Space Combat in SWTOR: a glimpse

It’s been the hot point of discussion over the past month or two in SWTOR circles, and things are about to get much hotter. Bioware have released a trailer of the space combat component of SWTOR.

As you’ll see in the trailer below, it’s looking like a mighty nice aspect of the game, particularly given that a lot of people see it as purely a bonus in the MMO context. Sure, it’s space combat on rails, but it still looks like a heck of a lot of fun and appears to faithfully continue the pedigree of previous space combat games in the Star Wars franchise.

For all of the 40 seconds or so of actual combat footage, there seems to be some variety in there and the intro section is also interesting in that it shows how NPC interactions work a little more.

If you haven’t already, check it out for yourself:

So – who’s excited? Or do you see it as a diversion from the real game? Let the debate begin! There’s also a dedicated thread on our forums.

Time to fight!

Well, it’s official. And yes, I admit I had a geekasm when they announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic would include space combat. Yes, I even went ‘squee’. Can you blame me? Most of my fondest memories are of X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance. What can I say? I am not a pilot in real life. With only one eye that works right, I will never be a pilot in real life – certainly not a very safe one anyway. So I do simulations – that way, if I crash the ship, plane, tank, whatever, all I have to do is reset the game or reload the level. But I do love flying. And there is something about flying in space, even simulated, that draws one in, and holds one. I still play Battlefront II, mainly for the space combat aspect.

We don’t know a lot yet about what space combat will involve. What we DO know is that it will involve ‘hotspots’. Will these be instances? We don’t know. It is touted as an ‘alternative gameplay experience’. Does this mean it won’t be a mandatory part of the game, for those people who seem strange to me who don’t like flying games? We don’t know. There is a lot we don’t know yet.

Many people seem to be holding out for a free flight simulator like X-Wing Alliance was. I admit, I am one of them, but I am not holding my breath. The problems in the Jump to Lightspeed expansion for Star Wars Galaxies shows just how bad twitch based flying can be in an MMO. There were parts of it that were quite enjoyable, mixed in with mindless grind, mindless grind, mindless grind, mission and then back to grind, grind, grind. I always enjoyed tweaking my birds for maximum efficiency, speed, firepower, you name it. And I enjoyed making life miserable for Imperial dogs. But free flight is a big enterprise. How many items were there to program in Star Wars Galaxies: Jump to Lightspeed? Hundreds if not thousands or more. Ships, asteroids, space debris, planets, stations, nebulae… you name it, it was there somewhere.

An alternative is the gamestyle of games such as Rebel Assault, or like the gun turrets in Knights of the Old Republic.  This is a game or mini-game where you have no control over the movement of your ship, you just blast everything in sight as quickly as you can. Some people call these games rail flight simulators for a good reason- your movement is set, you can go around and around, but nowhere else. If you shoot fast enough, straight enough and pick the right targets, you will survive and progress to the next level. If not, there is always that handy ‘reload save’ feature.

Most games that have come out since the dawn of video games have been one or the other of these. Some of them have been a mix. In Space Invaders, Galaga, Centipede and the like, you could move a bit, but not much. You were on rails, but you had the ability to move your ship or whatever in a limited area. Then there were games like Defender and Asteroids where you had free control to move your ship anywhere on the screen. But those were rarer from what I recall, admittedly, I only played some of those games. I was mainly a Galaga fan. And I still am. I loved getting three ships in a line to blast the enemy three times as fast.

So… What will we see in the Old Republic? We don’t know yet. It may be a free flight simulator like X-Wing Alliance, but what are the odds? Those are incredibly hard to pull off well. Most of the space simulators that are made never make it past a week on the on the store shelves and wind up in the bargain bin in two weeks, and then the trash can in three. Will it be something like Star Wars: Empire at War, where you control each ship from afar? Will it be something like Lego Star Wars where you had a tighter view, but a top down one designed for console players? Or will it be something like Rebel Assault, where you could shoot up things to your heart’s content, but never deviate from your flight path? I personally hated that kind of game play. I like to have control of what my in-game thing is doing, whether it is a tank, a plane or a spacecraft. The top down games always seemed… off in some way to me, if that makes any sense. The far view in Empire at War was fun, but again limited in what you could order your vessels to do. There was simply too much other stuff going on to have a lot of controls for things like say, fighters.

Bioware and Lucasarts will likely give us more information fairly soon, especially since after the announcement at Comic Con, many of us needed to change our pants and wash our faces to get the froth off. But no, we are not fanatics. Just dedicated. We do know that there will be space battles, we know that there will be larger vessels than the player ships. We are told that we have to ‘blast our way through asteroid fields, enemy fighters, frigates, destroyers, and a variety of other obstacles that will evoke memories of some of the great Star Wars™ space battles.’ (quote from Sean Dalhberg) What does this mean? We don’t know. But knowing Bioware, they are unlikely to market Space Invaders: Star Wars style.

For myself, my dream is another flight simulator like X-Wing Alliance, but harder. I want to fly around, get on an enemy’s tail and stay there while he maneuvers frantically. I want him to sweat while I pump enough laser fire into his hull to make him a pretty cloud of scattered atoms. But then, I am not a nice person when I fly. Good thing I only do it in games. I quote a famous man: ‘A fighter pilot finds the enemy and shoots him down, everything else is rubbish’ -Manfred Von Richthofen (AKA the Red Baron)

And yes, I have to say it again. SQUEE! As soon as that issue of PC Gamer comes out, I am on it like a X-Wing on a TIE.

Over to you, what kind of space flight would you want to see? Free flight like X-Wing Alliance or SWG JTL, rail flight like Rebel Assault, top down like Lego Star Wars, far view like Star Wars: Empire at War, or something in between?

Photo courtesy of Retro Gamer.

Space: The MMO frontier

Space. The deep black. The awful emptiness. The final frontier. The fringe. There are all kinds of names and monikers for what is beyond the atmosphere of Earth. For as long as humans have looked up towards the sky, people have created stories about space. From aboriginal tales of gods and demons coming from space, to writers like Jules Verne, to modern day screenwriters like George Lucas and James Cameron, people have looked to the sky and said ‘What if?’. Now, people who follow Star Wars: The Old Republic have a ‘What if?’ of their own. What if space is part of the game? Well, what if it is not? Would you play it without a space component at launch?

Think about it. Star Wars has the word ‘Star’ in it. It is not Planet Wars, or Ocean Wars, or Sky Wars. It is Star Wars. The very first scene of Episode IV, after the introduction writing, is of two starships, a small one and a huge one, fighting in space. To this day, I get a small thrill when I see the image of the imposing huge white bulk of an Imperator class Star Destroyer. Ok, ok, for those purists out there, an IMPERIAL class Star Destroyer. Whatever… The image of X-wing starfighters diving in to attack the first Death Star was one of the most iconic scenes ever made in a movie. So from the very beginning, the stories have included space. It was added on with the later movies, with the battles becoming more epic in scope. Love the prequels or hate them, the space battle images from Episode III, especially the battle of Coruscant, were epic.

Star Wars games likewise have been very focused on space. Everything from Empire Strikes Back for the SNES to The Force Unleashed has shown space as an integral part of the Star Wars story. But it hasn’t always been playable. Games such as the X-wing series, the Battlefront Series and the Empire at War Series have all shown what is possible in Star Wars. Even Lego Star Wars has space missions. But is it possible to do such a thing right in a MMO?

Take Star Wars Galaxies. The people in charge tried to make space a part of the game. To their credit, they delivered most of what they promised. It was flawed in a number of ways; it was shallow and more than a bit boring. Grind, grind, grind, do mission, grind, grind, grind. Lather, rinse, repeat. It got old after a while. I personally played space more than the ground side, because I was a huge fan of X-Wing Alliance and older titles. What can I say? I like blasting TIE fighters out of the sky.

There is a problem in a MMORPG however. There is more than one kind of person playing the game. From my own personal experience, people who like space games usually fall into two categories. There are those people who like to ‘see what is out there’. In effect, they are explorers. They are driven to seek out new life, new civilizations, to boldly go… Oops, wrong game. Essentially, they are there to see what is there. To explore, to find things, to visit strange places so they can talk about them. Or just to collect the badges, whichever comes first.

Then there are the people who like to blow stuff up. Come on, you can admit it. I know I do. We live to make things go boom, the bigger the better. There was nothing at all more satisfying that blowing up a Star Destroyer in the original X-Wing game with a Y-wing. Or taking on a rebel fleet with a single assault gunboat in TIE Fighter. Or watching the second Death Star blow up after flying the Millennium Falcon through its innards at full speed in X-Wing Alliance. Player versus Player or Player versus Environment, space simulators are just fun!

But as in all things, there is no free lunch. A MMO is a big undertaking, and this MMO is apparently larger than almost all the others ever made. According to Bioware, this game is larger than every single other game they have made put together! There is a lot of work that has to go into any MMO. Do we want a space component? Exploration or combat or both? Oh HECK YES! But what if it detracts from the rest of the game? What if, in making a space simulator of some kind, which is not an easy enterprise all on its own, parts of the rest of the game get neglected? This is what happened in SWG I believe. They focused so much on the space expansion that everything else went on the back burner, bug fixes, additional content, everything.

My personal feeling is this. Space is an integral part of what makes Star Wars special. The aliens, the cool locations, the evil bad guys, the not so nice good guys, all of these are important – but space is what really makes Star Wars. That was what I really missed when I started SWG. It was the only reason I stayed as long as I did, first the promise of the Jump to Lightspeed expansion, then when it came out. It had problems, yes, but it was space combat and I got to blow up TIE fighters! If the rest of the game hadn’t gone so belly up with the changes, I might still be playing it to this day.

So to answer my first questions: Space is important. At least some kind of nod to space is absolutely required by anything Star Wars related.  Knights of the Old Republic had the gun turret scenes. The Dark Forces and Jedi Knight series had multiple references to space even if you couldn’t do anything in space. Jedi Academy had a mission where you had to use turrets to defend against TIE fighter attack – it was cool, but it lacked something. Something that all of us Star Wars simulation freaks knew and loved: the freedom to fly in space. I am willing to bet that even if it is not available at launch, that somewhere later down the line, some kind of space content will become available. Because it is, in the end, Star Wars.

As for me? I will play the game even if it doesn’t have a space component at launch. If it does, you will not be able to drag me away from it with a tractor beam.

So what do you think? I am going to be… busy… Green Seven rolling in on some Imperials now… DIE YOU DOGS! *sounds of laserfire*