Galactic Starfighter: Not For Everyone

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SWTOR's Galactic Starfighter: Not For Everyone

I've spent a week trying to get to like Galactic Starfighter. I really did. Star Wars: The Old Republic is still one of my favorite MMOs, and I'm a huge Star Wars nerd. The space dogfights in the movies are one of the reasons the series has the rabid fanbase it does, and when the "off-the-rails space combat" expansion was announced, I was jazzed. My spirits were badly dampened when it was later confirmed that the expansion would be PvP-only, but I managed to cling to some shreds of hope and remain somewhat enthusiastic about it.

But I can't do it. I just can't force myself to like it. I went in expecting to hear Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" playing in my head, but what I got instead was, I dunno, a Bieber remix of a Spice Girls song. The original thing was bad enough, but now it's.... gah.

It's not that the Galactic Staftighter system is inherently bad - it's probably half-decent for all I know. I'm not a PvP guy. At all. The very idea of having to endure another Huttball match makes me cringe. Which means this "expansion" - which is a PvP-only space combat "flight sim lite" - is nothing more than a frustrating fail-fest that is almost entirely not fun for a guy like me.

It's apparent that a lot of people are having loads of fun with it. Some people are getting really good at it. And they are always the guys on the other team, evidently. In my own way, I'm happy for those people. They are getting what they want, and they're enjoying the hell out of it. Gratz, guys. Have fun with it.

About to get pwnt hard - a common occurrence.

Like all PvP, however, there is an unforgivingly-steep learning curve, and no quarter is given to those of us trying to figure out how things work. For instance, I can't seem to out-manouevre anyone, ever. Every time I fly into the combat zone, I end up with two or three bogeys on my six, and I can never seem to shake them. I do crazy barrel rolls, hit my thrusters, flip around, zip and dodge as best I can, and every time I end up either slamming into obstacles (AKA "self-destruct") or getting vaped by my pursuers, who are never thrown off by my "evasive" manouevres. It doesn't seem to matter which kind of ship I'm using, either - the scout ship is just as much of a stubborn brick as the gunship.

Clearly, this is largely a matter of me lacking any sort of skill whatsoever. I don't fault the system for that. The system works great for those with the skill to use it, as evidenced by all the kills scored against me by the enemy players. On the advice of several of the more skilled players, I ran the tutorial mission many times, over and over, but the tutorial doesn't really teach you anything terribly useful. It teaches basic movement and how to complete simple objectives, but not how to chase down enemies or how to fly defensively when you find yourself getting attacked by a bogey on your six. And that's pretty much the most important part of dogfights.

The team is having a rough match.

If you're like me, going into these fights raw and unskilled, it's going to suck. For a long time. Sorry folks, that's just how it is. It's a new thing that needs to be learned by hands-on experience, and the tempered advice of your betters, and improved by upgrading your rusty tin can starfighter into a blazing machine of death. Until new techniques are learned and mastered, and until you get those all-important upgrades, it's going to be a frustrating exercise in constant failure and humiliation. That's how it is for me, at any rate - your mileage may vary, depending on your natural talents or previous experience. Or you may be one of those people that looks at it as an exciting challenge to be mastered rather than an impediment to enjoying a game.

Eventually, it should start to suck less. You get Ship Requisition upgrade points every match which you can spend on improving your starfighter, making it faster, more durable, and harder-hitting. Ship Requisition points are per-ship - the points you earn with a Gunship, for example, can't be spent upgrading a Scout, and vice versa. This system uses talent trees for incremental boosts to each starfighter component - shields, weapons, engines and so on. If you end up near the bottom of the leaderboards every match, like I do, these points are slow to build. But if you score somewhere near the middle like a normal person with reflexes and spatial reasoning, you end up getting medals, and you may be able to buy an upgrade after your first time out.

You may find yourself getting locked into one particular starfighter role early on because it's the only one you have the points to upgrade into anything combat-viable. My Sith Juggernaut went with the Gunship role from the start - it makes sense, he's a big aggressive dude with a big aggressive ship - so he's kinda locked in now. The points come so grudgingly, starting over with a fresh noobie ship is going to be a whole new cycle of punishment and humiliation. And Ogregunk already upgraded his Primary Weapon, so it looks like he's Gunship 4 Lyfe.

There are two currencies you can earn in space combat - Ship Requisition and Fleet Requisition. Ship Requisition - the green one - is the upgrade currency, and the pink Fleet Requisition is used to unlock new ships. Unlike the Ship Requisition points, Fleet Requisition is shared.

Of course, there's also Cartel Coins, which can be used to unlock various cosmetic options and ship models. Since the Fleet Requisition points seem to be slower to earn and the unlocks are more expensive, it's possible to convert your Ship Requisition points into Fleet Requisition. This up-conversion also costs Cartel Coins.

Aside from the 3 medals and only 3 deaths, this is how I usually appear on the Leaderboard.

Upgrading makes your ship better, a teeny-tiny bit at a time, but the real secret is developing dogfighting techniques and manouevres to turn things things around. This is where I tend to fall flat, and where the system itself works against the player who wants to train and develop without the frustration of constantly getting spanked by the other team. It's an enclosed system, and there is no way to train up for it except by getting in and dying a bazillion times because everybody has better stuff and more skill than you. I even begged for advice on fleet and got a few helpful suggestions, but without any real context. A lot of very helpful, well-intentioned players are not wordsmiths, and it's very difficult to process some of these ideas without seeing exactly what they mean. Mostly, I was encouraged to try the tutorial mission.

Being able to upgrade your starfighter's loadout is a neat idea - strapping on bigger guns and tweaking them for longer range and better accuracy, boosting engine efficiency so you can do longer thruster bursts, increasing shield power to add some survivability. But it needs to be tied to a ranking system so worthless n00bz like me aren't matched up against massively-upgraded behemoths. In one particularly memorable dogfight, I was face to face against an enemy that had already taken a severe beating, and I was at full hull strength with my rusty tin can of noobiness. I unleashed everything I had at the enemy, tapped all my number-key skills and used both missiles and blasters, and didn't make a dent on him. He shot me a few times and I was vaporized. Some of that may have been the native disparity between our two ships - I was in a Scout vessel and his was a Strike Fighter - but not all of it. I was completely outclassed, and shouldn't have been matched up against enemies that much stronger than me.

It's the same reason I used to despise level 50 ground-based PvP - by the time I hit 50 and got in there, everyone else had already been doing it for months and had a million Expertise and War Hero gear, and I was running around in my lame Recruit gear that might as well have been diapers and a bib. From level 1 - 49, I could almost hold my own and make a bit of a contribution to the team. At 50, I was little more than a speed bump.

At least I haven't crashed into an asteroid. Yet.

With ground-based PvP, a player can at least get practice by sparring with other players. If one wants to find out how to counter specific scenarios, or even create them, these scenarios can be arranged with friends in open-world PvP areas, and strategies can be devised. My guild used to have occasional cross-faction "fight nights" with our sister guild at Outlaw's Den on Tatooine. I learned a lot there and had fun doing it because I could approach it at my own pace, and observe the techniques of others without worrying about getting ganked for standing still for more than a half a second. These sparring sessions are a little different from actual PvP matches, of course, but I learned techniques from the spars that I applied to the matches. I am still pretty sucky at PvP, and always will be because I don't much enjoy it, but I no longer thoroughly embarrass myself in matches, and occasionally end up slightly above the middle of the leaderboards after a match on my lower-level characters. Except in Huttball. My name is usually near the bottom of the list when I am forced to endure a match of Huttball.

Galactic Starfighter, though, is a self-enclosed system. There's no way to train for it, because there is no PvE counterpart to it. You can't take your starfighter to some remote open-skies spot and joust with your friends. You can't approach it at your own pace - you have to get into the matches with your under-geared rusty tin can ship and get killed a lot like a dumbass by the guys who have been doing it non-stop since launch day and who have the top stuff already.

I'm sure a lot of readers are thinking, "He's only hating on it because he's not instantly pro at it, SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT!" That's a fair assumption, I suppose, but misses the mark. I don't think SWTOR's PvP is bad or needs to be changed in some fundamental way. I just hate PvP. Not just in SWTOR, but in all MMOs. It's not fun to me and I don't do it anywhere. I never got into the whole Call of Duty thing, I don't see why it is even necessary to include that style of gameplay in co-operative multiplayer games to begin with, and I don't like the horrible behavior that takes place when players compete against one another. And I'm not alone in this - lots of people play these games for the stories or the raiding or the dungeons or the other co-operative stuff, and not for pwning or getting pwned in PvP. There are a lot of us around. And I guarantee that most of these players will dislike Galactic Starfighter as much as I do.

One death of many. This match. From the same guy.

As far as I know, Galactic Starfighter might just be the bee's knees. PvP people seem to be enjoying it, and it never takes long for the queues to pop, which means lots of people are doing it. It seems to work for people who enjoy that sort of thing. I'm just not one of those people.

Despite my personal feelings towards PvP in general, I do feel that this system - or something like it - should have been in the game since launch, that it was a missed opportunity that left a lot of Star Wars fans feeling cold early on. But I wouldn't have engaged much in it then, either. My almost-two-year-old characters wouldn't be flying much more advanced starfighters than the rusty tin can ships they're dying in now. And releasing it this late in the game with absolutely no PvE counterpart - which is the thing so many people have really felt the game was lacking since launch - is kind of a slap in the face.

I also very strongly feel that Galactic Starfighter should have come with some kind of PvE aspect - training missions beyond the abyssmally-unhelpful tutorial mission. The tutorial mission, as it is, teaches you to shoot at stationary turrets that don't shoot back or move, and then hover near the big satellite long enough for it to turn green. There are no moving targets to track, you do not learn how to lead your fire or avoid incoming blaster bolts or missiles, and the game forces you to stop to read the tutorial pop-ups every time you approach a new goal. It teaches you nothing at all about what it's like in a live dogfight, where you are so focused on trying to evade someone chasing you that you forget you can't roll too sharply away because there's a giant asteroid right beside you.

Training against AI-controlled "bots" programmed to defend a position, or to attempt to flank and attack from the rear, would give new players a fighting chance to develop new and useful skills that they could take into the matches. They could also implement exciting off-the-rails PvE battles - canyon-style fights where the player has to cleverly manouevre between giant rock pillars so the AI-bots crash into them and explode behind him, or dogfights against hundreds of little trash snub-fighters like in the rail-shooter space missions, but without the rails, and with more intelligent enemy behavior. It's mind-boggling that these things are not already in the game.

I read a dev post on the SWTOR forums about this very thing a few months ago. The dev claimed that the system couldn't possibly work for PvE because of some technical reasons. I call hogwash on that. The turrets in the matches can fire at us - I've been blown up by plenty of them. If they can shoot at us, then they can differentiate between friendlies and hostiles, the same as landscape mobs, and that means they have at least rudimentary AI. Give them mobility, and the ability to avoid careening into obstacles wily-nily, and they become AI-controlled mobs that can chase us around. Then build a couple of maps with these mobs and simple capture/destroy objectives, and pack it inside a flashpoint wrapper instead of a PvP arena wrapper. Boom, you have PvE and thousands of happy players. I'm no coder, but it doesn't seem like that big of a stretch from what's already there.

Sweet, meaningless victory!

In the interest of fairness, I could point out the things this expansion has done well:

1) It's free. Releasing an expansion for free is an integrity move, and I sincerely hope this serves as a model for future content plans. They've already dropped the cost of the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, so this seems likely. I could make an obvious, trite joke like, "That's good because I would never pay for crap like this," but that would be petty and dumb. And also probably false.

2) Tied to the expansion being free is the three-tiered release. Subscribers get it first, then Preferred players who have spent money on the game get access to it in January, and Free-to-play get access in February. This created an incentive to subscribe prior to December, and could lead to a population surge in February when the content becomes available to F2Pers. Unfortunately for the F2Pers, by the time they join the party, everyone else will have had enough time to buy a ton of upgrades. They will be like a caveman on a wooden raft hucking rocks trying to sink an aircraft carrier. Heck, even I might stand a chance against some of them by the time February rolls around.

3) The generic pit crew which the player can replace with his own people struck me as a good idea. Low-level characters start out with the nobodies to fill various pit crew roles, but as the character progresses in his class story and unlocks more companions, they can take over. Using Treek and HK-51 as the Tactical and Offensive crew (respectively) adds more win.

4) The Republic ships look badass. A couple of the Imperial ships look half-decent, but the Republic ones are cool. The paint schemes are unimpressive, but I imagine that will change over the coming months. And I imagine there will be more cool-looking ship models offered up on the Cartel Market. I actually bought the Imperial TZ-24 Gladiator Strike Fighter for my Operative. I can't fly it worth a damn, but I have it and it looks better than the other Imperial Strike Fighters.

5) Through trial and error, I learned that you have to lead your shots, just like real ace gunners. When I started out, I was trying to shoot directly at the little crosshairs over the enemy dude, but eventually I discovered that it is way more effective to shoot at the little circle tethered to the crosshair. That's where he's going to be when your shots land, as long as he stays on the same course.

Again, for those of you who are having fun with Galactic Starfighter, my hat is off to you. Share your positive experiences in our comments section, and show me just how wrong I am for hating it as much as I do. And just to make it crystal clear, I'm still a fan of the game. Just not this idiotic expansion.

For those of you who share my opinion, I welcome your feedback as well. Show those PvP fanboys the errors of their ways, or even just help confirm my own bias. 

I sincerely hope most of you are having a better experience with Galactic Starfighter than I have had. Enjoy your epic dogfights, but don't expect us PvE'ers to be your wingmen anytime soon.