3 Dec 2011

SWTOR Space Combat: Missed Opportunity

As I’ve been playing the beta for Star Wars: The Old Republic, I’ve been trying to experience as much of the game as possible. A significant chunk of that is the Space Combat minigame. Basically this involves using the ship you earn at around level 15 to take part in space missions, such as escorting a ship, disabling an enemy space station and so on.

While this minigame is fun in it’s own way there are some significant limits on how this combat works. All the action is on-rails – your ship flies a preset path from one point to another. All the action takes place around you, from enemies coming in to intercept through to capital ships dropping out of hyperspace.

What this means is that the experience gets very repetitive very fast. While you can move your ship around your limited field of view to avoid asteroids and debris, there’s no opportunity to do things differently. Enemies arrive at the same time every time, so once you’ve recognised the pattern to the attacks you can sail through it easily.

The only gating mechanism to the harder missions is what level you are and what ship upgrades you’ve purchased. There is literally nothing more to it than working out how much damage you can take. Everything else is putting your mouse over the target and pressing the button to blow it up. Auto-aiming makes that even easier – as soon as the ship’s a small cluster of pixels on the screen it can be shot at and blown up.

The big issue I have with this is that we’ve had strong space combat in PC games before, and they were very good and did very well. I grew up on the X-Wing series (X-Wing, Tie Fighter, X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter) and others like Wing Commander. These were off-rails space combat games that were fun, challenging and had a threaded storyline.

Importantly, there hasn’t been a new Star Wars space dogfighting game released in the last ten years. There’s not even any competition for it. EVE doesn’t do dogfighting at all, while Star Trek Online is more of a capital ship combat affair. The only one that would have come close is Jumpgate Evolution, a game that’s now never likely to emerge after NetDevil’s various problems.

It’s still possible for BioWare to sieze the opportunity. Make a bold statement to say that in an upcoming content patch to be delivered in a specified timeframe, space combat will be expanded significantly. Provide an off-rails mode, support joysticks (and maybe do a tie-in with Razer again) and cater for PVP space combat.

The Star Wars franchse used to be known for legendary space combat during the 1990s. I’d like for BioWare to return to that form. I’d remain subscribed to the MMO purely on that basis.

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