18/09/2015

Flashpoint Friday: The Esseles

I have decided to make this series a bi-weekly feature (in the meaning of "once every two weeks", that is - what a confusing word). With my posting frequency that means that posts like this will come up quite often compared to "regular" ones, but who's to say that I can't spend a large chunk of time talking about flashpoints? It's still on topic.

After talking about an Imperial-only flashpoint two weeks ago, I thought I would cover a Republic-only flashpoint next. I decided to go for The Esseles (pronounced "ess-EL-ees", except for that one random line in the middle of the flashpoint where they suddenly call it "ESS-el-es" for no reason).


General Facts

The Esseles is the very first flashpoint that Republic players will encounter, meant to be completed immediately after you've left your starting planet, though it's optional. You're told to proceed from the fleet to your faction's capital, and you can either go there directly or embark on an adventure on the way by taking the Republic transport Esseles. The Empire's equivalent is The Black Talon.

When you're a new player and you do this flashpoint for the first time, it seems absolutely amazing compared to the way dungeons work in other games. There are so many NPC conversations, and there's so much story! You get to make choices, and they influence what happens (not dramatically, but still)! It could be a complete paradigm shift for MMOs! Shortly after SWTOR's launch I nominated the Esseles for the Piggie Awards 2011 and it won! Anyone remember those?

Then you do the other flashpoints in the game, and they are all more or less like your typical MMO dungeon: kill some bosses, get some loot.

If you then make it to endgame, where at level fifty the Esseles was one of the hardmodes you had to run to gear up, you may even have ended up hating it, because while you just wanted to get it done to get your reward, there were all those conversations to go through that you'd heard a trillion times before. Tensions were heightened even more if you were grouped with someone who actually wanted to watch it all again instead of space-barring. This is another thing that I expect to make a comeback with Knights of the Fallen Empire's new flashpoint scaling.

Story (spoilers)

I feel that with how important story is in this flashpoint, I need to talk about that first:
 
It was just supposed to be a routine ride to Coruscant. But a blue Twi'lek in the lounge of the passenger transport Esseles warns you that it looks like Imperials are on the ship's tail. Officially the Republic and the Empire are still supposed to be at peace, but of course the moment you say that, the ship comes under fire. The captain dies in the initial attack (you kind of wonder why, considering his body lies in the middle of a wide expanse of open space) and you make it to the bridge in time to see first officer Haken struggle to not panic.

A certain Moff Kilran demands that you hand over an individual that has been working against the Empire and that his spies tell him is aboard your ship. You repel the Imperials' first attempt to board the Esseles and find out that the blue Twi'lek from earlier is who they are after. Her name is Asara and she is a Republic ambassador trying to get Imperial worlds to secede from the Empire.


As it turns out, while you were busy holding off one group of Imperials, another managed to get to the bridge and has taken over. You detour via engineering to find out how to unlock the bridge. The engineers there are trapped behind a forcefield and it is brought up that there is a way to open the bridge that would also vent the compartment they are in. Asara urges you to sacrifice the engineers for the greater good and you can go along with it or find another, slightly longer way to get to the bridge without getting the engineers killed.

Once there, you defeat the last Imperial boarders and hatch a plan to board your attackers instead to deactivate the tractor beam that holds the Esseles in place. Asara is supposed to accompany your assault team. Once she's out of earshot, first officer Haken suggests that you leave her behind at the end of the mission to give the Imperials what they want and discourage them from giving chase again.

You board the enemy ship, disable the tractor beam and even fight a Sith apprentice on the way. Before leaving, you have the option to tell Asara to stay (she won't fight you) or tell her about the plot against her without going through with it. You return to the Esseles and the ship makes a successful escape. First officer Haken is either pleased with the outcome if you left Asara behind, embarrassed if you took her back with you but didn't tell her about the plot, or in trouble if she's with you and does know. You either return to the fleet or continue to Coruscant.

Fights

The Esseles is all about fighting off Imperials (plus some Mandalorians), and most of them are not particularly impressive, even though they used to hit very hard in the level fifty version. (We'll see how that works with the new scaling.) I think the low difficulty is down to the Esseles' low-level version having been designed to be the first tactical flashpoint - before tactical flashpoints were an actual thing - as it was intended to be doable by people who didn't even have their advanced class yet, so that tanking and healing abilites might literally be unavailable.

The bosses are all very straightforward, but I guess that is appropriate for an instance that may well be many players' first experience with group content in the game. Lieutenant Isric, who leads the first boarding party, teaches players about frontal cones and add spawns. Ironfist summons adds and fires missiles. Then there's that droid that does a knockback - which may not sound like much at first but can easily get a newbie killed, since the fight takes place above a typical Star Wars chasm with no safety rails. (There's also a proper "chasm boss" later, where you have to jump down a shaft and can die if you don't make sure to bounce off some pipes on the way.)

The bonus boss, another droid, is at least interesting in so far as he's the only boss I can think of that actually requires two players to be activated, as doing so requires two consoles at opposite ends of the room to be clicked at the same time. Annoying for soloers, but kind of neat as a group experience. (Wonder if they'll change that in Knights of the Fallen Empire?)

This bonus boss is also the only boss I'm aware of that had his mechanics completely turned on their proverbial head at one point. At launch he would occasionally go through a phase where you had to run away from him because he would do a lot of damage to everyone in melee, too much to heal through it really. But then at some point Bioware decided to completely reverse this mechanic, so now being in melee is safe and range has to come close instead whenever he enters his dangerous phase or take lots of damage at a distance. [/fun fact]

The last boss, Sith apprentice Vokk, basically teaches players that standing in purple circles is bad. A very important lesson. However, he also just feels cool because he receives a lot of build-up and the game makes a big deal out of the fact that you're meeting a Sith for the first time - unlike later content, where both Sith and Jedi quickly turn into just another type of cannon fodder.


Conclusion

In my opinion every player should play through the Esseles at least once, ideally with a friend. You may or may not like the story it tells, but it's worth seeing for no other reason than that its delivery is really unique in the MMO space. It's not just the various choices, but this flashpoint also shows the group conversation system at its best. The Esseles is the only place I know of where group conversation options can actually play off each other a little - e.g. when you meet the Sith at the end and a Jedi in the party starts talking to him about how the dark side is evil, a smuggler can reply with a disparaging comment about force users and their crazy beliefs. (If she wins the roll, that is.) It's the closest thing to a true multiplayer RPG that I've ever heard of.

Unfortunately producing content like this either turned out to be too costly, whether in terms of time or money, or Bioware realised early on that it wasn't going to mesh with the WoW-like dungeon grinder they were in the process of building, which is why all the other flashpoints that followed are so much more like traditional MMO dungeons.

Even as I re-ran the flashpoint for this article to take some more screenshots - at level twelve where you might meet some players genuinely new to the game, so that you would expect people to be considerate of that - I ended up with other players shouting in caps lock about how everyone needs to skip the cut scenes and even initiating vote kicks when some of us didn't hit space bar, which of course completely ruins the experience. I suppose that the solo mode coming in KotFE will address this... but at the same time soloers will miss out on some of the Esseles' unique charm, which just can't be recreated without other people there.

6 comments :

  1. Sometimes I wonder if cutscenes in group content should be skippable at all. Whenever they're skippable, it encourages social pressure to skip them, in pursuit of the fastest run.

    FFXIV has a similar problem with cutscenes in the last two dungeons of 2.0. They've since moved to avoiding cutscenes within dungeons and having them before and after the instance.

    On the other hand, you can imagine that people might drop the instance as soon as they see it is Esseles, because the cutscenes will make it longer.

    As a side note, I've never actually seen the ending where you leave Asara behind. I've always done it in random 4 man groups. Since it requires 2 DS decisions to activate, but only 1 LS decision to avoid, and it's the Republic side (so more LS people), I've never seen both decisions go DS.

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    1. I think as long as they keep putting cut scenes into content that people are meant to grind over and over again, then they need to be skippable. If they changed that design, whether to skip cut scenes or not could also be reconsidered.

      I actually remember people dropping out of the level 50 version of the Esseles as soon as they saw it anyway, even with cut scenes being skippable. It was still too long to be "efficient". Directive 7 is the other place where this used to happen a lot.

      The vast majority of my Esseles groups go light side as well. (Though I think leaving her behind only requires one dark side choice... but it's true that it's more dialogue.) The rarest ending from my experience is actually the one where people just tell her about the plot. I didn't even realise it existed at the time, because intuitively, you tend to think that choosing the option to talk to her instead of leaving is bound to lead to leaving her behind. I was actually surprised the first time I realised that you also had the option to reveal everything to her at that point.

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    2. I have no idea how easy or hard it would be to code, but it seems like one option for skipping/not skipping cutscenes would be to give you the option of queueing for the version with the cutscenes or without (auto-spacebarred, or however you'd do that).

      Though, actually, you could probably just add a ticky box to the queue stuff for whether or not people want to play out the cut scenes. Then the spacebarrers could group together and those who wanted to watch the scenes could group together.

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    3. Well, that's a nice idea in theory, but in practice you don't really want to split the queue population any more than you have to, or queue times will just go through the roof.

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    4. I always ran the Esseles after I left Ord Mantell or Tython, and the one part I found I love the most was the potential discussion with Moff Kilran where it's banter-like. It's so rare to see it though as it isn't the stereotypical choices that get you there.

      mattH

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    5. Well, that wasn't supposed to be nested there...

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