27/02/2014

A Guide to Ancient Hypergates

So I usually don't write guides, but I've been doing more PvP again lately, and it seems to me that Ancient Hypergates is the one warzone where people most consistently do things that are detrimental to our team's chances of success, simply because they don't seem to understand how certain things work. To be fair, it is probably the most complicated warzone currently in the game, but still... I thought that instead of complaining about it, I'd try to add another resource to help people understand this particular part of the game.

The Basics


Ancient Hypergates is a warzone based around scoring points for your team to win. You'll see your current score to the right of the scoreboard, in green; your enemy's score is displayed in red. The first team to reach 600 points wins. If both teams surpass 600 at the same time, the team with the higher score wins.

How do I score points?

First you need to capture one of the two pylons on the side of the map. Capping is a six-second cast that gets interrupted by damage. Owning the pylon just by itself gives you a couple of base points, but they are not really the reason you want to go there. The reason you need a pylon is that you cannot score any points from other sources without owning one. This is important. Doesn't matter if you're totally owning everyone in the middle, without a pylon it counts for absolutely nothing.

In the room in the middle of the map, there are four cubes with glowy Gree energy orbs floating around them. Picking them up has a long cast-time and can once again get interrupted by damage. Once you've picked up an orb, you gain it as a buff. Carrying it to the pylon (by simply running over it) instantly scores your team two points, times the multiplier displayed on the side of the scoreboard. It starts at "x3" and goes up after every pylon discharge, to "x5", "x6" etc. So carrying an orb to the pylon in the first round for example nets your team six (2x3) points.

The second way of scoring points for your team is by killing enemy players. They only net you one point per player however (again, times the multiplier, plus you get extra points if the player was carrying an orb) and they don't actually get added to your score right away. They get added to the team's potential score, which is the smaller number above and below the scoring bar. Potential score gets converted into actual score when the timer at the top of the score board reaches zero. At that point the pylons discharge energy in a big yellow explosion and pylon ownership gets reset. Getting hit by the explosion also has the side effect of killing you, unless you make it to the middle of the map in time, where it's safe. (Well, relatively speaking. There'll probably be enemy players there.)

It's worth noting that you accumulate potential points even before you've captured a pylon and your potential score actually becomes visible. So even if you don't capture a pylon until mere seconds before its discharge, you'll still get credit for all your kills during that round from before you owned the pylon. Because of this, there is no point in trying to "delay" an enemy cap if you can't actually stop it - they'll still get points for everything they did before the cap.

Ok, so what does this mean in practice?

Since protecting your pylon is so important, your first instinct might be to focus on that. However, if your whole team just sits on top of the pylon, that leaves your enemy free to collect all the orbs in the middle and they will out-score you. So fighting in the middle is required.

Generally it's enough to leave one person to guard the pylon against stealth caps (assuming they will call for help if needed) and have the rest of the team fight in the middle, trying to kill as many enemies as possible and gather orbs.

Many Ancient Hypergates games do in fact simply play out like this: both teams guard their pylon and fight in the middle, and the team that gets more kills eventually wins. (Typically the team that gets more kills also gets most of the orbs, assuming anyone gets to pick them up at all in the middle of combat, which isn't easy.)

Now, there is one way for the "inferior" team in this scenario to turn the game around: by preventing the enemy from capping a pylon, so they can't score any points regardless of how many kills they get, or even better, by capturing both pylons for their own team - which doubles their own score. This can be very easy if the enemy team is neglecting their pylon defense, or very hard if they aren't.

When and how to go for the enemy pylon

I often see people go for the enemy pylon as soon as the game starts. This is a little foolish as you don't know your team's strength yet - you might have a strong group that can easily win by fighting in the middle, and by immediately going for the enemy pylon and splitting your forces you're just making things harder for your side. Going on your own you're also more likely to die and feed the enemy points. Even if you succeed, double-capping during the first round gives a much smaller return than during later rounds, and by going for the enemy pylon right away, you're immediately alerting the other team to your aspirations, meaning they'll be more likely to be on guard during later rounds when you could actually gain more from double-capping. The only advantage of double-capping in the first round is that it's seriously demotivating for the enemy team to have zero points after the first pylon discharge and you might get some of them to rage-quit.

Generally speaking, the first round is better spent sending as many people as possible to the middle and testing your strength there. Only if you're significantly falling behind should you consider going for the enemy pylon.

Once it becomes apparent that you'll need a second pylon to win because the enemy team is out-killing you, there are two approaches to getting it: stealth or brute force. Stealth obviously only works if your team has a stealther. If the enemy pylon is only guarded by a single person and that person isn't another stealther or a Vanguard/Powertech with shoulder cannon up (an ability which allows them to interrupt your capping even if you successfully crowd-control them), stealth-capping is actually very easy. Most crowd control methods last for eight seconds, while capping a pylon only takes six, meaning that you can pretty much walk up to the guard, apply the CC and cap (assuming their CC breaker isn't up, or you play a class with more than one long CC). Timing is important however. Stealth-capping early will usually just result in the enemy reinforcing the pylon and taking it back, since you're unlikely to get reinforcements of your own in time. Ideally you want to wait until shortly before the discharge to go through with your stealth cap, to make sure your opponents don't have time to respond.

Brute force means that you simply walk up to the pylon guard and kill them. This can work if you can do so quickly, before the enemy has time to react and send reinforcements. Approaching in a non-stealthy manner will be very obvious however, especially if there's more than one of you. And once you get into an all-out brawl with multiple defenders, chances of a cap shrink very quickly. (Especially if they were already out-killing you in the middle before.)

Guarding your pylon

Now all the above advice obviously applies in reverse when it comes to guarding your own pylon. You'll want to have one person guarding at all times, though it doesn't have to be the same one all the time. If people get a chance to deliver energy orbs, that's usually a good opportunity for a swap between the current guard and a carrier, to avoid anyone getting bored. Remember to stay near the pylon until six seconds before the discharge - until then, a stealther could still pop out of nowhere and make the six second cap.

As per what I wrote above, a stealther or a Vanguard/Powertech are best suited for the job of guarding, though any class can do it really. One thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a Vanguard, you should avoid standing right on top of the pylon. I see a lot of people making this mistake and then lose the pylon before they can call for help. The reason it's a mistake is that it means that a single stealther can CC you and immediately start capping. If you stay at a distance, they have to move after applying the CC and it might wear off before they can complete the cap so you can then interrupt them from range. (This is something that applies in Alderaan Civil War as well by the way.)

Be ready to reinforce your pylon guard if you're winning on kills and getting the orbs, as that means that the enemy team's only way of winning will be to cap your pylon and they'll know it.

While it's demotivating, don't panic if you lose your pylon on the first round, it's usually still possible to make a comeback from that as the score multiplier is comparatively low.

On energy orbs

You may have noticed that I talked a lot about killing enemy players and about capturing pylons, but said little about the Gree energy orbs. Why is that?

Well, sadly they are pretty irrelevant in most games. Players still carry them to the pylon in order to gain medals, but as a general rule, they rarely make a difference. As they only spawn in the middle and usually that's where most of the fighting happens, whoever wins there tends to get the points for orb carrying purely as a bonus more than anything. If it's a stalemate in the middle, then the fighting is usually fierce enough and with AoEs flying every which way, that there's no way for either team to finish an orb-gathering cast.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't care about them at all: for example it's pretty much always worth sparing an attack to interrupt an enemy who's trying to grab an orb if you can. If they do successfully manage to carry the orb off, it's after all worth as much as two kills. And there are rare circumstances when the points from a few orbs can make the difference, when the score is really close to a tie. Having a couple of people pull the enemy away from the middle and sacrifice themselves in the process (for example by feigning an attack on the enemy pylon) can still result in a net gain if your team then actually manages to grab and deliver all the orbs.

In case you ever wondered, without a speed boost and assuming you don't get slowed, carrying an orb from the middle to the pylon takes about twenty-five seconds once you've gathered it up. If the countdown's already lower than that, there's no real point in picking one up, unless you want to get some points for yourself towards an attacker medal (but only if there's really nothing else to do at that particular moment).

As an aside, since orbs are the only way to add points to your score instantly, carrying an orb to the pylon just to push your team over the 600 point threshold is the only way of winning the game between pylon detonations.

In summary

More than any other warzone, Ancient Hypergates is about understanding the balance of power between you and your enemy and reacting accordingly. If you can win on kills, just guard your pylon and enjoy your team's awesomeness. If you fall behind on points, planning an attack on the enemy pylon is usually the way to go, but think before you attack and don't just charge in randomly.

Random tidbits

While it's fun to push people into the pylon detonation to kill them, it's worth noting that this doesn't actually generate any points towards your team's score. In fact, if you're about to be killed by an enemy anyway, "suiciding" in the pylon detonation is often a preferable alternative. (Back when ranked warzones were a thing and I dabbled in them, Hypergates frequently had whole teams suiciding that way.) You'll spawn with full health and resources, and the force field around the spawning area will always be down at that point, so you can jump out right away and get back into the fray. Just make sure to wait for the detonation to finish, or you'll jump right into it and immediately die again.

There is a second "safe" area under the spawning platforms for both teams, which also contains a speed boost that allows you to rush out to cap a pylon quite quickly if you wait out a detonation under there. The only problem is that these rooms close off as soon as the timer reaches zero, so you would have to plan ahead a bit to get in there in time.

21/02/2014

What would you like to see in the next story expansion?

I don't know about you, but the thing that excited me the most about the 2014 Producer's Road Map was the mention of another digital expansion "closely resembling Rise of the Hutt Cartel". While story content doesn't provide me with entertainment for as many hours as say, a new operation, it's still very near and dear to my heart. It's what makes SWTOR stand out from other MMOs, and while I'm glad that other activities exist in game, they are not the main feature.

This got me thinking about what I would like to see in another story expansion, even if it's most likely still quite far off at this point. Which aspects of Rise of the Hutt Cartel would I like to see copied in future releases and which ones would I prefer to see changed?

I'm undecided about another level cap increase. I do think there is a case to be made for continually increasing the level cap as more story content is added, especially in a story-heavy game like SWTOR. Accumulating too much content at the level cap leads to bad story flow in the long run. I've been dabbling in World of Warcraft a bit lately and it's very apparent in that game, considering that it's had four level cap increases under its belt now, always with two-year breaks in-between. The result is that every time you hit one of the old level caps while levelling - previously a point where content accumulated for two years - you suddenly end up abandoning the current storyline halfway through and skipping a huge chunk of content as you advance. The current level cap in WoW also has four patches worth of additions to play through already, and without doing any out-of-game research it's not necessarily apparent what order they are meant to be done in. In terms of story, it's a convoluted mess. Now, you could argue that the number of people that play WoW for the story are only a small minority and you'd probably be right. The Old Republic is a different beast however. So far at level 55, we've battled our way through a Czerka facility and fought the Dread Masters on Oricon. Add a new story planet, and that's a good amount of content to take a levelling player to a new level cap of sixty for example, without running out of things to do or outlevelling the content too quickly. I think from that point of view, adding another five levels would be a good idea.

On the other hand, Rise of the Hutt Cartel has shown us that a level cap increase also results in a considerable amount of upheaval. There are talent tree adjustments to think about, and you suddenly lose a lot of your endgame, risking that players will be bored at the new level cap. Do we really want to go through that again so soon? From this angle, I'm leaning towards no. Don't get me wrong, I actually think that Bioware did a bang-up job with the way they handled the increase from fifty to 55. Classes gained new abilities and talents were changed, but it wasn't a matter of completely relearning how to play. They struck a good balance between making things feel fresh and preserving the familiar. And while the available content at 55 did feel a little thin for the first few months after 2.0, this was alleviated by the fact that the old level fifty flashpoints and operations continued to offer worthwhile rewards for some time and that Bioware embraced that fact instead of forcing the content into complete obsolescence, by supporting it with measures such as handing out Ultimate commendations for doing the classic ops weekly.

So as far as a level cap increase goes, I could see it going either way without me being terribly upset or super excited, as I see both pros and cons.

What about the new story content itself? Should it be like Makeb?

Shortly after RotHC came out, I praised Makeb for being pretty and said that I was looking forward to it becoming a new endgame planet. I was also very happy with the story, even if it wasn't class-specific.

Fast-forward ten months and my opinions have changed a little. I still think that the story was nice, but I have to admit that replayability really suffered from how generic it was. I really believed the devs when they said that it would still feel tailored to different characters' roles and personalities, but... it didn't really. As a result only four of my currently nine level 55 characters have actually completed the Makeb story arc; I just couldn't get myself to repeat the exact same content in such quick succession when I levelled up all my alts. This wouldn't be an issue if the game didn't treat Makeb as chapter four of my class story, always taunting me with that incomplete class story message on the loading screen every time I log onto a character that hasn't done it. So for another RotHC-like expansion, I'd wish for them to treat the new story arc as what it is, a new overall story arc, not my personal character's story. I know it's a small thing, but it really bugged me about Makeb.

Also, my ideas about Makeb becoming a bustling centre of endgame activity turned out to be completely and utterly wrong. Once you had completed the planetary story, there were basically only two reasons to go back: dailies and Toborro's courtyard. I think I've done Makeb dailies all of two or three times, because they are ridiculously spread out. I don't really know of anyone else who does them regularly either. Who wants to constantly fly from one mesa to the next just to do a single daily on each? Pretty much any other daily hub is a better choice. And Toborro's Courtyard? Sadly, it contained one of Bioware's less engaging operations fights, which always felt like too much hassle for too little reward. I haven't been to Makeb in months. So much for the new endgame planet.

My wish for whatever planet they send us to in the next expansion would therefore be that they give us more reasons to go back there and enjoy the scenery even after we've done the planetary storyline. If there are dailies, don't spread them out to the point where they are not at all worth doing. If there's an operations boss, don't make the fight so tedious that it's not fun. Maybe even give us reason to roam the planet's surface on other occasions. They've done a great job keeping various lower-level planets relevant during events such as Bounty Contract Week and for max-level quest chains like the Seeker Droid one. Yet Makeb just kind of sits there and has little purpose after you've played through the main story. That's one thing I'd like to see them do differently in a new expansion.

What would you like to see them do in the next story expansion if you could have it your way? (And don't say "add new class stories", because that goes without saying and we all know that it's not going to happen.)

19/02/2014

On Explosive Conflict Trash

Last night we went back into Explosive Conflict once again, for a social 8-person hardmode run and to show some new members the ropes a bit. It had been a while since our last visit: the last time I wrote about it here on the blog was at the end of August of last year when I finally got to clear nightmare mode, and while it's possible that I went back again after that, it can't have been more than once or twice.

I think most of us have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Denova. In many ways it's still a great operation, though I appreciate that Bioware has learned since then how to make fights interesting without necessarily including as many mechanics that punish the whole group if one person makes a mistake (wiping due to someone destroying a shield generator on Firebrand and Stormcaller comes to mind). However, it was current content for pretty much a whole year, what with nightmare mode keeping it relevant until the release of Rise of the Hutt Cartel, and I think by that point most of us had simply had enough of it. As a result going back in there always evokes a contradictory mix of feelings, both nostalgia and "oh no, not this again" at the same time.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing about this is that we were very surprised to find that Bioware had made changes to the trash again since the last time we visited. We knew that the last pull before Zorn and Toth disappeared ages ago - though I'm still not sure why, presumably the fact that it evaded so easily if anyone didn't jump down from the ledge quickly enough caused some issues? However, a lot more had changed this time around. I accidentally pulled the first group of mobs when I tried to climb up the cliffside our "usual" way and was taken by surprise by the fact that the trandoshans had been moved to make this impossible.

On the road to Firebrand and Stormcaller we found that the "sneaky" way along the side had been blocked off by a drouk having been repositioned to sit right next to the wall. On the other hand the trash pull in the water that people always used to circumvent had simply disappeared completely.


Once upon a time... we were new to EC and didn't skip the trash pull in the water. RIP now, water trash group.

The first trash pull after the two tanks was also gone, as was one of the groups in the trenches, and another one had been spread out more so that it became impossible to skip. One of the big groups before Kephess also appeared to have been moved out of the way.

On the one hand I was kind of impressed that Bioware still makes changes to older content, on the other hand I didn't really understand why. There was a theme of making changes to skippable trash there, either by removing it as redundant or making it unskippable, though there were a few pulls among the changed ones where I wasn't aware of them having been skippable before. Maybe they were and I've just never been in a group that knew how to do it. Either way I'm not sure why this mattered enough to anyone at Bioware at this point to mess with it. I don't really mind, I just find it strange. This isn't even endgame anymore, just levelling content, and fairly unrewarding in terms of money to boot. You only really go in there if you want to see the content. Why does it matter is you bypass a trash pull or two? I'd really love to know the reasoning behind this.

16/02/2014

Some Podcast Recommendations

Back in 2012, I wrote a couple of posts about SWTOR podcasts I was listening to at the time. Most of them died shortly after I reviewed them, which made me feel both sad and like a bit of a jinx. I didn't listen to many podcasts for the better part of a year after that, though mostly for unrelated reasons. Recently however I've been poking my head into that part of the community again and have made some pleasant discoveries.

OotiniCast

This is one of those SWTOR podcasts that have seemingly been around forever, but for some reason never really came to my attention until recently. I suspect it's because I only had so much time to dedicate to listening to podcasts, and in terms of publicity OotiniCast was always overshadowed by the shows attached to big websites, like Darth Hater or TORWars. Now the tables have turned, and while Darth Hater at least is no more, the folks from OotiniCast are still around.

I would describe OotiniCast as a pretty "traditional" MMO podcast, with a group of three hosts starting off by discussing what they did in the past week and then going through a number of prepared segments. It may not be the most original thing in the world, but they all have good podcast voices and are a pleasure to listen to. They also tend to discuss subjects that for some reason I don't see getting a lot of attention in fan circles otherwise, such as playing the GTN to make money or their Galctic Starfighter experiences. The main thing drawing me to this show right now however is its community involvement. Aside from discussing their play and general news, the hosts are always keen on getting into discussions with people over Twitter or via other means, presenting an interesting snapshot of the kinds of subjects that the SWTOR community cares about.

The Unnamed SWTOR Podcast

The Unnamed SWTOR Podcast is a relatively young podcast compared to many others, and isn't part of a big website or gaming network. I only found out about it via Twitter, where its producer Gaddock Teeg (@GTeeg) promoted it every now and then and people would retweet him.

Where most podcasts consist of a whole team of hosts bouncing ideas off each other, the Unnamed SWTOR Podcast is a one-man show. You might think that this would make it less interesting to listen to, but you would be wrong. You can tell that Gaddock/DJ puts a lot of thought into what he's going to talk about and it shows, as he doesn't ramble endlessly or go off on sidetracks all the time. The final product is edited down to a relatively short thirty to forty minutes as well, which I see as a plus as it means that I never get bored and am always looking forward to the next episode.

SWTOR Reforged

This is another podcast that I originally discovered back in 2012, however it managed to die before I even had a chance to review it. Again, I was sad. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out the other day that it's seen a revival, with all the old crew coming back and everything.

The thing that makes SWTOR Reforged stand out from other podcasts is its playful nature. While the hosts absolutely do have serious discussions about the game too, they like to get "in character" a lot, channelling their respective factions and acting out conversations with companions that are only represented by sound effects (e.g. someone will chide Bowdaar for something or other and he'll respond with a Wookiee roar). It sounds a bit weird when described like that, and I can imagine that it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it gives the show a truly unique flavour. The hosts never take themselves too seriously, and you can always tell that they are having fun and are genuine Star Wars fans in general, considering how much time they invest in having segments about lore for example.

At two hours per episode the show is pretty long, which can be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view. Personally I have to admit that I start to drift off after the first hour, even if the things they talk about are interesting, simply because I struggle to keep up focused listening for that long. However the hosts have said in the past that they've also received feedback from listeners who appreciate having such a "meaty" podcast.

12/02/2014

Of Bombers and Deathmatches

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but even though every time the subject of Galactic Starfighter comes up I make sure to emphasise that I'm not very keen on it and how very bad I am at the game in terms of skill... I keep playing it. I don't invest massive amounts of time in it, mind you, but still. I only participate in space PvP on my main, and only often enough to complete the weekly mission (meaning I play about four to seven matches a week), but why do it at all if I'm not a fan of space? To be honest I'm not sure, but I suspect that a variety of reasons play into it:

1) People have told me in the past that I seem to have a masochistic streak.

2) As terrible as I am at flying my ship and shooting things, I continue to be amazed by how many people there are who are even worse at this game than I am. The other day I got into a deathmatch where my team only got a total of three kills and pretty much ended up being farmed at the spawn point. Of the three kills we got, one was made by me, another was assisted by me, and I got two medals. Nobody else on the entire team even managed to acquire a single medal. This blows my mind, but at the same time it also gives me hope that maybe I can be better than that. Just a little. It makes me want to keep challenging myself to improve my performance. We'll see how long that'll last.


The fact that I got an achievement for losing that game just made it all the funnier.

3) Since I really like SWTOR and want it to do well, I at least try to see the bright side to all of its aspects; so I'm trying to find some fun in GSF even if a large part of me keeps telling me that it's really not my cup of tea and that I should just let it be. We'll see how long that'll last as well.

Anyway, after that little ramble I wanted to talk a bit about the 2.6 additions to Galactic Starfighter: a new gameplay mode: team deathmatch, and a new ship type: the bomber.

As far as team deathmatch goes, I have exactly one thing to say about it: it's pretty boring. I was a bit disappointed that the deathmatches seem to take place on maps very similar to the ones for the domination games, but the real problem from my point of view is that you can tell how it's going to end pretty much after one minute, and then you just have to sit through another ten minutes or so of the winner-to-be grinding the loser-to-be into the dirt over and over again.

To be honest, I believe that this is an inherent problem in any kind of PvP that has no other objective than to kill the enemy. If you have to balance pure PvP skill with an eye for strategy and teamwork to achieve objectives, this creates interesting scenarios where your ability to kill the enemy matters but isn't the only way to victory. If it's only about killing your opponent on the other hand, the thrill is usually very short-lived as match-ups are rarely balanced and one side tends to gain the upper hand very quickly. Arenas suffer from this as well, but at least they don't last long. If your enemies grind you into paste within a minute in an arena, at least you only have to do it one more time to prove that it wasn't a fluke and then you can go home. In Starfighter's team deathmatch on the other hand, no matter how hopelessly you're losing, you'll keep respawning until the enemy has scored fifty points (or the timer runs out), which means that on average every member of your team has to die four or five times, which is pretty tedious.

As for the bomber... I had no problem getting one as I had enough fleet requisition saved up to buy one right away, though I wasn't sure which of the two options to pick as I felt like I didn't really know much about the advantages or disadvantages of either of their components. In the end I went for the one that drops turrets and repair drones. I had pretty high hopes for this ship, as it sounded like it would support a slower sort of gameplay, which would make it ideal for less twitch-inclined players like me.

After trying it in a few fights... I'm not sure what to think of it to be honest. I can tell that a bomber that is left to its own devices to guard/support a specific area can be quite powerful, laying more and more mines/turrets/whatevers as time goes on. I honestly find it a bit too slow though, not to say boring. Even when you do well, it's not particularly inspiring to get messages about your turrets killing things that might not even be in your sight.

Also, the special turret/drone/mine-laying abilities all seem to have pretty long cooldowns, the range on the main weapons is short, and the ship is slow, meaning that in most cases I'd arrive to the battle late, prop down a turret and a healing drone, and then die before the cooldown on my signature abilities was up again while enemies danced around me and shot me from outside my regular weapon range. There was one particularly comical instance of this where the game actually flagged me as non-participating while I was frantically flying in circles, trying to actually get in range to hit something, anything at all. This got a bit better once I got to upgrade my ship a little though.

I'll probably experiment with it some more, but for now I've actually gained a whole new appreciation of my gunship and the ability to actually kill things occasionally...

10/02/2014

Adjusting to the 2.6 Combat Medic Changes

2.6 has turned out to be an important patch for Commandos, bringing the biggest changes to the Combat Medic talent tree since 1.2. Seriously, 2.0 had nothing on this.

Basically, the developers actually made good on some of the things they talked about in the class Q&A back in October. Shocking, I know.

For one thing, Hammer Shot can now be cast on yourself, something that I'm sure every healing Commando has longed for since they first got Combat Support Cell. For all that, I'm actually finding it strangely hard to adjust to this change. I guess more than two years of training myself that a skill works one way but not another will take some time to overcome. It doesn't help that habitually, I do a lot of self-healing by hitting my heals without having a friendly target (which makes them default to me) but this doesn't work with Hammer Shot. If I have no target it just gives me an error message, and if I have an enemy targeted I obviously end up shooting them instead.

When this change was first announced, a lot of jokes were made about Mercenaries and Commandos shooting themselves in the face, but I had faith that Bioware would give us a sensible alternate animation. (Just like Scoundrels and Operatives also don't shoot themselves with their Emergency Medpacs, even though the ability is a shot when targeted at other people.) The final result is... okay I guess, if a bit boring. I haven't seen the Mercenary version yet, but we Commandos just tap a button on our gauntlet. I was hoping that we'd still interact with our weapon in some way at least. The animation is currently also lacking a sound effect to go with it, which makes it feel oddly floaty as I get no audible feedback when triggering it.


The bigger change however is what they did to Trauma Probe. It's funny, but when they first talked about allowing it to be cast on multiple targets, I thought that maybe they meant two targets: so I could use it on myself and one other in PvP, or put it on both tanks in an 8-person operation. No, what Bioware did is nerf the ability in pretty much every respect (duration, charges, healing output per charge) but we are now allowed to put it on as many targets as we want. Yipes!

This is a massive change to our raid healing ability. To put things into context, the old Trauma Probe would maybe make up ten percent of my healing on an operations fight, on a good day, assuming that I managed to keep it refreshed on the tank and they took a steady amount of (ideally) small and fast hits. (The tank on Tu'chuk in the Cartel Warlords fight in Scum was a perfect target for example.) I combat-logged our first operation after the patch on Friday (Dread Fortress and Palace hardmode), and on pretty much every fight, Trauma Probe made up twenty to forty percent of my healing. What a change!

It definitely takes some getting used to though. My regular healing partner in ops is a Sage, and we always had a sort of unspoken agreement that I would focus on the tanks and would let him focus on the group, since that's what our respective classes are good at. Now I'm a bit torn as to how much use to make of Trauma Probe, because while it's great to have it cast on everyone, every time I refresh it on a dps that's also one global cooldown I'm not using to cast a big heal on the tanks.

From what I've seen so far, it seems sensible to pre-cast it on everyone before the fight (yay, more busywork in addition to building Combat Support Cell stacks), keep it refreshed on the tanks, and refresh it on the dps whenever there's a bit of a "quiet period" during the fight where not much damage is being taken, so that it can provide a buffer on everyone once the next big AoE hits. I think there is a bit of a temptation to just spam it on everyone all the time the way some Scoundrels/Operatives do with their heal over time, but for a Commando that's really not a good idea, seeing how Trauma Probe doesn't actually fill anyone's health pool back up; it just softens the blow of damage being taken by reducing it a little. You still need to cast "proper" heals to keep people up in the long run.

In PvP, where everyone pretty much takes damage all the time, the new Trauma Probe is predictably amazing. Suddenly my class is back en vogue, and I regularly see two or three Combat Medics per warzone, some of them getting amazing healing numbers of over a million, something that I've only very rarely achieved on my own Commando (and have rarely seen other Commandos achieve, pre-patch).

Unfortunately all those other Combat Medics suddenly invading my warzones are also pretty annoying, as Trauma Probe doesn't stack, so it's a constant war of Commandos trying to overwrite each other's probes before the match, so they'll get credit for the 10k healing or so each probe will do if all its charges get used up. Worse, according to the forums there is currently a bug so that casting over an existing Trauma Probe will count as refreshing it for the original caster instead of giving the refresher credit. So in a warzone with three Combat Medics, if one of them pre-casts probes on the whole team before the match and then everyone keeps them refreshed throughout (admittedly unlikely as people die etc.), you could in theory have the work of three people leading to only one person getting credit for everything. Yeah yeah, "who cares as long as you win"? Of course winning is more important, but surely healers are allowed to be competitive too and to see their play parsed correctly?

07/02/2014

Kuat Drive Yards - Different Perspectives

Tuesday evening it was time to try out the new Kuat Drive Yards flashpoint. I was curious to see if/to what extent my predictions about a lack of story would turn out to be correct.

The introductory quest was actually pretty nice. I liked the little conversation you end up having with the Starfighter-only companions, as it gives them an actual presence in the game instead of them just being little pictures in your Starfighter panel. Getting to meet Fleet Admiral Aygo was neat as well, as I always love being able to put a face to a voice, and I'd heard his voice plenty of times before during the start-up of Galactic Starfighter matches. And what a cool-looking Cathar he is! I really like the elongated ears and funky beard. (EDIT: I'm being told that he's supposed to be a Bothan actually.) I was also pleased to see that the conversation with the Admiral and a little cut scene of ships flying to Kuat are actually part of the flashpoint. I don't care if it'll get old the tenth time, these little touches are what make the game what it is.


My first run consisted of me on my main, pet tank on his, a guildie as dps and a pug from the group finder, who turned out to be another healer. We got the prison break and cannon destruction scenarios, and it was... pretty disappointing. Don't get me wrong, knowing that it was a story mode tuned to be doable without a tank or a healer, we didn't expect it to be challenging, not to mention how overgeared we were. But it seemed to be even easier than the Czerka flashpoints, weak mobs everywhere and barely a lone strong or elite mob to be seen anywhere (from what I could see at the time). It felt like it was tuned to be completely soloable for any reasonably competent and geared player, with the possible exception of the final boss, who has a lot of health you have to chew through if nothing else. Why even advertise this as group content?

As we were just running around spamming 1 and the occasional AoE, we looked around and found both the environment and the story inside the flashpoint to be kind of lacking as well. There may be five different scenarios, but they all take place in generic space station rooms, and the story basically consists of the Fleet Admiral giving you a ten second voice-over of what you're supposed to do, which more or less always comes down to "kill stuff and click on a thing or two". There's also no loot other than some credits from the trash and a reputation token from each boss. When we got the "flashpoint completed" message, our pug piped up with: "That's all? Lame."

Not so great then.

I was curious however. Since the big advertising point of this new "tactical" flashpoint system is that it's not supposed to require a holy trinity and be accessible to all players from level fifteen upwards, I wanted to see what things were like on the lower end of that spectrum. So I logged onto the lowest-level character I have right now, a (then) level seventeen Vanguard, and queued her up. I got a group almost instantly.


Doing the intro quest, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had been tweaked a bit to fit into the lower level storyline, as the quest giver referenced a fear of the Imperials breaking the treaty of Coruscant (which has not yet been broken at the point where my trooper is in the story).

My group consisted of a level fifty Shadow tank and two dps knights in the low thirties. Nobody capable of even casting a single heal. That was going to be interesting. The trash pulls were still easy enough for the most part, but with no heals whatsoever my health got dangerously low more than once. When we fought one of the mini bosses, the tank got so close to death that I taunted the boss off him for the last leg of the fight while hitting the single cooldown I had at my level. It wasn't exactly tough, but it wasn't nearly as mindless as the max-level run had been either. We had to pay attention to our surroundings and everyone's health levels.

On the last boss we even wiped once, as we didn't immediately figure out how to deal with his grenade mechanic, and once we did, we initially split between the degaussing stations, causing them both to be on cooldown when we needed them again. We got there in the end, but it was pretty manic.

The bolstering seemed to work well, though I was sad that I was unable to scavenge any of the mobs we killed as they were officially all matched to our bolstered (high) level. (Want to buy crew skill bolster?) I'm also not sure if the bolstering is working as intended with the kolto stations, as I seemed to get healed to full almost every time while our tank in particular hardly seemed to get any benefit from us clicking them, as if the healing output was somehow based on our real, unbolstered health or something.


The story still felt lacking though, and our tank said that he had absolutely no idea what was going on. He probably hadn't even seen the intro quest yet, as it's a bit hidden away in the new Starfighter launch hangar, which not everyone might've discovered yet. It also may not have helped that one of our scenarios required us to build a ship prototype, something that seemed to have a bit of a puzzle aspect to it and was initially a little confusing. (The prototype we put together blew up and was a horrible failure - I wonder if that's predetermined of if you can build a good one by clicking the right buttons. That would be funny.)

Still, that lowbie run (which incidentally netted me a whole level due to restedness) certainly changed my initial impression of the flashpoint. Or rather, it made me see the bigger picture. Bioware made a flashpoint that's supposed to be accessible to anyone from a full group of level fifteen damage dealers to a group of max-level characters forming a traditional party of four while filling all the different trinity roles. Even with bolster, the difference in power between those two setups is immense, regardless of whether we're dealing with a premade or a random pug. The developers decided to err on the side of caution and designed the flashpoint in such a way that even the worst possible randomly assembled group could do it. I can't honestly blame them for doing that, even if it means that at max level and with a group that has a healer it's pretty damn boring and I wouldn't bother beyond getting the initial quest done. But as a change of pace from lowbie levelling it seems pretty entertaining and viable, especially if you end up with a sub-optimal group make-up that forces you to think on your feet.

And as for that whole story thing? Well, I appreciated the inclusion of a conversation and a cut scene, though the background for the different scenarios is a bit of a "blink and you'll miss it" affair. That said, after having done three runs of the place now, I'm starting to appreciate the randomness as a source of entertainment. It's quite fun to see which scenarios, mini-bosses and final boss you'll get. Oddly enough, this might be one instance where your experience actually improves the more often you repeat it, as you get to know all the different permutations and can see how it all goes together.

05/02/2014

Looking at the 2014 Road Map

Monday evening (well, evening my time anyway), Senior Producer Bruce Maclean made a post on the official website called "Producer's Road Map 2014", giving us a bit of an idea of what new content we've got to look forward to in the first half of this year.

I've read and heard a lot of community reactions to this already, and I think that if I had to sum them all up in a single sentence it would be: "That's nice, but we want more." I haven't really seen anyone say that any of the promised additions are unwelcome, just that there should be more of them. Now, part of that is just MMO players being their usual selves and always wanting more, of everything, and preferably yesterday. But I do think that some of them have a point when they say that their favourite part of the game seems to be getting less attention than usual.

The raiders point out that if nightmare mode Dread Fortress and Palace are scheduled to come out in April and June respectively, that will likely mean no new operation for over nine months. (I suppose it's not impossible that Bioware might surprise us with a new release anyway - Terror from Beyond came out before Explosive Content got its nightmare mode after all - but personally I consider a repeat of those particular circumstances unlikely.) Nine months is a pretty long time to be farming the same content over and over on multiple difficulties - and definitely the longest that Bioware has made us wait for a new operation. Explosive Conflict came out four months after launch. Terror from Beyond came out five months later. The break from that point until the release of Rise of the Hutt Cartel (and with it Scum and Villainy) was the longest so far, lasting seven months. Then it was another six months until Oricon. By now Dread Fortress and Palace have already been out for four months, so the prospect of having to wait another six months or so for something new is definitely daunting.

I've seen someone suggest that Bioware should just drop nightmare mode altogether if it increases the time between new operation releases, seeing how it's only attractive to a small minority of players anyway. I have to admit that I wouldn't be opposed to that idea myself (though I don't feel particularly strongly about it either way). While my own guild has dabbled in nightmare modes, I've never seen us clear one while it was current content, and difficulty-wise I've found some of them hard enough to just become frustrating to me personally.

On the PvP front, there is going to be a new Huttball map, currently set to be released in April. All I can say is: about time! I've always said that PvP is only a secondary pursuit in The Old Republic, but even so... not counting the arenas, there hasn't been a new warzone map in over a year. (The last one was Ancient Hypergates in December 2012.) There's nothing else though... and I have to admit that I do feel for the dedicated PvPers a little bit, as much as some of them like to whinge unnecessarily. It does seem like they have been messed around quite a lot as of late, and with no great results: first there were ranked warzones; when they didn't work very well due to lack of participation they were removed and replaced with ranked arenas, but from what I hear those don't really pop nowadays either. I can't blame people for longing for an addition to their gameplay that actually works.

You know what is scheduled to get updates with every major patch though? Galactic Starfighter. And I think that's the crux of the matter: the more systems you add that need maintenance and adding to, the fewer resources you'll have to dedicate to the existing ones. I suspect that Galactic Starfighter is directly to blame for the delays in updates to other areas of the game, and as someone who's not a great fan of space combat, I can't say that I'm happy about that. Still, at this point I feel that it's a little early to complain, because I can see that Galactic Starfighter needs updates right now. After launching with just three ships and a single gameplay mode, it needed expansion or else even its biggest fans were likely to get bored with it quickly. I would hope/expect that once it's got a more robust foundation to stand on, it won't require quite as many resources to stay updated.

Overall the posted Road Map has me hopeful for the new year though. While updates to the areas of the game that I enjoy the most aren't coming as quickly as I would like, they are coming. Two new flashpoints to ring in the new post-Dread Master storyline sound exciting. And most of all: "Expect to see two digital expansions in 2014 just like you did last year, with one similar to Galactic Starfighter in scope and one more closely resembling Rise of the Hutt Cartel."

02/02/2014

My Characters

When I discover a new MMO blog, I always quite like it if the author has a page not just about themselves, but also about their characters. It can be quite insightful: do they play a lot of different alts or do they recreate the same character in every game? Do they focus on a particular role or aspect of the game (e.g. lots of tanks, multiples of the same class) or are they a jack-of-all-trades?

I've been meaning to make a page like that for this blog for a while but always put it off before. At last, here it is! I don't currently roleplay any of my characters or have extensive backstories for any of them, however with the way questing in The Old Republic works, it's hard not to feel that they develop personalities of a sort after a while, which is why I gave them all brief in-character descriptions as well.

For the Republic!

I started on Republic side because that's where my friends at the time were playing, but even after most of the original crew stopped logging in, the Republic remained my home. While the Empire tells some interesting stories, I can't really think of it as a comfortable home, considering how "evil" it is in many respects. PvPing a lot has also strengthened my faction pride, causing me to automatically associate familiar names on Empire side with hostility.

Shíntar, Commando


In Character (IC): Shintar is a loyal soldier of the Republic and considers herself a defender of the people above all else. Outside of her work she can seem unapproachable sometimes, but after giving so much of herself during her day job, she prefers a bit of solitude and privacy when she can get it. (light side)

Out of Character (OOC): Shintar was the first character I created when the game launched and has remained my main ever since. I just loved the idea of the trooper class ever since I saw the "Hope" trailer. I specced into the Combat Medic tree as soon as she got her first talent point and have never tried anything else as I simply love healing. As my undisputed main, Shintar is the character I take to all the operations and into whom I invest the most work in PvP.

Golu, Sage


IC: Her hulking physique makes her look pretty intimidating, but actually Golu is pretty much the perfect Jedi: always serene and not easily fazed by anything - possibly because she takes all her negative emotions out on her opponents during Huttball. (light side)

OOC: Golu was my first Republic alt, and like Shintar she was a healer from the start and has never been anything else. While Jedi consulars don't have the most exciting of class stories, it did resonate with me on a personal level, and the Sage's healing style reminded me a lot of WoW's priest (which is what I played before coming to SWTOR), so playing her has always felt very natural. She's my "main alt", meaning that I try to keep her geared enough that she can fill the occasional healer vacancy in another ops group, and she also gets a lot of PvP time.

Fali, Guardian


IC: As Golu's younger sister, Fali inherited the same strength in the force, but prefers to use her powers in a more hands-on way. Unlike her sister, she finds it hard to always keep her calm and is more prone to occasionally letting her emotions run away with her. She always means well though. (light side)

OOC: I love everything about Fali's character and story, but unfortunately I suck at playing melee dps. Before Rise of the Hutt Cartel, I would occasionally PvP on her or take her to a retro ops run, but I found my consistent underperformance too frustrating to dedicate any more time to working on her in the long run. Nowadays Fali spends most of her time in my Tatooine stronghold gathering crafting materials.

Talara, Gunslinger


IC: Talara's work may not always be legal, but she's a good person at heart who doesn't want anyone to get hurt and believes in the ideals of the Republic. (light side)

OOC: Since I was so bad at playing melee but still wanted a dps character, I tried to gear up my gunslinger as my go-to character for occasional alt operations instead. I did better than as melee, but still not great, and I just don't find doing dps nearly as engaging as healing, so she doesn't see a lot of play time either.

Racelle, Scoundrel


IC: Racelle is an opportunist who always looks out for herself above anyone else. She doesn't get any particular joy out of getting other people in trouble (or well, maybe a little) - but better them than her! (moderately dark side)

OOC: Originally created for the purpose of doing lowbie PvP as dps, Racelle ended up being conscripted into being the levelling partner for my pet tank's gunslinger and quickly hit max level. Seeing how powerful Scoundrels were in PvP, I continued to focus my efforts in that area. Up until Shadow of Revan, she sported a hybrid spec most of the time, because it was fun to play a healer who could also pack a bit of a punch if needed. After the discipline system eliminated hybrid specs, she became a healer full time.

Cheesha, Shadow


IC: Cheesha is an eternal optimist and believer in the power of the light side to the point of naiveté, which means that while she always has the best of intentions, things don't always end well for the people involved. (light side)

OOC: Cheesha was created because I wanted a Cathar, and she became a Shadow because at the time, this was the only advanced class I had never played on Republic or Empire side. The idea of a cat skulking in the shadows just seemed to make sense. She quickly became part of yet another levelling duo with my pet tank and was therefore specced to tank (while he healed). I often think that I'd like to play her more, but as our duos have become too numerous and spread out over time, I don't get to play her very often. (She still hasn't finished her class story at 55.)

For the Empire!

Due to my loyalties lying with the Republic as explained above, the vast majority of my time in game is spent on Republic side. All of my Empire characters mostly only exist because I wanted to see their class stories.

Sigex, Sorcerer


IC: Somewhat unusual for a Sith, Sigex is a kind soul at heart. She understands what being a Sith is all about, but as a former slave she'd rather use her power to pursue freedom and happiness for herself than use it to terrorise other people. (light side)

OOC: Only created in spring 2013, Sigex was far from my first Imperial character, however I came to consider her my Imperial main after my pet tank and I levelled our duo of inquisitors to max level in what felt like record time and completed pretty much all the quests on Imperial side together, with the exception of some ops missions. Like her Republic mirror Golu, she's been a healer from day one - because it's fun.

Hekka, Powertech


IC: Hekka is very easy-going for a bounty hunter. Getting the job done is obviously important, but there's no need to be cruel or more violent than necessary. (light side)

OOC: Hekka was pretty much created as an experiment in tanking. It was quite fun, but like most of my Imperial alts she doesn't see much play time now.

Corinthe, Operative


IC: Corinthe is a fervent believer in the Empire and all that it stands for, though the way certain Sith regularly abuse their power has made her very weary. The knowledge that what's best for the citizens of the Empire may not always be best for the Empire as an institution weighs heavily on her with every decision that she has to make, but she tries to serve to the best of her ability and has faith in her own judgement. (moderately light side)

OOC: Corinthe was the very first alt I created in the game, and was a character that I mostly played on my own for most of her levelling. (To this day, she probably has the lowest social rank of all of my max-level characters.) While I love the agent story and the healing Operative play style, the lack of regular engagement with other players means that I don't find reason to log on to her very often. I used to PvP with her for a while, but Republic faction pride kept pulling me back to the other side.

Arrah, Marauder


IC: As a pureblooded Sith, Arrah is proud of her heritage and everything that it stands for. It sometimes confuses her how it's not obvious to non-Sith just how inferior they are and that they should just accept their proper place in the world. While this makes her unpleasant company to be around for many people, she does adhere to a personal code of honour and unlike many of her peers, she doesn't delight in casual cruelty that serves no purpose. (moderately dark side)

OOC: Arrah was levelled with my now ex-boyfriend and mostly drove home the point that I'm terrible at melee dps. While I loved the Sith warrior story, the sea of angry red faces on her action bars doesn't make her very fun to play for me these days.

Dormaba, Sorcerer


IC: Dormaba is a survivor with a chip on her shoulder about her former status as a slave, who enjoys lording her new status as a Sith over those who would have looked down on her previously. She has sympathy for others in unfortunate situations, but if you get on her bad side, she won't be shy about letting you know it. (neutral)

OCC: Dormaba was part of an early set of Imperial alts I made and whose levelling stalled because I just couldn't get into their story. When I levelled Sigex, another Sorcerer, right past her, her existence felt increasingly pointless, but at the same I felt too attached to her to delete her. I used the 12x XP event leading up to Shadow of Revan to level her to the then-cap of 55 and to at least finish her class story. This also provided me with an opportunity to try out Sorcerer dps (so much lightning).

T'ir, Powertech


IC: T'ir takes a lot of pride in her physical prowess and in how it allows her to get every job done, no matter how difficult it is. She's not cruel, but can be quite ruthless when it comes to hunting down her targets or when people annoy her. (neutral)

OOC: Like Dormaba, T'ir was an early alt that never really went anywhere and effectively got replaced when I levelled another character of the same advanced class right past her. Like Dormaba, I decided to level her to the cap during 12x XP and chose a dps spec for her to distinguish her from my other Powertech.

In addition to all of the level 55-60 characters listed above, I have a bunch of lowbies that I'm still levelling. The reason I'm not listing them separately is not that I think that the game starts at endgame (which I don't), but rather that I feel that both their characters and their role in my "play schedule" are still too undefined to write about in much detail.

Last updated: April 2015.