14/06/2018

Back In My Day: PvP Warzones

"Back In My Day" is an irregular series in which I talk about how certain aspects of Star Wars: The Old Republic have changed over the years. And boy, has it been a while since I last wrote one of these!

I originally started drafting this post after the Yavin Ruins warzone was released, which got me thinking about how far we've come in terms of available variety of content in PvP. With the big "Summer of PvP (changes)" coming up, I thought it was about time that I actually finished this post. Note that I won't cover all aspects of PvP here - I have limited knowledge of and no particular interest in talking about things like class balance and world PvP, so I'll be limiting myself solely to the subject of warzones.


Apparently I never took a screenshot of my main hitting Battlemaster rank, so here's my first alt hitting it instead.

Available modes and maps

At launch, we only had three different warzones: Alderaan Civil War, the Voidstar and Huttball. The latter actually received quite a bit of attention from critics and was frequently praised for being an innovative and unique type of instanced PvP in the MMO world (at the time). Among the player base it tended to be polarising: On one side there were those declaring it the best thing in the entire game, on the other those who would instantly quit any warzone as soon as they realised it was Huttball. I've had several of the latter type in my guild over the years, though more recently the Odessen Proving Grounds seem to have replaced Huttball as most passionately hated game mode.

Another quirk of Huttball was that, at the time, it was the only mode that would pit teams of the same faction against each other. On servers with a very imbalanced PvP population, this meant that the larger faction would spend a disproportionate amount of time just playing Huttball against itself, which gave people another reason to dislike it.

The following maps and game modes were then introduced to the game over time:

Novare Coast - added in patch 1.2 (April 2012)
Ancient Hypergates - added in patch 1.6 (December 2012)
Arenas (Corellia Square, Orbital Station & Tatooine Canyon) - added in patch 2.4 (October 2013)
Makeb Mesa Arena - added in patch 2.5 (December 2013)
Quesh Huttball - added in patch 2.7 (April 2014)
Odessen Proving Grounds & Rishi Cove Arena - added in patch 4.3 (April 2016)
Yavin Ruins - added in patch 5.6.1 (December 2017)

As you can see, the first additions came quickly and then still more were added at a decent pace for a while, with the biggest gap being the two years between Quesh Huttball and the Proving Grounds.


Ch-ch-ch-changes

Apart from releasing new warzones, Bioware has actually made only a remarkably small amount of major changes to the way existing warzones function (I'm not counting bug fixes, map adjustments to counter exploits and the like).

When Novare Coast was added to the game in 1.2, the idea of same-faction "training exercises" was first introduced. Before then - as mentioned above - Huttball had been the only option the game gave you to play if there weren't enough players from the other faction in the queue to form an opposing team. Alderaan Civil War and Voidstar were modified to support same-faction play two months later, in patch 1.3. Mixed-faction play wasn't introduced until the Odessen Proving Grounds were added to the game, and until the release of the Yavin Ruins it was also the only map that offered this option.

1.3 was also the first time Bioware changed the layout of a warzone, by cluttering up the first room in Voidstar to make it harder to switch from one side to the other. All that junk in the middle wasn't always there! Their reasoning for this change was that too many matches seemed to end with nobody breaching the first door, which was rather boring. Ever since then, your best chance to hold off the enemy has been the second set of doors (after the bridge), where the way from one door to the other is shortest. It's interesting that Bioware's reasoning for many of the upcoming changes to Voidstar has been pretty much the same they gave back then: that there are still too many stalemates in this warzone. The more things change...

2.3 saw a big change to Alderaan Civil War, where until then you had been able to take a speeder from your ship directly to one of the side turrets if you owned it. This made the side turrets quite easy to defend by sheer zerging, and Bioware eventually decided that they didn't like it. They had already previously tried to rein this in by giving the side speeders an activation time in patch 1.1.5, but that hadn't been quite enough.

Another change that I consider major and that came in the aforementioned patch 1.1.5 was that capping an objective would no longer be interrupted by damage-over-time effects. In late Shadow of Revan Bioware also tested the option of making caps unaffected by AoE damage on the PTS, but this was fortunately never implemented into the live game as general feedback was that it was very much not fun. They did however make "fire and forget" AoE like a Sniper's Plasma Probe unable to break caps eventually (in patch 5.3).

Going back to damage-over-time abilities though, do you remember that they used to be cleansable? It wasn't until 3.0 that the ability to remove enemy DoTs in PvP was taken out of the game. As a healer I remember being somewhat annoyed by this at the time, but then again my Commando main had always been powerless when it came to the countless Force-based DoTs anyway, so it didn't end up making that much of a difference to me personally in the end.


Bolster & Brackets

Our beloved Bolster has been in game since launch, though it went through a lot of tweaks over the years. One thing that's interesting to consider is that at launch Bioware was so confident in Bolster that all levels of characters were thrown into warzones together. However, people soon complained about the unfairness of fully geared max-level players smashing everyone else, so that level 50s (max level at the time) were split off into their own bracket as early as patch 1.1.

When the level cap was raised to 55 in 2.0, the levelling bracket was split again, into 10-29 and 30-54, which is how things have remained ever since, though the separation line has moved slightly upwards as the level cap increased yet again (currently the brackets are 10-40 and 41-69).

The 2.0 patch was also when Bolster first took gear rating at max level into consideration. Before then it had only applied to levelling characters, and once you hit the level cap it disappeared, which meant that characters who had only just arrived at the level cap were faced with a nasty surprise when they entered their next warzone, as they were suddenly much weaker than they had been in the levelling bracket. Bioware had initially tried to counter this by handing out cheap (and later even completely free) starter PvP gear, but eventually figured that it was more straightforward to just bake the effect into people's stats (as in, make it part of Bolster) as soon as they entered the warzone. I remember that they got this hilariously wrong at launch though, resulting in characters being at their most powerful if they wore no armour at all - as I noted in my Rise of the Hutt Cartel launch post while being mauled by Imperials in their undies.

Ranked

Ranked 8-man warzones were first introduced in patch 1.3 in June 2012 and were live for a little over a year until August 2013. Considering the brevity of their lifespan, it's quite astounding that there are still people campaigning for them to make a comeback nearly five years later. However, fact is that they were only played by a tiny, tiny minority of players (which Eric Musco has confirmed multiple times by now), which meant they weren't really viable in the long run. My own experiences with them were limited to not being hugely excited the first time I participated, being impressed by the community efforts displayed by those who cared about the system, then finally watching all the dedicated PvP guilds transfer off the server to chase the dream of some kind of ranked nirvana on the then-PvP server Tomb of Freedon Nadd, until the whole system finally collapsed.

Ultimately 8-man ranked warzones were replaced by 4-man ranked arenas, which have also had their ups and downs, including issues with cheaters and win-traders, but since they are still in the game nearly five years later I guess they must have worked out OK. I can't really comment on what's been going on with them otherwise, as I haven't actually set foot in one of them myself since the very first ranked arena season, unless you count the one time I accidentally ended up in a team ranked match with some guildies after the guy who queued us pressed the wrong button (we had meant to queue for normal warzones).


Gear

Finally, it's worth making a brief mention of gear. Without going into too much detail, PvP gearing didn't go through too many major changes before the introduction of Galactic Command, which eliminated all distinctions between PvE and PvP gear. Before that, PvP gear had been defined by its expertise stat, which increased your output and decreased your damage taken in PvP only. (I've actually had a long-time player claim that expertise wasn't in game at SWTOR's launch and was introduced later, but I haven't been able to verify that. It was certainly around by the time I started PvPing, though admittedly that wasn't on day one.)

You've also been able to buy gear with earned commendations since as far back as I can remember. Initially the best gear however could only be obtained from the infamous Battlemaster bags, which awarded gear tokens at random. Later the various PvP commendations that the game launched with were all rolled into warzone commendations, and the better gear could be bought with special ranked warzone commendations. However, since you could also directly trade the former for the latter at a ratio of 3:1, people were able to avoid ranked while still gaining the best rewards by simply doing three times as much regular PvP. Bioware later tacitly supported this by getting rid of ranked comms altogether and just making the better gear more expensive. Nowadays all ranked rewards are purely cosmetic (titles, mounts etc.).

Aside from old gear sets being retired, new sets being introduced and various price tweaks, that's pretty much how things functioned for several years... until Knights of the Eternal Throne got rid of the expertise stat and of PvP gear as something distinct from PvE gear and introduced Galactic Command. However, since then there have been mutterings about maybe reintroducing expertise... so who knows what the future will bring?

As an aside, while I was searching my Google folder for the blog to see if I had uploaded the screenshots used in this post before, I noticed that it kept showing me search results whose file name had nothing to do with the search result (e.g. "Battlemaster"). Then I noticed that it had shown me those pictures because there were people with the Battlemaster title displayed shown in the pictures. Your AI is freaking me out, Google.

10/06/2018

R.I.P. Faction Rivalry & Other PvP Changes

Last week Eric Musco started to use the forums to talk to players about some of the planned PvP changes to gather feedback. And you can tell that Bioware has been taking it seriously because they've actually already gone back on one major change after it wasn't well received! That's really good to see.

That said... considering that all of these changes are supposed to be improvements, I'm feeling so-so about what's been announced so far. Some things do sound good to me and like they could shake up the meta in interesting ways, but others have me taking a more sceptical stance. I'm not saying they'll be bad, but I'll actually have to see them in action for myself to be convinced that they really are as good as the devs think they will be, because to me there are some obvious downsides.

I won't go down the list bullet point by bullet point as others have already done a good job of that, but I do want to talk about some key changes.

First off, some general goodness: They are making some changes to forcefully stop cheaters that were using hacks to move around the map to places where they shouldn't have been able to go. After having witnessed people walk through forcefields or teleport themselves inside walls recently, I'm all for that. The only thing that makes me a little sad is that these changes all follow a brute force approach, which is to say the devs are putting up new barriers and causing players to be auto-killed if they enter an area that should be inaccessible. The reason this makes me sad is that the addition of extra force fields in the second room of the Voidstar will make a perfectly legitimate but tricky tactic to cross the chasm before the bridges are down impossible in the future. They didn't say anything about intentionally wanting to kill this manoeuvre, so I assume the change wasn't targeted at people doing this specifically and will just kill it as a side effect.

Matchmaking

The biggest announcement for me was confirmation of the matchmaking changes, which started with a statement that all warzones will become cross-faction. I've said in the past that I've never been a huge fan of that idea, so that was a bit of a downer to me. Don't get me wrong, I see the potential benefits. But I also liked feeling a certain faction pride in PvP, and that Bioware actually cared about the warzones making some sort of sense. (So when they initially enabled same-faction matches for all warzones for example, they changed the voice-overs to say that it was just a training exercise.) I wonder if they'll even bother to try and come up with anything to give completely mixed teams in warzones like Civil War or Novare Coast some legitimacy. Considering that the plans for the overall story line are to make Republic vs. Empire more of a focus again, ditching it completely in PvP seems a bit strange to say the least. (The other day I actually got teamed up with a guy in Yavin Ruins that thought his Imp being put on the same team as a bunch of Pubs was a bug. We had to explain that it wasn't.)


Then there is the planned role balancing for tanks and healers. Again, in principle this sounds like a good idea. One team being virtually unkillable due to an over-abundance of tanks and healers can be... interesting sometimes but generally it doesn't make for the most fun matches. What has me worried is that they are seemingly planning to lump tanks and healers into a single "support" role which will then be limited to two per team. (I don't think this has been 100% confirmed as the wording of the forum post is a bit ambiguous, but that's certainly what it sounds like.) As someone who often plays healers I'm certainly not looking forward to having longer queues just because there are usually a lot of us queuing when I play!

In addition I have to say that being the only healer in an 8-man team is actually rarely fun, because if the enemy puts a mark on your head there'll be nobody there to support you, so I'm not looking forward to that becoming more common. And no, I'm not really counting pug tanks as potential support. Don't get me wrong, a well-played tank can be a huge asset to your team, but from my experience many tanks in unranked are pretty bad... and yes, healers can be bad too, but at least they generally know that they are supposed to heal. Yet if I had a credit for every time I've run into someone who was specced into tanking in PvP yet earned zero protection points throughout the entire match... yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if tanks became pretty unpopular after this change, seeing how they'll be seen as "taking up a healer slot".

Interestingly there's been no mention of being able to select any maps as ones that you would prefer or want to avoid; I wonder if they've already given up on that. Though the new matchmaker will make arenas much less likely to pop in unranked apparently, which seems fair considering that you can always target them specifically by queuing for ranked. Once upon a time I would have been super happy about this change as I wasn't too thrilled by the introduction of arenas, but considering how many different maps have a chance to pop by now anyway, a certain percentage of those being arenas hasn't actually bothered me in a long time.

The one thing that really has me intrigued is that they are planning to include "skill" rating in the matchmaking process in the future, and that this is something they've apparently been tracking since the game's launch. (I put "skill" in quotes because presumably your skill has only a limited amount of influence on your team winning or losing in a random 8-man.) My first reaction was actually: I want to be able to see this! It should still be hidden from others of course, so that people would only know yours if you personally told them, but I would certainly find it fun to confidentially compare my stats with those of my friends (or even among different alts, assuming that this rating is character and not account based.)

Then again, even that could have negative side effects, especially as it's been stated that if you queue as a group, your group's rating will be based on that of the highest ranked player, not an average of all group members. That means that while in the past it was always a given that you would be happy for a highly skilled guild mate to join you, with such a rating system you might want to think twice before inviting Mr PvP Pro, considering that having him along will also drastically increase your chances of facing some very stiff competition in the next match... ah, it's fun to speculate about such things.

Gameplay Changes

Gameplay-wise, most of the proposed changes seem to be aimed at making matches faster and giving the offense more of a leg up (and Eric did state outright that this was their goal), though there are some outliers. Changes that fall into this category are ships taking faster damage on Alderaan and on Yavin, shorter cap timers in Voidstar, and the respawn area opening up more frequently in Ancient Hypergates than it does right now. I don't think the first two will make that much of a difference, as the only times when those maps seem to drag are when one or more of the turrets remain uncapped for a long time, and I think that will continue to be a drag regardless.


The shorter Voidstar cap timers are interesting though, as they will make lone defenders much more vulnerable to stealth capping. In case you don't know, long-duration crowd control in PvP lasts eight seconds at max, and caps in Voidstar currently take exactly the same amount of time. This means that it's very hard to pull off a cap after crowd-controlling, since there's always a tiny delay between your CC going off and you being able to start to cap, so that the CC will inevitably run out just before the cap finishes, giving the defender a chance to interrupt. With the cap timer being two seconds shorter than the CC duration, capping will become much easier - this can already be observed in Ancient Hypergates, where the time to cap a pylon has always been six seconds.

Changes that sort of go into the opposite direction, making matches slightly longer, have been announced for arenas and Huttball. In arenas the acid now won't kill you quite as quickly if the match goes into overtime and will gradually reduce healing done instead of instantly making it completely ineffective. This I'm actually really happy about, as the complete immunity to heals as soon as the acid hit always turned healers into a liability instead of an asset, because suddenly the winner was whoever could do more damage to the enemy more quickly. This way it will be more balanced and still give healers a chance to continue contributing, even as death slowly becomes inevitable.

Huttball was always going to be a special case based on how different it is from most game modes, so I guess it shouldn't be surprising that this was the one where Bioware ended up going back on their initial proposal. Their initial suggestion was to have the Huttball apply a hindered debuff (similar to what you get when you get hit by a Commando or Merc's Electro Net), disabling leaps, speed boosts and immunities. I'm glad that they decided to not go with that plan, because while it can be annoying when a well-played character uses their speed boosts to zoom across the map towards the goal line at high speeds, the sheer utility of these abilities in the Pit compared to other maps is part of what makes Huttball fun.

I'm quite happy with what they've announced instead, which is that Giradda will kill the ball carrier if they hold on to the ball for 45 seconds (down from two minutes). With the two minute timer I've actually seen this happen only very rarely, usually when the ball was caught by a newbie who didn't know how to pass and just kept running around aimlessly. Bringing this down to 45 seconds won't prevent someone from trying to make a fast run for the goal line, but they shouldn't be able to brute force it on their own via cooldown use if the enemy is actually slowing them and they aren't getting any support from their team mates.

That said, I find it interesting that Bioware felt the need to slow down scoring in the first place if one of their stated goals was faster matches. Yes, encouraging team play and all that... but that was already a big aspect of Huttball anyway. In a similar vein they've stated that in the future you'll have to score ten goals instead of six to win... which to be honest sounds more painful than fun to me, because rare is the match where you get to one team scoring six times and that actually being balanced and fun. Usually when one team is able to score six times it's because they are completely steamrolling the opposition and the poor losers are just waiting for the pain to end. Having to wait for ten goals in the future doesn't strike me as an improvement.


Sadly there's been no mention of trying to address the desync problems yet...

06/06/2018

Conquesting After 5.9

Unlike many very vocal people, I rather liked the conquest revamp from the start, with some reservations about certain aspects of it still needing tweaking. Since then Bioware has made some more adjustments to scores, objectives and rewards, with the biggest of these changes having been implemented in patch 5.9.

And in a nutshell: they seem to have worked! At least the medium and large yield boards are actually populated with guilds capable of hitting their targets now. I never did find out whether that guild who won the large yield planet without actually hitting their personal guild target ended up getting any rewards, but since 5.9 this has become a moot question anyway.

I think the biggest thing that has helped has been the addition of many more easy daily objectives. While I think that this has generally been a good thing, I have to admit that some of them seem to encourage somewhat dull gameplay. Somehow it doesn't feel quite right to me when one of the best ways of easily gaining points is to just farm random mobs on Alderaan...

That said, it's been hard to gauge the full impact of the daily objective changes as they've been hilariously bugged since their introduction and constantly reset more than once a day, which has allowed some people to basically just farm mobs for points indefinitely. The funny thing about this is that Bioware has claimed to have fixed this bug twice already, yet it's still there. The resets have just become more inconsistent / harder to predict. We'll see what difference it makes whenever daily objectives actually become limited to once per day.


As it stands, my guild managed to complete its target on a large yield planet for the first time last week, and I felt proud. I even revived an activity that I used to engage in back when conquest was new, which is to tally up all the scores of individual characters in the guild in a spreadsheet at the end of the week, in order to add up the contributions from people's alts to see who made the biggest impact as a player. It's quite tedious actually, but I'm currently sufficiently curious to put up with it.

The one thing I still wish they would change is the number of available planets, as three to four every single week just doesn't provide enough variety. At least on Darth Malgus, things seem to have settled down into about half a dozen guilds competing for overall top score, and while most of them do go on to compete on the large yield board nowadays, one each tends to go for the medium and small yield planet still just to occupy the top spot there. Basically the only way smaller guilds will stand a chance at winning first place is to have more planets available at least occasionally.

This does bring me to another thing I noticed that strikes me as a little odd: that there is no more limit on how long you have to invade a planet anymore. It used to be that the button became greyed out after something like 48 hours, forcing you to make a decision - but now you could secretly collect points without anyone knowing your score and then invade on Monday morning for full impact. Since there is no invasion bonus anymore, you're not missing out on anything by waiting until the last minute. Admittedly the fact that you would have to manually keep track of your guild's score until then to be able to gauge your chances is a considerable obstacle, but still...

Anyway, I'm continuing to enjoy conquest for that feeling of collectively achieving a goal, and seeing the events put a stronger focus on their eponymous themes has been refreshing (though I don't get why the former Iokath conquest, now renamed to "Mechanical Warfare", gave points for repeating the KotET chapter on Nathema instead of the one on, you know, Iokath). We'll see how long it'll last - when I got caught up in conquests for the first time, the 3.0 expansion eventually served as enough of a distraction to largely wean me off my conquest habits, but 6.0 is still very far away, so know knows what the coming months will bring?

02/06/2018

16-Man Mojo

A few weeks after joining Twin Suns Squadron back in 2012, I did my first 16-man operation with them. At the time, the experience left me feeling quite giddy. Over the years, 16-mans have been an on-again, off-again activity for us, depending on how many members were active at any given time, but they were rarely something for which we set serious progression targets. We were always focused on 8-man, with 16-man being more of a social activity on off-nights, giving people who weren't regular raiders a chance to tag along too.

Recently, this has changed though with the absorption of another guild into TSS, as this guild brought with it another full 8-man team that was regularly running master modes. Add some of our other recent recruits to the mix, and we can now have three different 8-man groups running on a good night - enough to form a competent team to tackle 16-man as well. (And yes, you pretty much need about two dozen people to be able to run 16-man - not just due to availability issues, but because I've found that in any given pool of raiders, there'll always be some who for some reason hate 16-man with a passion and will avoid attending 16-man nights at all costs.)

About a week ago we ventured into Scum and Villainy master mode on 16-man and were quite successful, killing five out of the seven bosses. I'm pretty sure the sixth fight would have been within our reach as well, but it required a bit more co-ordination and it was getting late.


This week we tried our hands on Explosive Conflict master mode and boy, did that not go well! On our first couple of attempts we actually had people dying almost right on the pull, and it wasn't due to medpack issues either (though that sure gave me flashbacks). We did make significant progress over the course of the night however, eventually running into the drouks' enrage, though we didn't get them down. I think some people found it quite frustrating.

For me it was actually quite exciting though. I'm not going to say that some of the sillier wipes didn't annoy me too, but I really relished the opportunity to actually try and push harder content with a larger group again. It's been a long time - nearly eight years in fact. It was in summer 2010 that my old WoW guild got its last 25-man kill (Sindragosa in Icecrown Citadel) before being forced to downsize.

Especially as a healer, the team dynamics are very different in larger group content. When there's only two of you, everyone pretty much does everything, and there's rarely reason to have specific assignments for things. But in content that's designed for a larger number of healers, the damage is tuned differently and more frequently enforces strict roles, for example because the damage on the tank is so heavy that one healer is required to spam heals on him at all times. Being stuck in that role could be considered a bit boring I suppose, but for me it was actually a bit of rush. Especially at the beginning I got nervous more than once when both the tank and myself got low and I still had to keep prioritising the tank and trust my co-healer to provide the heals that I needed. As he's one of our newer members and we're usually on different teams I didn't have as much of a rapport with him, but as the evening progressed, seeing that I could trust him to keep me alive was actually a really good feeling.


I hope that we'll be able to keep this momentum going, with enough people interested in the format to keep showing up. I know it can have its frustrations, with more players to potentially mess up or underperform, but for me it will always hold a special charm as well.

28/05/2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

I'll start by saying that this film was not off to a good start with me for several reasons:

- Han Solo was probably my least favourite character from the main cast of the original trilogy. That's not to say that I disliked him, but he was just kind of... there. I didn't think that he was particularly awesome, nor was I dying to find out more about him. (Though I do remember reading the original Han Solo trilogy way back in the day... however the only thing I remember twenty years later is that it featured a pair of droids that were basically blatant knock-offs of C-3PO and R2-D2.)

- When I saw the first promotional images for the film my initial reaction could have been summed up as: "Could they have found anyone who looked any less like Harrison Ford?" I just couldn't see Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo at all.

- The trailer didn't excite me very much either. It basically looked like the story could be summarised as follows: Han Solo and a bunch of quirky characters pull off a big heist. Woo.

- After my disappointment with The Last Jedi I didn't really feel ready to get excited about another Star Wars film just yet. I couldn't help wondering whether Disney had "lost its way" with Star Wars a bit / whether I wasn't the target audience for these films anymore (pick whichever viewpoint you prefer).

Sooo... I basically just went to see it because I play a damn Star Wars game every day and blog about it on top of that, so how could I not want to know everything about the newest Star Wars film to hit the big screen?

Well, much to my own surprise, I ended up really liking it! To counter all the points I raised above one by one:

- This may sound weird to you if you're a big Han Solo fan, but I actually felt that the film would have probably been a good flick even if it hadn't been about Han Solo. Sure, there are things that tie it into the existing canon, like Chewbacca, Lando, the Millennium Falcon etc., and I'm sure there are lots of references there that the more hardcore fans will love, but the story didn't rely on you caring about these characters already. You could probably go into this film with zero knowledge of Star Wars whatsoever and still have a good time.

The above is something that I could also see people viewing as a negative, mind you... because it means that Solo is "just" a fun sci-fi/action flick. Nothing too epic or galaxy-changing happens in it, which I guess could potentially leave some viewers disappointed. For me though (as I mentioned when I wrote about Rogue One) that's right up my alley.

- I still think that Alden Ehrenreich looks remarkably little like young Harrison Ford, but boy does he know how to act! In still images I still struggle to accept him as Han Solo, but watching him on screen I was 100% solod on it the entire time.

- The story is actually more involved than the trailers made it look and I was continually surprised by how the context in which scenes appeared was different from what I would have expected based on the trailer.

- Solo shared none of the issues that I had with TLJ, which could mostly be summed up as weird plot twists and occasional tone deafness. Solo has a coherent plot throughout, is properly paced, and I thought the humour was completely spot on. I was fully immersed throughout the whole thing and didn't pause to go "Wait, what?" even once (unlike during TLJ).

So, if you're still unsure whether to see it and care at all about the opinion of people like me, it gets a thumbs-up from me! Some random spoiler comments underneath the picture.


Solo teaser poster taken from Wookieepedia.

- I liked that there was a bit of introductory text at the beginning. I didn't miss the opening crawl too much when I first saw Rogue One, but in retrospective I think it would have made the beginning of the film a lot less confusing. Ironically, Solo probably didn't need it that much, but I still considered it a nice touch.

- Those "hounds" that chase them early on totally reminded me of the ones in SWTOR flashpoints like Cademimu and Mandalorian Raiders - I kept thinking: yeah, you better run, those things hurt! Hah.

- It may be corny, but I found the idea of Han's last name basically being made up on the spot by some random Imperial bureaucrat incredibly amusing.

- I liked the scene of Han and Chewie meeting for the first time. I felt that was something that could have easily been done very badly but I actually really liked the way it was handled.

All in all, while this film probably came out a bit too soon after Last Jedi, to me it's actually felt pleasantly invigorating after how disappointed I felt by TLJ in December. Your mileage may vary.

22/05/2018

Summer of PvP

Last week Keith surprised us with the unexpected release of a road map for summer. The reason this was as surprising as it was is that Bioware usually likes to make announcements about announcements for teasers first, so them just dropping something like that without warning is rather unusual.

I read through it before anyone else had a chance to talk to me about it and my first thought was that there were probably going to be a lot of complaints about too much focus on PvP and about how nobody thinks of the poor, neglected solo players, and when I looked around on forums and social media later, that seemed to have been right on the money.

There is very little talk of actual new content coming out any time soon. There is mention of more companion returns, "a completely new storyline" as well as "new characters to meet and planets to explore in the new year", but that's all still very far off (autumn/winter) and vague. I don't really count things like Nar Shaddaa Nightlife returning once again or another week of double (C)XP as content, even if they are nice.

The only definitives we have to look forward to in the near future are:

- A new stronghold set on Rishi
- A new arena (I think it was previously mentioned that this would be set in Shae Vizla's Mandalorian compound on Rishi) and a new Huttball map set "in the dangerous and dizzying heights of an industrial planet" (guesses as to said planet's identity that I've seen so far range from Corellia to Vandin).

Aside from that, there was some talk about quality of life improvements, which are always nice to see but which aren't a complete replacement for actual content. Also, apart from a mention of "big updates for guilds" later in the year, the upcoming changes are all PvP focused and again somewhat vague. I'll hazard a guess at what some of them might mean:

- Convert more, if not all, of our Warzones and Arenas to allow cross-faction grouping: Okay, this one is pretty clear except for some wiggle room in terms of what exactly "more, if not all" will turn out to be. This is the one thing I'm actually not keen on at all, because yes, I care about roleplaying in my PvP - crazy, huh? That's to say: I'm fine with making some more warzones cross-faction where this makes sense, which is to say in Huttball and in the arenas. I'm not keen on the idea of the factions mingling randomly in warzones that have traditionally been explicitly about the Empire-Republic conflict. However, I could see Bioware perceiving a certain necessity for this, as some of the other changes they are alluding to actually risk increasing queue times (see below).

- We’re investigating ways of improving the experience of all Warzones: This is about as vague as it can get, but my personal hope is that it means that they are looking into addressing the desync issues that have plagued the game's PvP for a while and which have gotten considerably worse over the past couple of years. I tried to find some great videos/gifs again that I'd seen on reddit about this in the past and couldn't find them right now, but for those who've never experienced desync, it means that your game client and the game servers can have some pretty violent disagreements about what's happening in any given situation. The effects of this are worst in Huttball, where you might find yourself passing to someone just to watch that person suddenly teleport somewhere completely different so that you look like an idiot who just passed into empty space for no reason. Similarly you might leap towards the ball carrier in Queshball and suddenly have them vanish and re-appear on a completely different floor, which is very hard to recover from. I've had both of those happen to me and they are highly discouraging. We can only hope.

- We’re taking an in-depth look at our unranked PvP matchmaking system overall to see what kinds of improvements we can make to better ensure every match is a good one: Another very vague one, but here my guess is that they are looking into role-balancing, which currently isn't a thing in unranked at all. The goal would obviously be to avoid matches where one side has four healers and the other has none. While I've had some pretty memorable games with setups like that, I can't disagree that it would be better to have balance, though I dread the effect this might have on queue times for healers if there aren't enough or too many queuing for your respective faction. Then again, I suppose the increased cross-faction queuing is probably meant to address this.

- We’re also exploring giving unranked players more queue control over which Warzones and Arenas they want to play: While still somewhat vague, this one is a bit clearer and basically talking about a feature that people have been requesting since launch: to queue specifically for the warzone(s) they want or at least to be able to exclude one or two that they really hate. There is a reason this has been rejected for years, and that has been queue times (and risk of enforced monotony for those who queue for everything just because x people don't like Huttball for example). I'm not sure why it would be feasible now, even with cross-faction queuing, but I guess Keith intentionally used language that doesn't commit them to anything ("we're also exploring...").

- We’ll be focusing attention on exploiters, cheaters, and adjusting how Ranked Warzones complete: This one is straightforward and I'm glad to hear it, especially after I managed to go for years without running into any genuine hackers/cheaters but recently encountered one twice within the course of only a few months. People running through walls and forcefields or teleporting themselves inside a wall to AoE their opponents from an unreachable position suck.

- Finally, the Rishi stronghold as well as some changes to the way decorations work will be set up with an eye on supporting duelling tournaments and such. My first thought on reading this was "Are they actually implementing this just for Snave?" but I'm guessing there must be other people arranging events like these on occasion... I don't really see this being very relevant to me, but at least it's kind of original I guess? Or are there any other MMOs out there that encourage you to build custom PvP areas?

All in all, I agree that this road map is particularly thin on concrete information, but then the early summer months are traditionally the least busy season for MMOs so I can't claim to find this shocking or terribly disappointing. Also, while I'm not a huge PvPer, it is a part of the game that I quite enjoy (even if it's on a more casual basis), so I'm happy to see and test whatever changes they come up with.

17/05/2018

The Nathema Conspiracy - Mechanics

After players got confused by the way the one-time story mode was handled for Crisis on Umbara, and then got even more confused by yet another implementation of how to handle it for Traitor Among the Chiss, Nathema Conspiracy saw a return of the Umbara model where the one-time solo mode is baked into the story mission, and while you're on that you just can't enter any of the other difficulty modes: deal with it. I remain unconvinced that this is the best way to handle it, but it is what it is.


How's gameplay on Nathema otherwise? Quite pleasant really. Unlike another reviewer I was kind of surprised by how little trash there was. I won't go so far as to say there was too little, but it seemed to me like the space had originally been designed for more. It made me picture the designers initially coming up with a much denser and longer flashpoint, but after the negative feedback they received about the trash on Copero, they decided to just take 50-60% of their planned trash pulls out, leaving a lot of empty space behind. That's my theory anyway.

The mobs have a variety of abilities and at least on hardmode some of them have one hell of a knockback, which is amusing to watch as a healer to say the least. Another interesting mechanic on all difficulty modes is that some of the zealots seem to have a stupidly powerful heal over time - though I haven't actually seen a cast for it, which kind of takes out the fun of actually being able to do something about it, with the net result being that the mobs just take longer to kill. Likewise many of the other trash abilities, while they create all kinds of colourful geometric shapes on the floor, ultimately don't do enough to be truly disruptive and don't really give you the opportunity for intelligent counter-play. Maybe I was expecting too much - fun trash like in Kaon Under Siege or Lost Island has always been the exception rather than the rule. I guess I just can't help but note that the trash both on Copero and on Nathema comes very close to being interesting to deal with but then just misses the mark.

The boss fights are all pretty solid. The first fight is very simplistic, somewhat reminiscent of the Vrblther in Czerka Core Meltdown only without the adds, but that's fine. Since the consoles that you "pop" to increase your damage output on the boss are limited in number and don't respawn, you can strategise a bit when it comes to deciding when to use them.

The bonus boss encounter with the two Hands of Zildrog is a bit boring, as it's mostly a tank and spank with a few circles on the floor. I'm also still not sure if there's even any difference between the two bosses. At first I thought they cast different abilities, but then I swear I saw the second one start using the same abilities as the first one after the first one had died...

What's good is that like in Umbara and Copero, the bonus encounter is accessible without having to do a lengthy quest chain, so that each group can decide on the spot whether to do the fight or not. There is a bonus mission to find seven "Treasures of Valkorian" (which reveal that someone at Bioware doesn't know how to spell Valkorion's name), which is decent fun as the chests are all just hidden enough to make you look around a bit but don't require you to clear every inch of the flashpoint of trash, unlike on Copero. The odd thing is just that it literally rewards nothing: no CXP, no regular XP, no credits, not even a one-time codex entry. I can't decide whether that was an oversight or is a sign of Bioware kind of throwing in the towel on bonuses, thinking something along the lines of: "You know what, it doesn't seem to matter what sorts of rewards we put on bonuses, the majority will always want to skip them. Let's just add a few shiny things to click on for people who enjoy that kind of thing [such as me], but if they can't get their group members to go along with it, at least nobody misses out on any rewards."


Up next is the Giant Kitten Ancient Guardian Droid, who is an interesting amalgamation of a Kell dragon skeleton and a droid skin. His main mechanic is a spinning move that does AoE damage similar to Dread Master Styrak's pet in Scum and Villainy, however instead of hiding behind the tank you're supposed to hide behind some probes that you first have to damage but not kill. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I think it's cool to see them repurpose what was previously a raid-only mechanic for smaller group content, but on the other hand it's kind of unintuitive. In solo mode you can pretty much ignore the mechanic and just heal through it, but in veteran and up it suddenly kills you and you might not even know why. Also, "damage this but don't kill it" is a mechanic that's always hard to execute for pugs. Maybe the hiding part could have been implemented in a way that makes it more obvious what to do.


In the final room you have two boss fights: first Gemini 16, then Vinn Atrius and Zildrog together. I really liked that Gemini 16 splits into multiple copies in a way that's reminiscent of the Gemini Captain fight in KotFE chapter 15; it makes for a nice bit of consistency (even if it's quite a painful mechanic to deal with as a healer, as all the split adds will instantly aggro on you). She also does a powerful damage beam that you can just move out of on solo mode but need to line of sight on higher difficulties to avoid the damage - again something that might take some trial and error for pugs.

Fun fact: When I did the flashpoint on veteran mode for my pugging series, I said that I expected the last boss to be relatively easy... and then we wiped on him. I still think that nothing he does is inherently difficult to deal with, but he does stack a lot of mechanics on top of each other: circles to avoid, a knockback you have to be careful with in order not to fall to your death, a beam that connects two players who then have to stay close together or else they'll heal the boss, and adds that reduce everyone's hitpoints for the duration of the fight. My pug ended up healing the boss a lot due to not quite understanding the beam mechanic right away, but what actually did us in were the adds, which I had completely forgotten about since they hadn't been an issue for me on solo or hard mode. However, left to do their thing unimpeded on veteran mode, they ended up reducing our hitpoints so much that we were barely at 10% of our normal health by the end and a bog-standard attack could one-shot us. Fun times.

All in all, the Nathema Conspiracy backs a great story up with very solid mechanics, yet I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. I think above everything else I felt a bit let down by just how easy the flashpoint felt on master mode in particular when compared to Umbara and Copero. It's not that everything has to be super hard, but to have the climax of the story of all things be a relative cakewalk felt a little underwhelming to me.


It did make me muse about difficulty in general though and how I too am sometimes guilty of saying that I want one thing but then acting counter to my own words. I like the idea of really tough fights such as in hardmode Umbara, and I certainly feel highly accomplished whenever I beat them, but I don't exactly go out to repeat them often. The last time we got MM Umbara as a random, my guildies sighed a lot, and we didn't end up finishing because we just couldn't get a handle on the last boss's endless add waves (not to mention the countless wipes we had on the way). I've even heard people talk about taking gear off just to make sure they don't fulfil the minimum gear requirement and can safely queue for a random hardmode without getting one of the new flashpoints. And I can't claim that I've been actively seeking them out myself, or that I don't relate to the frustration experienced when every single boss causes multiple wipes even though we know the basic mechanics.

I guess what I'm saying is that a part of me wanted master mode Nathema Conspiracy to be harder... but at the same time there's a part of me that is glad that it isn't. I'm not sure how both of them could be satisfied at the same time.

12/05/2018

The Nathema Conspiracy - The Story

It took me a few days to gather my thoughts (and to find the time to actually write them down), but it's time to talk about what happens in the Nathema Conspiracy. If you can't guess: this means spoilers! You have been warned.

To recap what happened in the previous two installments of this story arc: Theron Shan suddenly betrayed the Outlander, claiming that you were just using the Alliance to do evil, regardless of what you'd actually been doing. After trying and failing to track him down on the Chiss world of Copero, you as the player learn that he seems to be posing as a double agent for an organisation called the Order of Zildrog, but his divided loyalties are not yet made clear to your character at this point.

The Nathema Conspiracy starts with you and Lana following a mysterious signal to an abandoned Imperial listening post, where your character finally learns the truth, as Theron has left you information about the Order there. You learn that it is led by a former Horizon Guard called Vinn Atrius, a handsome cyborg who comes off as surprisingly sympathetic compared to all the megalomaniacs that we've been fighting since KotFE, and who actually has relatable reasons for hating the Outlander.


From the holos left behind on the station you learn that he's been searching for and has now found Zildrog, who turns out to be as real as the rest of the Zakuulan pantheon, except that it he's a superweapon stored in a vault on Nathema instead of on Iokath. Working with Vinn are Gemini 16, a former Eternal Fleet unit who managed to escape re-enslavement by cutting herself off from her "sisters" and who now wants to see them dead to avoid ever being influenced by the Gemini network again, as well as a couple of other characters who have reasons to hate you and whose identity varies based on some of your previous story choices. For example redeeming Arcann makes you an enemy of a Nautolan from one of the worlds that Arcann bombarded previously and who's outraged that you just made him part of your Alliance without any kind of punishment (understandable). Yet if you killed him and Senya, one of Vinn's allies ends up being a former knight who was apparently very close to Senya and who's furious that you killed her (also understandable). Just goes to show again that there's no winning when it comes to some situations!

Theron's info also tells you to go to Nathema to prevent Vinn & Co. from unleashing Zildrog, which is corroborated by your Alliance specialists on Odessen, who have finally made sense of the star map you retrieved from Copero. (Wait, didn't that get blown up before we could lay our hands on it?) Time to return to Nathema to find out what's what!

You and Lana take a shuttle there and find the planet transformed after Valkorion's death, full of new growth and wildlife. On meeting Theron at the co-ordinates he provided, you don't get to kill him right away (even if you want to) as you need him to point you in the right direction to prevent Zildrog's release.


Eventually you reach the vault where Zildrog is stored, and sadly he turns out to be a boring computer terminal instead of a cool lobster dragon creature... thing like Izax. Wonder how he became a dragon in the Zakuulan legends? You also learn that Vinn's precious allies ended up being recruited for no other reason that to serve as fuel for the machine - too bad for them.

Initially held back by a force field, you can't do anything but watch as Zildrog powers up and it turns out that his actual "body" is the Gravestone, which he promptly flies up into orbit above Odessen to one-shot the entire Eternal Fleet. He then turns it towards Odessen but needs to recharge before being able to fire again, which results in the shield around you dropping and allows you to engage Gemini 16, Vinn and Zildrog. You manage to successfully destroy/capture all of them, however Theron gets stabbed in the back by Vinn and ends up mortally wounded. You get the option to save him by quickly returning him to Odessen or leaving the "traitor" to die.

Back on Odessen you wrap things up with Lana (and potentially Theron if he's still alive) and get to muse on what's going to come next now that your Alliance has effectively been robbed of what gave it most of its power. You also have to choose whether to throw in your lot with the Republic or the Empire going forward.


Even though that was still a fair number of words, it's actually a very bare-bones summary of the plot that leaves out a lot of lovingly inserted detail. For example I've read that if you romanced Lana or Theron, you get the option to marry them at the end (which I haven't seen yet as none of the characters that I've taken through the story so far were romantically involved with either of them). My Guardian, who romanced Arcann in his Alliance alert, got to share a tender moment with him, but even if you're not romantically involved he makes a brief appearance if he's still alive.

On Nathema you have a holo call with one of Vinn's allies who's actually different based on your base class. I've tried to avoid spoiling myself for all the different possibilities, but from what I've gathered this person can even be different for some classes based on decisions taken during the class story. The sad thing is that this went completely over my head during my first playthrough because for my trooper said character wasn't anyone I knew; they just made the briefest of references to something that had happened in my class story, so I thought that sentence was as far as the customisation went. In reality however the identity of the person themselves varies, and for some classes it's even someone you know. Considering that the ally in question ends up being one of the people that get turned into fuel for Zildrog, that's a considerable cast of characters who could now potentially be dead.

None of this changes the overall flow of the narrative, but it does add some much added distinction between characters for those of us with many alts and showcases a love for detail that has often been absent in more recent content releases, probably making this one of SWTOR's best story updates in a long time.


But what about the plot, you might say... Is it any good? Well, I already summarised it earlier in this post, so you'll be the judge, but most of the reactions that I've seen have been very positive, and I was actually kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed it myself. I could see people who were really in love with the role of Alliance Commander hating it, and of course if you were already super jaded with the game to begin with, it's unlikely that this update will change your mind. (Though I have seen some comments from players who felt that the Nathema Conspiracy served to invigorate their previously flagging interest in the game.)

Personally, I've been wanting to see the Alliance come to an end for a while, so I guess I was positively biased towards developments in this flashpoint that way, but this hasn't stopped me from being critical of poorly written story installments in the past (see Iokath as an example). The Nathema Conspiracy just handles things better in every possible way, largely because of the aforementioned love for detail but also because the plot just works much better in general.

Vinn Atrius and Gemini 16 make for interesting and convincing villains despite of having been complete unknowns beforehand, and I wasn't surprised at all to see people asking for an option to romance Vinn the very day the patch came out. There are also some interesting character moments for Lana and Theron. Personally I found it amusing that Lana serves as your foil regardless of which stance you take towards Theron - if you say that you trusted him all along she keeps telling you to be cautious, yet if you leave him to die she's actually taken aback and later confesses on Odessen that despite everything that's happened she's genuinely saddened by his death.


The way the dialogue and cut scenes are set up, they also manage to hit some very strong emotional notes. For example I was genuinely worried about Odessen getting blown up and was actually relieved when we managed to save the planet - not because of it being my base, but because it's a lovely planet and I didn't want any of the characters still stuck on it to die! And when I chose to leave Theron to die on my dark-sided Marauder, I actually felt a pang of regret despite of her having wanted to kill him for months. Honestly, if I had to pick one thing I didn't like it would probably be that everyone kept referring to Zildrog as "it", which seemed like an oddly detached way of talking about a well-known mythical being with a personality.

As far as major plot points go, the Emperor having yet another superweapon stored away in a vault somewhere seemed plausible enough based on what we know about him. While I've seen some people express unhappiness with Zildrog's dialogue claiming that it was him who wiped out the population of Nathema, I don't think it takes anything away from Vitiate/Valkorion to know that he used an actual weapon to kill everyone to achieve his original "ascension" instead of just doing it purely through the power of the Force.

I suppose the Gravestone turning out to be Zildrog's body is a bit convenient, especially as unlike with the Gods from the Machine there's no physical resemblance between the body and the image the Zakuulans have of the deity/mythological creature. The Dark Sanctuary also doesn't really feel like it was originally meant to be a "brain connector" or whatever we want to call it, but I guess it was a leftover mystery from KotFE that had never received a resolution, and resolving it like this felt appropriate enough.


After how lacklustre this story arc started out with Iokath and Crisis on Umbara, the Nathema Conspiracy really restored my faith in Bioware's storytelling and makes me genuinely curious about what they will come up with next. What were your thoughts on the story?

07/05/2018

Looking Good

When Crisis on Umbara came out, I thought that it was set in an interesting environment, what with the moving train and those weird tentacle things coming out of the ground. Traitor Among the Chiss raised the bar by taking us to the gorgeous Chiss world of Copero. I didn't think it could get any better than that, but the Nathema Conspiracy proved me wrong. That was quite a surprise too, considering Nathema's dreariness in KotET chapter seven.

The Force made it pretty again though. I swear most of my time during my first playthrough of the flashpoint was taken up by just looking around and taking screenshots. Here are a few of them:


I remember recently in my comment section Soots commented about how none of the new flashpoints are as fun and attractive as the classic ones, and another commenter replied - quite rightly so - that in a comparison of the visuals between False Emperor and Traitor Among The Chiss, the latter would come out as a clear winner. As much as it's fun to reminisce about the good old days sometimes, in terms of looks SWTOR's environments have only become prettier.

I think this will only add to people's already existing longing for another "proper" open-world planet to be added to the game again soon. The fleet is fine as a hub but sometimes you just want to treat your eyes to something nicer. And Iokath didn't really fit the bill for this due to its mechanical design.

Speaking of appearances, the patch also brought with it a new hairstyle. Please tell me I wasn't the only one who paused after seeing it for the first time and went to the Cartel Market to check if a new hair bundle had been released?! Bioware surprised everyone in a positive way however by simply adding the new hairstyle to the existing selection for free. It's a pretty good one as well, a nice variant of the classic short ponytail. I just fear that I might get sick of seeing it pretty quickly, what with seemingly everyone on my Twitter timeline rolling up new alts with the exact same hairstyle now!

04/05/2018

5.9 Patch Thoughts & Story Epiphanies

Yesterday was a very good patch day: new content and lots of small fixes of the best kind. Example:
I'm particularly pleased with the tweaks to the trash before Izax though. I do like the idea of the puzzle leading up to the boss, but we've wasted quite a bit of time on it in the past when - despite of understanding what we were meant to do - the "moving pieces" behaved in mysterious ways that prevented us from completing the puzzle. ("How can they not have line of sight? They're right next to each other!")

I was excited to see the mission "Introduction to Conquests" get fixed, as it's very rewarding for alts who complete a conquest for the first time, but it had been impossible to complete for the past few weeks because Bioware had forgotten to update the quest to make sure it actually got triggered by the new conquest system. I immediately had some alts to visit after patching up who had already been waiting to collect their bonus rewards.

And the introductory missions to Black Hole and Section X are back, yes! I never understood why these were removed in the first place, especially with 5.0 making the old daily areas relevant again.

And of course we got the new flashpoint... I will save my opinions on that for another post though. It did cause me to have an only vaguely related revelation in regards to my feelings about MMO lore and stories though. You see, I've often said that to me it's very important that the writers take their own world seriously, which is one of the things I really love about Bioware. And just as often others have countered with arguments like "The real world is already serious enough!" or "Humour is good!", which I didn't really know how to counter, though I didn't feel like these arguments really addressed the heart of the matter.

The newest installment of SWTOR's main story is very earnest and serious, with nothing to really laugh at. It succeeded in evoking all kinds of emotions in me while I played: excitement, curiosity, worry. And yet... I actually made some light-hearted moments for myself too. For example there was one point when it struck me just how lush the environment was, so I decided to go out of character for a minute, put on my trooper's beach outfit and lounged next to a waterfall for a silly screenshot.


At another point, I tried to knock some mobs to their deaths and managed to make one of them bounce off the wall in such a manner that his body came to lie on a narrow ledge... and it emitted a loot beam. In my guild I'm infamous for not wanting to leave any loot behind, so of course I took that attitude here too. First I fell to my death even trying to get to the mob, then I reached him successfully to loot but died afterwards because there was no real way to get back off the ledge without dying. It wasn't really worth it in monetary terms but it's always more about the principle of the thing for me anyway. Throughout the entire sequence I was providing running commentary for my actions to my pet tank and we both got a good laugh out of it. Then it was back to the story and serious business.


And this got me thinking: I'm not averse to making fun of things, but I prefer for it to be my choice. It's easy to take a step back, laugh at some particularity in an otherwise serious story, and then get back into it. But when the whole thing is a big joke from beginning to end, with everything being a parody of something or other and characters spouting movie quotes left and right - that may well be funny sometimes, but if the humour is not your cup of tea it can be hard to enjoy what's left despite of it. An overall serious story can easily include a couple of chuckles here and there, but something that doesn't take itself seriously to begin with will have a difficult time when it comes to getting people to genuinely care later on. At best it's likely to be a very jarring experience. So I do like me a good bit of humour and laughs, but I prefer worlds and stories that can be taken seriously and that the players are allowed to make fun of when it pleases them instead of the devs treating everything like a giant joke from the get-go.