When BioWare released Star Wars: The Old Republic in December 2011 it was – at the time- the most expensive game ever created. Combining the costs of using the Star Wars brand and offering an MMO with NPCs that are fully voiced in a game that’s heavily reliant on story and narrative was an ambitious goal, but one that arguably missed the mark.

The Old Republic didn’t quite fill the itch of the much-desired Knights of the Old Republic threequel and after launching with a monthly subscription requirement, the game had to quickly evolve to embrace a free-to-play system within its first year. As the successor to the canceled Star Wars Galaxies MMO, many fans were shocked that the “most expensive” Star Wars game didn’t actually involve… stars or star battles outside of an on-rails arcade shooter element. That finally changes with the Galactic Starfighter expansion.

Although almost two years too late for some, the timing of a space sim expansion couldn’t be better. In-development titles including Star Citizen (the most successfully crowdfunded game ever) and the Oculus Rift (virtual reality headset) inspired EVE Online spinoff EVE: Valkyrie are pushing the genre back to the top and if any brand must support space sims, it would need to be Star Wars, especially with all of the news surrounding the return of the film franchise under new parent company Disney.

The official announcement is devoid of the geeky fun details on weapons and customization, but the Galactic Starfighter expansion will be 12 vs. 12 PvP combat mode where players can upgrade their starship. What ships are available, how many, and how expansive the customization options are remain a mystery but the screenshots and artwork reveal 3rd-person (out of ship) gameplay with Scout, Gunship and Strike Fighter variants for the Imperial and Republic factions along with some examples of the paint jobs. We’re also unsure how the seemingly separate mode plays into the core MMO experience, or if it does at all.

The expansion launches February 4, 2014, but active Star Wars: The Old Republic subscribers gain early access December 3, 2013 (they also get a gunship unlock and custom paint job) and Preferred Status Players (former subscribers or players who purchase from the store) can jump in January 14, 2014.

Subscriber Early Access Rewards

  • Early Access to Galactic Starfighter on December 3
  • Exclusive Paint Jobs***
  • Two Pilot Suits
  • Two Titles (“Test Pilot” and “First Galactic Starfighter”)
  • Subscribers get the maximum leveling and progression benefit (a Starfighter Pass will also be available for purchase in the Cartel Market beginning January 14)

Preferred Status players will receive:

  • Early Access to Galactic Starfighter on January 14
  • Two Pilot Suits
  • Exclusive Title (“Test Pilot”)

Jeff Hickman, General Manager of BioWare Austin, talks about bring the Star Wars MMO deeper into space:

“Our goal with Star Wars: The Old Republic has always been to immerse players into their own Star Wars adventure and huge space battles are a vital part of fulfilling that fantasy. Galactic Starfighter will be a deep experience that will continue to grow over time. We can’t wait for both our current and new players to get their hands on it soon.”

The issue casual players and Star Wars fans interested in Star Wars space combat may have is that the recognizable starships from the films that fans know and love are not present. Because the game is set 3,500 before the film saga, none of the more iconic franchise ships (X-Wings, Tie Fighters, etc.) will be in the game and instead, there are eerily similar knockoffs (same design aesthetic and color schemes) in the imagery above. This begs the question of why EA and BioWare instead don’t fund development of a standalone space sim that can take advantage of the exclusive Star Wars deal EA signed with Disney. Perhaps that’s in the works as well, along with Star Wars: Battlefront 3 at DICE and an unannounced game at Visceral. Perhaps it was already in development before the Disney-EA deal went down after the shutdown of LucasArts.

Are you excited for SWTOR finally adding a space sim element or does the 12 vs. 12 setup make it feel “outside of the experience”? Would you like to see a new space sim in the vein of the classic X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and X-Wing Alliance games?

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.