13/11/2019

Teenage Mutant Ninja Kephesses

The new operation that came with Onslaught is SWTOR's first multi-boss raid to be released in full since late 2014. In the intervening years we got Gods from the Machine, which was released over the course of more or less a full year, one boss at a time. While I do like Gods, I think it did suffer somewhat from this piecemeal approach, at the very least in the narrative department, as no other operation is so confusing and confused in terms of what's actually going on beyond us taking out some big baddies one at a time.

With the Dxun operation - which does have a proper name, incidentally... I think it's Nature of Progress? However, nobody actually calls it that, and even the one-time story mission just tells you to "complete the Dxun operation". With the Dxun operation, Bioware's team shows us once again what they're capable of when they actually get to put a whole operation together in one go, and it's great.


They originally said that they were going for something similar to Ravagers, and I wrinkled my nose a bit since that's not one of my favourite operations, but I can see why they made that comparison. It also reminds me a bit of Scum and Villainy though, in the sense that there is a clear narrative progression from one boss to the next and you're not just entering some random lair full of monsters.

What really stands out though is how utterly hilarious it is. The basic story is that Czerka Interstellar - totally different from Czerka, honest - lost control of their research facility on Onderon's moon after an incursion by Trandoshans, and as usual this upsetting of the status quo has revealed that they've been up to all kinds of shenanigans.

During your journey to reclaim the facility you get constant running commentary from your "assistants" from Czerka, who are radioing you instructions about how to get past various obstacles, and their dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious. "The most important device in the entire facility routinely catches fire?!" became quote-worthy to me pretty much instantly. (It's over the top, but if you've ever worked in a certain kind of office, it may also sound scarily familiar...)


Now this is isn't entirely without issues, as I saw @DrSWTOR highlight on Twitter during PTS testing...
As I said in response to him then, I very much had an issue with this in Ravagers back in the day, where a big story twist happens in the middle of the final fight which I completely missed the first time around, leading to me being quite confused. I don't think it's as much of a problem in Dxun though, as the dialogue there consists more of jokes and tips about how to beat the fight, so if you miss some the first time around it's okay if you simply catch them next time (and the opportunity to catch jokes you missed before can in fact increase replayability).

The boss fights offer a nice variety of new mechanics compared to previous operations, without anything feeling completely strange and out of left field. For example the very first boss is somewhat reminiscent of the Enhanced Vrblther from Czerka Core Meltdown, in that you have to drag her around and pop little plants near her, though in Dxun their purpose is to reduce damage on you rather than to increase damage done to the boss. You also have a much larger area to move around in.


The second and third fight are gauntlet type encounters that force you to fight your way through a stream of unending adds, something that isn't exactly new and innovative for the genre but hasn't really been featured in SWTOR before.

The fourth fight was a source of much hilarity for my guild. We went into story mode completely blind, wanting to figure things out on the go. When we saw two mutant Trandoshans in colourful body armour standing in an underground lab, someone quipped that we only needed two more and we'd have our own set of ninja turtles, and what do you know, shortly after the pull two more of the reptiles joined in and it was a hoot. Even better was the actual lightbulb moment when we finally figured out what we were supposed to do to beat the fight. I managed to catch that one and the kill that followed on video.



It might not be as funny to others watching after the fact (maybe it was one of those things for which you just had to be there), but for us it was a right laugh. The end of the video also shows us running into a bit where the devs clearly decided to troll us raiders a little by making us climb a huge staircase that debuffed our characters with fatigue, causing us to go more and more slowly over time. We joked that on hardmode it would have holes and on nightmare they would be invisible (a reference to the infamous bridge on Darvannis).

There was one more encounter featuring some interesting mechanics and a little surprise that I won't spoil here for anyone who hasn't seen the fight. The final boss is the only thing I'm not so sure about, mostly because he took us more than ten minutes to kill even on story mode, which struck me as a little insane (then again, maybe we are still doing something wrong). It's also a slightly odd fight in that there is very little to do for most members of the ops group, except for the tank repositioning the boss every so often, and one guy having the unenviable task of running around the room activating various doodads at the right time to counter certain of the boss's abilities. I don't usually mind if a fight has a special job that you can give to one of your "star players" who then carries the rest of the group a bit, but in this case the contrast between what that one person has to do and what everyone else has to do is very stark, plus as I mentioned the fight just goes on a bit too long for my liking.


This does sort of segue into the aspects of the operation that are less good, of which I don't have many right now, but they are still worth mentioning:

First off, the new system of story mode lockouts resetting every day was a major pain in the butt during the first week as our blind approach meant that we weren't clearing the whole ops in a single night but had to start over from scratch every evening.

Also, the last boss launched with a bug that made him unkillable for anyone but a handful of world first teams as one of the doodads intended to counter his abilities wasn't working. That bug has since been fixed, but it was still annoying for the operation to launch in an unclearable state, even more so after we had (re-)cleared everything else three nights in a row just to get to the last boss... and then find him bugged.

Finally, effort vs. reward for doing the operation don't feel very well balanced right now. Each boss drops something like two pieces of gear, compared to the dozens you can get from a single flashpoint run, and I don't recall seeing a single set piece or tactical drop yet, despite of certain items being advertised as having a higher chance of dropping in this operation. I mean, we're still going to run it for the challenge and for fun, but it would be nice to get a little bit more reward out of it.

I'm also once again somewhat unsure about the difficulty tuning. Story mode is no Gods of the Machine for sure (thankfully!), but fights like the two gauntlet bosses still require an amount of co-ordination that I wouldn't expect to find in your average pug. This strikes me as a shame as it once again means that the content will remain inaccessible to many more casual players even on what's supposed to be the easiest difficulty, which is particularly sad considering what a fun operation this is.


Hardmode seems good fun as well so far, as after two nights we've beaten the first two encounters and made some progress on the third. This does feel more in line with the sort of hardmodes we used to get in the game's earlier operations rather than the "hardmare" that we've been treated to in more recent years (and which I personally tended to find rather off-putting).

Anyway, it's nice to see Bioware throw SWTOR's raiders a bone again, and such a tasty one at that. It's not a game about raiding, but for at least a percentage of us raiding is still one of our favourite pastimes between story updates and it's good to see ops players get some love again after the long and dry years of KotFE and early KotET.

10/11/2019

Musings on Onslaught's Story, Part 3: Corellia & Beyond

After either helping or sabotaging the Republic fleets on Onderon and Mek-Sha, it's time for the big battle for the Meridian Complex on Corellia. Once again, spoilers abound!

On both factions, the briefing before the battle includes a lot of exposition about ships and battle plans. I couldn't help but think that to the type of player who just wants to jump straight into the action to get up close and personal, this could be a bit boring, but personally I appreciated the call-backs to weaponry developed in previous storylines such as the Isotope-5 powered ships of the Empire, and just the general effort to convey that both sides have competent leadership with an actual plan. Also, your involvement in these briefings emphasises that though the Alliance may have lost a lot of its power, it and by extension you are still considered very important to the war.


However, since you are also known for being good at kicking arse in person, you get asked to assist the ground troops, which leads to you doing the new Objective Meridian flashpoint. I think the flashpoint will deserve a post of its own later on... for the purposes of this one, it's enough to know that you spend some time fighting either Republic defenders or Imperial invaders in the streets of Corellia, until you get into the Meridian Complex itself, where it comes down to either shutting down or protecting the installation's shields.

The first place where you expect to do this turns out to be have been rendered useless as controls have been rerouted to another level... by none other than Tharan Cedrax, yay! That leaves only one consular companion unaccounted for now. I'm really pleased that Bioware managed to weave his return into the main story here, and it fits well too. The encounter with him also features some pretty funny lines depending on your choices - I have to admit that I had to chuckle when I ordered him killed on my Marauder, and his last words "Holiday, I'm sorry" prompted Major Anri to go: "Holiday? What a weirdo." Also, my Sage looked hilariously put out when she recognised him.


On Imperial side you also get the option to flirt with Darth Malgus himself around this point! His response is a character-appropriate "ugh" before moving on. I just loved this.

Finally you have the big showdown between either you, Tau and Arn vs. Malgus or you and Malgus vs. Tau and some unnamed Republic soldiers/Jedi. These are both pretty well done and the fights quite interesting - though I swear the first time I did them they either bugged out in some way or I was completely zoned out because I came away thinking that they were really boring and the boss(es) had seemingly no interesting abilities.

Then I heard others talk about the fight and was confused when they mentioned all kinds of stuff happening of which I had absolutely no memory. The second time around I definitely noticed the actual mechanics too, so I have no idea what was going on there. (EDIT: On replaying the fight again last night, I think at least the first instance of me failing to notice any mechanics may have been simply due to the fact that if you have both Tau and Arn set to dps, they burn everything down very quickly, even Malgus.)

The one bit I found a bit wonky is what happens immediately after the fight, as your big feat of heroism basically consists of making a superhuman jump in a cut scene to get to the crucial console in time, which... didn't feel very heroic to me personally. Even worse, both your wounded opponent(s) and allies roll off the platform in the final moments and you just run off without as much as a: "Gosh, I hope he is/they are alright!" At least to me it didn't feel right for my character (any of them!) to have zero concern for the people that just fought by her side only two minutes ago.


On the plus side, everyone does definitely survive, and I do highlight this as a positive thing because I went into the final fight actively worrying about Malgus or Tau dying, which would have felt like a colossal waste to me considering how little time we've had with these characters so far. I didn't even want to have the option to kill either of them, not yet! So I'm glad to say that they lived to fight another day. Some enemies are just too much fun to have around for me to want to defeat them too quickly.

After securing victory for your faction in the final battle (from what I understand this is one place where you can't sabotage/betray anyone), you get a lot of honours bestowed on you. Regardless of your class, you get asked to integrate fully into the Empire or Republic or to make a conscious choice to maintain your independence. I thought that was actually an interesting question even for a loyalist, because while my trooper was instantly on board with simply serving the Republic again for example, my loyalist agent never liked being under the heel of Sith who had a 50-50 chance at best to be either competent or capricious. So while she's still definitely loyal to the Empire, it's because she cares about the people of the Empire. She definitely had no interest in going back to subjecting herself to the direct authority of the Dark Council again.

Then there are some neat rewards for you depending on your class: troopers get promoted to the rank of Colonel for example, while Jedi get offered a seat on Master Gnost-Dural's newly reinstated Jedi council. My warrior was basically offered her old job back (yes!) and I haven't played through the story on my inquisitor yet, but I heard that you get the option to go as far as to claim your old Dark Council seat back. All of this is simply awesome, period. I don't know how they are going to keep this much class specific detail straight if the story is going to stay generic, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth here.


Also worth noting is that Republic characters finally get to meet the new Supreme Chancellor Galena Rans, and she seems pleasant enough to deal with, which is nice. Republic leadership has not been painted in the best light for the last few years, and we really needed someone actually embodying the Republic's values at the helm again.

Anyway, you won and got your just rewards, time to roll the credits and do dailies, right? Not so fast!

For the first time in an expansion story, Bioware decided to not just wrap things up, but to also make it very clear where we'll be going next. (At the end of KotET Lana was worrying about trouble brewing ahead, but that was all very vague.) Back on the fleet, Tau or Anri introduce you to two people who want to meet you and who helped them out of the rubble after the battle: Kira and Lord Scourge! Finally! Now people can stop spamming each and every one of SWTOR's social media posts with "When's Kira coming back?", regardless of the post's actual subject...


Also, it turns out that Scourge was the mysterious Sith that attacked you on Mek-Sha, to test whether there was anything of Vitiate left in you. Also, it turns out that these two were the "mysterious observers" you could see in the distance from your base on Odessen just before the expansion. I remember someone on Twitter calling it (unfortunately I don't remember who it was) and me thinking that this was a weird theory, but they were completely right! Good on you, whoever you were!

For the Jedi knight, it's a great little reunion and involves some romance too: Kira is now open for some same-sex loving and Scourge can be romanced too! I was really hesitant about how to react to the latter on my knight because I wanted to romance him so badly back in the base game, but that was seven years ago at this point... since then my Guardian's gone through a lot of story and ended up with Arcann. I chose some of the flirt options anyway, just to see where they would go, and then pulled out at the last moment. I kind of thought there'd be an "I can't, there's somebody else" dialogue option or something, but since there wasn't, my knight basically just ended up saying that she thought it wasn't wise to rush into anything and that they'd talk about it again later. Cheeky minx likes to keep her options open!

Anyway, the big question with Kira and Scourge was always going to be why they hadn't shown up any earlier, considering everything you went through with Valkorion and that destroying the Emperor was literally Scourge's entire purpose in life. Surprisingly, they have a good excuse! They were busy destroying the Emperor's original body, which he had still stowed away somewhere as a sort of life insurance. (I did remember hearing/reading about that before at some point, so it didn't come out of left field for me.) Afterwards they were afflicted with some kind of disease caused by Vitiate's decaying body that knocked them out for more than a year until they were rescued by Master Satele and her new students, but then it afflicted them and they are currently stowed away on a distant transport ship, more or less comatose until someone comes to rescue them. Kira and Scourge want your help in saving them and destroying the Emperor's last legacy.


I thought it was a very interesting choice to finish on such a... not cliffhanger exactly, but obvious plot hook for the next story update, whenever that's going to come. I guess the folks at Bioware felt that making players feel too obviously "done" at the end of the story wasn't good for long term engagement. I can't say I minded though; the main story still feels like it wrapped up in a satisfying manner, and this is more of a tease of what's to come next. That said, I thought that going back to the old Emperor in any way, shape or form was the last thing I really wanted from the story, but Kira and Scourge kinda sold it to me. Of course, it also sounds very much like this next story update is then going to be the same for both factions again, which I'm less keen on, but I guess we'll see.

Bonus for Imperials only: They also get a scene that shows Darth Malgus strapped to a medical table while a doctor and a droid talk about what a nuisance it is to have to repair all those cybernetics again. The droid remarks that even the explosive device was damaged and needed taking out (forget subtlety, apparently Acina just decided to plant a bomb inside Malgus' body, dang), though the damage doesn't seem to have been caused by the debris under which he was buried... we have a brief moment of the doc going "oh noes" as he puts two and two together before we switch to a view of Malgus having set the lab on fire and demanding to be off with the medical droid. Exciting! So he's going to be on the loose as well now, another potential future plot thread. I guess we'll find out where he really stands on the subject of Republic vs. Empire when he isn't being kept on a leash by Acina or Vowrawn.


All in all, Onslaught's story has been very enjoyable to me, ramping up nicely after a bit of a weak start and finishing with an ending that once again has me excited about whatever's going to happen next. It has it all: class-specific dialogue options, companion returns, hanging out with entertaining NPCs - I couldn't really have asked for more!

08/11/2019

I Read The KOTOR Comics

Back in September I had the opportunity to attend Stockholm Comic Con, and while browsing one of the booths there I found Star Wars Legends Epic Collection: The Old Republic Volume 1 on a shelf. (And you thought that SWTOR written out in full was a mouthful!) "Neat," I thought, "that must be that SWTOR comic series I remember hearing about" and bought it.

I was wrong and apparently the SWTOR comics are a different thing, as the series collected in this volume actually takes place in the KOTOR era, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment. Also, it still has some relevance to the game as several Cartel Market outfits were inspired by ones worn by characters in the comic for example. So I'd look at certain images and go...


Hey, that's the chest piece my Sentinel is wearing!


Or: Hey, that's the set Cal's Sage used to wear!

That was kind of amusing.

The comic itself was also entertaining enough, and I liked it enough to buy the other two volumes from Amazon.

The story is set during the Revan era, and s/he even makes several appearances as a shadowy figure, with the comic leaving his/her identity unclear as it was still respecting the fact that every KOTOR player had their own unique Revan. We get the backstory of the mysterious mask of Revan too.

The main story was interesting enough on its own as well, though it had its ups and downs. There were parts that were very good, but others were fairly mediocre.

I quite liked the main character Zayne Carrick, a Jedi who has a slightly awkward and uncomfortable relationship with the Force and who slowly learns how to deal with it over the course of the series (while pursuing other objectives).

The secondary protagonist and main female character Jarael left me feeling a bit disappointed: While she started out strong, she quickly became way too passive, mainly serving as an object for other characters to obsess over, which struck me as quite a shame.

The art was a bit of a mixed bag - I'm neither an art critic nor a comics connoisseur but I honestly wasn't that impressed by a lot of it. The worst thing was that the artists and style often changed quite drastically from one arc to the next, from pretty realistic to highly cartoonish. The former sometimes struggled to deliver the more humorous moments appropriately, and the latter was mainly used in an arc that was clearly meant to be quite dark and serious, leading to a horrible clash between tone and imagery.

Still, overall I can recommend this series. The writing is about on par with some of the better Star Wars tie-in novels (of which the author has also written several), so definitely worthwhile if you're into that sort of thing.

06/11/2019

Musings on Onslaught's Story, Part 2: Mek-Sha

So after Onderon's plot felt a bit mediocre to me, I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about Mek-Sha, presumably totally unique smuggler haven #247 and not the sort of setting I tend to immediately fall in love with. (Spoilers to follow. You've been warned.)


In this case, I was very wrong though! Your task on Mek-Sha primarily concerns diplomacy, as the Republic wants to buy fuel for its fleet and needs the five biggest gangs on the asteroid to vote in favour of going through with the deal. As an Imperial, you want to sabotage actually want this deal to succeed as well, which was very surprising to me as a player, to my character, and to everyone she mentioned it to - which was in turn somewhat amusing to me. It's all in order to set up a trap for the fleet though.

All five "factions" were immediately interesting to me:

There is Huttbreaker, who is the one who's in charge above all others and the first female Nikto I recall seeing in game!


Then there is Junker Jott, who is responsible for all the tech on the station and a gruff but lovable Republic war veteran. My jaw dropped when I found out that he was also voiced by Darin De Paul (who is the voice of Valkorion, General Daeruun and others) because I absolutely did not recognise him in this role, which just goes to show once again how absolutely awesome he is at his job.

On Imperial side we have the mysterious Brothers, slavers dressed like ninjas who pursue their trade with an almost religious zeal as they believe that making their slaves do work is productive and wholesome, which I thought was an unusual and interesting angle to take for an organisation like that.

Though you do get to talk to all of these, the two linchpins of the mission end up being a Rodian crime lord called Veek the Sneek, and Indigo, leader of a group of Mandalorian outcasts, as you'll need one of their votes to sway the outcome in your faction's favour. Indigo in particular is written with some interesting detail as he reacts differently if you bring one of your Mandalorian companions with you (Shae, Torian, and supposedly Akaavi too).


There isn't really a lot of variety in how you can handle these two (I was really hoping you'd be able to cook up a bit of intrigue by going back and forth between Veek and Indigo - mainly I wanted to rat Veek out to Indigo so that he could get him kicked off the station without resorting to outright murder, but alas, no such luck) but after the bland cast I had dealt with on Onderon just talking to all these characters with colourful personalities felt like such a breath of fresh air; I loved it.

I also really appreciated that Gault and Hylo showed up to give you an introduction to the place - just another one of those small touches that just made so much sense. With such practised and experienced scoundrels in your Alliance, why wouldn't you naturally seek out their advice on a mission like this?

I would say the one major downside of the plot on Mek-Sha is that due to the nature of events, there is a lot of overlap between both factions, which somewhat lowers replayability. How many times do you really want to listen to Huttbreaker's speech? Or get attacked by a mysterious Sith assailant (who we'll come back to in part three of this series)?


There is some variety between Republic and Imperial experiences though, which does once again come down the small character interactions. Republic characters get to reunite with Commander Vice Admiral Narlock from the Esseles for example, while Imperials deal with Darths Shaar and Vowrawn (I assume it's just Shaar if Vowrawn is Emperor in your timeline).

Republic characters also have a little episode where Arn calls for help after freaking out at the Brothers and killing a lot of them. I keep finding this one a little odd as everyone around you reacts very much along the lines of: "Aww, the poor traumatised Jedi!" Yes, the people he killed were slavers, but it's still generally not considered a good thing for Jedi to go into a rage like that. I don't know if you can actually get him in trouble if you choose the disapproving/reprimanding dialogue options all the time. (I'm clearly too much of a softie.)

Imperials meanwhile get to steal some blueprints from Junker Jott while Major Anri and her squad dress up as Nova Blades to distract him, which is mildly amusing.


In the end you either protect or disable/destroy the Republic fleet... which does bring me to something else though:

All of my playthroughs so far have been on loyalist characters as I don't have anyone with a personality that I'd consider suitable for sabotage caught up to the most current content. I think I've said a few times that I really need to get someone up there, but I haven't actually made much progress with this plan.

I didn't think that this was too much of a big deal as everybody kept saying that the saboteur path didn't make that much of a difference on Ossus, beyond the sabotaged faction's leadership grumbling about not achieving some bonus objectives. Things seem to be different in Onslaught though.

I've kind of avoided outright spoilers for what happens to saboteurs so far, but I've heard several comments that there are actually significant differences this time around. The thing that really tipped me off though was that I got a letter in the mail on Imperial side which I clearly wasn't meant to get (yay bugs) and which had Darth Vowrawn talking about mission failure, which makes it sound to me like saboteurs can actually go so far this time around as to prevent your old faction from actually achieving its objective, which sounds pretty intriguing and cool. I really do need to get around to levelling that saboteur now...


Anyway, by the end of Mek-Sha I was fully immersed, having dealt with all kinds of fascinating people throughout, and was ready for the grand finale on Corellia.

04/11/2019

It's #IntPiPoMo, By The Way

November means that it's once again time for International Picture Posting Month, a cute little blogging event that encourages people to add images to their posts because a picture says more than a thousand words. You can read more about it here.


I've participated in #IntPiPoMo three years in a row and will happily join again this year... though I have to admit that this time around, I'd totally forgotten that it was coming up.

In previous years I made an effort to prepare for the event by curating a number of screenshots that I could use throughout the month, and then I would run my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots theme to make hitting my target easier.

Since I failed to make that preparation this year, I decided to go about it differently. After all, we did just have a new expansion and I took several hundred screenshots of it over the course of the first couple of days alone, so I figure I should be able to post at least fifty of them throughout the month in an organic way anyway. I mean, Saturday's post about the Onderon story already contained six of them, and you can bet that there's more where that came from!

Check out Chestnut's post about the event (linked above) to learn more and to find links to other blogs that are participating. Happy picture posting!

02/11/2019

Musings on Onslaught's Story, Part 1: Onderon

I had to think long and hard about how to tackle the subject of Onslaught's new story content. There's a lot to talk about here, but unlike the chapters of the last two expansions it's not as neatly divided into chunks. In the end I decided that I'm going to make a three-parter out of it, one part for each of the new planets and one for everything that comes after. Needless to say, this post will contain spoilers.

The basic setup of the expansion's plot is... well, why not simply let the opening crawl speak for itself? (Click to embiggen.)


The player character's job is to intervene on behalf of or against Republic reinforcements in two different locations, until you join the battle on Corellia itself.

The pivotal event on Onderon is the destruction of the local Republic fleet with hijacked planetary cannons - or to prevent this from happening. The two factions' stories don't take place at exactly the same time though.

The Imperial story has you landing on Onderon earlier, to assist resident Dark Council member Darth Savik with her plan to drive the king of Onderon into starting a civil war, which is supposed to serve as a distraction during which you will be able to hijack the aforementioned planetary cannons and destroy the fleet.


The Republic story on the other hand starts with this attack, which you immediately foil, followed by you spending some time figuring out what happened and hunting down the instigators.

I played the Republic story first and I'm wondering whether that didn't contribute to me initially feeling a bit underwhelmed by it. It's not entirely clear that the attack you're foiling at the beginning is the big assault, and hunting down a Dark Council member who just happens to be on the planet afterwards feels almost incidental.

It doesn't help that your main contact on the planet, Senator Nebet, doesn't have much personality. I actually feel a bit bad saying that - considering the sheer size of Onslaught's cast, it seems somewhat petty to complain about one character coming across as kind of bland - but it still meant that I wasn't very heavily invested in assisting her. It kind of reminded me of some of the weaker planetary story arcs of the base game, where you're more or less just running errands for some run-of-the-mill Republic official.


I thought the Imperial story felt a little better, as there was a clearer progression towards a defined climax, but to be honest Darth Savik didn't leave much of an impression on me either. She's just kind of... there, always telling you what needs doing next. It's funny because I remember being somewhat annoyed years ago by how pretty much every single Sith NPC in the game appeared to be clinically insane, and I found it hard to imagine that the Empire could retain any sort of stability under such a regime, but the "new" kind of Sith prospering under Acina's reign feel almost too nice and tame to me now.

Also, King Petryph's idiocy quickly goes from being amusing to just being annoying. I mean, you can kill him in the end, but until then you have to listen to him go on for quite a while.

What did elevate Onderon to above average for me in the end were the many interesting character interactions.

On Republic side, you get to see General Daeruun and Master Gnost-Dural again (I think he survived Ossus regardless of your choices?) and we get a new character called Arn who becomes Tau Idair's padawan. I can't say I was particularly enamoured with him, but he instigates some interesting bits of dialogue.


Also: Lana! I've been one of those people who got incredibly tired of having her shoved down our throats for the past four years or so, with the story insisting that she was our best friend whether we wanted it or not, but I will say that my appreciation for her has greatly increased again with her lines being cut down to more reasonable levels. Little snippets like seeing her discuss the Sith code with Master Gnost-Dural or adopting a scary Sith image to get a rise out of Tau and Arn were great.

On Republic side there was also an attempt to do something similar to what they did with Malora in Jedi Under Siege by re-using a minor character from the base game and fleshing them out big time: Darth Savik is apparently a named opponent in one of the Republic missions on Corellia, though she has no lines there, so basically no player will actually remember her. While it's still nice to see the game referencing older content like that, the lack of immediate recognition means that it's ultimately not as impactful as it was for Imperials with Malora.


Both factions also get Jakarro and C2-D4 back, whom you first met in Depths of Manaan and who then assisted you until the end of Shadow of Revan. This was an obvious opportunity as C2 previously mentioned having worked for the queen of Onderon. I wasn't actually too keen on seeing them return as I remember finding them kind of annoying in Shadow of Revan, but they actually seemed a lot funnier and less abrasive this time around, and so far I've been happy to welcome them into my Alliance on all of my characters.

On Imperial side you get to have an audience with the new Dark Council, which only yields minor insights but is still pretty cool and makes the Sith Empire seem significantly strengthened since the days of a lonely Acina welcoming you to her "throne room" on Dromund Kaas without much fanfare. I mostly took note of a certain Darth Xarion taking over the position of "Darth with a cool, mysterious mask speaking with a gravelly voice" previously held by Darth Marr. I'd keep an eye on that one.


In summary, I did like how Onslaught's story started off, but it was mostly because of the love for detail evidenced in many different character interactions. The main plot didn't really grab me right away as it felt a bit generic and the main NPCs you interact with didn't leave a strong impression on me the first time around.

30/10/2019

Onderon Jungle Fight

There is so much great stuff in Onslaught that I want to talk about, but today I have to get one not-so-great thing off my chest.

First off, they changed the way reputations work after seven years: Previously, gaining reputation meant that you were rewarded reputation tokens which you could then consume at your leisure, up to a weekly cap. This meant that if you binged hard on new content during the first week, you could technically save up enough tokens to later max out your reputation over the course of several weeks simply by using them up over time as they came off cooldown. Once you had achieved maximum reputation, you could then vendor any remaining and future tokens for a few extra credits.

In Onslaught, Bioware has effectively done away with this system, and tokens only exist as a technicality. You can see the token icon when you get a quest reward, but it's consumed/the reputation is awarded instantly, and if you're already at the weekly cap you simply don't get anything. I can't help but find this disappointing, as I struggle to see how players are supposed to benefit from this change. It just feels like a cynical move to get people to grind daily areas for longer.

I can't say I'm particularly thrilled to do this on Onderon in particular, because it's a rather odd daily area. It's no Iokath in terms of confusion and inconvenience factor, but for some reason the person who came up with most of the daily missions decided that making lots of quests with minimal instructions that require you to find small clicky things on the ground in a wild, overgrown jungle was a good idea. Needless to say, I don't agree.


This green circle on green grass is actually one of the more visible markers.

It does get a lot better once you know what you're looking for and roughly in what area, but the first time around the full round of dailies took me around two hours on each faction simply because I couldn't find things, and the instructions were lacking. "Plant listening devices in the jungle" - where exactly? On the trees, on the ground? Even with a general area marked on the map it took me a while to find the small circles among the bushes where I was supposed to place the things.

As another example, on Imperial side there was a quest that had me collecting armour and weapons from Republic forces in a specified area. I think I did around three laps of their camp, killing everything in sight, until the lack of drops drove me to look up what I was doing wrong and I found that I wasn't supposed to take these things from actual Republic troopers but had to find specific small clicky items lying on the ground (because I needed that one specific datapad, piece of armour etc., not just any old one apparently) - if they weren't bugged that is. The last one I could only pick up after switching instances twice.

Republic players are not so lucky of course, as the "final ship's log" they are supposed to pick up as part of another daily mission has been unclickable since launch and no amount of instance switching has seemed to help. Yesterday's patch was supposed to fix it according to the patch notes, but we've not seen any evidence of the actual fix so far, still having no luck with it even after completely dropping the quest and trying to start over.

The only reason I remain keen on doing the rounds on Onderon right now is that it gives me a good excuse and opportunity to gather some of the new biochem materials, which are required in absolutely stupendous amounts to craft anything at all (but that's a subject to tackle another day). I doubt that I'll be coming back to these dailies for sheer fun of it once I'm done with the reputation though.

27/10/2019

Reaping the Spoils of War

I'm a bit hesitant to pass judgement on a new gearing system after less than a week of dealing with it, mostly because I actually remember my first week of Galactic Command being decent fun too, even if my enjoyment dropped off rapidly after that. That "new feature glow" combined with the generally happy buzz surrounding the release of a new expansion probably does a good job of covering up many flaws in the beginning.

That said... I do feel confident in saying that Spoils of War already feels a lot less scary and confusing than I thought it was on the PTS.

Basically, the first step you have to take is to work on very straightforward vertical progression up to item rating 306, which is the current maximum. It feels safe to say that there's no reason to care about amplifiers at all before you get there, and if you happen to pick up any set bonus gear, just stow it away for later.

Almost everything seems to be personal loot now, and yours is based on your character's average item rating, so your number one priority is to ensure that this is always as high as possible, regardless of whether the stats on said gear are actually good for you. (I shamefully wore a pair of bracers with defense on them for a few hours because they were higher level than what I was wearing at the time and it helped to boost my average.)

Work in progress.

So if your current item rating is 272 for example, your personal loot drops will all be in a narrow range around that, say 268 to 274. By equipping every 274 piece that drops you slowly raise your average item rating, meaning that the range for potential loot also slowly climbs upwards, and so on and so forth, until you reach the cap.

Then you can start mixing and matching the max-level gear you actually want to keep and start including items with set bonuses. (As set bonuses are now bound to armour shells again, you can save the ones you got with lower item ratings and then just replace the modifications in them with higher level ones.)

At that point you can start building sets for different purposes, and also have a think about what sort of amplifiers you would like to have on them. (While it's a bit like playing slot machine, you can always re-roll the amplifiers on a given piece of gear, if you do want to bother.) Theoretically. I'm not actually up to that stage myself yet.

One thing that Spoils of War has in common with Galactic Command is that you're meant to be able to gear up from "playing your way", by taking part in pretty much any activity in the game. Just like with Galactic Command, this is technically true, but doesn't feel very well-balanced yet at this point.

The first couple of days, when all I was doing were dailies and the new operation on story mode, progress felt pretty slow, but ever since I was tipped off that master mode flashpoints were the place to be right now, things have sped up a lot.

Flashpoint bosses are such loot piñatas at the moment that we've already got used to having a mini break after each one to sort out what loot to equip and which of the many gear drops to disintegrate - after all, raising your item rating now might already result in the next boss dropping something better. I'm not at 306 yet, but getting there, and some of my guildies have already achieved that particular milestone.

It does feel a bit grindy even so, and if I had to go through this whole shebang on every single one of my alts I wouldn't find it very appealing... but the nice thing is that since all loot is legacy-bound now, you only have to go through the grind in its entirety once - after that you can send your full set of 306 to your alt and let them run around in it for a while so they'll instantly be able to collect their own set of 306 gear without having to grind their way through 40 levels of item rating first.

I can't say I mind master mode flashpoints being the current flavour of the month to do this, seeing how I've always enjoyed them, but I very much expect Bioware to still do some rebalancing to make some of the other activities a bit more rewarding, just like they had to do in the early days of Galactic Command.

24/10/2019

Early Onslaught Impressions (No Spoilers)

Whew, the first couple of days of the new expansion have been a bit of a whirlwind! So far I've played through the story once on Republic side (on my Commando) and once on Imperial side (on my Marauder), did the new Republic dailies once, killed the first few bosses of the new operation on story mode, and spent a couple of hours sifting through several hundred screenshots that I took during my story playthroughs.

To quickly sum up my first impressions of the story in a spoiler-free manner: It didn't grab me quite as much as Jedi Under Siege did, but I freaking loved Ossus, so that was an incredibly high bar to clear. That said, if you asked me to rate Onslaught in comparison to all the previous story expansions so far, I'd say it's the best one we've had to date.


I honestly felt a little lukewarm about the start on Onderon - the planet is smaller than I had hoped (definitely no Yavin or Ossus) and the story beats didn't quite resonate with me - but by Mek-Sha I was warming up to it. The hollowed-out asteroid was kind of the opposite of Onderon in terms of my expectations, as I thought it was going to be small and I've traditionally not been super fond of what you could call underworld environments. But then it ended up feeling much bigger than I anticipated (I can't tell you how it compares in terms of actual square mileage, but all the traversing between platforms and in three dimensions certainly made it feel bigger) and the story developments made me go: "Yeah! That's what I'm here for!"

The thing with having played a game like this for several years is that you can't quite appreciate some things the way a new player can, as you just can't feel the same sense of awe and wonder at the sight of new things (as everything new is usually at least similar to something you've seen before). However, being a veteran of many years does give you an eye for certain details and nuances that the uninitiated won't notice and that you can only recognise with years of experience.

With that said, I could tell that a lot of love has gone into the Onslaught story. (If anyone from Bioware is reading this: thanks, guys and gals!) There are so many little moments that make you smile, chuckle, or just go "o-ho!" as they reference past events, and the cast of characters - both new and returning - is huge.

I've always felt that SWTOR's two biggest strengths in terms of story are the personalised class story that makes the player feel invested in the game, and the huge cast of supporting characters - all with their own backgrounds, interests and influences - that can push the story into fascinating new directions at any moment. That is also what made KotFE and KotET fall flat for so many people: that our characters seemingly forgot about everything that had come before, including loved ones and spouses, and that we were supposed to care about nothing but Valkorion's family and the Eternal Empire now, just us vs. them. (Now that I think about it, the Alliance vs. Zakuul story was actually a more simplistic black and white version of the galaxy than Republic vs. Empire has ever been in SWTOR.)

Onslaught is chock-full of callbacks to our characters' pasts (where appropriate) and the amount of old non-player characters that have been pulled back into service (again, absolutely appropriately) is staggering. As a long-time player, that just feels so good. As a non-spoilery example, at one point my Marauder was asked to see the Dark Council and quipped in response (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "Are you sure they really want to see me? Last time I did that, I ended up killing one of them." That's no line for an Outlander or generic Commander, that's pure Sith warrior right there.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about how MMOs are actually kind of similar to long-running book series: the audiences for both love to immerse themselves in a huge world that seems to go on forever, happily memorising countless numbers of different events, protagonists and their motivations. The Onslaught story fully caters to that invested long-term audience that will welcome every reference and in-joke enthusiastically. I don't think that necessarily makes it unenjoyable for more casual players, but let's just say that if you only play a single character for example you'll be missing a lot of Onslaught's more subtle context.

Anyway, my "quick" story summary turned into seven paragraphs - what else is there to say so far? Unfortunately in terms of questing as a group, Onslaught has been a bit of a step back from Ossus again, and I'm not sure why. On Ossus they had this weird system going that allowed you to go into the same phase, have the conversation parts be personal to you and then do any fighting as a team while progressing the story simultaneously. This time we're back to regular old personal phases everywhere, and for me and Mr Commando they even bugged out a couple of times, with one of us finding themselves forced into spectator mode in the other one's phase and being unable to create their own phase without first leaving the group. At this point I feel a bit like I'm the last person left on earth who cares about levelling and questing in SWTOR as a group, but I'll just keep banging that drum anyway.

In general there are a fair number of bugs again. No show-stoppers so far - as far as I'm aware - but what I'd call the usual array of minor annoyances, such as crafting nodes spawning in the ground, creatures and droids whose bodies should be salvageable not being flagged as such, the Mek-Sha world boss giving neither achievement credit nor any loot, and one of the daily quests on Republic side that requires you to pick up items from the ground being almost impossible to complete. There's a definitive pattern to these bugs, and from the way Bioware designs their weeklies and such it's almost as if they expect at least one quest to be broken at this point (since they never ask you to complete absolutely everything to get the main reward). I do wish it didn't have to be like that, but I also understand that bug fixes for anything that isn't a major feature get treated as low priority from a business point of view all too easily.

My dislike for the new item tooltips and item modification UI from the PTS has made it to live too. I also noticed that you don't need to hit "apply" when swapping mods around anymore as it commits them automatically! I'll have to be extra careful now, because I'm totally the kind of person who used to accidentally overwrite better mods with worse ones until I noticed just in time to avoid hitting apply...

I'm also hopelessly confused by the new colour codings for armour. Maybe one of my readers can enlighten me? Basically "orange" as a colour for moddable items seems to be gone, so now items of any colour can exist in moddable and unmoddable versions. I'm totally lost what decides the colour of the shell though, as my old oranges have sometimes turned blue and sometimes gold. Why? Who knows! Makes it much harder to not accidentally vendor stuff you want to keep in my opinion, as you now have to double-check even every bloody green...

The one thing I really like is the new legacy-wide materials tab, which freed up something like three of my legacy cargo bays (though I'm sure I'll find something else to fill them up with soon enough). Again, there are just some minor issues with it that I wish they'd fix, such as it not remembering whether you closed any of the sub-categories and simply defaulting to having all of them fully expanded whenever it refreshes.

I also really dislike not getting any feedback when I gather now: The way it used to be (and still is when you gather a slicing node for example) is that you'd get a small notification on screen and in your event log of what you just picked up. Stuff going straight into the materials tab doesn't make a peep though, so I had no idea what I was harvesting on Onderon all day until I sat down at the end of the evening and checked which of the biochem mats in my materials storage I only had in small numbers (and which were therefore bound to be the new ones).

Finally, let me finish with a couple of random, non-spoilery screenshots:


I suffered my first death of the expansion from sheer stupidity: coming to the edge of a waterfall on Onderon I went "whee" and leapt right off the edge... to my death of course. (The screenshot shows Mr Commando reviving me after the fact.) That's what I get for having got excited about diving underwater in WoW Classic in the past month - letting my subconscious forget that in SWTOR every body of water is but a knee-deep puddle.


One previously unannounced feature of Onslaught: exciting new ladder-climbing gameplay! Unfortunately the reception hasn't been too great so far: mostly I see confused Republic players complain about being unable to reach that one spot in their story mission where they're supposed to climb a ladder because they don't seem to realise that this is what they're supposed to be doing. On Imp side I found a ladder to climb a roof in the open world but I tried to use it three times and every time my character got to the top and the getting-off-the-ladder animation played, she fell straight down to the ground. Baby steps...


One of the more amusing bugs to me was that in my Marauder's version of the story, Theron Shan is dead, but this didn't prevent him from making an appearance as an invisible ghost to talk about... partying?

22/10/2019

It's Onslaught Time!

Tomorrow today SWTOR's long-awaited new expansion Onslaught launches at last! There hasn't been much hype about it compared to the previous two, but the other day it was actually advertised on the official Star Wars Twitter account - which is always enough to make us long-time players feel faint with shock - so maybe word about its release is finally getting around at last.

I left my final bits of expansion preparation until way too late... mostly because I forgot that spending certain currencies and then vendoring what you bought involved waiting out bind timers that don't progress unless you're actually logged in.

In other words, I realised that I had a crap ton of Command Tokens left over, and that allowing them to simply convert to credits at the default rate was going to leave a huge amount of money on the table.

The official conversion rate is going to be five credits per token, so if you have 50k of them saved up across your alts, you'll get 250k credits for them.

Alternatively, you could spend those same 50k tokens on buying 1,020 belts at a price of 49 tokens each and then vendor all those belts for 15,325 credits a piece instead... resulting in a total gain of more than 15 and a half million credits instead.

I'm not exactly short on money in game, but that just seemed way too wasteful, so I've been spending the last couple of days logging into and out of characters to claim tokens, buy belts, chuck them into a cargo hold and then wait two hours until the timer had run out so that I could vendor them.

Riveting gameplay, I tell you, but it's not like it's hard to just leave the game running in the background and move my character every so often while doing something else in the meantime... such as writing this blog post.


Live from my Dromund Kaas stronghold

Aside from crazy belt trading schemes, I haven't really made any further preparations - I remember when I would load up my quest log with completed dailies the night before expansion release to get a head start on levelling, but those days are fortunately long past... I don't think I've had trouble making it to the level cap since Shadow of Revan.

I also actually took two days off work again - thanks, Bioware, for always launching expansions during a time of year when I usually have a few days of leftover holiday to burn anyway. Expect my posting frequency to increase again over the next couple of weeks, as I'll be talking about everything from the new story to the new systems as usual!