13/12/2019

Reviewing Objective Meridian

When I talked about the part of Onslaught's story that takes place on Corellia, I said that the Objective Meridian flashpoint probably deserved a post of its own... this is that post.


Functionally, it works the same as the previous three flashpoints we got over the last couple of years (Crisis on Umbara, A Traitor Among the Chiss and Nathema Conspiracy): there is a single-player story mode that you're meant to play through while making your way through the main storyline and which has all the cut scenes and dialogue. Then there are repeatable solo, veteran and master modes that are virtually devoid of cinematics and more about having fun with the combat and pursuing rewards.

However, this is already where the commonalities between Objective Meridian and those other flashpoints end. In fact, in every other aspect they are pretty much opposites.

The three flashpoints forming the traitor storyline wowed us with beautiful new environments, with each new one more stunning than the last. Story mode aside, they were also fiendishly hard however. (Nathema Conspiracy slightly less so, but still.) I didn't view this difficulty as a bad thing exactly; instead I found the challenge interesting - but after beating every difficulty once or twice, I started to dislike having any of them pop up as my random of the day in the group finder, as it always meant having to work so much harder than in most other flashpoints.

By contrast, Objective Meridian is visually quite dull. I'm biased in that I never liked Corellia's environments much, and this is just more of the same. The trash feels old-school as well, with wide and open spaces in which groups of enemies stand around neatly spaced out so that you can actually just run past a fair number of them without even engaging. I did enjoy the story very much, but in terms of flashpoint visuals and mechanics I wasn't at all impressed on my first run.


On the other hand though... it's really fun to re-run! I'm actually happy when it pops up in the random group finder because I know it won't be too long or difficult (though like Dxun when compared to other operations, it currently seems to award less loot than the older flashpoints for some reason). The fights aren't boring - Malgus and Tau in particular are quite well done in my opinion - and you may well find yourself wiping a couple of times the first time around while figuring out the mechanics, but once you understand what's going on the tactics are straightforward enough to execute without pushing you to your absolute limits.

Speaking of fight mechanics, another thing that was a pleasant surprise for me is that while the flashpoint's layout and progression are the same for both factions, the bosses actually have different mechanics for each side. I had expected it to be more like Assault on Tython/Korriban Incursion, where you essentially deal with the same content only with a different skin. But no, here every boss actually has their own unique mechanics (and Imp side actually seems more of a pain to me than Rep side, but maybe that's because I've only done the former on master mode once and am therefore less familiar with it).


Tl;dr version: My first impression of Objective Meridian wasn't great, but it's really grown on me with each subsequent run. On the other hand I got both Crisis on Umbara and Traitor Among the Chiss as my random master mode several times over the past couple of weeks (once we even got Copero twice in a row!) and as pretty as they are, it always elicits groans. It's really made me think about the comparative value of dazzling the player with a great first impression but being tedious to repeat vs. the other way round.

09/12/2019

Kuat Drive Yards Can Be... Fun?

Last time on "levelling through flashpoints" I decided that I'd had enough of Hammer Station and that going forward, I was going to exclude it from my flashpoint selection before queueing. Somewhat to my surprise, queue times with Hammer Station unselected really were longer, though it was mostly a difference between mere seconds and waiting a couple of minutes. Things really are more dire than I had thought if that many people are queueing for nothing but Hammer Station in specific.

Also, fun fact: When I went to unselect Hammer Station, I noticed that what inspired this whole project, to find out at which level each flashpoint unlocks now, is actually a pointless exercise since it says right there in the tooltip of the group finder interface what each flashpoint's level range is! D'oh!

Cademimu
I levelled: 30-31

Ahh, Cademimu, an old favourite. My team for this one consisted of two other Shadows and a Sentinel, which led to a lot of sneaking. Mostly we were successful in skipping the pulls we tried to, though other times we did end up aggroing things by accident and once, just before the first boss, this even led to a wipe. Oops!


Order 66 executed successfully.

We were mostly carried by the level 75 in full 306 gear, while the poor lowbie tank seemed a bit lost. I took it as final confirmation of his newness when he died to General Ortol's very first rocket firing - you know the one, where only one of the four quadrants is dangerous and the other three are safe, yet he managed to run right into the one that killed him.

Maelstrom Prison
I levelled: 31-33

I briefly considered unticking Cademimu from the list on my next run to avoid getting it again, but then decided against it because after all those Hammer Stations two Cademimus in a row would have been nothing anyway. As it turned out the question was moot in any case as I ended up in Maelstrom Prison. I've always considered this one a pretty nice flashpoint to pug, as it's one of the easier ones overall but has a couple of tricky bits that prevent it from being a snore-fest.

My party this time around consisted of three Guardians, one level 75 tank, and two labelled as dps, level 60 and 45 respectively. While everyone said hi at the beginning, there was virtually no conversation after that, so I didn't bother bringing up the question of the bonus boss when it became obvious that some people were keen on quickly running past anything that was skippable.

Our tank had a clear understanding of the basics of tanking, as he was taunting and using his cooldowns appropriately, but displayed a surprising lack of tactical knowledge when he attempted to face-tank Colonel Daksh, which eventually resulted in a wipe. The next time around we got him down okay, and the level 60 revealed himself to be the most experienced by using his taunt to take over kiting duty.

The level 45 was a funny one in so far as he kept running ahead to be the first to jump into as many pulls as possible and died multiple times from that. However, every time he was revived he went straight ahead and did the same thing again, undeterred by the obvious negative consequences. Some people play this game in (to me) very strange ways.

At one point he also accidentally pushed a gold mob into a patrol and then said "mb" in chat. After my recent adventures in WoW Classic my brain immediately went to "mana break", which obviously made no sense, until I realised that he was apologising for the bad pull: "my bad"!

Kuat Drive Yards
I levelled: 33-36

Kuat at last! I never thought I'd say that, considering that this used to occupy a similar position as Hammer Station does now, as in: the easy place to spam for rewards (though it used to be more of a levelling thing than about max-level gear).

The group I got for this one was fairly low-level, with the highest character a level 51 Guardian, and the other two slots being filled by a level 16 Gunslinger and a level 21 Sentinel.

I got a bit worried when the Guardian started the introductory convo before the Sentinel had even loaded in and asked people to skip if they'd already seen the cut scene, but then he aborted the conversation when he realised that we were still missing someone and didn't actually complain when we did watch the cut scene. He was sporting the title "Friendly" and I was curious to see whether he'd live up to it. (He did.)

Remembering how rush-rush people used to be in this flashpoint it felt odd to go through it as slowly as we did, but at our level every pull was a challenge and we had to heal up in-between. We got the armoury and the gun emplacements as our random segments. We even did the bonus once! The second time the Guardian completed the final objective before we'd found the Elite Defender, but oh well.

The final boss was Lieutenant Krupp, and of course we wiped the first time due to the two lowbies being completely oblivious to the grenade mechanic. I explained. On the next try the group split and activated both degaussing stations at the same time, so that we were unable to cleanse the second round of grenades and wiped on that one. Friendly Guardian put a star over my head and told everyone to follow me whenever the grenades were thrown.

We continued in that vein but wiped about another half dozen times without much progress, barely shaving twenty percent of the boss's health off before dying. I was getting increasingly worried that someone was going to get angry/frustrated and leave, but that didn't happen. Friendly Guardian and I just kept trying to come up with additional advice to improve our performance, such as to kill the adds as soon as they appeared, while the two lowbies did their best to execute it (though with limited success).

As survivability was our biggest problem, I eventually took it upon myself to personally run back and forth between the kolto stations - I had expected our Guardian to heal himself there since he was the one with boss aggro most of the time, but after a few tries of that not working I decided to just do what I could myself. I also taunted the boss every now and then to spread out the damage a bit, and the Guardian let me take some hits, then taunted back when I got low. We were obviously on the same page on that point.

I think it must have taken us ten or twelve attempts until we finally got the boss down. On that final successful try the Sentinel died early on too, so that we three-manned most of the fight. I was doing very little actual damage, mostly just running back and forth between the kolto and degaussing stations, but eventually we got him down. I checked the time and the fight that finally led to the kill had taken us a full seven minutes. Quite hardcore for a group of lowbies fighting a flashpoint boss - and easily the most satisfying run Nautalie has been in so far.


I don't mind showing these guys' character names because they were all goddamn heroes.

Cademimu
I levelled: 36-37

I guess after the positive excitement of the previous run, karma decided that I was due for a train wreck. I got put into a Cademimu run in progress, though they were only on the second trash pull. I saw two level 75s still in levelling gear designated as tanks, a Vanguard and a Shadow, and another dps Shadow a few levels below me.

When we got to the bit at the bottom of the first elevator where you can run past a lot of mobs, one of the other Shadows charged right in and pulled half the area, causing us to wipe. The Vanguard yelled some expletives. We re-grouped and the Shadows (or one of them, I couldn't quite see) ran right back in to pull the same group again. The Vanguard left as soon as that happened and we wiped again.

We re-grouped for a third time and someone was obsessed with getting revenge on that Champion drone now as they unnecessarily pulled it yet again... but we got two at once and wiped yet again (well, I stealthed out just beforehand). That resulted in the level 75 Shadow leaving as well.

The lowbie Shadow had been passed group lead for some reason and I told him that he had to re-queue us if we wanted replacements but he was completely non-responsive and just seemed confused. I summoned my crappy influence level four Qyzen Fess and tried to gently guide him onwards. He did follow me for a bit, which got us past the cantina and to that bit where you can take a shortcut through the fenced area. We both snuck up to the next pull right outside it in stealth and I was pondering whether we should just bypass it entirely, when the Shadow decided to jump out of stealth with an AoE, dying a few seconds later. I still tried to help him but died as well.

We started running back once again, and I watched him jump to his death while the elevator wasn't there, just like that. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he seemed to have found the queue button as the prompt for getting replacements popped up... but before we could actually get any, he left the group, causing it to disband. I returned to the fleet, somewhat bewildered by what had just happened.

Kuat Drive Yards
I levelled: 37-38

I re-selected Hammer Station just so I could get the weekly Searching For Allies quest done, fully expecting to get thrown into it right away, but the instant pop I got actually took me to Kuat Drive Yards again!

This time the group consisted of three other dpsers just below max level, two Shadows and a Commando. There was a bit of confusion at the beginning as one of the Shadows lagged behind and eventually asked us to kick her. I was glad that the other two didn't immediately oblige but rather asked why. She said that she couldn't see her UI, which prompted the other Shadow to explain how to reset your UI. I imagined the Commando rolling his eyes as he announced that he was going for a bio in the meantime.

Eventually we got everyone onto the station though, and this time around we got the hangar and starship assembly scenarios. Nice variety! My attempts to get people to do the bonuses before completing the main objectives were once again only moderately successful. I did grit my teeth a bit when people didn't want to do the Elite Defender in the hangar even though he was right next to the exit, so that when we eventually had to kill him anyway, we didn't get anything for it since the bonus quest had disappeared. On the starship assembly someone customarily mashed all the buttons before I'd even had a chance to figure out the puzzle and the prototype exploded. Nice to see that some things haven't changed.

The final boss was Station Guardian One, whom we dispatched easily enough as everyone used the two kolto stations responsibly (thankfully). I just found it amusing that I was once again the lowest level by far yet ended up tanking the boss for most of the fight - until I got caught in a tight spot with no kolto station in reach and stealthed out to avoid dying.

It does still feel a bit strange to get this much satisfaction out of running Kuat Drive Yards of all places, but right now anything that's not Hammer Station is a win.

06/12/2019

Raiding With Little Guidance

For the longest time, the #1 online resource to consult about raiding in SWTOR used to be Dulfy's website. From what I can surmise, she was a dedicated progression raider herself and would usually play through all the new content on the PTS, where she took screenshots and notes so that she could have a detailed guide ready and published the moment the content actually hit live.

However, in the latter half of 2017 she suddenly seemed to lose interest in operations, and after the first two encounters in Gods from the Machine the guides just stopped, which posed a bit of a challenge for raiders who were used to having them as a reference. I mentioned this when talking about my own guild's Gods progression at the time.

We eventually bumbled our way through via a mix of obscure written sources (our main reference for hardmode Scyva was from a Google doc written by a person with a French-sounding name) and orally related instructions from friends and guildies who had already managed to get their kill via some other means.

Cue the release of Onslaught! Dulfy seems to have given up guide-writing for MMOs entirely earlier in the year (not just raid guides), and while other fan sites like Vulkk and MMO Bits have picked up the slack in a lot of areas, raiders still feel a bit underserved to me in terms of helpful content. Xam Xam has actually started posting guides for the first few bosses of the new operation recently, but for my guild at least these still came kind of late, as we're up to the last boss on veteran mode now.


It's interesting because it's one thing to go into story mode "blind" for a bit of fun, but we never had any intentions to do hardmode progression "blindly" too. The first two encounters were easy enough to figure out on the go, but by the third one we were running into some trouble.

Fortunately it was word of mouth that saved us once again, as an acquaintance from another guild was able to give us a crucial tip that managed to turn things around. Still, we are back to running two progression teams at the moment and it's been interesting to see how each one's been doing things slightly differently, simply because there's no single source telling us what to do along every step of the way, so each group just experiments with certain things until they find a way that works best for them.

It's a different raiding experience than what I've been used to for a long time, but still fun. It gives you that odd feeling of being on the very edge of progression, among the first people to figure out how these fights work (though we're obviously not). And the operation itself has remained good fun so far; to me it really feels like Bioware hit about the right difficulty for a hardmode this time around.

We also keep discovering little bits and pieces that make us laugh, from new hardmode-only mechanics to little things that we just managed to miss previously. Did you know that in the room with the turrets before the Huntmaster, you can avoid being shot at by simply RP-walking past them? The AI wasn't kidding when she said that they were activated by motion sensors...

Now we just have to deal with the last boss, which like on story mode, is the one thing I'm not so sure I like. On story mode I criticised the sheer length of the fight as well as the imbalance in terms of what each group member has to do, while veteran mode seems to be extremely unforgiving in terms of group composition, which has most of my team gearing up some alts now because our usual mix of classes and specs is simply not viable. We shall see how that goes!

02/12/2019

Mobilisation

This is going to be one of those blog posts mostly about blogging, so if that isn't your cup of tea, feel free to skip this one.

A couple of months ago now, I finally got a smartphone. I held out with my old "dumb phone" longer than most, largely because I only really wanted it to do "phone things" such as make calls and write text messages, and an old-style phone is actually better for that as the limited functionality allows it to have a much, much longer battery life.

However, times change and for a number of reasons I finally gave in and got myself a smartphone. In regards to SWTOR this turned out to be a lucky turn of events, as my old physical security key finally gave up the ghost literal days after I got my new phone, which made it easy enough to switch to using the security key app instead.

I have to admit I actually quite like it too. For all my sentimental attachment to the physical key, the app is much more responsive, and I like that it has this little bar that shows you how long the code generated will be valid, and automatically generates a new one when the timer runs out. Something that used to happen to me quite frequently with the old key was that I would generate a code but it wouldn't work because it had already expired by the time I entered it, and I had no way of knowing that in advance.


The new phone has also meant being able to read blogs on the go, which was in many ways an eye-opening experience. Some blogs that I always thought ugly and kind of annoying to navigate on desktop turned out to be the opposite on mobile, the layout having clearly been designed primarily for the latter.

On the other hand I was surprised to find that even in this day and age there are still people on my blog roll who forego having a responsive layout altogether. Though apparently Firefox (and presumably other browsers too) can convert most articles into a format that's readable on mobile anyway if you press the right button.

I also leave comments from my phone now sometimes! It's a bit of an exercise in patience since it takes me ages to type anything on my phone screen, but I spend about eight hours a week commuting on trains, and during that time my entertainment options are limited anyway. Plus every comment I manage to leave on the go is one I don't have to remember to come back to later.

My own blogs surprisingly turned out to look... okay on mobile. This is mostly because many years ago I learned somehow (I can't remember where now, probably in conversation with another blogger) that Blogger had a simple checkbox in its settings that would set your blog to show a plain default mobile layout on small screens, which I ticked as soon as I was told about it because it seemed like very little effort for a lot of accessibility.

One thing I had never thought about before though and which bothered me now that I saw it for myself was how much site content is lost on mobile, mostly because the sidebar is completely invisible. Now, I figure most readers never look at it anyway, never mind clicking on any of the links, but they still matter to me. After some googling I learned that there is apparently a way to show sidebar content on mobile too, though it goes in a long list under each post instead (which makes sense in terms of space).

However, this only works if you select another option in your Blogger settings to customise the mobile layout further, which initially just means that Google will check your desktop layout for style elements like colours and fonts and try to automatically apply them to your mobile layout too. Applying this feature to this blog looked quite good. On my WoW blog it looked terrible, so I reverted to the default there.

However, I found out that simply enabling every sidebar widget for mobile looked terrible as well, as they were just crammed in at the bottom of each post one after the other with zero spacing or any kind of separators. If I was more knowledgeable about things like CSS I might have been able to fix that by adding some padding, but I'm not, so I opted to simply disable most of them again. Some of them also looked terrible in general and were borderline unusable on mobile anyway, such as the blog archive feature - which did break my heart a little as it's easily the widget I use the most, always checking back on older posts that I can cross-reference.

Interestingly I noticed on Bhagpuss' blog, which also seemed to have the default mobile layout enabled with zero customisation, that he had a tappable mobile drop-down at the top of the blog somehow. I eventually figured out that this is created when you use the "pages" feature and put it on the sidebar. (Though you don't get the neat little top bar if you've selected the option to customise your layout, go figure. If you did that it will just go in the long list of widgets at the bottom with everything else.) So I ended up re-creating a couple of widgets as pages that are hidden on desktop and linked them up so that they appear as part of the menu on mobile. Better than nothing.

All this has been a bit of a reminder of how unloved Blogger is by Google and how little support it seems to get. (It's been years since the YouTube widget died and I don't think they ever bothered to replace it.) Though I will say this: Another thing I've started doing is moderating spam comments on the go, and after a couple of weeks of being annoyed about the non-responsiveness of the comment moderation section in the Blogger menu, I suddenly found that it had been updated to be mobile friendly one day, just like that. When I checked back just now to look for the "show default mobile layout" option I was talking about earlier, I noticed that that page had been revamped as well. So there's still some work being done; hopefully Blogger isn't headed for the Google graveyard just yet.

I look forward to them making the actual blogging window mobile friendly as well - not that I can ever see myself writing whole blog posts on the go, considering how long comments take me already! However, besides taking care of spam comments that would also allow me to more easily fix typos in older posts when I come across them. The things I didn't know I wanted...

30/11/2019

Faces of Onslaught

November and with it IntPiPoMo is coming to an end, and even though I've been more prolific this month than I was during the rest of the year, I haven't quite been able to stick to my resolution of illustrating my posts with more screenshots - what can I say, I'm clearly too fond of dazzling my readers with walls of text.

So to reach my IntPiPoMo goal of at least fifty pictures, I'm going to round out the month with this one screenshot-heavy post, dedicated to facial expressions and body language in Onslaught. I always love the way characters in SWTOR manage to convey so much outside the dialogue with these.

I have no idea what creating this level of detail in cut scenes is like from a developer's point of view, but I like to imagine that there's one guy or gal at Bioware whose sole job it is to tug at limbs, mouths and eyeballs for each and every one just so to make sure that all characters have the right expressions. These screenshots might be slightly spoiler-ish.


I love the way this simple shot is set up. Malgus is towering over everyone looking ridiculously threatening, but Anri stays relaxed while chatting with you anyway. If I recall correctly she does straighten up when Malgus addresses her, but you can tell that she's not particularly scared of him. She still seemed somewhat nervous on Ossus, but Malgus has once again shown himself to be respectful of his assets and immune to the superiority complex that seems to affect so many Sith, making him not such a bad commander to have as a non-Sith. I always thought that he and Marr should have got along great if Malgus hadn't had that major lapse of judgement on Ilum... but this is turning into quite a tangent!

 

I don't recall what exactly bothered my Guardian at this point in the conversation, but you can tell from her pose that she wasn't happy.


Taking it another step further, my Commando is looking quite distressed here! I'm not 100% sure but I think this shot is from when you first enter the throne room on Onderon.

I can't remember now whether it was with the launch of KotFE or a bit later, but at some point Bioware gave their facial expressions a major upgrade. Unfortunately they then went a bit overboard with them for a while, as evidenced by many an exaggerated O-face in both "Knights of" expansions - I wasn't exactly bothered by these, but they did often seem somewhat comical when the scene was supposed to be serious. I'm glad that Bioware seems to have toned it down again since then, as my trooper's expression here is about as "strong" as it gets.


I like how your character does this slight gloating pose over Darth Savik after defeating her (might depend on chosen dialogue options).


Darth Shaar is smooth as silk and the game gives her some great shots while she introduces Imperials to Mek-Sha.

 

I mentioned in a previous post that my Sage made quite a funny face when she recognised Tharan, and this is it. This is her "Tharan, I'm so glad to see you" face. Can't you just tell how fond she is of him?


In this shot however she looks very thoughtful, which I liked. I'm not sure why her forehead came out quite so shiny though.


I do love fighting at Malgus's side on my Sith characters. They look united in their wrath. Too bad my Marauder is unlikely to feel as favourably about him next time they meet...


Darth Anathel is only a minor character in Onslaught but I love how bored and condescending he manages to look in this shot. Like a space version of Jacob Rees-Mogg, which seems quite appropriate. (Sorry, joke for my UK readers.)


One thing I didn't really notice consciously while playing but that was quite apparent when I went through my screenshots afterwards is the careful framing involving Republic flags and Imperial logos while your character talks to their faction leader at the end to discuss the Alliance's future in relation to their old home. I just thought that was a nice touch.


Finally, a simple smile! I think I mentioned before how this isn't an expression our characters or their associates get to assume often - maybe because we are often on serious business, maybe because Bioware generally wants to leave it up to the player how they think their character feels at any given moment. However, every now and then they dare to insert a simple smile as our characters (or their companions) would be unquestionably pleased with a situation, and this was one of those moments.

28/11/2019

Hammered Home

Last time on "levelling through flashpoints" I wrote about plunging my little Nautolan Shadow into the pool of "random" flashpoints at level 15 and finding out that nowadays "random" means "Hammer Station over and over". I initially tried to shrug it off as bad luck and figured that the very limited selection of flashpoints available to low levels now was at least partially to blame, so I kept going in hopes of getting a pop for something else eventually.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 23-25

*cue a heavy sigh*

At least this turned out to be my least aggravating Hammer Station run up to that point. Still, considering that we had two level 74 damage dealers and a level 60 healer, I was surprised by how much difficulty we still had with many pulls. I got the impression that the healer wasn't actually doing very much healing, though I was too busy trying to stay alive (thank god for finally getting Force Cloak) to look too closely. She definitely wasn't in the wrong spec or anything.

That said, everyone stuck together and at least visibly tried, with all kinds of cooldowns getting obvious use. I was quite amused and proud when me and the level 74 Sentinel were the last people left alive on the turrets before the bridge and skilfully finished them off with a game of what I like to call "turret tag", which had the person with aggro hiding out of line of sight while the other one did damage without getting attacked, and a role swap once aggro switched.


Our dodgy healer eventually DCed, and once we replaced her with a companion the rest went pretty smoothly (as sad as it makes me to say that).

Hammer Station
I levelled: 25-26

I was simultaneously horrified and impressed by how I was technically up to being able to queue for five different flashpoints at that point but Hammer Station was still the only one that kept popping. This is not just bad RNG but clearly some bad apples queuing for nothing else and dragging the rest of us along with them. Damn you, people.

In this run we had three level 75s, two of them from the same guild. The guildies dispatched the first couple of pulls quite quickly and skilfully, but the third player still hadn't even moved from the door by that point, which eventually prompted them to initiate a vote kick on him for "being AFK". I thought it was too soon for that and would have preferred to try talking to the person first, but since the two guildies were obviously on the same page the kick went through instantly and by the first boss a replacement had arrived.

The rest of the run was very smooth as for once everybody clearly knew what they were doing and it was actually kind of nice. If only it hadn't been Hammer Station again.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 26-28

My growing frustration with the pug-inflicted Hammer Station spam prompted me to take a break from the project for a few days. Returning to it with a fresh mind, I came back to... Hammer Station again, of course.


I will say that this was probably my nicest run so far. The group consisted of a level 75 Commando, a level 73 Gunslinger and a level 59 Sage, who were all technically dps but played it smart, which meant that the Commando and Sage threw out the occasional heal when needed, and everyone tried their best to round things up for efficient AoE. Someone even cleansed the debuff stacks on the Tunneler droid, which initially made me happy - until I realised that it had taken six runs for someone to bother doing that and then I felt sad again.

I was unsure how to proceed at this point - I simply could have unticked Hammer Station from my limited flashpoint selection and foregone the daily random reward (which is only a little bit of extra XP at my level anyway) and I doubt that it would have affected my queue times all that much, but another part of me was feeling stubborn and viewed the whole situation as being stuck in a game of chicken with the group finder: Who would give up and send me somewhere other than Hammer Station first? Would the randomiser do it or did I have to do it myself?

Hammer Station
I levelled: 28-30

I decided to give it one last try with the full random selection, playing on a Wednesday afternoon for a change since I had a half day off from work, just to see if queueing with a different crowd would make a difference. The group I got consisted of two other dps and a healer and we worked very well together: Cleanses were made on the Tunneler boss and one of the two Sages even controlled the second turret by the bridge. Too bad this synergy was wasted on Hammer Station yet again.

Enough, I say! On the next run I'm unticking Hammer Station, never mind the bonus XP for choosing a "random". (I have to put that in quotes because it really isn't.) Especially since I'm up to having six other flashpoints on my list that never pop. After fifteen levels of nothing but Hammer Station (except for that one not-very-great Athiss run) I want a change of scenery.


Plus, I'm running out of interesting new screenshots to take of my character running Hammer Station yet again.

26/11/2019

Conquest Rebalanced

The last time I really talked about Conquest was back in June, when I expressed severe disappointment about the change to award Conquest points for anything, not just completing Conquest objectives. It's not that I hated the concept, but the implementation was severely lacking in my eyes and effectively made the pursuit of Conquest objectives pointless.

I was properly annoyed with this, but even so I was kind of surprised when I realised that it was actually contributing to me playing less than before. The logic for this is a bit strange and unlike many a forum warrior I won't make any claims to represent a significant number of players, but for me it effectively felt like the game was telling me to play less.

What I mean is this: When I'd log onto an alt to make some story progress, I'd hit my Conquest target barely two missions into their current chain and find myself thinking: "Hm, any additional points I earn on this character are going to be wasted... I should probably relog to a different one." However, I didn't actually feel like playing a different character, so in the end I'd just log off.

All that said, I didn't expect Bioware to nerf point gains again, because as I said in the post I linked at the beginning, nerfing things and taking away people's free stuff is never popular. However, Bioware surprised me in a good way by nerfing point gains from regular play indirectly with Onslaught's launch, which still had some people up in arms but probably a lot fewer than if the numbers that pop up on screen when you kill things had actually gotten smaller.

What they did was apply a multiplier to both Conquest targets and objectives, meaning that the contribution from doing random content became smaller, which in turn put objectives back on the map as something meaningful to do.

Aaand I'm loving it! Now it actually feels to me the way I wanted it to be in the first place: allowing you to attain your Conquest goals without doing objectives if you spend enough time playing that character, but making it so that completing objectives is the most efficient way to reach your Conquest target if that is your main priority.

Since Onslaught launched I've regularly capped three to four characters a week again, often with limited effort involved. Last week though I hit my target on five characters, and for the first time in months I actually logged in specifically to spend some more time on two of those characters to make sure they'd earn enough points before the reset. It was a goal to pursue and felt really good.

As a bonus, the application of the multiplier also makes it easier to level smaller guilds now, as the XP requirements for guild levels have not been increased the same way as far as I'm aware, meaning that the same amount of Conquest activities completed will gain your guild more XP than before. Even our little Imperial alt guild is up to level 35 by now.

So all I can say about this one is: Thank you, Bioware!

(And before anyone comments about last week's Conquest event lacking objectives, the way I read Eric's response on the forums it doesn't sound to me like that was an intended part of the plan. Bugs and mistakes are something else.)

23/11/2019

Gearing After a Month, Tacticals & Set Bonuses

Onslaught has been out for a month, there's still a lot of stuff I haven't seen or done, and I'm loving it! Let's talk about gearing though.

My tentative first impressions after only a few days were that Spoils of War seemed a lot better than the PTS had led me to believe, and this positive impression has only been reinforced throughout the last month. I reached item rating 306 a few days after making that first post, and since then I've basically been... kind of done? It still feels weird to say that.

I feel confident in saying that it's never before been this easy to get your character fully geared in the highest item level available, not even back when you could get the best gear from hardmode Eternity Vault during certain weeks. Even better, since all this gear is now legacy-bound, your entire legacy is instantly geared to the same level. I have several bank tabs full of 306 gear for all slots, so any new alt of mine that dings 75 can just grab a full set and be powerful instantly. It's pretty amazing.

Now, this random 306 gear is not "best in slot" exactly, since there are things to fine-tune, such as amplifiers and augments and what not - but these feel very much optional and like something for min-maxers. For your everyday play, any set of 306 gear is going to be just fine and feel great.

It's fantastic to feel so liberated of the need to grind for gear. SWTOR has never been a game that had gear grind as its main focus, but Galactic Command and Ossus shifted the needle towards requiring a lot more effort than used to be the case pre-5.0. It's nice to see the game shift back towards a more casual-friendly system that frees you up to focus more on things like story and alts.

For those who like to optimise and as a secondary objective for everyone else, there is the option to work on changing your stat balance, or to collect different Tactical items and set bonuses, two of the new features of the expansion.

I saw someone compare Tacticals to legendary items from WoW's Legion expansion, but never having played that I can't comment on how accurate this comparison is. The general pitch of "items that can change the way you play/use certain abilities" didn't particularly excite me in theory, but now that I'm seeing it in practice I'm quite liking it.

For example my Commando main has two Tacticals, one that changes the interaction between one of my cooldowns and my main AoE heal, making AoE a bit more ammo-efficient, and another that buffs one of my main single-target heals and makes it castable on the go. As a general rule I find the AoE healing one most useful in operations and use the single-target healing one in flashpoints, but it's not a hard rule and it's interesting to me to test them in different environments, which I'd say means that the system is working as intended! Unfortunately not all classes/specs currently have equally interesting Tacticals from what I can tell.

The set bonuses similarly apply a mix of minor buffs and small ability changes, and there is entertainment value in collecting different ones to mix and match for different purposes. Is the six-piece bonus of one set interesting enough or should I only go for the four-piece and get a small buff from another two-piece set bonus? There are a lot of possibilities.

If I had to point out any weaknesses in the system there would be two so far: The first is that the acquisition of both Tacticals and set pieces feels heavily lopsided towards the vendors right now. While I'm glad that the vendors are there as an option if you're after one specific piece, as a general rule I'd prefer to get gear from doing the content itself (whatever it is). When one of our Sentinels got an awesome Tactical during a Traitor Among the Chiss run and then proceeded to lay waste to everything that came after the boss that had dropped it, it certainly made for a memorable afternoon!
 
Technically many sets state that they are best acquired from doing this or that, but from my experience you usually have enough tech fragments to buy what you're after from the vendor long before you get anywhere close to acquiring something useful from a drop. And if the item isn't on the vendor at all, you're just flat out of luck. For example I've been after the Apex Predator set for Commandos for a while, and it's supposed to drop in the Dxun operation, but after weeks of killing things in there I haven't seen a single set piece drop from any of the bosses - I only have the belt because it randomly dropped as shared loot from Dreadmaster Brontes on story mode of all places.

The other issue I have is that the sheer number of Tacticals and set bonuses is clearly posing balancing challenges for Bioware, and so far it seems that if these don't work out in your favour, they don't really have any sort of plan for dealing with it. For example I had bought four pieces of the Nimble Master set for my Guardian because the four piece set-bonus sounded extremely fun, but literally one day after I'd acquired the fourth piece, they changed the set bonus to something completely different that I did not like at all, which meant that the set went into the bank (there was no option to refund it) and I had to start over from scratch.

Four million credits and twelve thousand tech fragments is not the end of the world for me as someone who plays a lot, but I still felt cheated and I could easily see a more casual player, for whom this may have been all their savings, quitting over being screwed over like that. I think Bioware will have to think about how to handle changes like that going forward - I don't think just leaving players out in the cold and telling them to deal with it is a good way of doing it when collecting these sets is supposed to be an aspirational aspect of gameplay.

On the whole though, Spoils of War gets a definitive thumbs-up from me!

20/11/2019

Stuck in Hammer Station

At the end of the Esseles, Nautalie the Shadow was level 14, but handing in the introduction to group finder quest ticked her over to 15, which was just as well since I didn't really want to do the Esseles a second time. (Ironic, considering what was to come.) At that point, the Esseles disappeared from her available group finder selection, to be replaced with... Hammer Station and Kuat Drive Yards. I picked up the KDY story quest and queued up for both, hoping to get KDY, just to get...

Hammer Station
I levelled: 15-17


So I should probably mention that my relationship with Hammer Station has really soured over the last few years. I used to think that it was a nice little instance, and to be honest it still is, but it's also somehow turned into the lowest common denominator of flashpoints, in the sense that it's usually the easiest and most popular way to gain whatever rewards are being given out for flashpoint running at any particular point in time.

This led to people targeting it specifically instead of opting to queue for a random, and many have run it over and over again so many times that it's been given the nickname "Spammer Station". While I don't particularly care if other players want to do that, it becomes a problem if those people put themselves in the shared group finder queue, as it means that many others who are queuing for the full variety of flashpoints also get funnelled into Hammer Station over and over.

If low-level characters are now additionally limited in their queuing options, with Hammer Station being one of only a few, I suspect that this problem will only get worse.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I wasn't surprised to be put into a Hammer Station run that was very business-like and quick. With three of us having stealth we ended up skipping even more than usual, only killing the occasional mob that the Guardian in the group couldn't bypass otherwise. As two of our dps were level 75 and one of them in full 306 gear to boot, things also melted pretty quickly. I was very surprised when I somehow managed to pull aggro on one of the trash pulls and died, though others suffered deaths throughout the run as well.

This was mostly because despite of the raw power at our hands, the group seemed terribly inefficient in some ways. The Scoundrel never seemed to bother to throw a heal on anyone but themselves, no matter how low they got, and nobody ever seemed to bother with any sort of survival cooldown before keeling over dead. I had an excuse because I was too low to have any, but they didn't!

Hammer Station
I levelled: 17-19

Level 17 added Athiss to my list of available flashpoints, so with three options to choose from, the randomiser of course threw me into Hammer Station again, this time with another Nautolan one level below me (a Guardian tank), a Sage healer in his fourties and a badly geared level 70 gunslinger.

Fun fact: I remember how that one pull with the two gold droids near the start used to be considered the instance's one real stumbling block, until I saw someone handle it via corner-pulling one day, and over time this knowledge has spread so far and wide that most groups deal with it quite easily these days. Our Nautolan tank didn't know though, so he jumped at the mobs right where they were and it was a mess.

Also, despite of having both a tank and a level 70 damage dealer, it was my lowly level 17 Shadow who ended up pulling aggro a lot of the time, and I didn't seem to be getting a lot of heals either (the healer's choice of spells seemed somewhat erratic to me), leading to me tanking the Tunneler for most of the first boss fight, until I failed to click a kolto station in time and died from lack of healing.


I always love it when that message pops up while I'm still alive on my screen (though I was falling over by the time I managed to hit my screenshot key).

Lest you think that I'm making myself out to be some kind of elite player being dragged down by flailing baddies, I did quite a bit of derping of my own in this run, such as getting knocked to my death on Battlelord Kreshan, something that literally hadn't happened to me in years.

As I respawned in Vorgan the Volcano's room, I did my best to run back quickly. To make matters worse, I then managed to pull one of the Boarder Suppression Droids that we had missed, but instead of attacking me even once it instantly made a beeline for where the rest of the group was fighting. It fell off the bridge in the asteroid tunnel but unfortunately climbed right back out again.


And I was so hopeful when I saw this...

I felt a bit bad bringing an additional gold mob with me but figured it shouldn't cause too much of an issue... easy fight, right? Then I rounded the corner into the final room, just to find the area absolutely swamped with adds and two of my three group mates about to die. I rushed in and started AoEing down the adds, and while the tank and healer died soon after, the boss and all his adds did too. Too bad the gold droid was still there and killed me right after. Unfortunately the level 75 gunslinger had little interest in helping to kill it and ran over to loot and click the console instead. This resulted in the droid killing her too once I was gone, but hey, at least she got that loot, right?

For me, things weren't over yet though, since releasing put us all back at the very start of the instance and I still wanted my tech fragments, so I started running back towards the boss room. So did the tank, who was running a bit behind me. Unfortunately I then managed to aggro another droid we had skipped. The tank caught up and tried to help, but couldn't keep aggro off me yet again, so that I died just before the droid did. "Oh well," I thought, "at least he can revive me and we can move on!" Nope, he ran right past my body and I had to release and go back to the start a second time. At least the boss's corpse and my loot were still there when I finally reached him.

Athiss
I levelled: 19-21

Yes, something other than Hammer Station! Unfortunately it was another weird run. This time I got teamed with a level 75 Guardian, a level 75 Gunslinger, and a level 73 Commando (all dps), so I thought it should be smooth sailing. However, the Commando shot off like a bat out of hell and kept pulling things so fast that nobody had a chance to regain health between combat encounters. In fact, he himself was often at less than half health when he pulled, but he kept rotating cooldowns and somehow managed to stay alive.

One of the other dps asked him to slow down please but this request was ignored, and things came to a head in Professor Ley'arsha's room, where he climbed up the ledge on the side for the shortcut that I've occasionally seen people use but that isn't particularly popular from my experience since it takes most people longer to get up there than it would take to simply kill the two trash groups that it allows you to skip.


Stuck on the wrong side of those droids... (I'm only posting this cause you can't make out the Commando's name in it).

Worse though, he jumped right down at the end without even checking whether anyone was following him and pulled the boss all on his own. Despite of my long history of failing at jumping shortcuts, I somehow managed to scramble up the ledge to follow him, but the other two dps decided to start pulling the remaining trash instead while the Commando was trying to solo the boss, and unsurprisingly we wiped soon after.

The Commando actually had the gall to start WTF-ing at people and asked why they were pulling unnecessary trash, which resulted in one of the other dps initiating a vote to kick the Commando with the reason "he's being a dick". I can't say I disagreed with the sentiment, but since I loathe kicking I abstained and instead told the Commando that most people can't even make the jump on that ledge. He didn't seem to think much of that, but the vote to kick didn't go through and we suffered no more deaths throughout the rest of the run, though he kept pulling more or less just as recklessly.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 21-23

When I saw the pop for this group I noted that aside from a level 75 tank it also included two other lowbies that were level 22 and 24 respectively. Still, they were all higher than me and Mandalorian Raiders had just been added to my selection, so maybe I'd finally get to do something other than Hammer Station? Nah, that would be silly.

The level 22 charged into the first pull all on his own and while I made it in time to help him kill things, the level 75 tank quit instantly. Then again, I'm not sure if his quitting was actually related to anything we were doing; for all I know he just might've been as thoroughly sick of Hammer Station as I was. Anyway, he was instantly replaced by another level 75 Guardian. In fact, this happened so quickly that the Commando later expressed surprise at our lack of a tank, presumably because he remembered seeing the tank icon on the pop-up window but hadn't noticed the switcheroo.

The level 22 dps Guardian kept running ahead and making more pulls on his own and died a few more times from this. We also wiped on "that pull" even though the corner pull was done correctly, but I think the Commando was lagging behind and with only the three of us we died.

On the Tunneler droid the level 75 Guardian tanked at first, died to the first laser and then complained about other people not clicking the kolto stations to heal him. I took over tanking and lived for longer (taking care of my own health as much as possible), however eventually I died as well since someone else had clicked the third kolto station when it wasn't needed, which meant that it wasn't available when I needed it. The boss died with the Commando being the last man standing.

After that things seemed to get better until we wiped on the two champion turrets before the bridge. I don't know if the Commando couldn't find his CC or if someone had broken it, but we just took too much damage and couldn't do enough ourselves. On the second round I did what little I could with Force stun and lift to keep the second turret off our backs at least for a little while, and to be fair the others also did what they could, with the Guardians swapping aggro and the Commando throwing out some heals.

Finally we suffered two more deaths on the last boss (this time it was someone else who got thrown off the edge) but we got him down on the first try at least.

I have to admit that this is turning out to be less fun than I expected so far. At this stage in my "experiment" four years ago I had already run four different flashpoints and was six levels higher. Being limited to four flashpoints is no fun, and even less so when Hammer Station is the only one of them that actually pops.

Also, no offense to anyone in particular that was in those runs, but I kind of feel like I'm stuck in the absolute dregs of the group finder right now, with people playing incredibly badly at times, failing to use any of their abilities and/or showing zero regard for the rest of the group because blind zerging is all they know and care about. I can only hope that it gets better soon or this diary is going to be very boring (and unhappy).

18/11/2019

Group Finding in 6.0 (hey, the Esseles is hard again)

One thing that changed with 6.0 but wasn't mentioned in the patch notes and hasn't been documented anywhere else as far as I can tell is that Bioware made some pretty impactful changes to the group finder. I wasn't aware of a lot of them myself until commenter Diana pointed out in comment that she'd noticed that her selection of available flashpoints had been greatly limited on her low-level character compared to what it used to be.

To quickly recap the setup that we had since 4.0 when Bioware first introduced flashpoint scaling: From level 10-14 you only had access to the Esseles / Black Talon, but then at level 15 all other flashpoints available through the group finder would open up on veteran mode. At 50 you'd also gain access to all master modes (minus a couple of the newer ones that had minimum gear requirements) as well as to all story mode operations.


This setup always had its pros and cons. I levelled a Mercenary purely through flashpoints shortly after 4.0 dropped to test the waters and documented her journey here on the blog. It was mostly good fun, but there were definitely some kinks: New players could be totally lost in story flashpoints that told a tale meant to happen later in the game, and lowbies in general struggled in certain places that had originally been designed for characters with a bunch of cooldowns available and equipped with a full set of utilities; bolster or no bolster.

Hearing that this had changed now, I was immediately intrigued and decided that it was probably time to level another character through flashpoint running, if for no other reason than to be able to jot down which flashpoint unlocks at which level now. In fact, this was the main reason I created Nautalie the Shadow besides wanting to check out Nautolans.

While levelling her through Tython I made good use of her stealth to throttle my XP gains when needed to make sure that I wasn't going to be too high level by the time I left the planet. In the end I was about three quarters through level ten by the time I queued up for the Esseles, which is still the only option available to characters of level 10-14.

Somewhat to my disappointment, I had to wait more than half an hour for a pop. If I had actually played instead of standing around on the fleet during that time, I probably would have outlevelled the flashpoint's range before I got a group! I did a /who and there were more than enough characters in the right level range, but if they were doing the Esseles at all most of them seemed to prefer the solo version.

On the plus side, when I finally did get a group everyone in it was pretty chill and happy to watch the cut scenes. After previous negative experiences I was hitting space bar right away to be on the safe side, but quickly noticed that other people weren't doing the same - so I asked if they wanted to watch and we had at least one self-professed newbie who had never been before, and the others didn't mind.


The only hump we ran into at the beginning was that except for the group leader none of us could enter the instance. Even while trying to walk directly through the door I kept getting an error that the group leader had selected a different difficulty setting than the rest of us. I can only suspect that they had picked up the solo mode before queueing, though I'm not sure why the game would even allow you to queue for veteran mode then. By passing leadership to me and resetting the phase, three of us were able to enter, but now the unlucky previous group leader was unable to join us, even after he had abandoned all his quests to make sure nothing was conflicting, so he eventually just left. I did feel kind of bad for him. We did make a start with the three of us plus Qyzen and eventually got a new fourth while fighting Lieutenant Isric.

One thing that was very noticeable was that the whole flashpoint felt much harder than I remembered it. Now, part of that may have been due to us having no healer, but I also noticed that the instance now scales to 70, when pre-6.0 it scaled down to its original level (I forgot, something between 10 and 15). Bolster is good and all, but a level 10-14 party scaled up to 70 is still pretty weaksauce, meaning that we had to pause and regen after every other pull, and every fight involving a gold mob turned into a proper life-or-death battle. I even died on Ironfist, after having already used two of the three kolto stations and being unable to find the third one in my low-health panic. This level of difficulty was unexpected, but actually kind of enjoyable to me personally.


Other things I noticed were that veteran flashpoints apparently now also give the "Beginner's Luck" buff, which also appears to have been added to all story mode operations with 6.0. It's basically the mechanic from the Izax fight that allows you to use your revive every thirty seconds instead of every five minutes, now applied to all group content that is supposed to be easy. Can't say I mind the idea, though it obviously wasn't relevant to us in the low teens as nobody had a combat revive yet anyway.


I was also very surprised to get tech fragments and phat grade 11 crafting loot... at level 10, in the Esseles! I mean, the number of fragments was pretty low, and currently it seems like you aren't actually able to open the crafting bags until level 75... that could turn into an inventory problem quickly. But it was still nice to get some loot that is actually relevant to endgame and my legacy.


Over the next few weeks, I'm planning to document my levelling progress in the same format I used for my Mercenary back in 2015, so prepare yourselves for some more tales of pugs. As mentioned earlier, I'll also be keeping a log of just when each flashpoint unlocks now and am planning to post that in an easy-to-read format once I've hit max-level.