Levelling my little Mercenary solely through flashpoints over the course of the last one and a half months has certainly been an interesting experience. I was actually kind of pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it - admittedly I don't really miss it right now, but I certainly do miss talking about the weird pugs I meet when I do decide to brave the group finder now. There's a reason that the "Weird people you meet in Group Finder" thread on the official forums has been going strong for nearly three years and is up 767 pages at the time of writing this. When you're in Blood Hunt (yes, again) and the last man standing on Jos and Valk starts demanding beer in all caps, you just want to tell someone! Anyway, what did I learn?
Part of what inspired this little experiment was to see how quickly I could level through flashpoints, though I didn't take any steps to intentionally speed up the process: I remained unguilded and used neither XP boosts nor any XP-boosting character perks, though I did pick up various flashpoint missions that awarded additional experience when I completed them. I usually limited myself to one random a day due to the extra bonus for that and was rarely fully rested. Queue pops were almost always instant; I think the longest I had to wait at any point was still less than five minutes.
The end result was that I did end up levelling quite fast, though not as fast as I would have expected. After the heady rush of the low levels, where I sometimes gained up to four levels in one run, things slowed down quite quickly, and by the end I could make it through a whole flashpoint without levelling up even once (until double XP happened to kick in and provided an additional boost again). I hit 65 with a /played time of one day and a bit less than nine hours. I have no real point of comparison for how fast that really is, but to me it seems pretty damn quick, especially considering that I didn't take any steps to actively rush the process other than simply choosing this particular levelling path. For comparison I did a /played on my level 61 Juggernaught who was at least mostly levelled since 4.0, and she was also already up to two days and 22 hours of play time.
I'd imagine that if you went all out on maximising your XP gains by doing all the things that I didn't, you could make it from 1-65 within less than a day of play time. That is assuming your runs go as smoothly as most of mine... which brings us to:
I'd heard a lot of complaints that tactical flashpoints were way too hard now and wanted to see that for myself, even if I seriously doubted that it was true. Admittedly you could say that I stacked the deck in my favour by choosing to do this with a healer, as a lot of problems seem to originate in the fact that many tactical groups don't have a healer, but it's simply what I enjoy playing.
Of the 37 flashpoints that I entered throughout this whole thing, I successfully completed 33 of them, or 89 percent. Of the four groups that fell apart, two collapsed in the face of Jos and Valk in Blood Hunt, one fell apart in False Emperor since the double droid boss appeared to be bugged, and one was disbanded because none of the other group members wanted to wait for me to listen to the cut scenes. Hah! Most of the successful runs went pretty smoothly throughout, with a couple of deaths and wipes here and there but nothing that I would consider major.
So, how hard are those tacticals really? I think my completion rate of nearly ninety percent indicates that cries about how impossibly hard they are are probably exaggerated. However... some bosses are definitely overtuned, with Jos and Valk being the worst offenders that I personally encountered, while others simply don't seem to have been adjusted very well to take differences in group make-up in consideration. For example I found the first boss in Hammer Station pretty hard to heal without being able to cleanse his debuff, but once I gained that ability it became completely trivial. Generally higher-level flashpoints don't seem to have been re-tuned to take the limitations of low-level characters into consideration, which I think may actually be a bigger issue than a lack of tanks or healers. When nobody in your group has a cleanse, survival cooldowns, crowd control or any utility points that grant mobility yet, you'll probably be quite screwed in a fight that was originally designed for level 50+, regardless of your party's skill level or group make-up.
On average though, you'll end up with something that is (in my opinion) moderately but not overly challenging - which may or may not be your cup of tea. Personally I actually enjoyed it as a change of pace, seeing how questing in the open world is now easier than ever.
At the same time, I did also encounter a fair amount of "learn to play" issues though, such as people not even bothering to heal up before jumping into the next trash pull, focusing the wrong targets, not using all their abilities, and dying rather than clicking one of those healing consoles on the boss fights. The good thing for me as a healer was that I was able to make up for a lot of that by simply healing people through their failures.
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the behaviour of all the pugs I encountered. I didn't encounter any verbal abuse and never witnessed anyone being given a hard time for being a bad player (even if there were some quite obvious - to me - cases of the latter in a lot of groups). I only recall one dodgy vote kick (the one at the start of that first Black Talon run that fell apart soon after) and was never kicked myself (I don't count those Russians trying to make me leave more quickly after we had already completed the flashpoint); all other kicks were merely initiated to remove players who had disconnected and not returned after a few minutes.
That's not to say that everyone lived up to my standards of friendliness and politeness either. Many players had no interest in engaging in any kind of conversation and there was a lot of yelling about skipping cut scenes. But I feel that that's just part of pug life and being grouped with random people who may have very different ideas of what makes for a good run than you do. I wouldn't be surprised if some of my pug mates were equally annoyed with me for wanting to watch cut scenes sometimes or wanting to do bonus bosses. On the whole though, I felt good about what I saw of the community here. There were more than a couple of runs where people made me smile or even laugh. Posts like this one can make it look worse than it is sometimes, but most people really aren't like that.
Social Points, Crew Skills, Money, Gear
Considering that I spent all my time from level 12 onwards in groups, it feels kind of odd that I only achieved social rank three by the time I hit 65. I suppose it makes sense since most social points come from conversations (of which there aren't that many in most flashpoints), not killing things in a group, but it still doesn't feel quite right.
As explained at the start of this experiment, I chose scavenging, bioanalysis and slicing for this character. I had maxed out scavenging by level 39, but there are a lot fewer mobs to bioanalyse in your average flashpoint and I only got that skill up to 409 by the end. Slicing remained at level 1 since there was nothing to skill up on, however I was able to activate the various slicing shortcuts in flashpoints like Cademimu and Mandalorian Raiders, which definitely came in handy.
I didn't feel like I made a lot of money. The only thing this character received from my main was a set of orange gear that I liked the look of, everything else she had to pay for herself, and she hit level 65 with about 1.3 million credits. Not that she had a lot of expenses - skill training is free for subscribers these days, and repair costs were minimal (plus there was that bug in the past month where I didn't need to repair at all for a while). Up until level 55 or so I sold all the BoE gear drops that I won on the GTN, but after a certain point they all changed to bind on pickup instead and could only be vendored.
I suppose I could have made some extra credits if I had sold all those companion gifts that I bought with my common data crystals, but I kept those for myself. Crystals were the one thing I always had lots of. I obviously didn't keep an exact count of their number, but I came close to hitting the cap multiple times and kept having to find new ways to spend them.
Buying new mods didn't really seem to be worthwhile - I did update my gear about four times but it made no noticeable difference to my performance in the actual flashpoints due to bolster. On a different gear-related note, I was pleased to note that no matter how low level my pugs were, everybody was almost always impeccably dressed. That's definitely been a positive side effect of the Cartel Market and associated systems like the outfit designer - I still remember when we all looked a bit clown-like while levelling up.
I wanted to make a note about how the order and frequency in which each flashpoint appeared was pretty haphazard, as you would expect. In the end I got:
Cademimu - five times
Blood Hunt - four times
Hammer Station, Battle of Ilum, False Emperor and Assault on Tython - three times
Black Talon, Kuat Drive Yards, Mandalorian Raiders, Boarding Party and Directive 7 - twice
Athiss, The Foundry, Red Reaper, Czerka Corporate Labs, Czerka Core Meltdown and Korriban Incursion - once
Depths of Manaan, Legacy of the Rakata, Battle of Rishi - never
Colicoid War Game, Kaon Under Siege, Lost Island - only just noticed that these aren't even on the group finder anymore, except for Kaon/LI hardmode...
I suppose that's pretty much what you would expect from doing randoms, but I did find it noteworthy that this pretty much screws over any narrative cohesion. It's an intentional trade-off to enable faster queue pops, but I would strongly advise new players against going down the route of random instances, simply because things just won't make sense. One moment a guy will give you a quest, then he's suddenly evil, then you're randomly crashing a shuttle in a jungle. It's just confusing when compared to the old system where each flashpoint would pop up at the level where it also fit into the overall story of the game.
So... would I recommend it or not?
I would recommend this levelling path as a change of pace if you are an experienced player who's already seen all the class stories and wants to try something different for a change. I can also see this being a good way of levelling if you just want to quickly get another character to max level, for example to help with your guild's operations.
You'd probably be best served to roll a healer, though a tank also gets plenty of opportunity to practice. As a dps you'll probably have the least power to carry the rest of your group if they are not the greatest of players (though high dps can certainly make a big difference on a lot of fights too). Either way you'll be challenged to get the most out of your class and can familiarise yourself with all of your abilities while levelling up, as you'll probably find a reason to use all of them in pugs, even the ones you usually wouldn't use while levelling solo.
Patience with other players, whether they are new, slow or just odd, is a requirement though.
I would not advise new players to level exclusively through random flashpoints, as you'll probably get them in an order that makes no sense. If you do want to do any flashpoints while levelling, I recommend that you only go for the ones for which you get quests along the way, specifically selecting them in the group finder. Also don't be afraid to state that you're new... but don't expect everything to go smoothly right away.
And that's all there is to it really!
Here are links to all the installments of my levelling journey in case you want to re-read any of them:
Part 1: My Flashpoint Levelling Experiment (1-17)
Part 2: Up to 29 (17-29)
Part 3: Blood Hunt Wants My Blood (29-35)
Part 4: Russians and Reruns (35-45)
Part 5: I Have The Power (to carry these pugs) (45-53)
Part 6: Battle of Ilum Makes Me Mad (53-58)
Part 7: My Mercenary's Grand Finale (58-65)
(P.S.: You still have until the 6th to enter my Cartel Coin giveaway!)