31/01/2016

Lowbie Smuggler PvP with Traitine

I still don't really "get" streaming and I'm not sure I ever will, but it's obvious even to me that it's very much a thing these days, so I was quite flattered when Traitine of Constant Warefare (@ConstantWarfare on Twitter) asked me to join him for some SWTOR fun on his Twitch stream. I agreed to join him for about an hour last Sunday and rolled up a new Scoundrel just for the purpose of doing lowbie PvP with him, but we actually ended up playing for over two hours. Time flies when you're having fun!

I had warned him that Republic had a penchant for losing a lot on The Red Eclipse, but we seemed to get lucky as we won four out of the six matches we played, and the two losses were relatively close calls as well. Balance was restored towards the end though, when he suggested that we should try some GSF and we got roflstomped both times.

If you've ever found yourself wishing that you could see me play (hah!), I recorded my point of view of the whole thing and edited it down to a length of about 37 minutes to limit it to the "highlights".

28/01/2016

SWTOR Doesn't Have Lockboxes

Does this qualify as a clickbait title?

I'm pretty sure this does: "SWTOR is putting lockboxes inside of other lockboxes"

It's an article that was posted on MassivelyOP yesterday and which I saw this morning. It (and its comments) were simultaneously amusing and kind of sad.

The actual story behind it is that Bioware is tweaking the contents of their Cartel packs once again, which is not very interesting to me personally because I tend not to buy them myself. Plus when I actually made the effort of trying to understand the new system they were introducing with 4.0, they scrapped it again only a few months later... so at this point I'm just throwing my hands in the air, happy that other people are dealing with this stuff and I can simply buy most things that I'm interested in straight off the GTN. There's probably some discussion to be had here about whether the changes are good or bad, but that's not mine to chime in on.

What intrigued me about the MassivelyOP article was that with that headline, it managed to use a minor semantic inaccuracy to make the change sound like something completely different and nasty.

Games like Neverwinter have lockboxes. They are chests full of random treasure that drop out in the world, but they are locked (thus the name "lockbox") and to unlock them you need to buy a key from the in-game cash shop.

SWTOR doesn't have lockboxes. No random locked chests dropping out in the world to clog up your inventory here! It does have crates of random loot that you can buy straight from the Cartel market if you want any... but otherwise they are out of sight and out of mind, and they are never locked. Once you have the box, its contents are yours.

Now, to be fair, most of the time when people express issues with real money giving you random loot, it's totally fair to treat these two models as identical, because if you have concerns about gambling, it doesn't really matter whether the money is being spent on the actual box of items or on a key to open it.

But in the case of this story, it did matter. Talking about lockboxes inside lockboxes implies that you have to repeatedly buy keys merely to access everything contained in that first box that you wanted to open, which would be pretty crazy and inspired people to post all kinds of hysterical memes in the comments. As Wilhelm put it so succinctly: "Honestly, with EA in charge, putting lockboxes inside of lockboxes seemed completely believable."

Of course the actual story, "SWTOR changes the composition of the loot in their random packs", simply wouldn't be newsworthy, not even on MassivelyOP. There were commenters who did point out that the title was very misleading, but who cares if you can give people a chance to get all worked up about how supposedly sucky the game's business model is?

I thought it was telling that one commenter confessed that they had recently started playing the game and were confused that they didn't actually encounter any lockboxes in it, considering the complaints levelled at it for their supposed implementation.

Just another day of people spreading misinformation about SWTOR I guess... but it was surprising to see it happen in such a weird manner on a major MMO news site. You'd think they would know their stuff a bit better.

26/01/2016

Companions - Where Are They Now?

I've been doing some thinking about companions lately and about how their place in the game has changed since 4.0. I'm not so much talking about the mechanical changes (though those play into it) but their overall role and purpose in the game.

Looking back at it now, the original implementation of the companion system seemed to be all about compromise, trying to make them simultaneously important to your levelling experience and an essential part of the story, yet also completely optional and not required. Many people tended to stick with their first companion, simply because that one tended to be the most fleshed out - introduced naturally as part of your class story and then always with you for at least the first couple of planets. It's the additional companions that really threw a wrench into the system, because as soon as you give people the choice of who to bring, you can't allow that companion to get too involved in what's happening - unless you want to add another couple of extra story branches that a large part of your player base will never even see. I can completely understand why Bioware opted for minimal companion involvement for most classes as the story progressed. (Some of the classes that were presumably written earlier still do have some notable companion influences in their basic class story, such as Quinn for the warrior or Khem Val for the inquisitor, but there's definitely not a lot of that kind of thing.)

Companion stories were for the most part completely separate from the class story, giving you the option to ignore them if you didn't like a certain companion. That they were gated behind an affection grind always struck me as a bit odd though - I originally thought that it made sense that you would naturally unlock the story of whoever you quested with, but in practice no amount of "naturally" gained affection was ever enough and you had to shower everyone with gifts to get them to talk to you. After the gift-giving binge you'd then have ten conversations in a row, where your new friend could go from distrusting to loving you within the space of ten minutes - hardly immersive.

Looking back at that, I really approve of several changes that Bioware has made in Knights of the Fallen Empire. For example I love that all the original companion arcs now unlock automatically as you progress through your class story, regardless of individual influence level. You can still ignore them if you really don't like a certain character, but for those that you do like it feels a lot more natural to interact with them a little after every other mission, not to mention that the conversations provide a steady and welcome trickle of extra XP as you level.

I also approve of what they did with the companions in the new story chapters, that they simply saddle you with a different one every other section and that's that. It removes some choice, yes, but by knowing for sure who is actually going to be present in each scene, Bioware can get your companions so much more involved in the action, and hearing them wisecrack about your choices is honestly a huge part of the game's appeal. The removal of companion gear and role restrictions also took care of any worries about struggling with the gameplay in story segments that make you team up with a rarely used companion.

What I'm still waiting for is the option to actually have some variety among alts that have done KotFE - I don't really like the thought of all of mine ending up with the exact same companions, especially since you can't even customise their looks. Looking at the characters of Koth, Lana and Senya, I'm almost certain that there will be a big showdown where at least one of them will leave you or turn against you based on your choices, but I was honestly hoping for more of that kind of thing a bit earlier on already. That one point where you get the option to kill a former trooper companion is a lot less exciting when you realise that even if you spare him, he still won't join back up with you. It's just all a bit same-y so far, but I'm hopeful for the next couple of chapters.

The one thing that I can't really make sense of are the new Alliance companions. They feel like an attempt at giving us more options for everyday gameplay, except there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of choice involved here either. If you are bothering with the Alliance system at all, you will get most of them anyway, and therefore have the exact same stable of companions as every other person doing so. Each new companion features an interesting little intro story and then that's it. Admittedly I don't know for sure, but I didn't get the impression that Bioware has any further plans for involving those characters in the main storyline - assuming that they are optional, they simply can't show up there or we would be back to the same old issue of people bringing different characters that all need their own lines.


Two Alliance companions with (in my opinion) pretty interesting backstories: Veeroa Denz and Choza Raabat. But you recruit them... and then what?

I've also heard people joke about how it feels like we have "hundreds" of companions now with the Alliance system, and I can definitely relate to feeling a bit overwhelmed by that. The most companions I ever had pre-4.0 was eight: five class companions, the ship droid, HK-51 and Treek. After finishing what's been released of KotFE so far, my main is up to 23 companions already, which could have been 24 if I hadn't rejected Xalek, and I haven't even used the panel on Odessen to retrieve old companions that haven't actually come back (yet).

What's the point of having all these companions if I can only use one at a time and send out six or however many it is now to craft? Everything else is just interface clutter. With the great companion normalisation it also feels like I don't need more than one companion to be out and about anyway, since each one can fill any role and they all have the same abilities anyway... which just adds to the indifference about having more and more of them thrown at me. Influence actually affecting companion power and being a huge grind also encourages you to pick a favourite or two and ignore the rest.

You might ask why that's a problem - if I don't like the extra companions, I can just ignore them, right? Well, yes, but only if I want to ignore the whole Alliance endgame as well. If I do participate in it and allow myself to be flooded with tons of companions that all feel way too similar to each other, this is actually a step in the opposite direction compared to Bioware's other efforts to make companions feel more unique, interesting and relevant, which is just a strange contradiction.

22/01/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Battle of Rishi

After talking about Battle of Ilum two weeks ago, I decided to cover another "battle of" this week: Battle of Rishi.


General Facts

Battle of Rishi was released as part of the Shadow of Revan expansion (patch 3.0) in December 2014. Blood Hunt and Battle of Rishi were part of the expansion's main storyline and the first two flashpoints that launched with a solo mode right off the bat. Group-wise they only offered a tactical version initially, with the hardmode getting added in 3.1 two months later. At the time of writing this, more than a year later, Blood Hunt and Battle of Rishi are still the two newest flashpoints in the game, as no additional ones have been released. (Personally I don't think that the Star Fortresses really count, since they can't seem to decide what sort of content they want to be and aren't included in the group finder.)

Fights

Battle of Rishi is a romp across Rishi to take out a massive Revanite signal jammer, so you spend your time fighting Revanites and their droids. The trash is pretty uninteresting, and the bosses... well, they offer some reasonably interesting mechanics but are pretty darn forgettable in terms of story.

The first two boss encounters each feature a Revanite duo consisting of a former Republic and a former Imperial character, first a Wookiee (smuggler?) and an Imperial soldier, then a Sith and a Jedi master. There's a lot of "don't stand in squares/circles on the floor" in both fights, but the second encounter features an interesting mechanic where balls of lightning float towards the middle of the room and you have to "soak them up" or they'll do more damage to the whole group. Like in many duo fights, killing one of the bosses first results in the other enraging, both in the first and in the second encounter. Now, stuff like that sometimes gets announced in big red letters across the screen that say something like: "[Boss name] gets really angry!" In both of these boss fights though, no matter whom you kill first, the same line is used for all of them: "The remaining adversary rages at the death of their ally!" It's like not even the encounter designers could be bothered. "Who cares? Nobody has heard of these guys before and nobody will ever hear from them again after they're dead. They have no personality, no story and no lines. Why bother?"



Exhibits A and B.

To give credit where credit is due, at least the last boss - a walker that conveniently drops from the sky (yes, really) - is quite memorable, at least mechanically. It has this move where it powers up a massive electric discharge... which will one-shot you even in tactical mode. To survive, you have to go stand in a circle and use a console to activate a protective shield around you and any allies. There is plenty of time to do this, so it's not a matter of reflexes or anything, just a question of paying some attention to your environment. Yet the amount of people I've watched die to this... it's always pretty hilarious. I also have my own funny memories of this encounter, such as that one time when our entire group went to stand in the circle like good little players, but then nobody actually bothered to click on the console so we all died anyway, looking very foolish in the process.

On hardmode, there is also a bonus boss, who is probably the most mechanically challenging flashpoint boss I've ever seen in this game - which is quite impressive really! I talked about him a bit in this post. Unfortunately the sheer difficulty of the fight also makes him unappealing to anyone but a well-geared, fully organised group. I think he's cool in theory, but in nearly a year I've only actually bothered to kill him twice myself, which is kind of telling.

Story (spoilers?)

Battle of Rishi is directly integrated into the Shadow of Revan story, so it's hard to talk about it without giving at least minor spoilers for that... the major plot point is that you're fighting Revanites, and both a Republic and an Imperial fleet have just appeared above the planet, manipulated by the Revanites to hopefully annihilate each other. In order to prevent this, you need to contact your faction's representative, but a local signal jammer makes communication with the fleet impossible. So you charter a shuttle and invade yet another Revanite camp to destroy said signal jammer.

The entire flashpoint is just you fighting your way towards your objective, with a brief light/dark side choice near the end where you get to hijack an anti-air cannon and can decide to aim it either at the Revanites or at the enemy faction.

Once the signal jammer has been destroyed, you get in touch with your respective faction's leader in orbit (Satele Shan for Republic players and Darth Marr for Imperials) and they agree to temporarily halt aggressions to figure out what's going on.

Conclusion

I think most of my articles in this series have been pretty positive so far, but Battle of Rishi is not a flashpoint that impressed me. It features pretty environments, and it offers a fun little mob-killing romp for a pug, but other than that... it just seems to have no heart and no real point.


About a year ago, I wrote a post called Solo Flashpoints - Good or Bad Idea? in which I kind of came to the concusion that Bioware doesn't really seem to know what it wants to do with flashpoints. To be honest, I suspect that's part of why we haven't seen any in a year, not just because of KotFE! In the past, they've sometimes been story-light instances for group content, or an excuse to provide a particularly epic final boss battle. Battle of Rishi doesn't really try to do either, as it came with a solo mode from the get-go and is tightly integrated into the storyline, yet the objective of "go destroy that signal jammer" is so dull that it could simply have been a regular quest.

It's particularly interesting to compare Battle of Rishi to its partial namesake Battle of Ilum, which also suffered from having a somewhat lacklustre objective... but all throughout, it still told a story, of how Malgus' new Empire included lots of aliens, of the kinds of characters he had managed to win for his cause. Battle of Rishi is one massive wasted opportunity here, with the Revanites theoretically boasting an interesting background that has inspired both Republic and Imperial soldiers to defect... yet nothing is made of this whatsoever. None of the people you fight ever go beyond being random mooks, and in a game that prides itself in its lore and interesting characters as much as SWTOR, that's just outright shameful.

20/01/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 2: A Dream of Empire

Time to continue my detailed discussion of Knights of the Fallen Empire's individual chapters! Unsurprisingly, this post will contain spoilers for the chapter in the title and may contain spoilers for previous chapters as well.



Your character awakes... in a dream. You can tell because the edges of the screen are all fuzzy and everyone speaks with an echo in their voice! You appear to be standing on an asteroid in the middle of a debris field, with Valkorion keeping you company and complimenting you on your abilities. I don't know if male characters get to do this as well, but as a female character you get the hilarious option to ask: "Are you flirting with me?"

He shows you an image of all your companions fighting in what appears to be a heroic last stand, while talking about them in somewhat disparaging tones. You have the option to agree with him or defend them. Your visions get chaotic and Valkorion explains that the carbon freezing wasn't handled properly and you are slowly dying. You fight some imaginary skytroopers as a representation of you fighting for your life. It's worth noting that while you have no companions, you appear to be receiving heals from Valkorion throughout the entire thing! You also fight visions of the past in the form of old class story enemies.

After running across the asteroid, you make it towards your old companions, but they are all dead. Next you find yourself on a ruined version of either Coruscant or Dromund Kaas, floating in space. All the while Valkorion is with you, trying to fill you with doubt about your choices, insinuating that everything you did was pointless and/or wrong. You actually have to fight nightmare visions of members of your own faction that have turned against you, with an attached bonus mission to revive fallen citizens - a shred of hope in an ongoing nightmare? In the end you encounter someone you used to work with in your class story, such as Master Satele as a Jedi knight or General Garza as a trooper and have to kill them as well. Valkorion wants you to feel good about it too. Whatever you reply, a piece of debris suddenly comes loose from the building above you and crushes you, prompting another change of scenery.

You find yourself on what looks like Ziost after its "consumption" (though still with a backdrop of endless stars) and Valkorion tells you that the events on Ziost showed him that he has moved beyond death and is finally free of "crude" vessels such as hands, voices and children, hinting at the various forms in which he has appeared in the different class stories. He also says that he's done everything he can to keep you alive through the carbonite poisoning as he considers you a part of him that he wishes to keep. Mysterious!

A giant Monolith appears and Valkorion tells you that he can only help you if you will accept his power. Whether you accept or refuse his help, you will still be provided with ongoing heals while fighting the mob, though it's worth noting that at this point, accepting or refusing Valkorion's help has no alignment adjustment associated with it.

He says that you have a common foe, and after a fade to black you find yourself at the Eternal Throne, with Arcann sitting on it and Vaylin standing nearby. The scene looks much more real than any of the previous ones, and ambassadors from the Republic and Sith Empire kneel before the throne. Who else noticed that the Sith envoy looks like Darth Vowrawn from the Sith warrior story? The Republic ambassador wears the garb of a senator, but otherwise I couldn't place him. Valkorion says that more time has passed than you think and that Zakuul rules the galaxy now, though he is displeased with his children "abusing their power". Talking about his children makes him sound oddly romantic and he even mentions having found love on Zakuul, but he insists that they need to be stopped before they "ruin everything".


Vaylin suddenly draws her saber and stares at you, seemingly able to perceive your dream manifestion. Then she stabs you and you collapse, while Valkorion comments that you're being "reborn"... (in chapter three).

Conclusion

After the frantic events of chapter one, chapter two gives you some time to breathe and reflect, being fairly light on combat and focusing on how Valkorion appears to have ended up in your head. (It's also one of the shorter chapters.) Spending some time in a dream also gives the story the opportunity to introduce the idea of that five-year time skip that was talked about before the expansion, without having it feel too sudden.

Nonetheless I have to admit that personally I'm not too fond of this chapter, probably because I'm just not that into "dream stories". Or maybe I'm just jealous of people in fiction always having deep and meaningful dreams when my own are just random and make zero sense.

Valkorion has some interesting lines in this chapter, but there's always that feeling that it's probably all a dream anyway and none of it is true. Scenes like finding your dead companions or seeing your capital destroyed certainly serve to introduce some doubt about what may have happened in your absence though.

18/01/2016

Some Gree Event Fun

This week I decided to pay the Gree a visit, for the first time in many months. I was quite astounded by the amount of stronghold decorations that had found their way onto the Gree reputation vendor since the last time I checked what he had for sale, and I immediately went on a spending spree. Who wouldn't want one of these cute little guys in their home?


Of course, after that I was almost out of Gray Helix Components and decided to do at least a little work towards earning some more. The most useful idea I had in that regard was probably to coax my guild into running Xenoanalyst on both story and hardmode - boom, ten more components in one go!

However, I also pugged the heroic daily and the two world bosses on alts. I was continually surprised by how chipper and friendly everyone seemed to be in my pugs, as it's such a contrast to the doom and gloom that pervades parts of the community these days. "Do you like PvP? I love it, it's the main reason I play this game!" "You know, this character has a twin on Republic side; he has almost the same name but with a difference of one letter." [insert serious roleplayer nod here...]


I also did The Ancient Gree Relays on two Imperial alts that hadn't done it yet, the quest to visit Gree droids on a bunch of different planets that rewards you with a pet, some rep and two more components. I was pleasantly surprised by the way level sync has spiced that mission up a bit, because apart from on Dromund Kaas, where the elite guards around the Gree observer are for some reason of a low enough level to be grey even to a level-synced character, I actually had to pay attention and fight smartly to survive four or five gold mobs throwing dots and stuns around, companions being overpowered or not. I was also somewhat bemused by their dialogue, much of which I'd already forgotten again. Apparently the Gree dislike Alderaan's Killiks and condone their "eradication"?! Yet they really like the Gormak on Voss... they sure have very peculiar opinions sometimes.

14/01/2016

Trooper, Take Two

Last week I finally finished the trooper story for a second time. It may come as a surprise to some that it took me nearly four years to level an alt of the very first class I ever rolled, especially since I levelled two of most other classes during that time. I'm just fickle when it comes to playing alts and my whims can be quite random.

This particular character, a Vanguard, was actually created in late 2013 - I found a screenshot of her on Ord Mantell that I posted in November of that year. (Fun fact: In that post I complained about finding too many freebies in my mailbox on every newly created character: fourteen items! By now, I'm up to forty for every new alt.) Since then my interest in her has been an on-and-off-again affair. For the first couple of months I thought she might even end up being my 10th character to the level cap, but then that didn't happen. Later I went through long periods of disinterest, interspersed with the occasional GSF match or late-night questing session. 4.0 actually invigorated my interest in the character in so far as I knew that with the changes to levelling the rest of my class story alone would probably be enough to carry me close to the level cap. I just had to round it off with the Ilum story arc and the Belsavis bonus series to actually hit 65.


Also, four years later and companion colour matching still doesn't work in cut scenes...

What did I think of the trooper story the second time around, especially compared to my initial thoughts from back when I hadn't played any of the other class stories? Well, I have to admit that it's probably one of the weaker class stories overall, now that I have actual points of comparison... you just lack a feeling of agency, being bossed around by General Garza all the time, though at least chapter one gives you a strong personal motivation for your actions as well. At the same time, it actually feels weird just how much you do get away with - I'm no military woman, but I'm pretty sure that the military cares about methods as well as results. This wasn't as noticeable in my first playthrough where I was mostly light side, but this time I veered more towards neutral, repeatedly disobeying orders... and every time the mission ended with Garza giving me a stern-talking to at first and then suddenly switching to: "... but oh well, I guess you got things done. Good job!"

My initial thoughts post was however spot on about how Havoc Squad feels like a natural unit. Even after playing through all the other class stories, none of the other companion crews have quite the same natural feeling of belonging together, so that is still a point in the trooper's favour. I was going to focus on levelling with Elara this time, since I had hardly used her on Shintar (healer + healer companion was not a good combination) but eventually ended swapping her out for M1-4X anyway, just like I had done with Aric the first time... 4X is just too much fun, and with every companion being able to fill every role, his former tankiness wasn't an obstacle anymore.

What was most interesting for me to re-play was the last class mission on Corellia. Without going into spoilers about the actual story, gameplay-wise you are being asked to choose one of three attack vectors while NPCs will cover the other two. They are described as pitting you either against infantry, walker droids or "automated systems". On Shintar I ended up facing off against the droids because they were described as the hardest and I was very gung-ho about proving that Havoc Squad can take on anything. This time I decided to listen to what advice the NPCs had to give and ended up fighting the automated systems instead.

I was kind of hoping that there would be puzzles but... well, the first corridor looked like it might have had a puzzle in it, but if there was one I didn't figure out what I was supposed to do and just ended up getting the whole floor covered in ooze that didn't seem to do anything. The rest was mostly turrets and weaker droids though, which wasn't that exciting. What I did love was that there was a bonus mission to blow up barrels! Best bonus ever! Plus I got to hijack an anti-aircraft gun and shoot down an Imperial shuttle; I don't remember getting to do that last time either (though I'm not entirely sure about that, it's been four years after all).


So... once again I'm in the position of having a tanking alt at the level cap. Last time that happened, when my Shadow hit 55, I got quite excited about the prospect of tanking casual ops runs for alts, but then that never happened, so I'm not getting my hopes up this time. But it will be nice to have the option.

11/01/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 1: The Hunt

Since the first nine chapters of Fallen Empire have been out for over two months now, I thought it would be fun to have a somewhat more detailed discussion of each individual chapter. I doubt that I'll get through all of them before chapter ten releases, but I that's okay. I'll just get there when I get there. Unsurprisingly, this post will contain spoilers for the chapter in the title.

KotFE's chapter one starts in typical Star Wars fashion, with an opening crawl. This more than anything else immediately drove home to me that they are truly trying to reboot the game with this expansion, as it literally presents a whole new start within the game. It's established that the events of the trailer already happened, which kind of makes you wonder where your character was during that time and why especially Imperial characters aren't more concerned about planets like Korriban getting wrecked. Remember Korriban Incursion? We sure cared a lot back then!

In a major departure from any of the previous stories, we start with a scene on the distant planet of Zakuul, showing Valkorion and Arcann. Previously we were always more or less limited to our character's point of view (with Ziost taking some baby steps in this direction by showing us what Vitiate was up to in town even when we couldn't see him), so it's a pretty big step to suddenly show us, the players, events that we would have no possible way of knowing about in character. It takes you out of character a bit but creates a more cinematic experience in the sense that it gives you a bigger picture to worry about: The bad guys are up to something, what could this mean for me?


Whether your character is Republic or Empire, you end up being called to Darth Marr's flagship. Even after the events of Yavin IV and Ziost I found it a bit odd how it was implied that even as a hero of the Republic, your character was happy to oblige and trust Marr, but I guess the point is that after Ziost, everyone really has a strong interest in stopping Vitiate.

You board the ship without a companion and get greeted by the ship's captain. For new players there is a tutorial mode here that hides most of your abilities. During my first playthrough I didn't realise that this could be turned off and spent the entire chapter being annoyed by how gimped my play was.

As you move towards the bridge, you overhear background NPCs talking, something that also occurs frequently in the following chapters and helps a lot with setting the mood for each location if you're willing to listen. Like in this case you hear two Imperials talk about how they had a bet about whether Republic and Empire would be able to work together peacefully - one claims to have won the bet since nobody has been knifed yet, while the other argues that the mission isn't over yet. Later you hear a Republic and an Imperial soldier speculate about whether Vitiate has been found yet.

When you meet Darth Marr he explains that the former Emperor is "out there" and if you're a Force user your character will comment on feeling his presence too. You discuss how it doesn't make sense for Vitiate to have "fled" after what happened on Ziost.

Suddenly a probe appears, which doesn't seem that big a deal except that the music makes it clear that something exciting and dangerous is happening. The ship's sensors identify it as being associated with the "unknown force that attacked Korriban". Before you can do anything to it, a huge fleet of Eternal Empire ships appears and boarding pods attach to the ship. Your character volunteers to take out the boarders while Marr is supposed to get you out of there.

You fight a couple of inconsequential feeling skytrooper groups, which are obviously intended to teach new players starting at level 60 the basics of combat. The background chatter has Imperial and Republic soldiers sticking together against the unknown threat. In the port section, some soldiers from both factions are cut off fighting skytroopers. The Imperial Sergeant Dol argues to quickly shut the closest blast door to keep the enemies out, while the Republic Corporal Ralo doesn't want to leave anyone behind. You get to choose whose orders are followed and it's noted that both soldiers have an opinion on this that they will remember.


You fight some more skytroopers when the companion to whom you talked briefly before boarding Marr's ship radios you that the airlock has been shot up but the clamps are stuck and they can't get away. You free your ship and can tell your crew to either flee or to stay and fight.

You meet with Darth Marr on the engineering deck and he becomes your companion! So exciting! This was also where I was immediately weirded out by the fact that since KotFE any new companions are set to act as healers by default. I understand why - but it's really weird to see characters like Darth Marr run up to you and the first thing he does is cast a heal on you!

It's made very clear that Marr is willing to fight to the death and expects the same of his crew, but eventually it becomes undeniable that the ship has become too shot up to escape. You are given the option to abandon ship or use it to ram one of the Zakuulan ships as one last defiant gesture. (Marr obviously approves of the latter.)

The ship blows up either way, and you wake up as a prisoner on an enemy ship (shackled, with all your abilities greyed out). You meet Arcann, who introduces the Zakuul Empire. This is where the improved work on facial expressions really starts to show, as your character manages to look impressively pissed off with the occasional glance of worry thrown in. Darth Marr reappears as a prisoner as well. Arcann takes both of you to see his father, though shortly before you reach his throne, you run into Heskal, a so-called Scion, and it's made clear that he's made some sort of doomsday prediction that Arcann doesn't like.

In the throne room, it becomes apparent why Darth Marr had to be with you - if you are a Force user yourself, you can tell that Valkorion is Vitiate, but otherwise you need Marr there to say it out loud. Valkorion is rather amused by your anger at him and removes Darth Marr's shackles, offering him to join him. Marr is enraged however and swears that he will never serve the Emperor again. After he attacks the knights guarding him, Valkorion kills him with Force lightning. Then his daughter Vaylin appears and suddenly asks for the room to be cleared.

With just you, Arcann and Valkorion left in the room, the latter shares that he has been impressed by the way you have influenced the galaxy and offers you a share of his own power if you kneel to him, the pivotal scene shown in the Outlander trailer. It's interesting to note that while the scenes play out somewhat differently depending on what you say, the outcome is the same: Valkorion dies soon after. If you agree to join him, Arcann backstabs him while he appears to transfer some of his power to you. If you refuse him, he orders Arcann to kill you, yet Arcann cuts your shackles instead, encouraging you to finish what you came for, and attacks Valkorion himself. This leads to a pretty memorable exchange during which Valkorion parries Arcann's lightsaber blows with his bare hand, mocking him for his "jealousy" - until you stab or shoot Valkorion in the back while he's distracted.

As Valkorion dies, a sort of Force storm gets unleashed in the room, knocking everyone out. Arcann is the first to get up again and as Vaylin enters the room, he orders you taken prisoner since you assassinated the Emperor (which is actually true if you made the light side choice!). He is shown making a broadcast to the citizens of Zakuul, informing them of your vile deed and swearing vengeance against the core worlds, while your character's unconscious body is dragged away and frozen in carbonite.


Conclusion

Chapter one starts pretty much in medias res and as a long-time player it's hard not to feel a bit disoriented by everything that's supposed to have happened while you weren't looking. Things progress at a dizzying speed, which can feel a bit rushed but also keeps things interesting.

Receiving Darth Marr as a companion is many a player's dream come true, and seeing him die almost immediately afterwards sucks. I've read about players who actually abort the chapter as soon as Marr joins them just so they can traipse around the fleet and show off their unique companion.

The revelation that Valkorion is Vitiate comes surprisingly early and isn't properly explained, though upon replaying this chapter specifically for this blog post it's quite obvious that there is more to the whole thing than meets the eye, as Valkorion himself never actually agrees with the accusations that he is the old Sith Emperor and keeps making mocking comments about how there's been a mistake and do you really know who you're talking to? This isn't to say that he isn't Vitiate, as he doesn't deny it either, but the whole matter is clearly more complicated than is immediately obvious.

The fact that the "big choice" leads to Valkorion's death either way can be seen as a disappointment if you genuinely expected the story to branch into two completely different versions, one of which would have you ruling the galaxy alongside an evil Emperor, but personally I never expected things to go that way anyway. I for one was still very much intrigued by the different ways in which the situation played out.

08/01/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Battle of Ilum

Today I decided to talk about the last flashpoint that my Mercenary had a "streak" of while levelling, Battle of Ilum.


General Facts

Battle of Ilum was in game at launch and was originally designed for levels 48-50, meant to finish off Ilum's main storyline, together with its follow-up, The False Emperor. Since 4.0 it's available as a tactical from level 15-65 and has a solo mode option as well.

Story (spoilers)

The flashpoint starts off with your party talking to their personal pilot, the Corellian Cole Cantarus for Republic players or General Hesker of the Imperial Guard for the Empire. Ilum's planetary storyline just ended with Darth Malgus - a repeat quest giver for Imperials but known to Republic characters as well - unexpectedly seceding from the Empire and attacking both Republic and Empire at once. A plan has been hatched to steal one of his new stealth ships and use it to find the old Emperor's cloaked space station, which has become Malgus' new base of operations. In order to do this, you need to succeed at a ground assault on Fort Barrow on Ilum, where a lot of Malgus' troops are stationed.

You get dropped off in a seemingly random spot and immediately have to take a taxi to actually get anywhere near where you're supposed to be (the trenches). You run into a lot of aliens fighting for Malgus, as a big part of his "New Empire" is embracing the diversity of different species that the old Empire has always dismissed as inferior.

After lots of fighting through trenches and mines you eventually make it to Fort Barrow, just as Malgus' right-hand man arrives: Darth Serevin, whom Imperial players may remember as the quest giver for the main Imperial storyline on Voss. (Personally I was quite gutted that he turned out to be a traitor as he had been one of the more likeable Sith that you meet throughout the game. You just can't trust a Sith that seems likeable.) As it turns out, he has brought some Voss with him as well. After you defeat him, you can either execute them or spare them - they promise to join your side if you do so.

Both factions also receive a set of initially somewhat unpleasant news near the end: General Hesker gets shot down by the enemy (though he survives) and Republic characters get told by Serevin that an assassin has been sent to kill Supreme Commander Rans. (Though as it turns out, he survives that attack as well.)


Fights

Battle of Ilum has the dubious honour of probably being the flashpoint with the largest amount of skippable fights in game. I already talked about this problem to some extent when I discussed Directive 7. If you want to, you can go around killing a lot of enemies and complete two bonus missions in the process. On the other hand, there are huge amounts of encounters you can skip just to get to the end quickly if that's what you prefer. The problem lies in pug groups bringing together people who might have different preferences. I don't know if it's still the done thing or even possible, but I remember a time when people even used to skip the first two bosses, which drove me absolutely nuts.

You spend the entire flashpoint fighting Darth Malgus' troops as well as some miners that work for him. Some are human, but a vast majority are aliens. Most trash pulls are not very exciting, but watch out for the groups with the ice cats, those critters hit quite hard.

The bosses are largely in line with this, as three encounters feature alien leaders fighting for Malgus and they all emphasise some variety of the golden rule of "kill the adds". Then there are two mining droids which are a matter of tank and spank. And finally, at the end, a Sith: Darth Serevin. He throws crystals at people and is meant to teach the lesson that long casts with ominous names like "Force Explosion" are best interrupted. (It used to wipe you on hardmode if you allowed it to go through, but even on regular difficulty it does quite a lot of damage.)

Conclusion

Battle of Ilum is a gorgeous-looking flashpoint with beautiful environments if you care to look, as Ilum's skies are as wondrous as ever and its designers clearly put a lot of love into placing everything. Who else knows that "secret" cave that's not on the map and which has several crates for the bonus mission in it as well as a dead tauntaun with a frozen body next to it (which is probably an Empire Strikes Back reference)?


Sadly, a lot of people really don't like spending time there though, and just like in other potentially long flashpoints, that rush-rush attitude can be a pain in the backside if you actually enjoy taking your time and doing the bonuses.

The storyline of Malgus' betrayal is interesting in principle, but somewhat awkwardly put together. It's very questionable whether it was a good idea to tie a main planetary storyline and two flashpoints together, as many people do one without the other and end up confused. Actually, the really sad thing is that even if you do run everything in order, the planetary storyline on either faction and the Malgus arc seem to have little to do with each other except that they both take place on Ilum. It can get particularly awkward if you're an Empire player, where you get the option to support Malgus and his ideas repeatedly, and then he's suddenly betrayed everyone including you with no warning whatsoever. The events of the planetary storyline and the the two flashpoints just don't feel very well connected.

Also, Battle of Ilum is definitely the weaker of the two flashpoints involved in this storyline, as stealing a spaceship via a ground attack is not very intuitive and you end up feeling kind of removed from the whole mission. Republic players also get the shaft a bit at the end since they have never met Darth Serevin before, while Imperial players likely have a history with him that makes the encounter a lot more meaningful (see my comment above about feeling betrayed).

The ending with the Voss is also a bit unsatisfying, because after all the fuss that is made about their neutrality the idea that your faction might get some Voss based on a simple flashpoint choice - which will of course never be mentioned anywhere ever again - feels like a bit of a letdown if you were really hoping for a more meaningful resolution to their situation.

06/01/2016

Coruscant Nostalgia

I don't spend a lot of time on Coruscant - why would I? It always covered only a fairly brief part of the levelling game, and with the increased levelling speed brought on by 4.0, you might as well blink and you'll miss it. To be honest, I also never actually liked Coruscant very much. Most of the environments are way too corridor-like, and story-wise it's just a different gang causing problems in each sector, which is not very exciting.

And yet... there is something about that planet. Recently I came back to it more often than usual, due to working on both a knight and a trooper alt, and if I allow myself to actually take in my environment after exiting the spaceport instead of making a blind beeline for the next quest objective, it's still kind of enchanting. The way the music swells, the beauty of the wide open spaces around the Senate Plaza, with the skyline caught in eternal dusk... it takes me back to the first time I arrived on the planet and felt that this game was really taking me to a galaxy far, far away.


It's interesting that my actual first starter planet, Ord Mantell, doesn't evoke nearly as many feelings. Do you also have a place that still reminds you of that special "new MMO" magic?

03/01/2016

Levelling Through Flashpoints Post 4.0 - Would I Recommend It?

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?

Speed

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:

Difficulty

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.

Player Behaviour

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.

Story

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!)

01/01/2016

Happy New Year! Win 2400 Cartel Coins (Closed)

I've decided to ring in the new year in a slightly different manner this year, namely by holding a little giveaway for my readers!


And the lucky winner, determined by an in-game /roll 30 (the number of entries), is...

Commenter #3, fellow blogger Ravanel from The Red Eclipse!

Congratulations! :D


The prize:

While I visited my family in Austria for Christmas, I purchased a 2400 cartel coin code in a local shop. Here's the box in all its German glory:


No, of course I won't send that to anyone, that would be silly. The winner will simply receive the code to claim their coins in their in-game mail.

Store-bought cartel coins come with different mini pets depending on where you bought them, and since these are from Austria, they will also grant one of your characters a Forest Nekarr Cat.

How to enter:

There are two requirements for entering this giveaway.

1. Leave a comment in response to this post telling me about a happy SWTOR memory. (I was going to say "your happiest" at first but didn't want anyone to fret about whatever they had thought of right then really was their happiest moment or merely in their top ten - it's kind of silly but I know it's the kind of thing I would do.) Anything SWTOR-related will do, whether it was directly caused by something that happened in the game or only tangentially related, e.g. that time you had a real-life meetup with all of your SWTOR guildies and it was awesome.

2. At the end of your comment, leave your character name, faction and server name. This is so I have a way of contacting you if you win! This doesn't have to be your main if you're shy, just somewhere where I can mail the code if you win so that you will actually receive it.

The blog is set up to allow anonymous comments, so as long as you can cope with CAPTCHAs you don't have to sign up with any third party service like OpenID to participate. However, should you still have issues commenting on this post for some reason, feel free to drop me an e-mail with what your comment was supposed to be and I will post it for you.

Who wins?

While I hope that people will leave thoughtful comments that will be enjoyable to read, they won't be rated by quality and the winner will be drawn at random from all eligible participants. You have until 7 am GMT on the 6th of Janury to enter (you'll have to check yourself when that is in your local time zone), at which point I'll close the comments for this post and announce the winner later in the day.

Happy New Year!