While most of you will largely know Star Wars as an incredibly successful film franchise, the Star Wars games have their own sagas as worthy of attention – the furore around Star Wars Battlefront II being a prime example. But perhaps none is in more need of reconsideration than Star Wars Galaxies.
First announced in 2000, Star Wars Galaxies: Empire Divided was a MMORPG aimed for release in 2001 for PS2, Xbox and PC. An online multiplayer experience set in George Lucas’ expansive sci-fi universe, Star Wars Galaxies was a game that placed you in the middle of the Galactic Civil War as a trader, soldier, or entertainer – or, if you stumbled across the right side-quest, even as a Jedi.
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Eventually, it was scaled back to a more straightforward release on PC, which launched in 2003 to mixed reviews.
But there was something special about the game for fans of the Star Wars franchise. You could jump between different planets, or drive through the sands of Tatooine and rainy jungle of Dantooine. Or you could just spend a weekend at a Cantina, dancing away.
Many reviews of the time said it was unfinished, buggy, and missing a pretty key component of Star Wars – space exploration.
But for me, Star Wars Galaxies was a revelation, and stands today as a testament to how impactful even an imperfect, ‘unfinished’ game can be. It was the first MMORPG I’d played, and the novelty of stepping out of a spaceport and wandering where the mood took you was glorious.
Eventually, mis-management resulted in two major updates scuppering the long-term potential of the game. The first one was a Combat Upgrade in May 2005, which fixed some niggling player issues, but also standardised a lot of weapons and items, taking away many advantages and benefits that players had been grinding towards to obtain.
The second patch was the fabled NGE, or ‘New Game Enhancements’ in November 2005, which essentially rebooted the game into a free-for-all. The skill-building system had been changed to a levelling system, changing the very core of what made Galaxies unique, and now you could even be a Jedi from the very start of the game.
These changes not only confused players, but irritated them, leaving them with a game that wasn’t the one they came to enjoy.
The game barely survived these changes, but eventually in December 2011, it was no more, and shut down forever.
If you strike me down...
In the shadows, however, something was brewing from a number of dedicated, passionate players who wanted to keep the game fun, away from the new directions publisher SoE (Sony Online Entertainment, now Daybreak Game Company) was going in. This project started on Christmas Eve in 2004, and work only accelerated a year later when the two much-criticised updates were published.
This project was ‘SWGEmu’, an emulated version of the original 2003 title I first discovered on Reddit around a year ago. Wanting to discover any veterans of the game, I came across the project and I’ve been dipping in and out of it ever since.
You see so many people on fan-forums trying to revive a classic game, teasing a few screenshots throughout a staggered development and no eventual release.
But here was the real deal. The original installation disks were needed to install the game on my PC again, which were only a quick eBay purchase away. As I clicked on ‘LaunchPad’, the music from Empire Strikes Back began again, and I was suddenly transported to 2004. Before the Combat Upgrade, before the NGE, before the dark times.
Of course, it should be noted that SWGEmu is in no way sanctioned by LucasArts/Disney, but rather entirely the result of the efforts of fans from long ago. But how did it come about?
The first step into a larger world
I spoke with a staff member of SWGEmu using the name ‘Vlada’, regarding its history and where they aim for it to go:
“The SWGEmu project began on December 24, 2004. It all started because many players didn't like the direction the game was being taken. So if we wanted to play the game we loved again, the way it was originally meant to be played, we would have to remake it ourselves.”
The main challenges still facing the team are, first, maintaining the stability of the server, and second, integrating the ‘Jump to Lightspeed’ Expansion.
Now that a player can freely jump into the game and master most of the professions that were given back in 2003, there’s now a new frontier for them to meet: space.
Jump to Lightspeed was the first expansion to the game released in October of 2004, and one that was hinted to during Galaxies’ development. This was where a player could purchase a spaceship, and freely launch themselves into space. It was almost a precursor to No Man’s Sky – though naturally not of the same scope – where you could fly around random parts of space, and then find yourself at a planet of your choosing.
There have been efforts to incorporate the update, made somewhat possible by the fact the expansion was released on disc as well as digitally, making it simpler to find the essential files to merge it with SWGEmu. Work started on the update in 2011, though Vlada stresses it’s still “groundwork” at this point.
“We have to start somewhere – and because of the nature of the project, we don’t have an ETA.”
Of course, the Death Star hanging over the whole endeavor is still Disney. If the project gains more users or too much of a large profile, they could easily receive a cease and desist. But there are other challenges, from the team itself to the funding of their servers.
“The biggest challenge, after almost 15 years, is keeping people interested in the project – both those involved in the development and those supporting it. But even after all these years, SWG hasn't lost its appeal.”
Light speed aside, there are two other SWG expansions with potential for inclusion in the modded game. One added the Wookie home-planet Kashyyyk in ‘Rage of the Wookies’, while Mustafar, the main planet for Obi Wan’s and Anakin Skywalker’s battle in Star Wars: Episode III, was added in its final expansion, ‘Trials of Obi-Wan’.
But what’s stopping another passionate developer recreating new planets from ‘The Last Jedi’, or even StarKiller base from ‘The Force Awakens’? There’s a lot of untapped potential, which could result in entirely new worlds and areas to explore. Vlada refers me to a linked emulation project called Mod the Galaxy, where efforts have already begun to see whether new planets and characters can be added to the existing code.
The planet ‘Mandalore’, the home planet of Jango and Boba Fett – and the basis for an incoming live-action TV series The Mandalorians – was technically added to Mod the Galaxy in 2015, but is currently no more than a mix of palettes and textures waiting to be fleshed out. Even so, the prospects are exciting.
This is still in the early stages, and it probably won’t come to the more widely-used SWGEmu until more research has been undertaken.
But for now, you can fulfil your destiny to join a time from 2003, where you can once again drive a speeder across the lands of Yavin, dance the night away in a Cantina in Mos Espa, or just chat to a Wookie on Corellia.
I’ll see you on Yavin IV.
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