A Tale of Tier Four

I mentioned before the patch that I had saved up a lot of CXP packs in anticipation of Command tier four. One more reason to be antsy about the patch's release was that I was running out of space to store the things if I didn't want to start redistributing them on alts, so I was really keen on finally being able to clean out my cargo hold, inventory and mail box.

Of course, nothing is ever that easy. To get the most out of all those packs, I wanted to wait with claiming them until my alignment (light side) had had a victory. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often on TRE right now, and I'd say there are about two dark side victories for every light side victory. I won't be so melodramatic as to say that light side never wins, but it's certainly proven elusive over the last couple of days. I tried staying up late in the evening, but even though my side was gaining, it was so slow that I eventually had to give up as I was falling asleep at the keyboard and had work the next day. Other times I always seemed to just miss it, with the victory popping just after I had to leave the house for an appointment or just before I came home from work. It was growing kind of aggravating!

Then, yesterday at around 6 in the morning, I logged on to finally find the light side at stage four already, and claiming victory shortly afterwards. Hurrah! What followed were several hours worth of inventory management, which is one of those things that you either enjoy or you don't, and I definitely did enjoy it in this case. I'm happy to report that all those CXP packs translated to a respectable 86 Command crates. And let me tell you, opening so many of the things at once is pretty fun!

I actually purchased all the Command stash extensions, a UI feature that I had always considered pretty pointless before then, but if you open that many crates at once it's actually pretty nice to be able to let the loot pile up for a bit without having to worry about claiming or disintegrating things every other crate. Plus it allowed me to be strategic and for example leave the blue gear pieces in the stash at first without claiming them, in hopes of getting a purple or even gold for the same slot out of one of the later crates.

I'm happy to say that it worked out pretty well for me, and I received an upgrade for every single gear slot. Sure, most of them were blues, and while they feel less prestigious than the purples we're used to and I'm still not convinced whether it's a good idea to even have all these tiers within tiers, everything was at least an upgrade. It seems that Bioware has finally found a sort of balance with tier four, making me reconsider Command rank 300 as a worthwhile goal for some of my alts.

Fiery Grophet seeking to camouflage itself on a carpet.

The thing that came as a surprise for me were the pets. I'm not a pet collector, so I have to admit I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to caring about them. Sure, I'll usually go "that's cute", but by the next day I'll already have forgotten that I even got a new pet the day before. But this tier had a grophet as one of the rewards from the crates. I've written before about really liking those. And the other pet was a cute green froggie with spots! D'aww.

But then the duplicates started rolling in. I hit disintegrate on a grophet and immediately felt a terrible jolt of guilt. It doesn't really make sense. I don't worry about what an uncomfortable life these creatures must lead, being stashed away between armour pieces and companion gifts inside of crates that mysteriously appear out of thin air. But when you ask me to take action myself, to actively destroy them... I suddenly feel bad. It's one thing to "disintegrate" a piece of armour, but a cute little animal? I'd always felt a little bad about it before, but the grophets were more appealing to me than the usual offerings, and due to opening all of those crates at once I had quickly accumulated a whole stack of them. Seven little grophets... sounds like the name of a fairy tale!

Eventually I went "to hell with it", claimed them all and sent them round to my alts. Who wouldn't want a cute little potato creature with spindly legs by their side? My Marauder's also seems to have an interest in slicing, who knew? It's a shame that you can't have more than one copy of a pet in your stronghold, or I could open Shintar's Home for Fiery Grophets in one of them. It's strange in what sort of directions playing a game like this can take your thoughts sometimes.


Iokath Impressions

At last, the War for Iokath has begun!

I was very excited when I jumped into the update with my pet tank last night. I already mentioned it in my post about looking forward to the patch, but this is the first time in literally years that we could get into the meat of an update together instead of just jumping into our separate solo stories. Sure, there were still solo cut scenes, but at least we could group up in-between. We had such fun romping around Iokath and exploring it together; it was great.

Also, I got to play with giant balls - always a plus in my book.

I couldn't help but think though that Bioware seems to be somewhat out of practice in terms of making things work flawlessly in groups. I remember first thinking that back on Ziost, where one of the daily quests initially bugged out big time if you were in a group, and again during 4.0, where in certain Star Fortress cut scenes any people you were grouped with would suddenly disappear. (Pet tank and I joked that he put me in his pocket on the way out.) It's easy to take things working in a group for granted, but it seems to me that a bit of expertise has been lost in that area and has yet to be recovered.

On Iokath this first showed itself when we went to the terminal to pick a side for the dailies and I was told I was "not eligible for this conversation". We soon found out that this was because my pet tank had already clicked on it beforehand, and because he had already chosen a side, I was somehow not allowed to pick one while grouped with him. Easily solved by disbanding the group, using the terminal and regrouping afterwards, but still strange. I'm guessing this is in place to avoid people picking different sides and then essentially being grouped with the "opposite faction" but it didn't feel very intuitive. The biggest blunder however happened when we were doing a story mission in parallel in our own separate phases, finished it, and when it progressed to the next stage I suddenly got ejected from my own phase and ended up spectating in my pet tank's instead. It was amusing more than anything (I got to make snarky comments about his dialogue choices), but still not something that should really happen. There was also at least one daily quest that could have easily been put in a group phase but was put in a personal phase for no reason I could make out, which was again somewhat annoying.

The story itself was... okay. Getting the option to flirt with Jace Malcom in front of Theron had me in stitches, and as a die-hard Republic player I was impressed by how well Acina still managed to guilt-trip me for not siding with her. That was really well written. Some of the other stuff? Eh, not so much. As I proposed on Twitter:
We all know that "chasing after the superweapon" is a well-worn Star Wars trope and mostly serves as an excuse to reignite the Republic-Empire conflict here, but it's not done with a lot of heart. Everyone's chasing after the MacGuffin, but it initially doesn't even have a name and nobody knows what it does (thus the ridiculous overuse of the word "superweapon"), which makes it a bit hard to understand why everyone's quite so gung-ho about it. When I think back to other big-name threats in the storyline, such as the Barrager or the Gauntlet, we at least knew why these things were a big deal. Here, not really.

So I could see players who value the story above all else being a bit disappointed by this update, even if there was an interesting twist at the end. For me however, anything it was lacking in this department was easily made up for by the fun of actually running across Iokath with my pet tank, searching for daily objectives together and discovering things like strange teleporters or glitched-out champion droids (I still don't know what was up with that one).

What else could I add to these first impressions? Oh yeah, one of the first quests has you running around a contested area where Republic and Empire are fighting and the mobs actually come in big and hard-hitting groups. I pulled too much and had to run away at one point; it was exciting to even have to do that!

Oh, and my favourite bug of the day (you know there are always some on patch day) was that in one of the conversations there was a conversation wheel with the options "yes" and "no" stuck mid-screen permanently. I'm guessing this is the base template they always start with and someone forgot to tidy it up after finishing this particular conversation? Either way, I feel like I could get a lot of good use out of this screenshot...


Veteran Outlander

Last month when I finished KotET on veteran mode I mentioned that I was going to give KotFE a try next. What I didn't expect was that I would power through the full sixteen chapters on veteran mode more quickly than I ever did them on story mode!

Mainly there were two reasons for this. One was that I actually really enjoyed the story as a Sith inquisitor. In my "best classes to take into KotFE/KotET" post I ranked the inquisitor as number two, but after this I'm inclined to agree with Sullas, who commented back then that this class should be number one. Even though dealing with the Sith Emperor/Valkorion isn't a natural continuation of their class story, the plot itself fits inquisitors like a glove. In terms of dialogue I was enjoying myself more than I have on any other class I've played.

The second reason was that I wanted to get it done for the achievement and to be able to write a blog post about it. So there you go. Though wondering just how hard veteran mode was going to be this time around also kept things fresh and intriguing, always making me want to push on.

Fun fact: Since I found it annoying to play KotET veteran as a freshly-dinged 70, I wanted to make sure to get as much of KotFE as possible done before hitting the level cap on my inquisitor. I turned off the uber XP boost, but I was still surprised by how little XP the chapters gave past level 65! 65 to 66 went by quickly, only taking two chapters as far as I recall, but then things slowed down drastically, and by the time I completed chapter sixteen, I wasn't even halfway through level 69, despite of having been fully rested the entire time.

Unfortunately I'm none the wiser on whether it really helps to do the higher difficulties below the level cap. The difficulty curve certainly felt a lot smoother than it did in KotET, but that might just mean that Bioware did a better job with tuning this expansion's veteran mode. I didn't encounter any roadblocks like KotET's chapter two this time around, and the only boss on whom I wiped often enough to need to repair between attempts was Arcann. But then, he was basically the "expansion end boss", and I didn't mind that one being harder than anything else.

In general I was surprised by how few of the bosses gave me trouble. Having a long-duration crowd control certainly came in handy, and my combat res saw repeated use as well to revive companions that had managed to get themselves killed in a moment of inattention on my part. Funnily enough, the thing that killed me most often was actually trash. In my KotET post I talked about the annoyance of dying to mobs labelled as weak, and on my Sorcerer in her light armour that feeling was only amplified. I got so much use out of Force Barrier on trash groups! And I laughed out loud when some random wingmaws in the Zakuulan swamp killed me so quickly that I didn't even have to react and hit said barrier. I did learn to deal with those trash pulls a bit better after a while though.

But let's start at the beginning. Nothing really gave me any trouble for the first four chapters except the aforementioned trash pulls. The first boss fight that presented somewhat of a challenge was the skytrooper boss in chapter five (I forgot what he's called, I just remember that it wasn't Skytrooper Captain). The issue was that he became invulnerable every so often while summoning adds, but Lana was obsessed with trying to hit him inside his invulnerability bubble. Oh yeah, I haven't mentioned yet that I was doing this as heal spec, have I? Whenever the adds spawned, I therefore couldn't kill them quickly enough, and manually directing Lana towards each of them in turn took too much time. But I eventually succeeded after I switched her from dps to tank. She was still obsessed with the invulnerable boss most of the time, but once I directed her towards the adds, she would use an AoE taunt and grab all of them at once instead of needing to be told to attack each one individually.

The scions' trial in chapter six presented an interesting challenge. You know how Senya defaults to healer when she joins you? It was surprising how quickly we died as a double healer team! On respawn I changed her to damage, started the fight properly with a crowd control and off we went. I imagine that this part is quite tough if you always have to deal with both scions simultaneously. Heskal was a law onto himself because you're not allowed to have a companion during that fight and he hits pretty hard, especially with his turbulence. I spent a lot of time running in circles and trying to line of sight him while keeping myself healed up and slowly whittling away at his health with dots and weak instant casts. Both times the cut scenes kicked in it felt like I would have died if they hadn't "saved" me just then. I read that it's a lot easier to accept Valkorion's power here, but since this wasn't a replay but my actual story progression, I didn't want to make out-of-character choices just to make the fight easier.

No major issues in chapter seven and eight, except for a knight boss with skytrooper adds in the latter, which caused me similar issues as in chapter five, but again setting my companion to tank eventually did the trick. The first confrontation with Arcann was actually surprisingly easy.

Chapter nine, understandably, doesn't have a veteran mode, but why does it have tick boxes for the other two difficulties then? The HK bonus chapter doesn't have veteran and master mode either, but it's also not showing the icons for them. Argh. [/random UI OCD]

Chapter ten was probably the most annoying one. The fight against the duo of guards at the last junction must be rough without a long-duration crowd control, but as it was I managed. But the Knights of Zakuul in the Overwatch were really annoying. Those were the only mobs that seemed badly tuned to me, as they hit much harder than any knight-type mobs in other chapters, sometimes taking off more than a third of my health with a single instant attack. Switching Kaliyo to tank did no good here either, as she melted just as quickly. Eventually I managed to clear my way in with a lot of frantic kiting, making sure the mobs could barely ever touch me. On the way out, the same type of knight repeatedly spawned in, jumped me, killed me, and then instantly despawned again, never to be seen again, so I made my way back outside in a sort of death zerg. It just seemed so unnecessary.

In chapter eleven I found the final fight against the battle droid on your way out quite challenging: While the weak adds die in one hit even when you're a healer, there are a lot of them and they spawn all over the place. I did eventually succeed with Jorgan tanking and me doing a lot of frantic running around to off all the adds before they could do too much damage. Fun fact: If you try to knock anything off the platform, the fight resets.

Chapter twelve was one I expected to be a major pain in the arse as a healer, seeing how you have to do most of it without a companion (except for part of the second half, when you can tame a pet for a while), but it actually wasn't bad at all. In fact, I had a huge revelation about the first Valkorion fight. You don't actually have to get him to whatever percentage he usually stops at - simply letting him take you down to about thirty percent health also triggers the next cut scene. Quickest boss fight ever!

Thirteen, fourteen and fifteen were pretty smooth too. Unlike Lana in chapter five, Vette and Gault in thirteen immediately switched targets whenever the last boss went into an invulnerability phase, making that fight a breeze with two dps comps sniping any adds the moment they spawned. The Gemini captain in fifteen also wasn't an issue because with Senya on dps she picked out the correct target after a split pretty much instantly, saving you from taking too much damage from the "illusions".

The final chapter initially had me surprised by how easy everything seemed to be. I had picked the turret option for easy extra dps and they pretty much melted all the mini bosses for me without issue. But then I got to Arcann himself... and he is painful. As I said above, I just didn't mind as much because he is the big bad of the expansion.

I already found the shield mechanic a bit clunky on story mode, specifically that switching out of "shield stance" isn't instant but has a one to two second delay. In veteran mode this becomes even more of an issue as at least one of the AoE attacks Arcann does is a guaranteed one-shot, and if you're slowed by the shield at the wrong time, it's pretty much game over. I had to switch back and forth a lot, and found it helpful to try and stay near Arcann, as the deadliest AoE would start at his feet and get wider the further away you were, making it easier to dodge it if you were right on top of him.

When he gets low and puts up his "attuned barrier" or whatever it's called, it's time to get ready to raise your shield, as he will unleash a flurry of lightning in your direction afterwards. I found that if I didn't have the shield up at this point, I would die within mere moments. And then there's the big finale where you're supposed to walk up the stairs and smash him one last time. I saw several people complain that this was impossible on their class, but it seems that the key is timing. (Seeing how the raised shield disables all abilities, class shouldn't make a difference.) The damage and healing seems to be balanced in such a way that as long as you stay at max distance, they continuously balance each other out, so you are actually better off waiting a bit and making sure the first two manifestations kill themselves with reflects. If you charge ahead before that, you might accidentally end up turning your back to them before they are gone and then you die. Likewise, the ascent up the stairs seems to be tuned to take you to the very verge of death just before you reach Arcann, so just keep going and spam that slam button even while it's still greyed out. I thought I was going to die for sure on my last attempt but then the button lit up at a greater range than I had expected and I got that slam in just in time.

It was a satisfying ending to a fun experience and has definitely raised my opinion of veteran mode chapters as a whole. But is master mode going to be next? Eventually I guess, but probably not any time soon. The biggest obstacle for me is that I don't like re-playing the story on a character who's already done it,  but master mode is intended for max-level characters in endgame gear. While I do have some characters at or near max level that haven't done the either "Knights of" expansion yet, getting them ready for master mode difficulty would require some work, and I'm not sure I'm sufficiently motivated to put that much effort in just yet.


The Importance of NPCs

Replaying KotET and more recently also KotFE got me thinking about the role and importance of NPCs in MMOs, probably because both expansions have been criticised for putting too much focus on certain non-player characters, to the point where they feel more like the story of Valkorion, Lana & Co. than our own.

How much of a role should NPCs play in an MMO? Do we need them at all?

I think the answer to the latter question is probably no, if we're talking about truly "needing" them. I suppose a complete lack of non-player characters would be challenging in terms of handling certain game mechanics (such as how to create and distribute currency for example), but that aside it's not that hard to imagine an MMO in which players literally only have each other to interact with. It would be the ultimate sandbox.

But it is desirable? I could imagine such a game being fun, but I fear that if there were multiple games like it, they would be at risk of feeling a bit same-ish. As a collective, MMO players are not very good at building a coherent and interesting culture. Put a lot of them together and it seems you inevitably end up with a lot of people with silly names and a penchant for making crude jokes. That could be a fun setting once or twice, but you wouldn't want all your games to be like that.

I want my MMOs to have an interesting setting and lore, and for that it still seems best to have that part actually put together by professionals. NPCs are one way to achieve this. Even if they were set up to never talk to or otherwise interact with players, their mere presence would already tell us things: about what sort of society they live in, what sort of settlements they have, how they dress, what sort of roles they play. Once you get them talking, things only get more interesting and stories get told.

It seems to me that when it comes to NPC interactions, you can have a spectrum that goes from disinterested and independent to highly attached. The former means that NPCs talk to and trade with you and may even give you quests, but have little to no interest in you beyond that. Once you're done with them, you move on and probably never interact with them again. I remember Vanilla WoW being a lot like that. This can then lead to people accusing the game of having little or no story - but this isn't necessarily true, the story just isn't as in-your-face. Vanilla WoW actually had some very interesting stories, you just had to actively pay attention to quest text and connect the dots. And they were rarely about a single hero and more often about whole political factions or worldly developments (e.g. multiple quests having you investigate Silithid hives in different zones slowly drawing a more comprehensive image of what was going on with them).

On the opposite end we have Bioware's companions: NPCs that pretty much attach themselves to you, follow you around and become your best friends or worst enemies. It seems to me that merely telling stories that way has become almost synonymous with "good storytelling" simply because it's impossible to miss. The more distant approach requires players to be curious and interested in puzzling things out for themselves, which can be fun and rewarding. But if you're not into it, that story might as well not exist. Comparatively, the guy who constantly follows you around and comments on everything you do is hard to miss, and suddenly there's a story for everyone.

Of course that approach has its pitfalls too. Players who enjoy puzzling things out for themselves might perceive a story delivered in a pushy manner as "dumbed down", but more importantly you might piss people off by (semi-)permanently saddling with with companions they don't even like. Theron Shan and Lana Beniko in SWTOR are a good example. They were originally introduced with the Forged Alliances story arc in early 2014 (yes, that long ago), initially just as contacts that guided you through the different steps of the story, just to rise to further prominence in Shadow of Revan until they became permanent companions in Knights of the Fallen Empire.

Both are written in a way that tries really hard to make you like them. They may disagree with what you say at times, but they remain unfailingly loyal no matter what. They are also both skilled individuals and highly useful to have around from a purely pragmatic point of view. Lana is more of a quiet, thoughtful type, while Theron likes to crack wise on occasion, but both are likeable archetypes. And it works! They are popular with a large part of the player base and many have entered into a romance with one or the other.

But there are reasons to dislike both of them too. Lana is manipulative and somehow always gets things to go her way. It's not unreasonable to want to break free of her grasp. Or maybe you're just sick of Theron's forced levity and want to get rid of him.

Yet you can't. On occasions you may be able to say rude things to either of them, but as mentioned above, they are unfailingly loyal to your cause... which only gets more annoying as you try to drive them away by being mean. Pfannenstiel mused in his own comment section the other week that it would be interesting if after the choice on Iokath either Lana or Theron would turn against us. Sure sounds exciting to me, even if I don't think it's likely to happen and I don't even really dislike either of them. But being forced to hang out with them all the time is not optimal either.

And I do think this is one area where KotFE/KotET suffered a bit, in that they tried too hard to make the conflict between you and Arcann and Vaylin personal. I never liked the Sith inquisitor's chapter three because it uses a similar set-up: The villain wants you dead for personal reasons, so you must personally want them dead too. No, that's not how it works! Maybe the "Knights of" story would have actually been stronger if there had been more of a focus on why Arcann and Vaylin's reign was bad for the galaxy as a whole, beyond some occasional mentions of how they were cruel to their people. That would have provided more opportunities for the player to find reasons to want them dethroned and given us back some sense of agency.

Still, on the whole I like having some NPCs around that serve as recurring characters and with whom you can develop a relationship. I just think it's best balanced out with also having characters on the other end of the spectrum, to remind the player that the world doesn't revolve around them and that there are other stories out there that are worth actively discovering too.

SWTOR did used to have those as well by the way. The other week I finally finished up a long-running project of mine, which was to make a video about the Dread Master story arc.

Sure, the Dread Masters were recurring characters too, but not in the "core" story content, and you had to actively seek out those extra stories and figure out how they were all connected. The Masters themselves weren't actually very fleshed out in terms of personality (aside from Calphayus, we don't even know what species they were), but they didn't need to be either - they did a lot of directing events from the shadows, and on the few occasions when you did meet them directly, they almost always made it very clear that they didn't think very highly of the player character. But that's what made them fun: chasing them, proving that you were worthy of attention and that you weren't going to let them get away with their plans.

Do you have any favourite NPCs that you think are underappreciated, or clingy ones that you just wish would leave you alone already?


Reading Patch Notes

Today was supposed to be patch day! Except then it wasn't. Less than 24 hours before the patch was supposed to go live, we were told on the forums that it wasn't ready yet after all and that it would be delayed by another week.

Some people were quite mad, and I do get being disappointed if you specifically took time off to play or something... but then I always say: Don't plan too much of your life around video games! You just know this stuff is never going to work on day one anyway. For me, it just means that I won't be able to play the new content over the long Easter weekend like I'd been hoping to, but instead it will go live just as I have to go back to work on the Tuesday. Bleh.

Anyway, speaking of never planning things around video games, I was totally planning to write about the patch today but now I'm kind of coming up short on that front. To comfort us a little, Bioware posted the preliminary patch notes for 5.2, so let's talk about those a bit. Not the obvious stuff, like the new storyline and operations boss, because most of us already know about those anyway. But even if you didn't, they'll be much more fun to talk about once we've actually seen everything in its full glory. Throwaway one-liners are much more fun to analyse in advance.

Updated Class Story Introductions: The introductory scenes for the original eight class storylines have been significantly updated and improved.

This was a funny thing to see up in the "highlights" section. Someone called this out on the forums too and Eric went on to clarify that they added moving cameras and stuff to these like they have in the more recent content. I find this oddly intriguing. On the one hand I'd rather they spent the time on more content and bug fixes than this sort of thing, but on the other I do love the base game very much and can't fault them for wanting to keep it fresh and interesting to new players. Better than a WoW-style Cataclysm in any case.

The audio that plays when a Group Finder queue is ready has been improved to be more noticeable.

This has the potential to be a great quality of life change, considering how soft that noise has always been. I just hope they haven't replaced it with a loud trumpet or anything like that.

Custom HK-51 appearances will now appear properly during Chapter IX: The Alliance cinematics.

Funny, I was just playing through that chapter on the only character other than my main who has HK-51 and was wondering why his customisation wasn't showing in that scene. Of course now I'd actually have to unlock HK on a third character to actually see the update... or replay the chapter I guess.

All enemies now have a Command Experience value when killed.

This sounds like massive news to me and I'm not sure why everybody isn't talking about it. I mean, unless I'm reading this wrong, it will mean that weak and strong enemies will now also give CXP (though presumably not very much). If so, that would be fantastic. The fact that most mobs you kill don't currently grant any CXP is the one thing that has prevented the system from feeling like a true continuation of regular levelling in my opinion. Can you imagine all those swarms of weak mobs in uprisings actually giving you something? I just hope this doesn't herald another phase of everyone just mindlessly farming mobs until Bioware has to nerf the numbers again.

Defeating the Cartel Warlords in Scum and Villainy in 8-player Nightmare Mode will no longer also grant the Achievement for defeating them on 16-player Nightmare Mode.

This has actually been fixed now, but I like that Vulkk caught the devs struggling with their own new terminology here and still calling master mode nightmare originally (I do this all the time because I like the old names much better).

Completing Uprisings on Story and Veteran difficulty will now grant progress towards the General Uprising Achievements “Initial Uprisings (Story), Initial Uprisings (Veteran), Second Uprisings (Story), and Second Uprisings (Veteran).”

Funny thing is, I actually got one of those achievements the other day already, so they can't have been all bugged... or maybe someone implemented this fix earlier already without telling anyone.

Kolto stations will now respawn when an entire party dies during an Uprising boss encounter.

Yes, thank god! I've only tried my hand at pugging story mode uprisings a little, but this was a major pain in the butt for any group without a healer, because it meant that you basically got one or two attempts at a boss and then it was game over because you'd have no access to heals whatsoever anymore, making the encounter literally impossible for your current group.

Galactic Starfighter Daily and Weekly Missions now award Unassembled Components. Daily Missions award 8 and Weekly Missions award 20.

Woohoo, even more reasons to keep doing that GSF weekly! I kind of get the impression that they waited with this one to see if people kept playing GSF just for the CXP, but then they saw participation numbers drop again and decided to throw that extra incentive in there. I'll take it.

Unlearned Schematics can no longer be equipped in armoring slots.

What is this I don't even...? I'm not sure whether I'm more confused by this having been a thing or by the idea that someone must have actually tried to stick a schematic into an armoring slot to bring the bug to people's attention.

The tireless engineers at Czerka Novelty Labs have released a free software update for the Czerka Crate-O-Matic that incorporates a Zakuulan crate into the device’s repertoire. Czerka has refused to confirm rumors that this same update introduced a bug into the device wherein it may, in very rare cases, disguise a user as a potted plant. 

Man, now I really wish our old guild leader hadn't stashed the "guild Crate-O-Matic" away in his personal cargo hold before quitting. Maybe we can talk him into handing it over...

Invisible assassins are no longer hiding in Chapter XV of Knights of the Fallen Empire. Players can no longer be instantly killed by interacting with certain weapon lockers in the Chapter.

But what about those in chapter sixteen?!

Nerf calfs around the galaxy have become strangely hungry as of late…

Mysterious hint about a new event maybe? But what do hungry nerf calfs have to do with anyhing...


Prepared to Patch

Patch 5.2 looms on Tuesday, and I've talked about many of the reasons why I'm looking forward to it. For the past couple of weeks, I haven't felt like playing much however, and that's due to what I consider the patch's biggest mistake, which is adding another tier of gear less than six months into the new expansion.

I get the purpose of gear resets and don't mind them every now and then, but having them too often really serves to drive dedicated players away. It was one of the things that put me off WoW towards the end of my time there, that they started to have a gear reset every single patch. You could see the expiration date on your hard-earned raid drops pretty much the moment you got them, and the time until then always felt too short to let you truly enjoy the rewards for your achievements. When you know that anything you earn will become obsolete very soon, it really saps your drive to keep logging in... and if this planned obsolescence keeps happening at very short intervals, at some point it hardly feels worth working on anything at all anymore.

So yeah, trying to get any more tier 3 gear has felt a bit pointless when the first tier 4 box I'll earn will already have better stuff in it. There's no use crying over spilled milk, but I do hope that Bioware has taken note of the less than positive reaction to the original tier 4 announcement and will avoid another early push like that.

On the plus side, I've been able to save up a bit, in the form of nearly two cargo bays full of various CXP packs. I expect that popping all of those at once (only after the light side has won, obviously) will be pretty fun.

I haven't really felt motivated to get an alt to Command Rank 300, because as I've observed previously, it doesn't really do much. I've just pushed a couple of them a bit closer towards the middle/end of their current tier so that they'll immediately benefit from the changes to drop rates from crates come patch day.

Aside from more gear for everyone, Bioware has also told us that there will be even more things to look forward to than we originally thought - for example there will be quality of life changes to quick travel, and while this tweet about master mode uprisings almost seemed to come as an afterthought, I'm looking forward to trying those with my guildies too.

My interest may have flagged a little as of late, but I expect patch 5.2 to provide me with enough new things to post about for at least a month.


Developer Appreciation Week: How Work Has Made Me More Understanding of MMO Devs

It's Developer Appreciation Week, and if you don't know what that is, Rav lays it all out in detail here. I've actually been meaning to take part in this for ages, but this time around it has come at a particularly convenient time for me as I've been bouncing around ideas for a post that fits the theme quite well.

You see, in the past year I've really developed an appreciation for the difficulties that MMO devs struggle with in terms of balancing new content with bug fixes, and just generally keeping an MMO running smoothly. This is due to things that I've seen happen at my place of work, even though my job has nothing to do with gaming at all.

You see, I work for an online business that sells opticals (glasses and sunglasses). Seems quite different from running a video game, right? Well yes, in the sense that we do deliver an actual physical product by the end of the day. But our entire image rests on our online presence, and before customers get to actually hold their purchase in their hands, it goes through several steps of electronic processing in our back-end system as well, as stock levels get updated and so on.

Even though that seems a lot more straightforward than managing a whole virtual world, I've been astounded by the amount of work it takes, and just how many things can go wrong. I don't work in tech myself, but we have an open-plan office and my department is right next to IT, so one can't help... overhearing certain things. Not to mention that we do our own share of bug reporting.

For example, our website was originally built something like a decade ago by the guy who started the whole business... and who isn't with the company any longer, so tech has been spending a fair bit of time cleaning up code that only made sense to the founder himself and generally been trying to understand how certain systems were set up. I'm sure that's also true for more than one MMO that's getting long in the tooth by now.

Then there are the constant small bugs. Like that certain page updates lose their header if you hit save first instead of hitting publish right away. Or orders getting stuck at a certain point in processing. Or customers sometimes being told that their payment failed even though it succeeded. Everyone is aware of them, but there just isn't enough time in the day to fix them all, considering how many other things take priority. People have just learned to hit publish right away. Orders getting stuck is bad, but you can always get customer services to manually kick them onto the next stage, and that solves the immediate problem, right? Problems with payments are really bad, but if it only happens occasionally and it's not immediately obvious what the issue is, IT can only waste so much time on randomly fiddling around with attempts to reproduce the problem - again, customer service can patch things up until there is a larger sample size to draw conclusions from.

These are things I always think of now when I encounter a long-standing and annoying bug in SWTOR. Is it annoying? Yes. But is it actually game-breaking for a sufficiently large number of people? Probably not... And I'd like to imagine that somewhere at Bioware, someone is also aware of that bug and wishes they had time to fix it or knew what exactly caused it to at least make fixing it faster and easier. But in a business with limited resources that has to prioritise things we can't always get what we want.

You'd think that if you "just" have a website to sell things, you shouldn't need that much tech to keep it running, right? But no, we too have our equivalents of "content patches", when the business decides that the product pages need redoing to entice more customers into buying or wants to add extra payment options to the checkout. None of these things implement themselves, so these projects constantly vie with attention for things like bug fixes. Until you have those days when something suddenly breaks down completely (e.g. the website doesn't work) and everyone needs to drop what they're doing anyway because that problem needs fixing more urgently than anything else. I imagine that's what things are like at Bioware when a server collapses or a major exploit gets discovered.

Basically, what I've learned in the past year in particular, is that even something that looks relatively straightforward on the surface can hide a multitude of moving parts underneath, which require a lot of maintenance and are in constant danger of breaking. I imagine that this is multiplied tenfold when you're not just dealing with a website and an order system, but with a whole virtual world with dozens of interconnected systems.

I appreciate that the devs at Bioware work hard every day to keep things running while also adding new content to keep us all interested. I firmly believe that they're genuinely trying to do their best, but sometimes there are only so many hours in a day. Just keep up the good work.


Victory At Last, Again

Back in September 2014 I wrote a post called "Victory at last" in which I talked about finally killing the Dread Guards in Terror From Beyond on nightmare mode. Long story short, I had spent a lot of time wiping on them and it felt very satisfying to get them down at last, even if we had to overgear the fight by several tiers to get there.

After the 4.0 reset we didn't even make a proper attempt at the fight again, but since 5.0 we've been feeling more ambitious. And last night, we got it down!

And yes, it was yet another level of satisfying to beat the encounter at the intended gear level this time. Sure, it's probably a bit easier now than it was, not just because re-tuning is never perfect, but also because we have some extra abilities now that we didn't have three years ago. (For example I wouldn't have been able to simply ignore Doom with a cooldown like you can see me do in the video back then.)

But still, it felt so good. We had spent several full nights wiping on the fight beforehand, making very slow gradual progress at eliminating those small yet deadly mistakes that kept causing us to wipe, from random deaths in the lightning phase to messed up taunts to green circle shenanigans. The first time we actually hit the enrage, I felt that we could definitely do this. And then we did! The excited squealing you could hear on TeamSpeak is a testament to how excited everyone else got about downing the encounter too. That's raiding at its best in my opinion.


A Farewell to the Sith Emperor

Be warned, this post contains spoilers for the Jedi knight class story, Shadow of Revan and KotFE/KotET.

The first character I ever created in SWTOR was the trooper who's still my main to this day, and I can't remember which one of the two I made first, but Jedi consular and Imperial agent where among my first alts. This meant that my image of the Sith Empire and its Emperor was pretty... fuzzy for a long time. Even on my agent he was a mysterious figure, as nobody I talked to ever seem to know where he was, what exactly he got up to, or even what he looked like. Whenever Darth Malgus talked about acting according to the Emperor's will in a briefing, he sounded more like a religious zealot spreading a divine being's message than someone conveying what they'd been told in a private one-to-one. If there had been a plot twist later on, revealing that the Emperor was long dead and just being used as a figurehead by the Dark Council, I would have easily been able to believe it.

I realised I actually have no screenshots of the Emperor from the base game, so a shot of Malgus, who repeatedly claims to know the Emperor's will, will have to do.

Let's just say, I was in for quite a surprise when I finally levelled a Jedi knight, and later, a Sith warrior.

But that sense of mystery still stuck with me for a long time, also because Bioware kept writing the story arcs that continued the story at level fifty under the assumption that not everyone had played those two classes, so things needed explaining, yet the NPCs doing the narrating weren't exactly experts on the subject matter either. Was the Sith Emperor truly dead? It was fascinating to watch the story of a divided and confused Empire unfold on Ilum and Makeb.

Then, Shadow of Revan happened.

I didn't really have a horse in this particular race, having never played KOTOR at the time and only running a knight and warrior as relatively minor alts, but I always thought it was a bit cruel to Jedi knights to basically invalidate most of their class story. (You thought you heroically killed this guy? Nope!) At the same time it was a bit strange to make the Sith Emperor everyone's concern, from smuggler to bounty hunter. But I guess when the whole galaxy is in danger, one has to step in, regardless of one's prior role.

The Emperor's new clothes existence as disembodied shadow entity reached its peak in the Ziost story arc, where it was revealed that he was not only still alive and around, but also powerful enough to perform mass mind control on Imperial citizens and destroy an entire planet.

People were (rightly) asking where we could possibly go from there, but apparently the answer was: in a completely different direction, seemingly at random.

In Fallen Empire, it turned out that the Emperor had had a second body in a different part of the galaxy all along and had used it to get up to all kinds of hijinx. He also appeared to have received a personality transplant and suddenly lost a lot of his powers, suddenly being very dependent on his body again.

When KotFE was still very new, I wrote a somewhat frustrated post about this, hoping that some sort of explanation for what was going on was still coming. Now that we've reached the end of that story arc, I'm sad to say that this never happened. And for that reason, I'm actually pretty glad that Valkorion is dead, and hopeful that he will stay so for good now.

Don't get me wrong, I did actually enjoy fighting against all three of the Sith Emperor's incarnations. I really liked how mysterious he was to most classes in the original story. I suppose the incorporeal, planet-eating version of the character was my least favourite, mostly because he had no motivations we could understand beyond being insane and the question of how exactly we were going to fight him was never really explored. Valkorion, while totally inconsistent with everything that had come before, was at least an interesting character ins his own right (which was undoubtedly helped a lot by Darin De Paul's excellent voice acting).

Still, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at Bioware when they decided how the KotFE arc should come about. At least from the outside, it looks more than ever as if they just wanted to get away from what had come before and create something completely different. Claiming that Valkorion was actually the Sith Emperor was simply a weak way of retaining some kind of tie to the existing story, even if it made no sense for a being in his position to suddenly go back to being trapped inside and dependent on a single body.

Either way, I think he's been used for all he was worth and then some. It's time to give the guy some rest and let galactic politics unfold without him. I was ready for that by 2.0, and I'm still happy to see what's coming now.


The Eternal Veteran

I mentioned before that I used the occasion of replaying Knights of the Eternal Throne for my Chapter by Chapter series to try the story on veteran difficulty. In fact, I made a whole post about my struggle with chapter two. Now that I've finished the whole thing, I wanted to talk about the experience a bit more.

The good news first: There were no more roadblocks similar to the final boss encounter of chapter two, though there were a couple of notable milestones still. I don't recall anything giving me trouble in chapter three, but chapter four was interesting for example.

There is this part where you are supposed to defend your base against several waves of droids, and I immediately found it impossible. They enter the room from three different directions at once, and no matter where you go, your companions get nuked before you can kill everything. You can't be in three places at once! Of course, I've also played MMOs for long enough to know that in such a situation the obvious solution is to use line of sight to force all your enemies into one place. The problem I had was that the room was circular, and I couldn't find any obstacles to efficiently herd the droids towards me.

After a couple of wipes I decided that I must have been missing something important and searched the internet for advice. Shockingly, I initially found nothing. At least with chapter two, searching had yielded plenty of mentions of other people having problems, but for chapter four, I could barely find anyone talking about it at all. I felt extra dumb. Was I overlooking something so obvious that nobody even considered it worth talking about? Eventually I found a post buried in a thread that mentioned "pulling them back to the medical droid". What, you mean the medical droid all the way across the plaza and in another building? As it turns out, the solution wasn't complicated, only completely against the objective from a story perspective: Story-wise, you're told to defend the base, but from a gameplay perspective, you're best off abandoning it instantly and taking the fight somewhere else.

In the end I recorded the time I finally beat the fight and uploaded it to YouTube. At least I can now take comfort in knowing that it's not just me who had issues figuring out the solution, as I can steadily see the video grow in views and likes, even though I haven't advertised it anywhere.

Chapter five was another non-issue. As far as chapter six goes, I had been warned that the last fight could be a pain if you were light side, as it's hard to keep Arcann alive. Bizarrely, my own experience was the complete opposite, as everything melted within seconds and I was kind of left standing there, blinking in confusion. In hindsight I think I lucked out by using Arcann's abilities very effectively (it was only in chapter nine that I realised just how powerful they really are): Basically you just need to use his AoE taunt and then immediately throw up his (reflective!) barrier to watch all the hard-hitting enemies blow themselves up in seconds.

In chapter seven I had been warned about the Horizon guards but had also been told that knockbacks could be used against them to great effect. I had some fun with the elites on the bridge, where I apparently couldn't quite knock them to their deaths and instead got caught in an ongoing cycle of knocking one down, then fighting the other until the first one finally made his way back up. I can't tell whether there were really supposed to be four of them or if I caused something to bug out and reset at some point.

I initially tried to fight the champion guard the normal way, but quickly got annoyed by the fact that even though I was dodging and interrupting everything I could, his mere unavoidable attacks were still hitting too hard for Lana to keep me alive. Of course, then I realised that unlike most boss mobs, he, too, was susceptible to knockbacks and could be dragged all the way back to the cliff side without resetting. So that was that. No idea how you're supposed to do it without a knockback though.

In regards to chapter eight, I had been warned that the walker fight could be a pain and that simply using the stomp ability in melee was - while counter-intuitive - highly effective. That worked for me right away.

In chapter nine I did a lot of dying on the way into the Spire, as I had limited control over Arcann, who kept running into bad places, and the mobs just kept on coming. There was one pretty hilarious moment when three stealth troopers uncloaked next to me at the same time and one-shot Senya... But while there was a lot of death, none of it was an issue as anything I killed stayed dead, so I could make slow progress anyway. The final fight was actually pretty fun and relatively forgiving, except that you really had to keep your back against the stairs to not get knocked into the abyss (which happened to me a couple of times at first).

In the end, it was more fun than the horrible roller-coaster of chapter two had led me to expect, but something still felt off to me. First off, I still think that the sheer randomness of the difficulty is a sign of shoddy work and goes against the whole concept of letting you choose your preferred difficulty at the start. Nothing like selecting hard mode and getting nightmare-level fights. I have a hard time imagining that anyone actually play-tested chapter two for example and went: "Yeah, that's fine."

But even if I imagined a version of veteran mode in which all these random spikes had been dutifully ironed out, something about the experience would still leave me feeling dissatisfied, and I actually had to think hard about why that was. In the end I think it's how inconsistent the whole concept is with the rest of the game. We have the denominators of weak, strong and elite mobs throughout the whole game for a reason, and it just feels wrong when a single pack of so-called "weaks" takes you out in seconds. In the past, when Bioware made heroic areas, they didn't just make the weak mobs hit harder there, they actually replaced them with silver and gold level enemies so you could see right away that they were tougher.

But would it really help to do that in veteran mode? Not anymore, and that's the problem. Apart from certain named and boss mobs, there's never been much difference between the different mob types in terms of damage output. Mostly they just had different levels of health, but that actually did make them harder because companions were weak and could only keep you alive for so long. If your enemies had more health, the fight could take too long and you were likely to die from attrition as much as anything else. However, since the big companion buff of 4.0, outliving your opponent in a long fight has ceased to be a challenge, because there's little out in the world that your companion can't heal you through anyway. As a result of this, the only way to make things tough again is to make things hit stupidly hard so your companion can't heal you through them, but that also means that it becomes more about things like reflexes, and fumbling your cooldown once can already be enough to get you killed. I miss the slower, more tactical challenge of using the right abilities to disable and kill the enemy before they could do the same to you.

That said, I'm planning to give veteran KotFE a spin as well the next time I play through it. We'll see how that goes.


KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 9: The Eternal Throne

It's finally happening! After a total of 24 chapters of "Knights of..." (16 KotFE chapters plus 8 KotET chapters so far) we are finally approaching the finish line for the story of the Outlander, Valkorion and his family. I'm oddly proud of having managed to do all these detailed write-ups. Will there be spoilers in this one? You bet! And if you missed the last one...

The Story

So the last of Valkorion's recalcitrant children has been taken care of... what's left? Ah yes, apparently the Eternal Fleet needs someone to sit on the Eternal Throne to behave. (Funnily enough, Vaylin wasn't sitting on it just a moment ago either and the fleet was still perfectly compliant at the time... oh well.)

The chapter starts with your character having a dream/vision of the Eternal Throne in flames and surrounded by the corpses of both friends and enemies. Valkorion tells you that you are ready, but just as you want to sit down and claim the throne, Vaylin appears behind you and stabs you. You wake with a start aboard the Gravestone (strange time for a nap, considering, but I guess you must have been really tired after everything that's been going on). Lana tells you that she's been studying the holocron you brought with you from Nathema but still doesn't know what it really does. An annoyed Valkorion chimes in to mock the idea that this "dusty trinket" could harm him. The Emperor doth protest too much, methinks!

Soon it's time for the Gravestone to punch a hole through the ranks of the Eternal Fleet ships surrounding Zakuul, while you launch yourself into the general direction of the Spire inside a boarding pod. Depending on your previous choices, you'll either be accompanied by Senya and Arcann or by Theron and Lana. Your aim is passable and you land near the mid-level entrance to the structure.

At the door you get accosted by several Knights of Zakuul backed up by a couple of walkers. Fortunately Indo Zal and his rebel friends are at hand to help you take them down. I always feel like there should have been an option to reason with the Knights here. "You are not mindless robots, why are you defending an empty building while the fleet is out of control and raining death upon your people?!"

You fight your way past some more Knights and skytroopers inside, and take the lift up to the top. Valkorion uses this as an opportunity to try to convince you that your closest companions are actually dangerous and need to be disposed of. Have you lost all sense of subtlety, old man?

In the throne room, if you have a redeemed Arcann with you, there is a touching scene where he recalls his previous life but consciously turns his back on it. You can even offer him the throne and he will reject it. When you sit down on the throne, a strange power crackles through it and the Eternal Fleet stops attacking, but suddenly Valkorion appears and declares that it's time for him to take over your body to resume ruling the Eternal Empire. You can try to defy him, but it's futile; he forces you to bow to him and then knocks you out.

You awake in a dreamscape similar to the one you traversed in KotFE chapter 2, but... in Valkorion's body? You express confusion in his voice, while your own voice calls to you from far away, telling you that Valkorion tried to kill you and that you need to save yourself by finding the holocron.

What follows is a hilariously surreal section in which you run around what's supposed to be your own shattered mind, while in Valkorion's body and using his Force abilities against hostile "echoes of memory". Eventually your own voice instructs you to cleanse your corrupted memories or you will be trapped inside your own mind forever. This involves visiting tableaux of a couple of key scenes from the story, during which Valkorion monologues about how everything was part of his plan. He reveals that he was trapped inside your mind the entire time, with his departure in KotFE chapter 12 having been nothing but a ruse, and that he's been toying with you merely to sate his curiosity, until he decided to just hollow out your mind and take over.

Eventually you reach a representation of the Eternal Throne, which is located on top of some ancient looking stairs inside your mind. The holocron from Nathema awaits you there and allows you to regain your own body (mentally anyway). In the real world, we can see that you're still passed out and some skytroopers have decided to attack, which your companions are desperately fighting off to protect you.

Valkorion appears, amused by your continued resistance. He then raises Vaylin (and Arcann, if you killed him) from the dead, commanding their spirits to fight for him. Meanwhile, if you didn't release Lord Dramath from the holocron in chapter 7, you can call on him here to fight for your side. If Arcann is alive, he uses the holocron to join you in your mind and help you against Valkorion while Senya continues to defend your body. Dramath (if he was present) self-destructs at the end of the fight and attempts to take Valkorion with him, but only pierces his armour. After defeating Vaylin's (and possibly Arcann's) spirit, you manage to turn them to your side and you attack Valkorion together.

You seem to be doing well, when suddenly he pushes you all away and destroys the holocron. However, you push back, and when you utter the words "Kneel before the dragon of Zakuul" that conditioned Vaylin to be unable to attack, he is suddenly powerless. You have reclaimed your mind and the imagined environment follows your own rules again. Senya appears too (if she's alive, she has joined Arcann's meditation after successfully fighting off the skytroopers; if she's dead, presumably her spirit was inside you somehow, just like Vaylin's) and also strikes Valkorion. He denounces his entire family as "motes of filth" and you strike him down one last time.

Finally you awake in the real world as well, to claim the throne properly this time. You can either declare yourself a peacekeeper, intent on making sure the fleet is used to rebuild, or announce yourself as the new Empress. Either way, your Alliance is on top of the world.

The chapter ends with Lana and Theron talking outside the base on Odessen, where there's clearly been a celebration going on. Lana reveals that she's already worried again because she can sense "dark forces amassing" against the Alliance. Theron reassures her that you'll overcome whatever the galaxy decides to throw at you, but either way, that's a concern for another day.

My Thoughts

"The Eternal Throne" is a suitably epic conclusion to KotET (and KotFE). Even on my third playthrough there were sections that gave me the chills. It does have some issues, but the good outweighs the bad in my opinion.

First off, I absolutely adore the bit where you run around in Valkorion's body inside your mind. Bioware isn't always very good when it comes to making story and gameplay line up (e.g. important end bosses being pushovers vs. random trash mobs killing you hard), but this is a prime example of how great it can be when they get it right. I mean, on the one hand getting to play as Valkorion is simply hilarious. I think I actually broke out into giggles the first time I got to this part. And who else immediately checked whether Valkorion can /dance? (Sadly, he can't.) But on the other hand it's very strange and confusing for the player, and that's exactly how your character is supposed to feel at this point.

I also like the multiple ways in which the big showdown is slightly different depending on how you dealt with Valkorion's family in the previous chapters. It's incredibly satisfying to see it all come together. Seeing actual fear in Valkorion's eyes when he's confronted by Dramath. Vaylin getting some revenge even after her death, and the same for Arcann and Senya if you killed them. If they are alive, even better for them. It just feels right. Incidentally, the final fight is also pretty fun from a mechanical point of view, which isn't always true for Bioware's boss fights.

Personally, it also really tugged at my heart strings to see so many of my companions smile in the end, more so in the light side ending but to some extend in the dark side ending too - Lana and Theron look so damn happy that you survived! It makes you realise just how grim things have been for a long while and that things are finally looking up for the galaxy now. (As an aside, as a player I feel a little bit like that too - finally we're done with the Eternal Empire and can get back to the factions I actually care about!)

What doesn't work so well? Okay, I know that the Force is basically magic and we shouldn't question it too much, but everything that's going on with the holocron in this chapter made my head spin. How can I use its powers to unleash Dramath and weaken Valkorion in my head, while the real thing is lying several feet away from my unconscious body? I know it's a MacGuffin and we're not supposed to question how and why exactly it does the things it does, but come on.

Also, I know I've harped on and on about how certain situations in KotFE and KotET are super awkward for non-Force users, but this chapter is probably the pinnacle of it all. Yes, the commander of Havoc Squad, Cipher Nine etc. are all outstanding individuals, but able to defeat the immortal Sith Emperor in a straight-up contest of wills? The high point of awkwardness for me personally was when using the holocron transformation in the final fight actually caused my trooper to start wielding a lightsaber. Say what now?

You could also argue that while the chapter really delivers on an emotional level when you defeat Valkorion (by evoking feelings of vengeance, dispensation of justice etc. depending on your angle), there's also a certain sense of: "That's it?" After all we've been through fighting the Sith Emperor/Valkorion, all it took to take him out was basically someone taking him on at mind-wrestling? Talk about going out with a whimper instead of a bang. It's all dressed up very nicely, with cool cut scenes and dialogue, but the moment you stop to think about it even a little, it's easy to come away feeling disappointed.

Some have also criticised the duality of the final choice. Why can you only be a well-meaning steward of the Eternal Fleet or an evil Empress? Where are the options to leave the power to someone else or to be a proper ruler, but benevolent? Well... would I have liked to have these options? Sure. But I'm under the impression that Bioware is going to use our choice here as a springboard for how the rest of the galaxy is going to treat us going forward, and in that case I can see how it would make sense to limit the options a bit. Despite of how it's all framed, this isn't really the end. This is an MMO, remember?

Despite all of the chapter's flaws, I came away from it feeling very satisfied. Not every part of the story was wrapped up perfectly, but Valkorion and his family were given a proper send-off that hit all the right buttons for me, and I was left feeling optimistically excited about whatever comes next.

What about you?


The Joy of Pugging

This past weekend I took some time out of my Saturday evening to do something I haven't done much in a while: pugging. I tanked story mode Dread Fortress and veteran Hammer Station on my Vanguard and ran my Guardian through a whole host of story mode uprisings.

Also pugging again: my perpetually pugging Merc
I learned that Landing Party is better avoided right now, as the last boss is bugged, and finding out at the very end that you can't actually complete the instance is quite a bummer. I also realised that Trial and Error, the one with the rakghouls that I declared my favourite of the second set on release, is actually quite a pain on story mode due to what I can only assume is a tuning error. Dulfy has noted that story and veteran mode have the exact same damage and mob health numbers, and after trying both I'm inclined to think that those numbers are the ones that were intended for veteran mode. In my first pug for story mode that evening, which had no healer, my entire party simply melted on the first boss before we could even do much of anything, which caused the group to disband very quickly. I only managed to complete it later when I just happened to get a group that had an actual trinity setup. Now I really don't want to do it again, not until they fix those numbers anyway. But hey, at least the achievements work now. (Not long ago, these were bugged too and didn't tick off several of the uprisings when you completed them.)

Anyway, while none of these runs were super special (people were reasonably competent and didn't talk very much), I was kind of ridiculously happy to be out there among random players again. I'm coming to think that pugging is the perfect antidote to too much negativity.

And I have been struggling with the latter again for the past couple of months. I can't blame people for grousing about Galactic Command, but the regular old "Bioware sucks" and "dead game" I can do without - yet sadly these sorts of complaints just seem to be everywhere nowadays. "Just don't go to places like the official forums or reddit," you might say, but sometimes I do want to keep up with the news and see what people are saying! Where can I still engage in conversation about the game without seeing bland declarations of doom and gloom everywhere? Every game has its detractors, but where are the SWTOR community's happy places these days? (Actually, my Twitter feed is a pretty good place, as the SWTOR players there find a lot of joy in the game. But the format just has limited use for discussion.)

Anyway, what does pugging have to do with all this? To me, it's like an antidote to forum whining. When it feels like everyone but your guildies seems to hate the game (based on what you see in online comment sections anyway), there's nothing like joining a group of random strangers and seeing them actually have oodles of fun. In one of my uprising runs, two people said that they had never done it before, and one of them got super excited about everything; it was really cute. Recalling the bugs I mentioned above, not everything was sunshine and rainbows of course, but annoyances like a bugged encounter are very specific criticisms and not at all at odds with one's overall love for the game.

The other day, I read an article on Contains Moderate Peril, in which the author mused about "the average LOTRO player", and I couldn't help but think that if you replaced hobbits with Jedi and LOTRO with SWTOR, it would ring just as true for my own online home. The gist of it is basically that for all the loud complaints you see about any MMO online, the majority of the player base pays no attention to any of that and just sticks to playing the game itself, having plenty of fun in the process. Sometimes I really need to be reminded of that, after seeing enough people just hang out in comment sections and spout about how much they hate the game. And even though people daring to use the group finder are probably yet another sub-section of the player base that isn't necessarily representative of the average, pugs can be pretty great at reminding you that lots of people are still out there, having plenty of fun.

(Also, speaking of strangers providing you with a good time, you still have several days left to enter my companion giveaway!)


Red Eclipse Companion Giveaway! (Closed)

I've mentioned not long ago that I very rarely even look at the Cartel Market, but this past weekend a promotion on the launcher caught my eye: the "Grand Companion Pack", which was guaranteed to grant you a type of combat companion that's usually only available as a rare drop from a Cartel Pack. "Oh," I thought, "maybe I can finally get an Akk Dog. They're pretty cute."

I did eventually get one, but since it was still subject to some RNG, not before I ended up with a whole slew of other companions, including many duplicates. What to with all those droids and beasts? Well, I've been meaning to run another giveaway for a while, so why not use them for that? I feel like I should be giving back to the community anyway, considering that most of my Cartel Coins are generated by people clicking my referral link.

So here we go.

And the lucky winners, decided either by a lack of competition for their choice or by in-game roll, are:

Probe Droid - Ravanel (Republic)
Annihilator T4-1D - Aleura (Empire)
Personal Warbot - Xlaxi (Empire)
Exoboar - Rrogun (Republic)
ISO-5R - Soots (Republic)
QO-77 - Dibene (Empire)
TY-4N - Exiluminator (Empire)
Tuk'ata - A'rinka (Republic)
Nathema Beast - Sharack Snow (Republic)
H1-K1 - Aurrn (Republic)


The prizes:

You get to win one out of a total of ten different Cartel Market companions. Yes, you read that right, ten! Last I checked, each of these fellas went for at least a couple of million credits on the GTN. Here's the lot of them:

How to enter:

1. You need to have a character on The Red Eclipse. Sorry, but it's a practical limitation as that's simply where I've got these things lying around, and I'm not going to start server-transferring just to give stuff away.

2. Leave a comment in response to this post telling me which one of these ten companions you'd like to win and why. Example: "I'd love to win the ISO-5R because somehow it manages to look ridiculously cute for a killing machine!" You can only choose one, so choose wisely. Or, you know, you could hedge your bets and pick one that you think is unlikely to be picked by anyone else, therefore making you the default winner.

3. At the end of your comment, leave your character name and faction (of the char on TRE). This is so I know where to send your chosen pet if you win! This doesn't have to be your main if you're shy, just somewhere where I can mail the prize 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 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?

Each of the ten companions will be randomly given away among the number of commenters who picked it as their favourite. You have until 6 am GMT on the 27th of March to enter, at which point I'll close the comments for this post and announce the winner later in the day.

Good luck and have fun!


KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 8: End Times

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter eight! Though if you missed it...

The Story

You arrive on an Odessen under siege by a vengeful Vaylin, who has nothing holding her back anymore. The Gravestone was caught in dry dock when the attack happened and hasn't been able to join the fight yet. While the Eternal Fleet does its usual thing of just floating in space, with the frontline ships pew-pewing the surface a bit, you land your shuttle and, with Lana in tow, do what you can to help out your ground forces.

You commandeer a walker and get to play through another version of the walker assault on Voss from chapter one - only with the ability to heal at will as long as you're out of combat. While fighting your way through the Odessen Wilds, you make contact with various allies until you reach the Gravestone, where you meet up with either Arcann and Senya, or if they're dead, Theron. You manage to protect the ship just long enough for it to be able to take off and shoot a bunch of enemy walkers that are approaching your position. Then the Gravestone is off to help in the space battle.

At this point, you either continue with Lana and Theron, or Senya and Arcann, with Lana and Theron conveniently buggering off somewhere else. At a comm station, you contact Vaylin just as one of her underlings informs her that the battle is as good as won even though it's still going to take a while. You bait her into coming to the surface to face you (and potentially her mother and brother) personally, and she cannot resist.

After another brief stint in a walker, you receive distress calls from both Torian and Vette, both of whom claim to be pinned down. Valkorion unsubtly whispers in your ear that you can't possibly save everyone, and you are forced to choose to go support either one or the other. When you arrive at their location and try to raise the other on the comm... they are not dead, but Vaylin happened to land right on their head and has taken them prisoner. She gives you coordinates where she'll want to meet you. Your new target ends up being the Alliance base itself.

Just outside the base, where you usually bum around with other people while waiting in queues, picking up daily quests and stuff, Vaylin awaits you with some troops and her prisoner. After Valkorion shows up and they exchange some taunts, she angrily hurls her prisoner to the floor... but just as you kneel down to help them, Vaylin uses the Force to twist their neck.

With that final gauntlet thrown down, it's time for the big showdown, in which Vaylin's barely contained power cracks the very walls of the base, but with the help of your allies you finally defeat her. Her forces immediately break and retreat upon her death and it seems that the fight is finally over.

When you talk to your closest allies, they express grief about the death of either Torian or Vette, and Arcann or Lana comment that they could feel Vaylin's power flowing into you, though unlike her father she doesn't seem to have possessed the strength of spirit to live on in your head. Just then, you receive distress calls from the Sith Empire and Zakuul, and the Republic is under attack as well. The Eternal Fleet has gone rogue and is bombing planets everywhere into oblivion. Valkorion opines that the only way to stop it is to take control over it via the Eternal Throne. So you ask for the Gravestone to be readied as you have to pay Zakuul one more visit.

My Thoughts

In a nutshell, End Times is what Battle of Odessen should have been: an actual planetary battle, with armies clashing, people dying, and a big showdown at the end. (In fact, I accidentally keep referring to this chapter as "Battle of Odessen" in my head... KotET chapter 16 is more of a "Showdown with Arcann".) It's not perfect, but I certainly found myself sufficiently engrossed by the events to be excited about what was going to happen next and not nitpick any details until later.

The walker section from chapter one makes a return and feels less annoying due to the ability to heal up wherever you want, but at the same time the fact that there's two vehicle segments along the road makes it feel like the mechanic is overstaying its welcome a little bit. On replaying it, I found that it didn't actually feel as long as it did on my first playthrough, but the problem is that it's way too easy to run into some kind of nuisance. For example you cannot voluntarily exit the walker, and for some reason it walks quite slowly and has issues with obstacles that your character could ordinarily leap over with ease. During my first playthrough of this chapter, I realised fairly late that I had missed a companion for the bonus mission near the start... but since I was in a walker bit at the time, I had to plod back to the start really slowly, making the whole thing take forever. On this playthrough, which was on veteran mode, I died a couple of times and it respawned me way back at the start every time, enforcing a really annoying run back. I've also heard that the walker doesn't play nice if you want to bring a friend along to the chapter - since they can't get into the walker with you, they basically get swarmed and killed by the mobs every time.

The choice between Torian or Vette is simultaneously great and a bit cheap. It's contrived because you have several highly competent characters with you who can single-handedly turn the tide of many a battle, but for some reason you can't freaking split up? But it's also great because it really forces you to think and makes for a great talking point with other players. The emotional punch hits all the harder because while Valkorion pretty much warns you that the one you don't choose to help will die, nothing happens right away, allowing you to keep hoping that things will be alright somehow until Vaylin delivers the killing blow at the very last moment. Ouch.

The fact that you run most of the chapter either with Arcann and Senya or Lana and Theron makes for some interesting variety too. Personally I find facing off against Vaylin with her mother and brother by my side the much more satisfying option, but that may just be me. Considering the emphasis the Betrayed trailer put on the relationship between Senya and Vaylin (plus everything we saw of the two of them interacting in KotFE), the final confrontation between them feels kind of subdued, but that's what you get when Senya could theoretically already be dead by that point and the moment has to be more about you than about any of your companions.