Hands-on with SWTOR's Galactic Starfighter

The objective is just on the horizon. We're a ragtag group of journalists -- no, starfighter pilots -- and we're hellbent on taking a key objective from the enemy. The problem isn't the defending turrets; it's the five red squares that have just popped on our HUDs: Sith fighters. In a few moments, we'll lose each other in a storm of blaster fire and exploding ships. The ship to my right engages the turbo on his engines, rocketing forward. One by one, we all follow into the fray.

This is Galactic Starfighter, the new expansion coming to Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic. The new ships, their customization options, and the chaotic, free-flight-PvP space combat make it one of the largest feature upgrades since the game's launch. It won't put you in the Death Star's trenches, but it will get you close. Join me in the cockpit as I tell you about my experience in rail-less throes of space mayhem.

We don't need rails

Combat in Galactic Starfighter boils down to match-based PvP within a set zone, but everything in that zone is as rail-less as combat gets. The 12v12 matches are set in one of two maps available at launch: the Lost Shipyards and the Kuat Mesas. The shipyards lie in space with large stations that can be captured for points as well as in detailed space terrain full of debris and various sizes of ship-crushing asteroids. By contrast, Kuat Mesas' battlefield is set closer to the planet among pillars of canyon rock. On both maps, players accumulate points by taking out the opposing team's fighters and maintaining control over the three structured capture points.

I found each area refreshingly diverse with sections of open air perfect for dogfights and small, trench-like corridors that were great for the boosting and deflating of morale. During one of my prouer moments, I was able to evade an unseen attacker by weaving dangerously through asteroids and space-station infrastructure. But don't get cocky, kid; the tight turns in some places can quickly turn you into unfortunate bottlenecks.

The dogfights around capture points were surprisingly intense, and for a moment I forgot that I was in an MMO. Lasers flew by my ship and took out one of my allies just ahead. The resulting debris and smoke caused me to fly directly into the side of a building. It was fantastic. There was intensity to the turns and rewarding action during the pursuit of kills. The controls themselves took some getting used to, but I was quickly at home tracking targets off-screen, pulling disorienting evasions, and throwing the occasional lean in my chair with hopes keeping the enemy ship in my sights.

The ships

Galactic Starfighter will launch with three ship archetypes: Strike Fighter, Scout, and Gunship. A fourth archetype, Bomber, will be coming in February. Each ship type carries with it a type of playstyle reminiscent of the movies. The Strike Fighter is the bread and butter of the fleet with balanced defense and offense, modeled after the X-Wing and Y-Wing fighter concepts. The Scout is the faster, more maneuverable version of the fighter, but at cost to defensive capabilities. The Gunship archetype serves as a spaceship sniper, opting for long range cannons that pack a punch, but its lack of speed makes it difficult to contribute in the midst of a dogfight.

Each ship, and its playstyle, can be customized through various unlocks. These unlocks are purchased through currencies called Ship Requisition and Fleet Requisition. Ship Requisition is essentially experience earned through playing a particular ship and can be converted, for a cost, to Fleet Requisition that allows you to purchase new ships.

The core of customization comes on two levels: functional and cosmetic. Functional upgrade components add passive stats and active abilities to your ship. For instance, an upgrade to a minor armor subsystem might increase hull defense passively while an upgrade to a major component, like engines or weapons, will give a passive bonus and an active ability. One such ability, Koiogran Turn, increases evasion for three seconds while performing a dramatic 180 degree turn and breaking missile locks. Upgrades to the major components often come with cosmetic changes too. These components also have their own mini talent trees, furthering the customization of your favorite ship.

Cosmetic upgrades allow players to pick laser and engine stream colors, specific hull shapes, and various paint designs for the outside of each ship. Of course, some ship designs will be available only on the Cartel Market, but players should be able to unlock many of the ships and customization options by playing the expansion.

Crew members

Yep, there is another use for those companion characters: Crew Members. Any companion unlocked in the game, along with a few in the new expansion, can be selected to help crew your ship. Each of these companions comes with passive bonuses and drawbacks along with a specific co-pilot ability if he or she is selected as, well, a co-pilot. Each ship contains a co-pilot, offensive-, tactical-, defensive-, and engineering-based position. Choosing a good crew won't dramatically change the game, but it can give a good pilot an extra edge.

My favorite part to this feature comes in the addition of tons of new dialogue from the companion voice actors. The team said it wanted to create space combat that felt like the movies, and sometimes that means having a Wookiee screaming in your ear. Depending on the trigger, companions will warn you about missile locks and objective changes and just verbally harass you for hitting that asteroid, again.

The need-to-knows

Galactic Starfighter will launch for subscribing players on December 3rd along with a few titles and cosmetic perks. Preferred status players will gain access to all the content on January 14th; free-to-play players will have access on February 4th. The team says it wants all players to get their hands on the content, boasting that all the playable content will be available for everyone by February 4th.

Galactic Starfighter isn't going to overwrite our memories of the classics, but it does a fantastic job of making SWTOR a deeper and more genuine Star Wars experience.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
This article was originally published on Massively.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.