SW:TOR offers up Starfighter PvP Matches in its latest expansion, but how free is it?
Hello and welcome back to ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"
Last time on the Free Agent we covered Duel of Champions, a TCG set in the famous Might and Magic universe. Despite having to live in the shadow cast by the recent Hearthstone Open Beta announcement, Duel of Champions is more than capable of standing on its own so, if you missed it, be sure to check out Episode 19.
But moving on to today's episode: for the first time ever, we're covering a game within a game. Curious to see how that works? Well then by all means, read on.
The second major Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion, recently-launched Galactic Starfighter, features a fully-functioning space combat sim – that was more than enough encouragement to pick my old SW:TOR account. However, since its old news these days that SW:TOR is a free-to-play MMO, I thought I'd focus an entire episode specifically on the Galactic Starfighter expansion.
Keep in mind, free-to-play customers won't be able to queue up for Galactic Starfighter matches until February 4th. Lucky for me, once upon a time (before my days as the Free Agent) I used to be a SW:TOR subscriber so I was allowed early access on January 14th.
So before you make the decision to return to SW:TOR or pick it up for the first time, I'll give you the run down on the Galactic Starfighter match system. Just remember though: it's a game within a game, not a game all by itself.
That said, if you were hell-bent on only playing Galactic Starfighter, you could make a level 1 character and immediately start queuing for a match. While it stands that your character is technically the pilot of the starfighter you choose, for all other intents and purposes you could disassociate yourself from the MMO portion of the game and just play Galactic Starfighter.
What you might find however is that it will lack enough depth to keep you interested. From what I experienced it was an excellent addition to SW:TOR, daring to do something extremely creative and certainly more immersive than the standard MMO PvP matchmaking systems – but it has its limitations.
With only a couple of maps, and singular game mode, the only thing you can rely on to keep it fresh is the skill of your enemies. But that's something I love about combat sims against real players: no two dog fights are ever the same. So despite the repetition, it can still be a very enjoyable experience. One that couldn't help but remind me of fond days-gone-by playing the DOS version of X-Wing on my old 386 PC.
There's no doubt about it, Galactic Starfighter is not a game unto itself; however to its credit, it was also never billed as such. It's pretty impressive, really: a game released as a component within an MMO isn't too far behind in the depth department than half of the PvP-oriented, free-to-play, match-based games on the market right now.
Whether that's praise for Bioware or just general cynicism for the match-based, free-to-play industry is up to you to decide. Regardless, I think Bioware is on the right track with this expansion, offering something decidedly different than many of its MMO predecessors and even current competition. I highly suspect that we will see more cross-genre material in MMOs in the years ahead.
While I'd love to see some more ships added to the roster, and variable mission types at the very least, the visuals, the game play, and the immersive qualities of the Star Wars universe are more than enough for me to speak praise of Galactic Starfighter.
As always though, it comes down to a question of free. Given it's game-within-a-game status it's a little convoluted to speak to, but it's my duty as the Free Agent to try. What I won't do is debate the question of free with regards to the larger MMO that houses Galactic Starfighter.
I'm not confirming or denying if SW:TOR can really be played for free, simply because that's not the scope of this article. With my recent SW:TOR play time devoted almost entirely to Galactic Starfighter, I'll admit I have spent very little time with the MMO itself since it's gone free-to-play. As such, it's not fair for me to comment, although I'm sure there are plenty of opinions on the matter (just watch general chat in-game for a few minutes if you don't believe me).
What I will speak to, however: is the Galactic Starfighter component itself free? The simple answer is yes. But that's only because, as I've already mentioned, you'd be hard pressed to sit down for hours on end, week after week, playing the same match in the same handful of star fighters. If your approach is casual, then it's entirely possible to play for free.
The rates at which you gain in-game currency is reasonable enough. After every match you gain two currencies, Ship Requisition (ship-specific) and Fleet Requisition (character-specific). Ship Requisition points allow you to purchase upgrades for the ship which earned the Requisition points, in the form of weapons, shields, engines and a host of secondary systems. Meanwhile Fleet Requisition points, acquired at a much slower pace, allow you to purchase new ships and crewmen for use throughout your hangar.
While subscribers do earn both Ship and Fleet Requisition at a faster rate than free-to-play customers, given a little extra play time, it's a fairly even playing field. The only thing you'll miss out on if you aren't a subscriber, or if you refuse to buy Cartel Coins (SW:TOR's real money currency), is the cosmetics.
As always, Mr. Spendypants' star-fighter is going to look snazzier than yours. But does his uniquely glowing engine trail or blaster color do him much good when you ram a concussion missile up his exhaust port? Not likely.
For the limited depth that it offers, I have no qualms with recommending that you play Galactic Starfighter without spending any of your hard-earned money. I'll say this much about it: it's not going to keep me playing SW:TOR for years, but it got me playing the actual MMO itself again, which is something I honestly never thought would happen.
Now here I am playing the SW:TOR again; grouping with friends, running quests, optimizing my talent spec, whacking dirty imps with my light sabre and, in short, playing an MMO again. But the really great part is that any time I get a little tired of the typical MMO grind, I can always hop in my starfighter for a decidedly different experience. Well done, Bioware!
That's all for now and, in fact, soon to be forever. SW:TOR: Galactic Starfighter will likely be the last game ever featured in an episode of the Free Agent. It's with a heavy heart that I must inform you, my dear readers, that I will be moving on to other projects and will not be able to continue on with this column.
Hold off on the sad goodbyes though, and stay tuned in two weeks time when we'll be bringing you one last special episode of the Free Agent. What makes it so special you ask? SPOILER ALERT!
With current trends in game development, there is a near limitless supply of free-to-play games, both new and old, that could be analyzed under the lens of our long-standing question. However, it's high time we looked back on all we've learned together over the last ten months. So instead of covering yet another game, we will simply answer the question once and for all, "Can gaming REALLY be free?"
See you next time, one last time, on the Free Agent.
Robert "Caergan" Gray
Follow me on Twitter @Caergan