In Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware made the point that the central pillar of Star Wars was story. Both games, especially The Old Republic, did a terrific job telling stories rich with character development, relationships and conflict. That said, there’s more to the franchise than narrative and world building. No Star Wars experience is complete without epic, large scale space combat sequences. It is implied in the title, after all. The first iteration of space combat in The Old Republic took the form of an on-rail shooter that looked cinematic enough, though at the expense of ship movement and control. The new Galactic Starfighter expansion finally brings free form, ship to ship combat to the Star Wars MMO.
There are four ship classes available to each faction: Scout, Strike, Gunship and Bomber (which is unavailable until the expansion’s proper launch next month), each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, Scouts are far more nimble and have better engines than other ship classes but lack the firepower strength of the Strike and Gunships. Ships can be upgraded by spending Ship and Fleet Requisition points that are earned whether or not your side is victorious. Points can unlock additional primary and secondary weapons, new abilities, better engines and stronger shield and fire power. Every ship component comes with its own upgradable skill tree that provides additional stat boosts. Want to change the look of your ship? Use points to perform cosmetic changes, including paint jobs and new colors for turbolasers and engine trails.
Topping off the dearth of customization options is the Crew. Before setting off into combat, you’ll want to select NPCs to fill the various positions in your starfighter. Placing these characters - some of which are your own Companions - into different roles will grant access to their unique Active and Passive abilities to be used in combat. These skills, managed by various cooldown times, offer useful actions such as evasive moves (barrel rolls and sharp turns), shield boosts, on the fly armor repair and special attacks. Although the list of available crew members is quite small from the start, additional NPCs can be unlocked through points.
Ship combat is a significant change from the solo campaign’s space missions. Though it is considerably more free form, Galactic Starfighter is not an honest to God flight sim like X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter or Wing Commander. You’ll guide the ship around with the mouse, pointing in the general direction you wish to go while increasing and decreasing ship speed and rolling the craft using the WASD keys. Engine, Weapon and Shield power can be adjusted using the function keys, switch to close targets with the E key and activate abilities with the 1-4 keys. It is all pretty basic stuff that is easy to grasp after visiting the tutorial and playing through a few matches. That said, I found myself pining for the comfort that comes with using a flight stick.
As of now, there is only one gameplay mode: Domination. Playing not unlike Battlefield’s Conquest mode, both Imperial and Alliance fighters must secure three bases situated in the middle portion of the map. Control of a station will slowly increase the team’s score and the more bases captured, the faster the score increases until a team reaches 1,000 points and declared the winner. When a base is secured, a continuous ally presence will spawn up to three turrets that will fire on any nearby enemy ships, allowing players to move onto the next objective without having to worry about leaving their base completely undefended. Taking a base from the opposing side involves destroying all turrets before orbiting the station, waiting for its panels to change from red to green, indicating that it has been successfully overtaken. The action is often fast, furious and thrilling as the outposts change hands half a dozen times. With such an emphasis on defending bases, there is little room to engage in proper dogfights as the protection of contested zones tends to be the match’s highest priority.
The free Galactic Starfighter expansion is a worthwhile addition to SWTOR because space combat is well realized and serves as a fun and, personally speaking, great alternative to ground based PvP. That said, the rules of PvP most certainly apply here: you’re bound to take more than a few lumps before becoming an ace pilot. You’ll need to spend a great deal of points in order to see a noticeable increase in performance which means you’ll need to play a great deal. The one thought that haunted me every time I logged out of the game was knowing that others will stay in the gaming, playing more and more, getting lots of points and upgrading their ships while I’m toiling away at work. On the other hand, space combat feels easily more manageable and less stress inducing than ground PvP.
Galactic Starfighter shows a lot of promise and there’s a great deal of potentially awesome additions outside of new maps and game mods (like dogfighting!). Treating the expansion as a proof of concept, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing this version of space combat eventually replace the on-rails space missions or, at the very least, supplement them. I am really excited to see what the expansion will look like in a year. Until that day, I’ll continue to have fun blasting Republic scum out of the sky.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.