22/05/2018

Summer of PvP

Last week Keith surprised us with the unexpected release of a road map for summer. The reason this was as surprising as it was is that Bioware usually likes to make announcements about announcements for teasers first, so them just dropping something like that without warning is rather unusual.

I read through it before anyone else had a chance to talk to me about it and my first thought was that there were probably going to be a lot of complaints about too much focus on PvP and about how nobody thinks of the poor, neglected solo players, and when I looked around on forums and social media later, that seemed to have been right on the money.

There is very little talk of actual new content coming out any time soon. There is mention of more companion returns, "a completely new storyline" as well as "new characters to meet and planets to explore in the new year", but that's all still very far off (autumn/winter) and vague. I don't really count things like Nar Shaddaa Nightlife returning once again or another week of double (C)XP as content, even if they are nice.

The only definitives we have to look forward to in the near future are:

- A new stronghold set on Rishi
- A new arena (I think it was previously mentioned that this would be set in Shae Vizla's Mandalorian compound on Rishi) and a new Huttball map set "in the dangerous and dizzying heights of an industrial planet" (guesses as to said planet's identity that I've seen so far range from Corellia to Vandin).

Aside from that, there was some talk about quality of life improvements, which are always nice to see but which aren't a complete replacement for actual content. Also, apart from a mention of "big updates for guilds" later in the year, the upcoming changes are all PvP focused and again somewhat vague. I'll hazard a guess at what some of them might mean:

- Convert more, if not all, of our Warzones and Arenas to allow cross-faction grouping: Okay, this one is pretty clear except for some wiggle room in terms of what exactly "more, if not all" will turn out to be. This is the one thing I'm actually not keen on at all, because yes, I care about roleplaying in my PvP - crazy, huh? That's to say: I'm fine with making some more warzones cross-faction where this makes sense, which is to say in Huttball and in the arenas. I'm not keen on the idea of the factions mingling randomly in warzones that have traditionally been explicitly about the Empire-Republic conflict. However, I could see Bioware perceiving a certain necessity for this, as some of the other changes they are alluding to actually risk increasing queue times (see below).

- We’re investigating ways of improving the experience of all Warzones: This is about as vague as it can get, but my personal hope is that it means that they are looking into addressing the desync issues that have plagued the game's PvP for a while and which have gotten considerably worse over the past couple of years. I tried to find some great videos/gifs again that I'd seen on reddit about this in the past and couldn't find them right now, but for those who've never experienced desync, it means that your game client and the game servers can have some pretty violent disagreements about what's happening in any given situation. The effects of this are worst in Huttball, where you might find yourself passing to someone just to watch that person suddenly teleport somewhere completely different so that you look like an idiot who just passed into empty space for no reason. Similarly you might leap towards the ball carrier in Queshball and suddenly have them vanish and re-appear on a completely different floor, which is very hard to recover from. I've had both of those happen to me and they are highly discouraging. We can only hope.

- We’re taking an in-depth look at our unranked PvP matchmaking system overall to see what kinds of improvements we can make to better ensure every match is a good one: Another very vague one, but here my guess is that they are looking into role-balancing, which currently isn't a thing in unranked at all. The goal would obviously be to avoid matches where one side has four healers and the other has none. While I've had some pretty memorable games with setups like that, I can't disagree that it would be better to have balance, though I dread the effect this might have on queue times for healers if there aren't enough or too many queuing for your respective faction. Then again, I suppose the increased cross-faction queuing is probably meant to address this.

- We’re also exploring giving unranked players more queue control over which Warzones and Arenas they want to play: While still somewhat vague, this one is a bit clearer and basically talking about a feature that people have been requesting since launch: to queue specifically for the warzone(s) they want or at least to be able to exclude one or two that they really hate. There is a reason this has been rejected for years, and that has been queue times (and risk of enforced monotony for those who queue for everything just because x people don't like Huttball for example). I'm not sure why it would be feasible now, even with cross-faction queuing, but I guess Keith intentionally used language that doesn't commit them to anything ("we're also exploring...").

- We’ll be focusing attention on exploiters, cheaters, and adjusting how Ranked Warzones complete: This one is straightforward and I'm glad to hear it, especially after I managed to go for years without running into any genuine hackers/cheaters but recently encountered one twice within the course of only a few months. People running through walls and forcefields or teleporting themselves inside a wall to AoE their opponents from an unreachable position suck.

- Finally, the Rishi stronghold as well as some changes to the way decorations work will be set up with an eye on supporting duelling tournaments and such. My first thought on reading this was "Are they actually implementing this just for Snave?" but I'm guessing there must be other people arranging events like these on occasion... I don't really see this being very relevant to me, but at least it's kind of original I guess? Or are there any other MMOs out there that encourage you to build custom PvP areas?

All in all, I agree that this road map is particularly thin on concrete information, but then the early summer months are traditionally the least busy season for MMOs so I can't claim to find this shocking or terribly disappointing. Also, while I'm not a huge PvPer, it is a part of the game that I quite enjoy (even if it's on a more casual basis), so I'm happy to see and test whatever changes they come up with.

17/05/2018

The Nathema Conspiracy - Mechanics

After players got confused by the way the one-time story mode was handled for Crisis on Umbara, and then got even more confused by yet another implementation of how to handle it for Traitor Among the Chiss, Nathema Conspiracy saw a return of the Umbara model where the one-time solo mode is baked into the story mission, and while you're on that you just can't enter any of the other difficulty modes: deal with it. I remain unconvinced that this is the best way to handle it, but it is what it is.


How's gameplay on Nathema otherwise? Quite pleasant really. Unlike another reviewer I was kind of surprised by how little trash there was. I won't go so far as to say there was too little, but it seemed to me like the space had originally been designed for more. It made me picture the designers initially coming up with a much denser and longer flashpoint, but after the negative feedback they received about the trash on Copero, they decided to just take 50-60% of their planned trash pulls out, leaving a lot of empty space behind. That's my theory anyway.

The mobs have a variety of abilities and at least on hardmode some of them have one hell of a knockback, which is amusing to watch as a healer to say the least. Another interesting mechanic on all difficulty modes is that some of the zealots seem to have a stupidly powerful heal over time - though I haven't actually seen a cast for it, which kind of takes out the fun of actually being able to do something about it, with the net result being that the mobs just take longer to kill. Likewise many of the other trash abilities, while they create all kinds of colourful geometric shapes on the floor, ultimately don't do enough to be truly disruptive and don't really give you the opportunity for intelligent counter-play. Maybe I was expecting too much - fun trash like in Kaon Under Siege or Lost Island has always been the exception rather than the rule. I guess I just can't help but note that the trash both on Copero and on Nathema comes very close to being interesting to deal with but then just misses the mark.

The boss fights are all pretty solid. The first fight is very simplistic, somewhat reminiscent of the Vrblther in Czerka Core Meltdown only without the adds, but that's fine. Since the consoles that you "pop" to increase your damage output on the boss are limited in number and don't respawn, you can strategise a bit when it comes to deciding when to use them.

The bonus boss encounter with the two Hands of Zildrog is a bit boring, as it's mostly a tank and spank with a few circles on the floor. I'm also still not sure if there's even any difference between the two bosses. At first I thought they cast different abilities, but then I swear I saw the second one start using the same abilities as the first one after the first one had died...

What's good is that like in Umbara and Copero, the bonus encounter is accessible without having to do a lengthy quest chain, so that each group can decide on the spot whether to do the fight or not. There is a bonus mission to find seven "Treasures of Valkorian" (which reveal that someone at Bioware doesn't know how to spell Valkorion's name), which is decent fun as the chests are all just hidden enough to make you look around a bit but don't require you to clear every inch of the flashpoint of trash, unlike on Copero. The odd thing is just that it literally rewards nothing: no CXP, no regular XP, no credits, not even a one-time codex entry. I can't decide whether that was an oversight or is a sign of Bioware kind of throwing in the towel on bonuses, thinking something along the lines of: "You know what, it doesn't seem to matter what sorts of rewards we put on bonuses, the majority will always want to skip them. Let's just add a few shiny things to click on for people who enjoy that kind of thing [such as me], but if they can't get their group members to go along with it, at least nobody misses out on any rewards."


Up next is the Giant Kitten Ancient Guardian Droid, who is an interesting amalgamation of a Kell dragon skeleton and a droid skin. His main mechanic is a spinning move that does AoE damage similar to Dread Master Styrak's pet in Scum and Villainy, however instead of hiding behind the tank you're supposed to hide behind some probes that you first have to damage but not kill. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I think it's cool to see them repurpose what was previously a raid-only mechanic for smaller group content, but on the other hand it's kind of unintuitive. In solo mode you can pretty much ignore the mechanic and just heal through it, but in veteran and up it suddenly kills you and you might not even know why. Also, "damage this but don't kill it" is a mechanic that's always hard to execute for pugs. Maybe the hiding part could have been implemented in a way that makes it more obvious what to do.


In the final room you have two boss fights: first Gemini 16, then Vinn Atrius and Zildrog together. I really liked that Gemini 16 splits into multiple copies in a way that's reminiscent of the Gemini Captain fight in KotFE chapter 15; it makes for a nice bit of consistency (even if it's quite a painful mechanic to deal with as a healer, as all the split adds will instantly aggro on you). She also does a powerful damage beam that you can just move out of on solo mode but need to line of sight on higher difficulties to avoid the damage - again something that might take some trial and error for pugs.

Fun fact: When I did the flashpoint on veteran mode for my pugging series, I said that I expected the last boss to be relatively easy... and then we wiped on him. I still think that nothing he does is inherently difficult to deal with, but he does stack a lot of mechanics on top of each other: circles to avoid, a knockback you have to be careful with in order not to fall to your death, a beam that connects two players who then have to stay close together or else they'll heal the boss, and adds that reduce everyone's hitpoints for the duration of the fight. My pug ended up healing the boss a lot due to not quite understanding the beam mechanic right away, but what actually did us in were the adds, which I had completely forgotten about since they hadn't been an issue for me on solo or hard mode. However, left to do their thing unimpeded on veteran mode, they ended up reducing our hitpoints so much that we were barely at 10% of our normal health by the end and a bog-standard attack could one-shot us. Fun times.

All in all, the Nathema Conspiracy backs a great story up with very solid mechanics, yet I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. I think above everything else I felt a bit let down by just how easy the flashpoint felt on master mode in particular when compared to Umbara and Copero. It's not that everything has to be super hard, but to have the climax of the story of all things be a relative cakewalk felt a little underwhelming to me.


It did make me muse about difficulty in general though and how I too am sometimes guilty of saying that I want one thing but then acting counter to my own words. I like the idea of really tough fights such as in hardmode Umbara, and I certainly feel highly accomplished whenever I beat them, but I don't exactly go out to repeat them often. The last time we got MM Umbara as a random, my guildies sighed a lot, and we didn't end up finishing because we just couldn't get a handle on the last boss's endless add waves (not to mention the countless wipes we had on the way). I've even heard people talk about taking gear off just to make sure they don't fulfil the minimum gear requirement and can safely queue for a random hardmode without getting one of the new flashpoints. And I can't claim that I've been actively seeking them out myself, or that I don't relate to the frustration experienced when every single boss causes multiple wipes even though we know the basic mechanics.

I guess what I'm saying is that a part of me wanted master mode Nathema Conspiracy to be harder... but at the same time there's a part of me that is glad that it isn't. I'm not sure how both of them could be satisfied at the same time.

12/05/2018

The Nathema Conspiracy - The Story

It took me a few days to gather my thoughts (and to find the time to actually write them down), but it's time to talk about what happens in the Nathema Conspiracy. If you can't guess: this means spoilers! You have been warned.

To recap what happened in the previous two installments of this story arc: Theron Shan suddenly betrayed the Outlander, claiming that you were just using the Alliance to do evil, regardless of what you'd actually been doing. After trying and failing to track him down on the Chiss world of Copero, you as the player learn that he seems to be posing as a double agent for an organisation called the Order of Zildrog, but his divided loyalties are not yet made clear to your character at this point.

The Nathema Conspiracy starts with you and Lana following a mysterious signal to an abandoned Imperial listening post, where your character finally learns the truth, as Theron has left you information about the Order there. You learn that it is led by a former Horizon Guard called Vinn Atrius, a handsome cyborg who comes off as surprisingly sympathetic compared to all the megalomaniacs that we've been fighting since KotFE, and who actually has relatable reasons for hating the Outlander.


From the holos left behind on the station you learn that he's been searching for and has now found Zildrog, who turns out to be as real as the rest of the Zakuulan pantheon, except that it he's a superweapon stored in a vault on Nathema instead of on Iokath. Working with Vinn are Gemini 16, a former Eternal Fleet unit who managed to escape re-enslavement by cutting herself off from her "sisters" and who now wants to see them dead to avoid ever being influenced by the Gemini network again, as well as a couple of other characters who have reasons to hate you and whose identity varies based on some of your previous story choices. For example redeeming Arcann makes you an enemy of a Nautolan from one of the worlds that Arcann bombarded previously and who's outraged that you just made him part of your Alliance without any kind of punishment (understandable). Yet if you killed him and Senya, one of Vinn's allies ends up being a former knight who was apparently very close to Senya and who's furious that you killed her (also understandable). Just goes to show again that there's no winning when it comes to some situations!

Theron's info also tells you to go to Nathema to prevent Vinn & Co. from unleashing Zildrog, which is corroborated by your Alliance specialists on Odessen, who have finally made sense of the star map you retrieved from Copero. (Wait, didn't that get blown up before we could lay our hands on it?) Time to return to Nathema to find out what's what!

You and Lana take a shuttle there and find the planet transformed after Valkorion's death, full of new growth and wildlife. On meeting Theron at the co-ordinates he provided, you don't get to kill him right away (even if you want to) as you need him to point you in the right direction to prevent Zildrog's release.


Eventually you reach the vault where Zildrog is stored, and sadly he turns out to be a boring computer terminal instead of a cool lobster dragon creature... thing like Izax. Wonder how he became a dragon in the Zakuulan legends? You also learn that Vinn's precious allies ended up being recruited for no other reason that to serve as fuel for the machine - too bad for them.

Initially held back by a force field, you can't do anything but watch as Zildrog powers up and it turns out that his actual "body" is the Gravestone, which he promptly flies up into orbit above Odessen to one-shot the entire Eternal Fleet. He then turns it towards Odessen but needs to recharge before being able to fire again, which results in the shield around you dropping and allows you to engage Gemini 16, Vinn and Zildrog. You manage to successfully destroy/capture all of them, however Theron gets stabbed in the back by Vinn and ends up mortally wounded. You get the option to save him by quickly returning him to Odessen or leaving the "traitor" to die.

Back on Odessen you wrap things up with Lana (and potentially Theron if he's still alive) and get to muse on what's going to come next now that your Alliance has effectively been robbed of what gave it most of its power. You also have to choose whether to throw in your lot with the Republic or the Empire going forward.


Even though that was still a fair number of words, it's actually a very bare-bones summary of the plot that leaves out a lot of lovingly inserted detail. For example I've read that if you romanced Lana or Theron, you get the option to marry them at the end (which I haven't seen yet as none of the characters that I've taken through the story so far were romantically involved with either of them). My Guardian, who romanced Arcann in his Alliance alert, got to share a tender moment with him, but even if you're not romantically involved he makes a brief appearance if he's still alive.

On Nathema you have a holo call with one of Vinn's allies who's actually different based on your base class. I've tried to avoid spoiling myself for all the different possibilities, but from what I've gathered this person can even be different for some classes based on decisions taken during the class story. The sad thing is that this went completely over my head during my first playthrough because for my trooper said character wasn't anyone I knew; they just made the briefest of references to something that had happened in my class story, so I thought that sentence was as far as the customisation went. In reality however the identity of the person themselves varies, and for some classes it's even someone you know. Considering that the ally in question ends up being one of the people that get turned into fuel for Zildrog, that's a considerable cast of characters who could now potentially be dead.

None of this changes the overall flow of the narrative, but it does add some much added distinction between characters for those of us with many alts and showcases a love for detail that has often been absent in more recent content releases, probably making this one of SWTOR's best story updates in a long time.


But what about the plot, you might say... Is it any good? Well, I already summarised it earlier in this post, so you'll be the judge, but most of the reactions that I've seen have been very positive, and I was actually kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed it myself. I could see people who were really in love with the role of Alliance Commander hating it, and of course if you were already super jaded with the game to begin with, it's unlikely that this update will change your mind. (Though I have seen some comments from players who felt that the Nathema Conspiracy served to invigorate their previously flagging interest in the game.)

Personally, I've been wanting to see the Alliance come to an end for a while, so I guess I was positively biased towards developments in this flashpoint that way, but this hasn't stopped me from being critical of poorly written story installments in the past (see Iokath as an example). The Nathema Conspiracy just handles things better in every possible way, largely because of the aforementioned love for detail but also because the plot just works much better in general.

Vinn Atrius and Gemini 16 make for interesting and convincing villains despite of having been complete unknowns beforehand, and I wasn't surprised at all to see people asking for an option to romance Vinn the very day the patch came out. There are also some interesting character moments for Lana and Theron. Personally I found it amusing that Lana serves as your foil regardless of which stance you take towards Theron - if you say that you trusted him all along she keeps telling you to be cautious, yet if you leave him to die she's actually taken aback and later confesses on Odessen that despite everything that's happened she's genuinely saddened by his death.


The way the dialogue and cut scenes are set up, they also manage to hit some very strong emotional notes. For example I was genuinely worried about Odessen getting blown up and was actually relieved when we managed to save the planet - not because of it being my base, but because it's a lovely planet and I didn't want any of the characters still stuck on it to die! And when I chose to leave Theron to die on my dark-sided Marauder, I actually felt a pang of regret despite of her having wanted to kill him for months. Honestly, if I had to pick one thing I didn't like it would probably be that everyone kept referring to Zildrog as "it", which seemed like an oddly detached way of talking about a well-known mythical being with a personality.

As far as major plot points go, the Emperor having yet another superweapon stored away in a vault somewhere seemed plausible enough based on what we know about him. While I've seen some people express unhappiness with Zildrog's dialogue claiming that it was him who wiped out the population of Nathema, I don't think it takes anything away from Vitiate/Valkorion to know that he used an actual weapon to kill everyone to achieve his original "ascension" instead of just doing it purely through the power of the Force.

I suppose the Gravestone turning out to be Zildrog's body is a bit convenient, especially as unlike with the Gods from the Machine there's no physical resemblance between the body and the image the Zakuulans have of the deity/mythological creature. The Dark Sanctuary also doesn't really feel like it was originally meant to be a "brain connector" or whatever we want to call it, but I guess it was a leftover mystery from KotFE that had never received a resolution, and resolving it like this felt appropriate enough.


After how lacklustre this story arc started out with Iokath and Crisis on Umbara, the Nathema Conspiracy really restored my faith in Bioware's storytelling and makes me genuinely curious about what they will come up with next. What were your thoughts on the story?

07/05/2018

Looking Good

When Crisis on Umbara came out, I thought that it was set in an interesting environment, what with the moving train and those weird tentacle things coming out of the ground. Traitor Among the Chiss raised the bar by taking us to the gorgeous Chiss world of Copero. I didn't think it could get any better than that, but the Nathema Conspiracy proved me wrong. That was quite a surprise too, considering Nathema's dreariness in KotET chapter seven.

The Force made it pretty again though. I swear most of my time during my first playthrough of the flashpoint was taken up by just looking around and taking screenshots. Here are a few of them:


I remember recently in my comment section Soots commented about how none of the new flashpoints are as fun and attractive as the classic ones, and another commenter replied - quite rightly so - that in a comparison of the visuals between False Emperor and Traitor Among The Chiss, the latter would come out as a clear winner. As much as it's fun to reminisce about the good old days sometimes, in terms of looks SWTOR's environments have only become prettier.

I think this will only add to people's already existing longing for another "proper" open-world planet to be added to the game again soon. The fleet is fine as a hub but sometimes you just want to treat your eyes to something nicer. And Iokath didn't really fit the bill for this due to its mechanical design.

Speaking of appearances, the patch also brought with it a new hairstyle. Please tell me I wasn't the only one who paused after seeing it for the first time and went to the Cartel Market to check if a new hair bundle had been released?! Bioware surprised everyone in a positive way however by simply adding the new hairstyle to the existing selection for free. It's a pretty good one as well, a nice variant of the classic short ponytail. I just fear that I might get sick of seeing it pretty quickly, what with seemingly everyone on my Twitter timeline rolling up new alts with the exact same hairstyle now!

04/05/2018

5.9 Patch Thoughts & Story Epiphanies

Yesterday was a very good patch day: new content and lots of small fixes of the best kind. Example:
I'm particularly pleased with the tweaks to the trash before Izax though. I do like the idea of the puzzle leading up to the boss, but we've wasted quite a bit of time on it in the past when - despite of understanding what we were meant to do - the "moving pieces" behaved in mysterious ways that prevented us from completing the puzzle. ("How can they not have line of sight? They're right next to each other!")

I was excited to see the mission "Introduction to Conquests" get fixed, as it's very rewarding for alts who complete a conquest for the first time, but it had been impossible to complete for the past few weeks because Bioware had forgotten to update the quest to make sure it actually got triggered by the new conquest system. I immediately had some alts to visit after patching up who had already been waiting to collect their bonus rewards.

And the introductory missions to Black Hole and Section X are back, yes! I never understood why these were removed in the first place, especially with 5.0 making the old daily areas relevant again.

And of course we got the new flashpoint... I will save my opinions on that for another post though. It did cause me to have an only vaguely related revelation in regards to my feelings about MMO lore and stories though. You see, I've often said that to me it's very important that the writers take their own world seriously, which is one of the things I really love about Bioware. And just as often others have countered with arguments like "The real world is already serious enough!" or "Humour is good!", which I didn't really know how to counter, though I didn't feel like these arguments really addressed the heart of the matter.

The newest installment of SWTOR's main story is very earnest and serious, with nothing to really laugh at. It succeeded in evoking all kinds of emotions in me while I played: excitement, curiosity, worry. And yet... I actually made some light-hearted moments for myself too. For example there was one point when it struck me just how lush the environment was, so I decided to go out of character for a minute, put on my trooper's beach outfit and lounged next to a waterfall for a silly screenshot.


At another point, I tried to knock some mobs to their deaths and managed to make one of them bounce off the wall in such a manner that his body came to lie on a narrow ledge... and it emitted a loot beam. In my guild I'm infamous for not wanting to leave any loot behind, so of course I took that attitude here too. First I fell to my death even trying to get to the mob, then I reached him successfully to loot but died afterwards because there was no real way to get back off the ledge without dying. It wasn't really worth it in monetary terms but it's always more about the principle of the thing for me anyway. Throughout the entire sequence I was providing running commentary for my actions to my pet tank and we both got a good laugh out of it. Then it was back to the story and serious business.


And this got me thinking: I'm not averse to making fun of things, but I prefer for it to be my choice. It's easy to take a step back, laugh at some particularity in an otherwise serious story, and then get back into it. But when the whole thing is a big joke from beginning to end, with everything being a parody of something or other and characters spouting movie quotes left and right - that may well be funny sometimes, but if the humour is not your cup of tea it can be hard to enjoy what's left despite of it. An overall serious story can easily include a couple of chuckles here and there, but something that doesn't take itself seriously to begin with will have a difficult time when it comes to getting people to genuinely care later on. At best it's likely to be a very jarring experience. So I do like me a good bit of humour and laughs, but I prefer worlds and stories that can be taken seriously and that the players are allowed to make fun of when it pleases them instead of the devs treating everything like a giant joke from the get-go.