break certain lock on missile attacks beyond diving behind obstacles, so players are forced to use them sparingly, which brings me to the resource system.

Beyond the obvious hull fortitude and shielding, there are two less typical MMORPG resources you’ll need to learn to manage to master piloting. I’m talking ammo and boosters. Rather than using a cooldown system on auto-fire attacks, an ammunition bar limits how long you can fire in succession. It refills slowly when not firing, not that you’re going to survive long enough to need to worry about such silly features. Your booster bar on the other hand seems to function as both a combination of mana and stamina bar when thinking in typical MMORPG terms. While you can adjust your speed with W and S, a flick of the spacebar will allow you to exceed your maximum velocity at the expense of booster power. Beyond this, various skills (especially ones involving evasive maneuvers) cost booster power to perform. Since the typical attack requires you to get in close to an enemy and remain there for some time, proper management of the booster system is vital for success.

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“We’re Going in Hot. Full Power to Front Shields!”

Sure spouting lines like that might be fun for roleplaying but that wasn’t good enough for Bioware and EA. Once you have your core mechanics mastered, a higher level of gameplay exists involving adjusting the power output of your ship via the F1-F4 key. This allows you to give up two of your primary resources to press the third beyond the basic limitations your equipment normally allows.

Are the final seconds of a match ticking down and an undefended capture points’ turrets all that stand between you and victory? Set full power to your ammunition and unleash hell!

Die in the middle of a critical battle and need to return at the speed of light? Set full power to your thrusters and burn a hole in the space time continuum for as long as your engine can hold out.

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Need to hold out in a four versus 1 scenario until reinforcements arrive? Just shift all power to your shields and keep a finger on your hull bolstering skill should they not be enough to get you through the assault.

In the right hands, this system can create heroic level players. Just be aware that the gameplay is intense and it was pretty common for members of the press at the event including myself to forget we had adjusted our power levels, resulting in critical mistakes costing control points. Turns out shields are pretty important after all.

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Customization

As of writing this, there are currently 14 base models to choose from ranging from the three revealed ship types. At full free launch in February 2014, this number is predicted to be upped to well over 20. But even within the same model, there’s plenty of customization to be had.

Components allow you to delve into stat customization for your ship. And believe me you have some serious options and nearly all of them have a noticeable impact on the physical features of your vehicle. Every ship is equipped with two primary weapons that you can toggle between depending on the situation along with a secondary weapon that requires locking onto a target and remaining in visual range of said target for a set period of time. You can unleash primary weapons while locking on with secondary weapons for maximum damage.

Next are you shield options which range from faster regeneration to larger capacity to even specializations to give you better defenses on the front or rear of your vehicle. Your engine choice has minimal impacts on your stats (typically slight boosts to your max speed or turning capabilities) but decide which evasive maneuver you can use in battle.

Magazine choices allow you to customize your ship between a spray and pray gameplay style or faster ammo regeneration for those that prefer more concise burst fire approaches. The capacitor seemed mostly related to either stealthing beneath enemy radar or picking up and relaying enemy positions at larger radiuses to your allies.

Next is your reactor which is supplemental to your shielding and typically revolves around how quickly you can restore shields when lost as well as how fast they return to full strength. Thrusters can improve your engine’s max speed, up total thruster capacity, and give you a slight advantage with manual barrel roll maneuvers (done by leaning the mouse hard to the side while pressing A or D).

In addition to the core passives each component provides, each also offers technology upgrades you can purchase with currency obtained from Starfighter battles. To keep this from becoming a clone war though, the most advanced (on 3 tier components) and 2 most advanced (on 5 tier components) technology unlocks offer two varieties of which only one can be active at a time.

After you’ve finalized your components, you can then throw on logos and paint jobs of varying colors and styles to further differentiate yourself from your fellows. You can even customize your thruster burner and each weapon color to add further flair. I personally like the black and blue rapid fire lasers to put anyone crazy enough to fly at my head-on into a personal strobe light show.

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The Power of Chewbacca

Remember when I mentioned that your land-based adventures would bring you an advantage? Well sometimes it’s not what you do, but who you know and in the case of crew members, that couldn’t be more true. All 60+ companions are available to be added to your crew as either your offensive, defensive, tactical, or engineering officer. One of these crew members can also be assigned as your co-pilot to obtain further stat boosts and skill options as well as a voice in your head to keep you aware of your surroundings.

And yes they actually recorded over 100 new lines of audio for this expansion, ensuring your favorite companions will bring their own personality to the final frontier. Beyond just basic chatter, they’ll congratulate you on smart maneuvers, warn you when enemies lock onto you, comment on heavy damage output, and alert you when you’ve reached critical damage.

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Cartel Shop

With an expansion this impressive, it’s hard to fathom the free price tag. So let’s talk about how EA is monetizing it. First off subscribers are getting a good 2 month early access to this content along with two in-game titles, two exclusive paint jobs, and two pilot suits to show-off your veteran experience when hanging out at the local bar.

Variance ships are also available for purchase if you need the full fantasy experience of flying around in iconic Star Wars ships. Thankfully these vehicles aren’t any more powerful than the core ships purchasable with in-game currency, but they do have a requisition boost that will allow players to level through their component tech trees faster than standard ships.

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Overall Impressions

Talk about a lot of info to take in right? Well all the flashy features in the world won’t save a game if it isn’t a joy to play. Thankfully Galactic Starfighter does not disappoint on any frontier. The controls are solid and the sense of speed gives one hell of an adrenaline rush thanks to cleverly designed levels featuring large monuments and plenty of highly textured obstacles waiting to destroy you as you speed by. The typical disorientation of 360 degree space flight is also somewhat muffled thanks to level designs that keep the overall objectives on a horizontal plain. And while you’ll never feel like you’re technically flying in an oversized box, there’s no lack of vertical space to maneuver in to still capture the full experience one would expect from a proper space flight simulator.

Dog fighting is a treat. Ships typically are durable enough to take a few hits and targeting a foe while remaining in range is challenging enough to make every hit you land feel like an accomplishment. The UI offers all the information about weapon range, lock on time remaining, and recommended shot lead to never make you feel like you’re taking potshots in the dark. There's plenty of targeting hotkeys as well to get you a quick lock on the closest enemy ship, the enemy ship in your sights, or even the last ship to damage you if you're feeling in a vengeful mood. And of course there's plenty of free rotational views to get a look around you without having to change course entirely.

The UI itself is pretty expansive. I can say after two hours of playing, I still tended to forget to look at certain information during the heat of battle. It’s a bit overwhelming but honestly I can’t think of a better way of setting it up. If you hid some of the information inside menus, you wouldn’t have time to access them during battle. Everything from remaining thruster and ammunition power to how many turrets are defending each enemy control point are right there at all times should you need them. Just don’t spend too much time reading or you might smash into a passing meteor.

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The customization will keep players coming back for more. The developers put some real work into not only the balance between ships and proper vertical power scaling to keep skill more important than gear, but also in the distinct visual differences between each component. I imagine someone who puts in their research will be able to recognize what evasive maneuvers a ship has just based on their design. And while I can’t stress how easy the game is to get into, the skill ceiling is still sky high. Mastery of mechanics WILL be rewarded.

I have to recommend this expansion to everyone that loves flight sims. Even if you’ve tried SWTOR in the past and didn’t enjoy the base gameplay, this mode alone is worth playing for. But words alone don’t have a chance of depicting just how awesome Galactic Starfighting is. So keep an eye out for our upcoming First Look video in the near future.

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