26/09/2017

Shadow of Revan is Overrated

Clickbait title? Thanks to Pfannenstiel for the post idea in any case.

There is a new SWTOR podcast in town which I have yet to add to my sidebar, called The Council, and last week a Twitter poll of theirs made the rounds asking people about their favourite SWTOR expansion. I added my own vote and looked at the results, unsurprised that I wasn't part of the relative majority, and moved on without giving it any more thought.

However, this morning I found that Pfanne had written a whole post about it, detailing why he agreed strongly with the most popular choice and still considers Shadow of Revan the best expansion to date. This in turn made me want to write a post about why I strongly disagree and actually consider Shadow of Revan the worst expansion to date. Hurrah for blogger cross-fertilisation!

Now, saying that I think Shadow of Revan was SWTOR's worst expansion so far probably sounds worse than it is, because while I love to criticise and pick apart absolutely everything, I personally don't think that the game has had any truly poor expansions. I just think that all the others were better, even if Rishi is a gorgeous planet and I enjoyed the little class story epilogues that SoR gave us.


Post-launch support matters

First off, a good expansion - to me - is about more than a checklist of its launch day features. What is being done to keep things interesting afterwards? Is there ongoing support in the form of large patches and new content releases?

My own pick for best expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, was an absolute star in this regard, but because it didn't tie everything together into a single coherent narrative, people like to forget that all those patches were actually still part of the RotHC content cycle. Someone in the Twitter conversation even wanted to call Oricon an expansion due to its sheer size, and that was just one of those 2.x patches. Others included CZ-198 and the three Forged Alliances flashpoints - another piece of content that people wrongly associate with another expansion (SoR), even though it was actually released months beforehand and only had the "Prelude to Shadow of Revan" label attached to it afterwards. I even joked back then that the patches were coming out faster than I could keep track of them, which is a problem I haven't had in a long time.

In comparison, Shadow of Revan's post-release scene was an absolute wasteland. I even went back to check the patch notes on the official website to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything, but it was actually the opposite: the patch notes only underlined how little there was going on during that time. For example the patch notes for 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 all made "Bounty Contract Week Returns!" one of the "highlights" because they just had nothing else to talk about. There was Ziost, and that was pretty much it. Three numbered patches for ten months of expansion time, and only one of those actually added a significant amount of new content. And to think that people accused KotFE with its near-monthly cadence of chapter and Alliance alert releases of having no content.

Hurting group play for poor solo features

At launch I only marked it as an "odd choice" that Shadow of Revan forced you into solo instances over and over again, but I actually became quite peeved once I realised that this was now the new normal. In hindsight I can see why they did it - because they wanted you to be able to smooch Theron or Lana in peace, but I still think that this was a piss-poor excuse to ruin the fun of people who were trying to level with their friends. I didn't actually mind the forced solo nature of KotFE and KotET as much because at least those expansions gave me the feeling that my character was driving the story to some extent and making choices that made a difference. If you've ever felt that KotFE and KotET's choices "didn't really matter", go back to Shadow of Revan and Ziost and tell me what great decisions your character got to make in that content. I'll wait. Makeb didn't have very exciting choices either, but at least you could play through the whole thing seamlessly with a group. SoR just combined the worst of both worlds.

It also introduced solo modes to flashpoints with that stupid GSI droid. I don't much mind giving people the ability to solo the content, but the all-powerful droid was a poor band-aid that made for incredibly boring gameplay. Crisis on Umbara is a good example of how you can make a good solo mode in my opinion.

Lack of quality control

Every patch has its bugs, but for some reason SoR sticks out in my memory as buggier than most. Maybe it wasn't - I don't have a handy list to consult for this as I have with the patch notes - but did any other expansion launch with the final part of its main story hopelessly bugged out? I seem to remember that the solo Revan fight was totally impossible to complete solo for something like a week? And of course, once it had been fixed, it was still a terribly scripted and annoying encounter that we were supposed to repeat weekly. I also remember Rishi and Yavin IV being lag hell for weeks, to the point that people said they were quitting because the game was as good as unplayable anyway.

People also like to cite that SoR launched with no less than two operations and two flashpoints, but the problem is that they really weren't that great! Blood Hunt was OK I guess, making a splash by featuring Shae Vizla in game for the first time, but Battle of Rishi was very bland and loveless. The operations were also full of bugs (there was that Coratanni exploit, the main SoR quest line not advancing after ToS completion, the infamous Underlurker remaining totally unpredictable for months) and poorly tuned. I remember Temple of Sacrifice was the first ever operation where I walked out after our first clear and instead of thinking "Wow, that was fun!" I just felt tired and worn out. I had in fact planned to record a video of our first run-through, expecting it to be a laugh, but ended up deleting all the footage because people just ended up getting tired and grumpy. It left such a bad first impression on me that I'd probably rank Ravagers and ToS as my least favourite operations to this day.

Things I Like

I'd personally rank Rise of the Hutt Cartel as my favourite expansion because I liked the game as it was at launch, and without claiming that it was perfect, the 2.x content cycle expanded the base game in a lot of ways that stayed true to the aspects I liked, even if more class and companion stories weren't in the cards at the time.

Knights of the Fallen Empire had issues with the lack of new group content and made levelling a tad too easy for my liking, but I loved the introduction of level sync as a general concept and got hours of fun out of the re-tuned group content. I dare say that my guild actually did better for itself during that time than it did in SoR. KotFE also introduced my favourite warzone of all time - no, I'm not being sarcastic. And I did enjoy getting a new story update every month, not going to lie, which means that KotFE firmly wins out over SoR in the raw fun department for me.

As for KotET - well, I'd say the jury is still out on that one! I think it was off to a strong start with the chapters, uprisings and the promise of a new operation, but Iokath was a bit of a mixed bag and it feels like updates have slowed down quite a bit over the past few months. Still, as I said above, I try to judge an expansion in its entirety, and KotET still has plenty of time left to throw out some more interesting patches.

21/09/2017

Questing Surprises

After I finished my knight's class story, I was wondering what levelling goal to tackle next. Eventually I decided to go back to working on my Commando on the Ebon Hawk. She's been max level for a while now, but more than merely levelling her up, I had made it my mission a while ago to replay all the quests on Republic side on her, since it's so easy to skip them these days and it's been quite a while since I actually saw all of them. When I last left her, she had just finished the Balmorran bonus series.

Aside from the vastly accelerated XP gains, the levelling game also underwent a lot of more subtle changes in 4.0. I did write a first impressions piece about that shortly after 4.0's launch, but my focus back then was on a couple of Imperial alts. On Republic side, I continue to be surprised by changes that I haven't seen yet, such as when I mentioned a broken cut scene in a mission on Coruscant in this post.

One thing I already noticed back in February but about which I didn't write a full blog post at the time was the removal of what I considered an important story choice in the planetary storyline on Balmorra. At one point, after taking control of the planetary satellites, you have to choose between using them to help the Republic military (which was your original goal) or to save a bunch of slicers from being executed - with the latter option having the additional complication that said slicers are best buds with the guy who helped you gain control of the satellites in the first place. Except... when I played through this on my Commando, no dialogue wheel came up, and she just made the light side choice by default. Wait, what? I mean, I was playing light side anyway so I guess it wasn't a big deal, but it was still kind of jarring and I can only imagine how awkward it must feel if you were gunning for the other option.

As not many knowledgeable old-timers replay this content at any given point, the issue hasn't received much publicity, though I found at least one angry forum thread about it. Myself, I simply submitted a bug report about it, because I couldn't fathom why a choice like that would have been removed intentionally. Shortening bonus missions is one thing, but this? Just makes no sense.

As I finally continued to Quesh the other night, I was in for a positive surprise however. For as long as I can remember, there has been this mission on Quesh which is part of the main planetary chain and has you raiding a factory. During the mission dialogue, Broga the Hutt tells you about how he'd really like you to pick up some adrenals while you're over there (wink wink, nudge nudge), which seemed like pretty common "bonus mission talk". The problem was that there never was a bonus mission. Nothing appeared on the quest tracker, and I never found anything to click on inside the factory either. It was a mystery.

Now, as far as I can reconstruct things in hindsight, the bonus mission appears to have always been in the game files, but I guess some bug was preventing it from triggering properly. On the official forums, I found complaints from as recently as 2015 decrying the fact that the quest wasn't working. Well, imagine my surprise when I picked up the main mission this time around, and suddenly the bonus "Broga's Adrenals" appeared on my quest tracker. And lo and behold... when I arrived in the factory, there were crates on the floor that I could click on to pick up the long-lost adrenals! The best part was that on handing in, I was also given the choice whether I wanted to actually hand the adrenals over to Broga or claim them for the Republic. I was a bit surprised that the latter was considered the light side option - even if he's a Hutt, it doesn't seem very kind to agree to fetch something for him and then go: "Nyah nyah, I'm keeping that for my own people."


Still, it was amazing to me that they finally got around to fixing that bonus mission after who knows how many years and that as a result, I got to see something new in old content. I wonder if more such surprises await on the remaining planets that I haven't fully replayed since 4.0? If yes, will they be positive or negative?

17/09/2017

Gods from the Machine So Far

It's hard to believe that it's already been five months since the Gods from the Machine operation opened its doors. My guild actually downed Tyth (the first boss) on veteran mode only three weeks ago. As I wrote in my first impressions of the encounter, many of my guildies weren't particularly enamoured with him, which actually led to us turning our backs on the new operation in short order and going back to working on older boss fights that we still haven't beaten to this day. It was only a little over a month ago that someone said: "You know, we should really give Tyth another try." And after a couple of nights of working on the fight, the God of Rage finally lay defeated at our feet (not counting story mode, which we had of course beaten right on release).

I think one of the major factors that helped our progression was that we eventually deviated somewhat from the strategy laid out by Dulfy's guide. Specifically, the tank swap kept causing us trouble because it wreaked havoc on the add control, so eventually we changed it so that whenever the main tank needed to drop his debuff stacks, he briefly swapped aggro with a dedicated dps instead (the fight's mechanics allow for anyone to get aggro instantly, without the need for a taunt) - this way the off-tank could focus on add control without distractions, so the adds got rounded up much more quickly and calls to AoE them could be made more accurately.



Last night we finally got to try the second encounter, Esne and Aivela, on veteran mode. (I thought the second sister was called Aviela for the longest time... I think that would have made for a much better name.) On story mode, they were mostly a crazy light show without much else happening - the only mechanic you really have to watch out for are the coloured laser beams. But from what I've seen of veteran mode so far, it's pretty much the exact opposite of Tyth. The latter is extremely straightforward from a mechanical perspective, with only very few abilities - the challenge consists of dealing with the adds and the fact that it's largely random what kind of set you get during each wave, forcing you to adapt your tactics on the fly. Esne and Aivela on the other hand enforce an extremely complicated dance, with every person in the ops group having to fulfil different tasks to deal with various adds and abilities, but there are only a couple of points in the fight where you don't know exactly what's going to happen from one moment to the next. While we didn't get them down on the first night, I suspect that this kind of challenge is going to be a little easier for my ops group to tackle than Tyth's. We're just bad at making decisions on the fly.

Either way, I'm quite happy with both of the new boss encounters that we've got so far. I'm kind of hesitant to rate them compared to the older operations, because I suspect that the piecemeal approach to the operation's release has been colouring my judgement. ("Finally a new boss! Gimme!") We'll see how I feel once we have access to the whole thing.

This brings me to my current worry though: When are we going to have access to the full operation? The original plan was to have it finished by the end of the year, but we're now approaching the end of September and only two out of the rumoured five fights are actually live. Seeing the final boss before the end of the year seems increasingly unlikely.

And I'm not mad about "broken promises" or anything, but I'm a little worried. I don't think that Bioware is just bad at planning. I'm worried that Gods from the Machine is underperforming compared to their expectations, which is forcing them to prioritise other things again and slowing down development of the new encounters. I mean, we all know that raiding is a minority pursuit, but so are many things in game, and there's still a difference between developing something for a minority and doing so for a tiny minority.

When I do a search on Youtube for "swtor tyth veteran mode", I currently get 1,720 results, but you don't have to scroll down very far to see the first videos that don't actually match the search term, such as some guild's Eternity Vault run. (Just why, Youtube?) How many raiders are actually left in the game?

Some time ago I had a bit of a discussion with someone, I think it was actually in my own comment section, who posited that making mistakes wasn't such a bad thing for Bioware, because then they get all this good publicity for fixing them, which they wouldn't have gotten if they'd just got it right the first time. I strongly disagreed with this, because from my experience it's rather the opposite: First impressions matter a lot and are likely to get all the big headlines, while fixing things later doesn't get nearly as much attention, and people are less likely to return after having been burnt than if you hadn't scared them off in the first place.

This is what I suspect and fear is happening with Gods from the Machine. Keith really wanted to return that multiplayer feeling to SWTOR, but too many of the people who enjoy this kind of content left over the past two years while Bioware was releasing almost nothing but story updates, and after all this time they have little interest in coming back.


Another thing that speaks in favour of this theory is Tyth's missing master mode. Again, the original plan was for Gods from the Machine to include the return of master modes, with each master mode coming out for the previous boss whenever the next encounter is released. So Tyth's master mode should have come out when Esne and Aivela were released back in July. However, it didn't, and there has been no comment on why or even on whether we might still get to see it later. It probably didn't seem worth the effort, and the fact that there hasn't been much of an outcry from the community about this particular "broken promise" only seems to back that up. Honestly, even as someone who still runs ops every week, I can't claim to be upset by this particular decision. The veteran modes for Tyth and the sisters seem more in line with Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice so far, meaning they are hard enough as it is and don't feel like you could realistically add another difficulty above them that would be played by more than a handful of guilds. However, it's still a little discouraging to see Bioware backpedal on their plans for the new operation quite so quickly.

In conclusion I turn to you, my readers who also run ops: What do you think? If you weren't interested in ops before, I don't see why Gods from the Machine would have suddenly changed that. But if you were a "lapsed" raider for example, has the new operation helped at all to get you interested again? If you have been raiding it, how much time have you spent on fighting the new bosses? I suppose that in terms of pure metrics, even my own guild wouldn't have appeared to be very interested, as we still spend so much time in the old operations.

12/09/2017

Pugging with Shintar: Venturing Into Master Modes

I've managed to continue to upload an episode of my pugging video series pretty much every week, despite of being worried at some point that I might not be able to keep it up. I'm kind of amazed by my own ability to maintain a routine sometimes. Too bad it's not really a very highly-valued skill (though handier in everyday life than you might think).


Somehow I've also ended up with one hundred subscribers on YouTube! Thanks, everyone! I hope the fame doesn't go to my head. Anyway, here are the new episodes I uploaded over the last six weeks:

Episode 13: Falling Off Lifts in Cademimu - Long-time readers may know that Cademimu is an old favourite of mine, and I was pleased to get it as my random that day. Following the age-old tradition, someone fell to their death off a lift, including me. You'd think I'd really know better by now.

Episode 14: Confusion, Chaos & Naked Anti-Bob - This episode started with me ending up in Cademimu again because apparently I had failed to unselect it from the group finder menu - still, what were the odds of getting the exact same thing again? Like back in Episode 7, I powered through quickly and then queued again. This time I ended up in Mandalorian Raiders, in a run that included a Commando who wore virtually no gear and needed on everything. Strange times!

Episode 15: Splitting the Party in Legacy of the Rakata & Pugette's First MM! - In a relatively unremarkable Legacy of the Rakata run Pugette reached the milestone of hitting level 50, which allowed her to queue for master mode flashpoints for the first time. I put myself in the queue right away, expecting nothing to happen, but got a pop almost instantly and therefore decided to turn the episode into another double feature. I got into master mode Athiss as my first of its kind, which was fortunately a relative softball, especially as my group consisted of pretty good players.

Episode 16: Trash Skipping Gone Wrong in MM Cademimu - With master modes unlocked in the group finder, I decided to queue for both veteran and master modes simultaneously, fully expecting the veteran mode to pop first... just to get into another master mode run instantly. Back to Cademimu I went once again, though this time in its harder iteration. No deaths from fall damage in this one, though I made a complete fool out of myself on the first boss. The ending was also a good demonstration of how badly (or not at all) communicated trash skipping attempts can go horribly wrong and just end up delaying everything.

Episode 17: Bad Chemistry in MM Assault on Tython - The instant master mode pops continued. This one was off to what I felt was a super awkward start, with the tank asking to be kicked, me causing a wipe by obliviously running into a group of mobs the others had skipped, and a strangely passive-aggressive exchange ensuing between the dps when we got a replacement tank. The run continued fine after that, but my good mood was shot, because that's what this sort of behaviour does to me unfortunately. I also found the last boss quite tough to heal!

Episode 18: Interesting Times in MM Maelstrom Prison - This late-night visit to hardmode Maelstrom Prison ended up being one of my favourite kinds of pugs: We actually did both the bonus missions for maximum XP, people were chill, and while some mistakes were made, they were amusing and/or simply shrugged off, so a good time was had by all (I hope).

08/09/2017

Hair

When I talk to other players about character appearances, it often seems to me that I care a lot less about what my characters look like than the average player... yet at the same time, also a lot more.

I care less in the sense that I don't really give a fig about whatever's supposed to be the newest, coolest set of gear from the Cartel Market. Most of my characters only own a single outfit, which they've often worn since they were lowbies. And what's that about some detail about the newest hairstyle that you don't like? Eh.

However, I seem to care more than average in the sense that I consider my characters' looks an essential part of their personality and rarely - if ever - change them. I think I can still recall every single time I've ever taken a character to the barber shop to change their appearance after creation (in any MMO) - it hasn't been often.

I also tend to have silly rules for myself, such as that no two characters on the same server are allowed to sport the same hairstyle. Everyone must be unique! I would probably be in trouble if there weren't so many species that have no hair (Twi'lek, Togruta, Rattataki) or whose ladies at least look pretty good with a bald head (Zabrak, Cathar).


Looking at the colours though,  I seem to have a thing for shades of black and red, hmm...

Bioware's lack of skill when it comes to designing appealing hairdos certainly turns this self-imposed limitation into a challenge sometimes. You see this in some of their other games too: lots of hairstyles that give off the impression that the artist doesn't actually know how women like to wear their hair, and which look more as if someone just gave them a list of checkboxes in an attempt to come up with some variety: ponytail, short bob, bun, um... short style with a random braid somewhere?

At launch in particular, I remember people complaining a lot about the lack of long hair options. I could kind of understand why that was a thing though, as long hair would have invited clipping and physics problems. Just look at how much work they put into Twi'lek lekku initially: Even if the result doesn't move like something that's supposed to contain a creature's brain (they tend to behave more like balloon animals really...), it does move...

At some point however, someone up top seemed to say: To hell with worrying about clipping and physics, if people want to buy long hair, let them! So we got "the Barbie", which is sort of the opposite of what they did with lekku... no physics, it clips like crazy and moves about as gracefully in the wind as a hard hat, but who cares? People bought it anyway, and based on how many female characters I see sporting it on the fleet and in screenshots, it's certainly popular.


A Shintar that must never be.

Now their latest coup has been to add some hairstyles that had previously been reserved exclusively for some important NPCs: "the Shae", "the Lana", "the Senya". I kind of wish they didn't continue to go down that road. It's not strictly against my imaginary rules, but it certainly doesn't help with feeling unique when I'm bound to eventually run into an important character that will sport the exact same hairdo as me. Plus I think the Senya bun is just an uglier variation of other buns already in game.

... but of course I still bought them! You never know. I can't keep creating Twi'leks forever and at some point I'm going to run out of available hair options that I find tolerable... unless they add more of course. Which is why new hair bundles will continue to be one of those things that I'll always pick up on day one.

04/09/2017

A Knight's Tale

Another milestone achieved: I've finally completed the Jedi knight story for a second time. Only took me five years...

I get excited about these things because while I do love SWTOR's class stories, they are not my first go-to when I'm looking for an evening of easy fun and they require a bit of conscious effort to work on. In addition, I get quite annoyed with myself when I have a character stuck somewhere in the middle of their story, because it makes me feel like I "can't"/shouldn't create another alt of the same class until I've finished the previous one's story. You can guess how peeved I was with myself by this point for taking three years to level up this second knight...

With how long it had been, I do have to admit that there were quite a few details to the story that I'd forgotten about, and it was nice to be reminded of them. I also took so many screenshots. When I levelled my first knight, I hadn't yet succumbed to using third party software to take screenshots to circumvent SWTOR's issues with the Print Screen button, so I had virtually no pictures from my first playthrough. As anyone who's played a Jedi knight knows, there are plenty of pretty epic and screenshot-worthy moments in that story.


All in all though, I still agree with my initial thoughts about the Jedi knight story. Sometimes it feels epic, other times it's so clich├ęd it hurts. So it remains one of the poorer class stories to me, even though I know many rate it highly or even as the best. One thing I have to say however, after replaying it after all this time and after having seen all the other class stories: It does a better job at dealing with side characters than most. There's a whole bunch of people whom you can kill or get killed relatively early on, who actually make a comeback on Corellia if they are still alive. They don't do anything that affects the outcome of the story, but it's still cool to see them again and hear what effect your actions have had on them. The cast of Jedi that you work with throughout the story is also pretty varied and interesting.

The biggest highlight of the playthrough was actually seeing Lord Scourge again. How could I forget all about him? I once listed him as the one Jedi knight companion that I wouldn't want to lose, but then I took my Guardian into KotFE shortly after it came out and well... obviously I haven't heard from him since, and since I had no other knight at a high enough level to own him as a companion, he just kind of vanished from sight for me. (I had no screenshots of him either.) "Getting him back" on this character made me really happy!

As a bonus, his voice was just as I remembered - shortly after 4.0, I remember grousing about how his new voice lines for when he is set to dps or heal (as opposed to his old default role, tanking) sounded all wrong and as if Bioware had hired a new voice actor for him who sounded nothing like the old one at all. Looking back at it now, the only references I could find about this talk about it being a bug, and that the sound files for several companions had gotten mixed up at the time? Either way, this time around he sounded completely like his old self again, even while healing me, which pleased me to no end.

He also got along a bit better with this Sentinel than with my old Guardian, since I at least attempted to make some dark side decisions on this one. I've said before that I can't really play dark side characters since I dislike being evil just that much, but at least towards the end I got a few dark side decisions in by being all: "My mission is too important for me to hang around and waste time with your petty problems right now!" (Ooh, so edgy!) I even refused to do the side mission near the end where you're supposed to rescue your companion from peril, which was made even easier by the fact that it was Rusk of all people who had gotten in trouble - I thought it was always Doc or Kira! Not that it makes a difference either way, as the situation is resolved quickly afterwards with a comment that one of your other companions filled in to do the rescuing.

One funny side effect of the new dark vs. light system is that you can effectively "cheat" your way towards being a certain alignment regardless of your story choices. (You could do that before if you had diplomacy as one of your crew skills, but it was quite an amount of work in comparison.) So even though I failed at being truly evil, with my supported alignment set to dark the entire time, Satele Shan told me at the end that she could sense the dark side in me. I kind of chuckled when my character responded with: "What have I done?" - because she really hadn't done much that would have been considered dark side.

Not sure what's up next for me in terms of story - I do have a Sage that has been sitting at the start of chapter two for nearly five years as well, but I'm not as fussed about her. But maybe I should go for it, since I seem to be on a bit of a roll?