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Overall Grade: B. Drastically improves combat, but poor launch/implementation lead to problems for most veteran players.

Don't you hate reviewers that start with a description of how long they have been gaming? Sorry, I have to do it. I've religiously played Star Wars Galaxies since the closed Beta. While there were some down times, it has been amazing to watch this MMO develop and mature. At launch, SWG immediately drew the attention of the fanatical Star Wars fan base and curious gamers alike. SWG had its share of problems. Despite this, through a series of large updates, the release of Jump to Lightspeed and the maturing of the community, SWG has finally come closer to achieving its goal - delivering a definitive online Star Wars experience in a persistent world where you can carve your own path through the galaxy. Now we come to the most requested change by the community since SWG launched: the combat revamp. How does this dramatic change affect the SWG experience? Read on.

I've adamantly defended SWG, but have also been extremely harsh with my criticism. When the game first went live, everyone was immediately drawn into the experience, but as time wore on glaring problems presented themselves. While many were addressed and were promised to be fixed, combat was that fatal flaw that ruined the SWG experience for many. Why? The problem with combat was best epitomized by what it took to accomplish any combat-oriented task in the game.

For one, a player needed a template that exploited defensive abilities across numerous combat classes, such as milking defenses against knockdown across some of the melee skill sets. Secondly, a player was required to have composite armor - one of the best armors in the game, usually with a minimal base resistance (defense against specific attack types) of 80%. Lastly, you needed to seek out a doctor to buff you. If a player managed to do all three things, they were unstoppable in PVE against NPC characters and enemies. In Player versus Player combat, thanks to macros that exploited the old combat queue system, a user could initiate attacks while they ran to the bathroom, ordered pizza or watched a movie. Needless to say, everyone looked the same, and combat was more of an art form for those that learned SWG's macro scripting code and exploitive tricks.

With this major release, SOE has rebuilt the combat engine from the ground up. This new system addresses many of the statistical problems that occurred behind the scenes as well as clearly define "combat roles" for every profession It also alters and further diversifies abilities across professions (making them more unique), solves the "uber armor for all" issue, and, most importantly, makes combat a faster-paced and more twitch-oriented experience that is on par (if not better due to the complexity) with modern MMO offerings. The official SWG website's combat upgrade document does a great job of describing all the changes, which is far greater than the scope of this review. I want to focus briefly on some of the more interesting changes and the impact this transition is having on the community.

Like modern MMOs such as City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, SWG has now adapted what I like to call a skill "cool down" system. Rather than adding a number of attacks or commands to a list to be performed in order (as it was in the past), players now must click a specific attack to perform during a faux turn. Each skill has a recycling or "cool down" period where it and other skills can't be performed until the next turn. While the queue system will surely be missed, this new method of attack (complete with stylized new ability and attack icons) along with the more profession-specific and individualized skills now available leads to more strategic game play, especially when you add to the mix the new philosophy that SOE has taken to profession roles.

Professions are now grouped into four spheres of influence that resemble roles you typically find in most MMOs: Tanking, Healing, Crowd Control (debuffing enemies) and Damage Dealing. All of the professions have been redesigned, keeping in mind their previous roles and abilities favored by the fan base. While players will still have the ability to mix and match abilities across professions, new skill rankings within each profession ensure that exploitive mixes are frowned upon. In this new system, there is no perfect fit and players still have the ability to train and adjust their characters to fit their play style or role they want to assume.

There are a number of benefits to this system. For one it makes combat more fair and engaging. I had a Master Smuggler and Pistoleer that felt absolutely useless in the previous system. I refused to wear composite armor, and without buffing I was piecemeal. Under the new system, while I still am not a tanker, Smugglers and Pistoleers now fall under the Crowd Control sphere, allowing us to literally cripple a target and make them near useless in combat. I'm not a Damage Dealer, but I can put a hurting on a crippled target with ease.

Speaking of armor, every profession can wear armor, but thanks to the new spheres, which armor type you can wear varies by profession. Armor is now grouped into three categories. Reconnaissance Armor, typically light that can be worn by nearly all races and professions unless it is faction specific (e.g. rebel armor vs. imperial armor.); Battle Armor, which offers more protection, but starts to get profession-specific; and Assault Armor, the strongest in the game, reserved for those professions that fall under the Tanking sphere. It all makes sense, and with 22 different sets across the three-armor categories, there is bound to be a lot more diversity when you are standing around in the Cantina.

With changes to armor, weapons statistics and performance are also more clearly defined with every weapon doing either kinetic or energy damage, with the elemental "subcategories" being an added bonus to base damage done. Many of the elemental damage types players were familiar with have now been grouped into pairs (e.g. Heat/Cold), which presents an interesting tactical situation when you wear armor. Rather than having base statistics across the board, there is now a balancing act in play. For example, by wearing armor that offers added heat protection, you are invulnerable to cold.

The transition to the new system wasn't without problems. When I logged onto my server post-upgrade, there were literally players stumbling around dazed and confused. My character (which always had a clearly defined skill distribution among focused professions that seemed to make sense) converted over without me ever having to use the "/respect" ability. The /respect command was SOE's way of allowing players that have already invested in their characters to redistribute their abilities with ease. With some time, a little reading of the helpful pop-up windows most of the players that complain ignore, and experimentation, re-adjusting to the new system is a painless experience. Other players, those with more "questionable" skill distribution, had greater difficulty. To be honest, response to the upgrade has been mixed into two factions (no pun intended). There are those, like myself, that had pretty standard elite profession templates that didn't rely on milking stats and macros for combat. The other group consists mostly of technical players (to be fair) that knew the old system inside and out and how to exploit problems through crafty skill distribution. Petitions are flying around among the latter base, promising to quit. It is unfortunate, because the changes made to the SWG combat system are fairer, balanced, competitive with other MMO offerings and now just plain fun.

SOE went out of their way to include new weapons, guns, animations and particle effects, all to make combat more flashy and "Star Wars-y". They have succeeded, in my opinion. There are some minor tweaks to make here and there, a few missing animations and some abilities that some players claim don't work. Additionally, there are new control schemes so players from other popular games should have an easier time adjusting what can be a complex and intimidating interface. Visual improvements can also be seen in Jump to Lightspeed with easier-to-identify targeting boxes around ships, and as a teaser, the appearance of some of the Rage of Wookies content, such as asteroids that can be mined for resources. A careful eye may also notice the arrival of the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk, though setting it as a destination presents a message that the location of the planet is unknown.

These major upgrades are just a sampling of the changes SOE have made to Star Wars Galaxies. This world, once criticized for being barren and empty, is now populated with a plethora of quest-giving NPCs found in the most unlikely of places, new dungeons with improved loot and large player communities built around player cities that have grown and matured into landmarks on many servers (such as the Rielig Steppes community on the Sunrunner server.)

The Galactic Civil War (GCW) has also heated up and players can now battle for planetary control, with faction guards (rebel soldiers or Stormtroopers) being planted in major planetary Star ports. I was shocked when I logged on after the GCW patch and found myself in Mos Eisley with Stormtroopers deployed at every major intersection, building and corner. I tried to sneak down a side alley and came across one that scanned me (didn't realize I was still on rebel duty).

The Imperial scumbag called for backup and I soon found myself running down Mos Eisley alleys dodging fire trying to get to my ship. A young squad of rebels rushed out in full bravado only to get mowed down. I quickly ran to the pilot terminal, launched my ship and set a hyperspace destination as far away from that Outer Rim rock as possible. The fabled character actors promised by SOE have also been appearing with increasing frequency, hosting large player events that are often fun and challenging.

Now, a week after launch, there are still some minor bugs and quirks that need to be worked out. I would be lying to say that the launch of the combat upgrade (a major undertaking I've yet to encounter in any MMO to date) wasn't without major problems. The SWG forum community is extremely vocal with their comments and complaints, and yes, even in-game protests were heard by SOE. In response, SOE is offered double XP for a week, and the CSRs are popping in trying to deal with issues such as missing items and skill points lost because of the conversion. Once the dust settles, I am sure that even the most adamant protestors will find the Combat Upgrade the injection that SWG needed to stay relevant in the increasingly crowded MMO genre.

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