Oh dear, customer service

I've been hearing stories about Bioware's customer service being terrible, but I didn't pay them too much heed. Some people always complain about customer service, and anyway, I'm willing to cut the company some slack for being new at handling this particular beast. When my trooper was bugged out and I couldn't play, it would have been nice to receive some help, but I figured that they were probably swamped with tickets at the time - and hey, in the end I did figure out a way to solve the problem myself.

However, today's experience has me a little bit worried I have to admit. It wasn't even anything big - I just observed an inconsistency in a quest chain about three days ago, and submitted it as a bug report. Without spoiling anything, due to my choices the quest ended one way, but the follow-up I received in the mail talked about a different outcome that didn't match up. So I thought I'd be helpful and submit that as a bug report. I kept it fairly curt and just described the quest in question since I couldn't remember its name. My ticket was a total of three lines long and I expected them to just forward it to whoever handles these kinds of bugs and not respond to me at all.

However today, three days later, I received the following response:

"Greetings [name],

I am Protocol Droid U3-F6 of Human-Cyborg Relations...

I have received your transmission regarding unscannable gathering nodes."

Wait, what? I tell you about a bug with a quest and you come back to me about unscannable gathering nodes? You couldn't even read three lines of text?

Since the message also included a request for more information, I wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt at first, thinking that maybe he had just copy and pasted the wrong "please provide more details" message, but when I tried to update the ticket with more details (courtesy of Torhead, which apparently has more information about the game than the average customer service rep), it just came back with an error message. Everything I had written just disappeared and I gave up.

At least the end of the message contained one of those "give us feedback about our service" links, which I followed and filled out. Sorry, U3-F6... I did give you full marks for politeness because I really can't fault you in that area, but everything else was a big fat negative. It's a real shame because I wasn't even expecting a response to a simple bug report, but if you do bother to reply, the very least you could do is talk about what I actually wrote instead of some random stuff about gathering nodes.


Lessons of the day

Heroic pugs, hand in together!

Generally my pugs for heroic quests tend to disband pretty quickly once the quest is done, and I'm okay with that - however, I do wish people wouldn't all leave before we've even had a chance to actually hand in the quest. If they just stayed in the party for two more minutes, we'd all get a massive experience bonus and maybe some social points too! I reckon that a lot of people simply aren't aware of it because they haven't done enough grouping yet, but if you are one of those early leavers, be aware and spread the word!

Same faction PvP is weird

It seems that the Empire dominates on my server after all, because I did some warzones on Empire side last night and it turns out that they do in fact spend a lot of time playing Huttball against each other.

Being pitted against people of your own faction has some strange consequences. Specifically, I noticed that a Sith did a /spit emote on me as she killed me, something that annoys me somewhat because for all the casual ways in which some players use this gesture, it projects a mental image of an action that would be very offensive in real life.

I contemplated whether it would be overreacting to whisper her about it (since we were on the same side and all), when the next match actually threw us onto the same team. Seeing the offender right next to me, I couldn't resist whispering her. "Funny, last match you spat on me and now we're on the same team." "Terrible, isn't it? I'll love you now though." And then she did a /love emote on me repeatedly, which made me chuckle and any leftover annoyance dissipated immediately. It's an interesting situation though, fighting people who could end up in your team on the next match, and something to keep in mind before you get too much into the spirit of hating the enemy.

Directive 7 is bugged

The latest flashpoint we attempted was Directive 7, and I say attempted because we ran into a bug that prevented us from completing it. Specifically, there is a boss that creates a copy of a party member every now and then, but apparently there is a bug with it which can cause it to spawn near endless copies of certain party members, and it mostly affects Mercenaries and Commandos (gulp). So yeah, we got quite close to killing it once, but eventually we always got overrun by an army of evil Shintars.

Supposedly there is a way to skip him via use of a combat res or stealth, but in the end we were too tired to even bother. Bugs that affect gameplay as badly as this remain a nuisance, but I have to admit that there was at least a certain element of humour to dying to an army of evil mes.


Colicoid War Game

It's been over a week since I did this flashpoint, but I still wanted to write about it because it really left an impression on me. I would describe my first experience with it as both hilarious and horrible, and I immediately found myself wondering whether it would turn out to be the SWTOR equivalent of WoW's Oculus back in WOTLK, a.k.a. an instance that took you far enough out of your comfort zone that most people ended up hating it and avoided it like the plague.

Obviously in discussing the details of the flashpoint, this post will contain spoilers about what happens in it, but I don't think that there's any reason to worry too much about it - there isn't really any story beyond what Master Satele tells you at the start, which is this: The Colicoids have lots of weapons for sale, but instead of simply handling trade like normal people, they want any potential buyers to go overcome a deadly obstacle course in order to prove themselves. What a ridiculous idea, why do we have to bother with this again? Oh, the Empire has already agreed to participate and we can't let them win? Sigh... I wouldn't be surprised if Imperial players got told in turn that they have to go because the Republic's already doing it.

Anyway, our group entered the flash point, saw some friendly Colicoids, entered the competition area... and was presented with four gun turrets in the middle of a field.

Nooo, not a vehicle fight!

Funnily enough, it wasn't actually that... vehicular? You just had to aim the gun at the enemies and it would shoot on its own. Silly us actually sabotaged ourselves on our first attempt because we expected there to be more button pushing, so we kept clicking and mashing keys, which just caused us to get dismounted over and over again. I even managed to make my gun turret disappear completely and we had to reset the flashpoint to get a new one, because three guns simply weren't enough. Take note, this is the first flashpoint where you definitely can't supplement your group with companions, you absolutely do need four real people.

Now, even though the gun firing turned out to be extremely basic, we still wiped on this encounter three or four times. How hard can it be to shoot a bunch of slowly advancing unfriendly Colicoids? Harder than you'd think, apparently. Specifically, there are some that start shooting from range, and if you don't target them fast enough, they'll seriously mess you up.

Anyway, eventually we finally got a message that we had apparently passed this trial, with me dead and everyone else on low health but alive.

Phew, let's move on... to another four gun turrets. Let's do the same thing again, only harder! /facepalm. Fortunately the encounter didn't actually seem to be that much harder, and we managed to beat it on the first attempt - though lots of enemies were still alive by the time the completion message came up, and they ended up killing all of us except our Shadow, who had the good sense to vanish when we got overwhelmed.

Still, that was the gun turret part of the flashpoint done. Next we died in a corridor full of rock-hard droids that wiped us until we made sure to use proper crowd control.

As we emerged from that corridor, I found myself reminded of... Huttball? What? Don't worry, they didn't actually make us play that in there, but the scenery with all the ramps and fire certainly bore a certain resemblance to The Pit. Some droids were patrolling the area too, so we pulled the first one... and learned that they all have a knockback, as more or less the entire party went flying into the lava below. This would quickly become a theme, because even though we knew about it now, it was still easy to accidentally get too close while trying to avoid the fire. Fortunately the rule of people falling down being funny still applied, but it was happening at such a high frequency that it came close to actually grating on some people's nerves.

All these things were just distractions though, as the real obstacle of the area were a bunch of linked forcefields that could be disabled if someone held a button down in a certain place. The idea seemed to be something like: one person holds down the first button, which opens the forcefield to the second button, so someone else then goes to press that to open the forcefield to the third button... it wasn't really too complicated, but I couldn't honestly claim to remember the details because I found that the droids and the fire were quite distracting. We only really muddled through because someone else managed to keep a clear head and figured out what to do in what order. It didn't help that the droids appeared to be on a short respawn timer as well, so someone caught on their own between force fields could suddenly find themselves facing a droid too. Good times.

Just like with the gun turrets, once wasn't good enough, and the Colicoids made us go through the whole spiel twice. At least it was smooth sailing after that: just a light side/dark side choice that was actually quite entertaining, a couple more mobs and then the last boss.

All in all, I had a lot of fun, but I have to say that I'd definitely be weary of pugging this one for a while. Vehicle fights, rapidly respawning droids that kill with knockbacks, and force field leapfrogging take a certain amount of patience to appreciate.


Heroic PuG Stories

Everyone loves pug stories, right? (Un?)fortunately I don't have any bad ones to tell so far because everyone I've met has been quite friendly and considerate, but it's still interesting to see how each group turns out differently.

[Heroic 4] Crushing the Jedi Freedom Fighters

Doing this heroic quest on Nar Shaddaa Imperial side has been my favourite pug experience so far. Our team consisted of two operatives, a Sith Assassin and a tank companion, which meant that we were a full stealth team! We darted around the area unseen, picking and choosing our targets carefully, and everyone used their crowd control effectively without needing any marks or other prompting. It felt great. Incidentally, the other operative and I seemed to be very much on the same wavelength, as we kept typing out the same suggestions at the same time; it was almost freaky.

Eventually I couldn't resist making a comment about what an awesome stealth team we were, which promptly resulted in someone walking around a corner unstealthed, pulling a whole group at once and wiping us. We laughed about it.

The last boss of the quest chain was kind of amusing as well because he kept spamming an AoE effect around himself that appeared to be undispellable and uninterruptable, so since we were all specced melee, we spent a lot of time standing at range and attacking with our worst abilities. I'm not a fan of overdoing it with the acronyms, but I did think the Sith Assassin summed it up very aptly when he said "FML lol".

After we were done, the other operative and I still had a nice chat, and she invited me to join her guild. I only declined since I mainly play Republic side and I don't want to be dead weight that never logs on.

[Heroic 4] Fall of the Locust

I ended up putting a group for this quest together on my Jedi Consular after I had just completed a Heroic 2 mission with a random Jedi Sentinel and since it had gone very well I was willing to try something more difficult. When I asked for more people in chat, another consular and a smuggler (forget which type) joined us as well.

Our group makeup was interesting since we had no dedicated tank (though the sentinel sort of took point) but two healers. I also seemed to be the only one who knew how to use her crowd control, and the smuggler kept breaking it by throwing grenades. Sounds bad? Well, somehow it wasn't. Sure, every pull involved a lot of flailing around as me and the other consular expended all our force barely keeping people alive as everyone got shot at by something, but except for one wipe, we always came through.

The group also seemed very... spirited, for lack of a better word. I actually cheered when the other consular felt inspired by my example to also try using his crowd control and we ended up with two mobs force lifted at once. And when I asked the smuggler to please stop throwing grenades that break the crowd control, he actually did so. I wonder whether I taught these players something new that day.

On a side note, I mentioned in my last post that the heroic quests are mostly very light on story, but this one is actually an exception that has a fair bit of story progression and multiple bits of dialogue. I liked it.

[Heroic 4] A Pound of Flesh

Another Imperial group quest on Nar Shaddaa, this one made for an interesting experience as we had several rather awkward moments but in the end everyone always came through.

It started after we had just got everyone to the heroic area, and one of the two Sith needed to go AFK to look after his baby (which gave me funny mental images I have to admit). The rest of us tried to keep ourselves entertained by dancing with each other and trying out our racial social abilities. I had completely forgot that emotes could actually serve a purpose (i.e. passing some time and building group cohesion even as you're not progressing). I have to give people a lot of credit for never moaning about the wait, and nobody said a bad word either when the Sith returned after about ten minutes and said that he had to go because the baby needed some more attention than he had expected. We just wished him well and decided to try with the three of us, and the bounty hunter pulled out his Mako for heals.

We did quite well with me and the bounty hunter using our crowd control, and him also off-healing a bit when things got hairy and it looked like Mako couldn't quite keep up. As it happened, we finished the main quest at the same time as stage one of the bonus series, but as someone immediately said "thanks for the group", I took that as them not wanting to bother with the rest of the bonus. Since it just consisted of clicking on some items in the area, I decided to do it on my own anyway.

As it turned out, there was a stage three which once again consisted of simply clicking on another set of items, and as I did so I noticed that the other two players were actually still around, in different corners of the area. "Oh, so you're doing the bonus too then!" "Yeah, I only just noticed..." I thought it was funny that we were all doing our own thing, thinking that the others weren't interested. We got back together as a group and finished killing the champion level mob that was the last stage of the chain.

On our way out, Mako managed to run into a big group of mobs and aggroed them on everyone else. I have to admit, I was tempted to stay in stealth, but in the end I decided I'd rather risk dying with my fellow party members than leave them to their fates. With a lot of frantic off-healing we made it through with no deaths.

[Heroic 4] Friends of Old

This mission on Dromund Kaas was probably my "worst" grouping experience simply because it was kind of bizarre. When I looked for other interested players in chat, I only got one reply from a Sith Inquisitor. I suggested to give it a go with just the two of us and he agreed. As it turned out, we managed to complete it just fine, though we died a few times towards the end, due to getting sloppy mostly.

The thing that made the whole thing weird was that the Sith Inquisitor didn't actually have the quest. I could see from his quest log that he was on the stage just before the heroic quest, which simply required looting a couple of items from some nearby droids. I told him as much, repeatedly to make sure that he hadn't just overlooked my comment, but he didn't reply. He could clearly see chat though, as he did respond to a couple of other things. At the same time he was already running ahead towards the heroic area. What's a girl to do?

I was glad to get my quest completed, but I did feel kind of guilty afterwards. In hindsight, maybe I should have been more insistent and should have pestered him some more to make sure that he got onto the same step of the quest as me. But where do you draw the line? As I said, I had already tried repeatedly and he had simply ignored my objections. I just don't understand why someone would ask to join for a group quest they didn't actually have.


Five tips to help you get into groups while levelling

The game's barely been out for a month and already people are clamouring for a dungeon finder. Oy vey. I can't comment on what it's like at max level right now, but while levelling I've had no problems getting into groups. I wish I could share the secret of my awesome group-finding powers, but I'm afraid that I'm not quite sure what it is myself. However, I do have some more obvious tips for asocial people that want to increase their chances of successful grouping:

1. Bring your own friends. Even just one!

Socialising online not your kind of thing? Okay. However, surely you must have at least one friend in meat space that is somewhat interested in gaming and could serve as your gaming buddy - maybe even a significant other? Even if they usually aren't into this kind of game, it could turn out to be a surprise success!

It's not necessarily a matter of having to play together all the time either (though that can make for an awesome experience) - the point is that it's simply nice to have someone around whom you can ask for help if you need it without feeling shy. One of the great things about SWTOR is that due to the way the companion system works, two people are enough to tackle pretty much all levelling group content, even if it's advertised as being designed for a larger group (more on this later).

If you do decide to look for help from outsiders after all, having a buddy by your side is also a great way of attracting more people. It's the principle of the first follower at work. By signalling to others that you already have a group, just not a full one, you'll immediately look more trustworthy and likely to be successful. Think about it, if you were looking for a group yourself and saw two different people advertising in chat - would you be more likely to respond to the one saying LFG or the one saying LFM?

2. Look around you!

No friends want to play with you? Okay. All is not lost, even if you don't want to join a guild or don't think that you'll be making long-term friends in the game. However, you won't be able to avoid talking to people entirely. I've been utterly baffled by some comments I've seen where people stated in the same breath that they had trouble finding groups but that they were also ignoring the chat window and the LFG tool. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but how do you expect to find out about grouping opportunities then, or for other people to know that you would like to group? Magic? Sorry, but this game doesn't have a magic insta-group button.

I find this attitude particularly fascinating because in real life I can't think of a single situation where anyone would consider it even remotely acceptable to expect help from other people while insisting that they didn't want to talk, see or otherwise interact with those same people in any other way. I reckon this kind of thing is why gamers have a reputation for being weird...

Anyway! The point is, you might not want to read all the rubbish in chat, but it's really not that hard to at least keep an eye on it every now and then to see whether the name of a quest you have pops up somewhere. The current LFG system is quite poor, but you might as well flag yourself as available anyway. It takes little effort and you never know who might look! I hear that some servers also have user-created LFG channels already. Just keep an eye out. A lot of what we commonly call good luck is actually simply people being aware of their environment and spotting opportunities where others don't pay attention.

3. Take the initiative!

I know most people don't like to lead. I don't, really. But being the one to put a group together is not the same as being a guild or raid leader. It requires minimal effort and no particular leadership qualities. Unfortunately, most people still prefer following, all day, every day, and that becomes a problem if there aren't enough leaders around.

This isn't something that came with the dungeon finder either. I remember back in my TBC days in WoW, certain guildies were always whining about not being able to get heroic groups - but they never did a damn thing to get one going either. Duh, people!

So next time you'd like to get a group quest or flashpoint done and nobody else has brought it up in a while - why not try speaking up? At worst, nobody responds and you continue on your merry way. At best, you get to be someone else's hero for doing something as simple as initiating the formation of a small group. It's a pretty sweet feeling.

4. Be flexible!

I understand that people have limited time to play and may want to spend it according to certain plans. But really... it's a game, where else are you going to permit yourself to randomly go off the rails and do something different? Yes, that storyline you're working on right now is interesting, and the group quest for which someone was just looking for more in chat is on the other side of the map, but you did want to do it, right? Go on, hop on a speeder or quick travel or whatever, and off you go! The other stuff will still be there when you get back to it later; those other players might not. Don't wait around for the perfect opportunity that might never come; work with what you have. (This is a piece of advice that applies to many aspects of real life as well by the way.)

On another note about flexibility, don't be afraid to supplement your group with companions. Yes, real people are obviously better, but the companions in SWTOR are more than just glorified hunter pets. In terms of strength and throughput they are pretty close to player characters, with their main limitations being that they have fewer abilities and not the greatest AI. So basically, replacing a player with a companion in group content is like having a dpser who doesn't know how to CC, and a healer who stands in the fire. Not ideal, but I'm sure we've all been in a group that had one or more of those and still got the job done! I facepalm every time I see someone spam chat with "LF1M [4-person quest]" for ten minutes instead of simply pulling out a companion and actually getting started. In any group I join and that isn't full yet, I immediately encourage the other party members to get going with companions if we can't fill that last spot within a couple of minutes. Most of the time it works just fine.

5. Don't be desperate. Relax.

In a way, this is the least practical but also the most important advice I have for anyone looking for a group. I shudder every time I read a post by someone where they mention "spamming LFG for an hour" (or more). I always hope that they are just really fond of hyperbole. Nobody would really do that, right? It sounds horrible. I've done a lot of grouping in my time, not just in SWTOR, and I've never done that. I wouldn't want to, and to be honest, I wouldn't be keen on grouping with someone else who does that either.

The thing is, putting a group together involves social skills (if not many); it's not some kind of achievement that you're bound to get if only you grind hard enough. Treating it as if it is, is only going to make you look weird. People want to group with players who seem like fun to hang around, not with awkward spammers, even if they wouldn't consciously express it that way. You might turn away more potential party members than you end up attracting!

Not to mention that sitting in one spot all day and stubbornly repeating the same message in chat over and over again is going to burn you out. You're going to get worked up about your failure, until it feels like grouping in this game is just impossible and damn, it sucks. This isn't fun for you or anyone!

So, if you're one of those people, I say: relax. I don't know what it's like at endgame (that might be a post for another day once I get there), but for levelling content, Bioware has managed to strike a wonderful balance between solo and group content. You can see all the good stories by playing on your own if you want, all the way to the cap. The group stuff is completely optional, and from what I've done so far, very light on story (with few exceptions). If you just want an excuse to play with other people, it's great, but if you don't feel like grouping, you don't miss anything important.

Sometimes there simply isn't anyone around who wants to do Hammer Station with you. So what? Do something else and try again later. Try again tomorrow - not for hours, just a quick shout-out before you set out to quest some more. And if it still doesn't work out... well, this game is really encouraging you to level alts, won't it be nice to have some content to explore on another character, content that you haven't seen on your main yet?


Some thoughts on warzones

PvP seems to be a pretty hot topic in regards to SWTOR right now. Wah, the patch broke Ilum! Faction imbalances ruin everything! Sith sorcerers are overpowered! The bolstering system doesn't work! Etc.

I'm happy to say that I don't really care about any of these things. Well, except for the bolstering system maybe, which I feel does work pretty well, especially now that the fully geared out level fifties have been shunted into a bracket of their own at least. Generally speaking though, I'm still levelling so anything happening at max level right now doesn't affect me yet, and I'm also pretty casual about PvP, which means that even if something bothers me about it, I usually don't feel qualified to give any useful criticism about it. In other words, if I get force-lightninged to death by Sith sorcerers a lot, my first thought is not to post on the forums about how they are OP, but that I clearly still have a lot to learn about how to PvP in this game.

For what it's worth, I've quite enjoyed running the occasional warzone to break up the questing (as enjoyable as it is). The main thing that's kept me from doing more of them is not wanting to outlevel my significant other (or on my alts, too much of the other fun content in general), as the experience gains per warzone are pretty significant.

Generally speaking, warzones are a lot like WoW battlegrounds. The Alderaan Civil War is like the Battle for Gilneas, and the Voidstar is Strand of the Ancients only without vehicles (phew). Huttball is... weird, but amusing. It's also the only warzone that puts people into teams regardless of faction, with the idea being that there'll always be something to play for both sides even if the factions on your server are massively imbalanced. Of course the result is that instead of complaining about long queues, players complain about being forced to play Huttball all the time. C'est la vie. I only get it fairly rarely myself, which probably means that our server is pretty balanced - or that Republic is simply the place to be. For all I know the Imperials could be playing Huttball amongst themselves all day.

There are some more things that I found to be different in an interesting way, coming from WoW PvP:

First off, I feel a lot weaker as a healer. Now, some of that might be due to my choice of class (trooper), some of it is probably me simply needing to learn to play, but it's hard to deny that the odds are stacked against dedicated healers in many ways. For example everyone has a mortal strike type debuff on them in warzones at all times. Your heals just do thirty percent less, period. Considering that it can already take five or more casts of your biggest heal to fill a person's health bar in PvE, results in PvP are pretty piddly, at least in the levelling bracket so far. Not to mention that everything has a long-ass cast time, which makes healers very vulnerable to interrupts and makes it very hard to get away from an attacker alive, especially as many offensive moves can be used on the run.

Sounds pretty frustrating? Well... yeah. But I actually got used to it. The best advice I've received so far is to stay as far behind as possible and to not be afraid of running and hiding. That might sound a bit like "healer 101", but in WoW I got quite used to being able to keep myself up against one or more attackers without too much of a problem. In SWTOR, it currently feels like I don't even stand a chance in a 1v1, so I run and distract. At best I get away to live another day and support the next wave at attackers, at worst I can at least serve as a distraction. (I'm always happy when people chasing the ailing trooper to her death results in a stealth cap behind the enemies' backs.)

Another thing I find notable is that warzones are same-server only at the current time. I never got to experience WoW's battlegrounds before the introduction of battlegroups, but I was always curious about what it would feel like to meet the same people on both sides over and over again. I haven't really played enough matches yet to take note of my opponents' names, but on my own team I usually end up seeing the same names several times in a row, and it's... nice. You actually learn to remember who is a healer, who is good at stealth capping, who gives good tactical advice etc. I can see this being community-building in the long run. I hope they keep the same-server restriction, but with only two brackets (levelling and level cap), I think they can get away with it.

I was also surprised to see how much Bioware tried to keep the warzones immersive. In fact I suspect that the main reason they don't have a Capture The Flag scenario right now is that they couldn't think of a good way to make capturing a flag for your team make any sense in a warzone. I still remember my very first battleground in WoW, back when I was a complete noob - it was Arathi Basin, and I had no idea whatsoever what was going on. Okay, blue and red markers on the map, what? Numbers on top? What is this all about? Capturing nodes? What for? To gather "resources"? Like gold, or crafting materials? What is all this even supposed to mean? (I know, it's not rocket science, but it's still quite a lot more abstract than most PvE gameplay used to be.)

Of course it's impossible to make an entirely fair comparison to SWTOR because obviously I'm not a complete noob anymore now, but I still thought that the whole thing seemed a lot more intuitive in TOR. Both sides have a ship in the sky. Here are three guns. Whoever aims more guns at the enemy ship for a prolonged amount of time shoots it down and wins. It just makes sense!

That aside, if I was a complete noob to PvP in SWTOR, I'm sure I would have a much easier time at it because they really make an effort to explain it to you. The loading screen for each warzone basically contains a summary of how each of them works, though depending on your computer's speed, these instructions might disappear too quickly to actually read in full. Still, once inside, everything gets explained in full again by a helpful voice-over that explains what's going on and the basics of what to do. To be honest, I would even say it gets a bit repetitive if you play a lot, and I wouldn't mind an option to turn the whole feature off for more experienced players, but in general I think it's great that these explanations are there.

What are other people's experiences with warzones in SWTOR so far?


Everyday Hero

The Imperial Agent stalks through the shadows of Nar Shadaa in search of insurgents. Well, technically they are all around her already, but these are hardly worthy targets.

Surprise stops her dead in her tracks as something - no, someone - flies past her. Going by his attire, he's a Sith, and he's also on fire. He crashes into a group of nearby barrels, and while he immediately scrambles to his feet again, it's obvious that both his body and spirit are nearly broken.

Following his panicked gaze, she sees the man's problem: a brute that's easily got twice the Agent's body mass and who now seems to be going in for the kill.

She frowns. While Imperial Intelligence and the Sith may not always see eye to eye, this is unacceptable. Just before the brute can land his killing blow, he finds himself paralysed by a vibroknife to the chest.

The Sith's eyes light up in happy surprise at this unexpected turn of events, and his courage is restored almost instantly. The brute goes down in a flurry of knife attacks and lightsaber blows.

The Agent resheathes her weapon with a smile and disappears into the shadows once more. She's still got some karma to work off, but every little helps.


Early Flashpoint Impressions

Back in WoW, small group instances used to be one of my favourite pastimes in the game for years - until the dungeon finder slowly sucked the fun out of them for me, that is. Unsurprisingly, SWTOR's more old-fashioned flashpoints make me very happy, and I've run all of them up to my current level at least once, some of them multiple times. It's been an interesting ride so far.

Difficulty-wise they seem to hit a pretty sweet spot for me. Trash is mostly very easy, but there are patrols to watch out for, mobs of different strengths to consider, and sometimes enemies surprise you by entering the scene unexpectedly. Personally I feel that this creates a nice atmosphere where most of the dungeon is fairly laid back, but not mindlessly boring, as you still have to watch where you're going and what you're pulling. The bosses tend to be a bit harder, and I've had quite a few deaths and even wipes at the hands of some of them. They all have a couple of mechanics each that you have to pay attention to and that can't be safely ignored, but there is some margin for error so the fights don't exactly feel twitchy either.

Interestingly enough, I've already had two runs where our group failed to complete the flashpoint because we simply couldn't get past a certain encounter. This felt a bit strange and surprising to me initially, as I haven't experienced anything like it since my party found it impossible to kill the last boss in Grim Batol when we ran our very first heroic five-man after WoW's Cataclysm launch. In SWOTR, the two offenders that had us running into a brick wall were Athiss and Taral V. On Athiss, we just couldn't get past what was I believe the last trash pull before the final boss, which contained two elites that both had AoE attacks and were wearing our group down faster than I could heal it up again. Since we were on the lower end of the level range for the place, nobody in the party had their long-duration crowd control abilities yet either. On Taral V, we first died a few times to the bonus boss before giving up on him, and then failed to kill the last boss too as he wiped us out within seconds every time he hit his low-health enrage (which was promptly patched out two days later, which is telling). In both cases we came back with another level or two under our belts and completed the whole thing easily. At the end of the day, the initial failure wasn't actually that terrible, as it just spurred us on to come back and get revenge together, not to mention that it provided some unforgettable memories to bond over.

Another thing that I found noteworthy was that most flashpoints seem to reward both explorers as well as people who've honed their crew skills. The former was particularly evident for me on Taral V, where the way through the instance is fairly straightforward, but there are plenty of hidden nooks and platforms that contain bonus objectives and chests. Both times I've been in there, our group had fun clearing out as much of the place as we could, and one time we even found a purple item in a chest. The runs took a lot longer than strictly necessary, but the whole experience felt very rewarding and fun.

As far as crew skills go, there seem to be a lot of little bits and pieces in many flashpoints that provide you with small bonuses if you take the time to notice them. On Athiss for example you can go into a side room and use scavenging to repair a broken droid, which will then follow you around and act as a combat pet for a bit. On Hammer Station, you can use crew skills to drill a hole through a wall to create a shortcut to the first boss. None of it is even remotely necessary, but it's a little something that feels fun. I was reminded of how I used to be grateful for someone who could pick locks in WoW's Shattered Halls so that we didn't have to go through the local sewer to get to the first boss. Sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference.

Finally, I found it notable that there's a huge stylistic difference between flashpoints. The first one you get access to on either side (The Esseles / The Black Talon) feels very creative and exciting. Lots of moving around, multiple conversations with NPCs, multiple light/dark side decisions that really make you feel like you're influencing the story. I found it to be quite different from what I usually expect to find inside an instance, but in a good way.

However, after that the next couple of flashpoints honestly felt like a bit of a disappointment. Hammer Station, Athiss, Mandalorian Raiders, Cademimu... there's nothing wrong with them, but they don't utilise SWTOR's unique selling points nearly as well and feel a lot more like classic dungeon crawls. Yes, there is a bit of voice work, and at some point there's usually a light/dark side choice for you to make, but it tends to feel a bit tacked on. Hey, there's a room full of innocents over there, want to save them or kill them? At their heart, these four instances can easily be summed up as "go kill some bad guys and then kill their boss", detailed story be damned. Still, this is only a problem when you compare it to what came before. Truth be told, I'm perfectly happy to do a classic dungeon crawl with some friends. I mentioned our fun little adventures in Cademimu before.

Interestingly, just as I was going to accept that the Esseles and the Black Talon were obviously outliers, the game threw Taral V and the Maelstrom Prison at me, two separate flashpoints that are part of one continuous story. They are not quite as interactive as the Esseles, but the story is considerably more involved, and at the end of the Maelstrom Prison we were rewarded with a hugely satisfying boss fight and a massive lore revelation (which might not actually mean much to Republic players without much prior knowledge, but fortunately for me I had just played through Dromund Kaas on Empire side, which had conveniently provided me with some context for events).

At first I was a bit bewildered by the way some flashpoints are so story-heavy while others aren't, but after doing some research on it, I think I understand the reasons for it. Basically, the difference seems to come down to whether a flashpoint is faction-specific or the same for both sides. I remember listening to a developer interview where the guy confessed that originally, they had intended to make all content shared between the factions to save development time, but the resulting stories were pretty dumb because you can't really make a very compelling quest that both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader would find equally engaging (as the dev put it). So maybe those flashpoints are leftovers from early development, or the developers simply decided that they could afford to have at least a couple of group instances with a comparatively weak story, especially considering that they would be repeatable content at endgame, at which point the story fades into the background anyway.

All in all, I've enjoyed myself enough that I'm definitely looking forward to exploring the flashpoints that I haven't seen yet, and so far there hasn't been one that I wouldn't be happy to rerun.


Armour, I can has it

The debate about sexism in video games and ridiculous female armour goes ever on and on, and while it's nice to see people becoming more aware of the issue, it can get tiring sometimes when it feels like we're not really making any progress. Personally, I'm not too bothered by the occasional unnecessarily bared midriff here and there, but I have felt turned off by games that emphasise this kind of thing too much.

With that said, I'm really happy to say that SWTOR is a game that gets it absolutely right.

I love my trooper and the way she looks. She's a proper soldier, armoured from head to toe. No bare belly, exposed cleavage, high heels or other such nonsense. I don't think the chest piece even qualifies as "boob plate" because while it is slightly moulded to the shape, the curves are very small and subtle and I didn't really notice them until I zoomed in close to check.

Other classes don't get to be armoured quite as awesomely due to the nature of their gear (jedi robes etc.), but the ladies still get full body coverage all around from what I've seen. Thanks, Bioware.

If you are a fan of making your character look "sexy", vendors sell at least one outfit that pays homage to Leia's slave bikini in Return of the Jedi, and in warzones I've seen more than one female twi'lek that did decide to sport a more revealing look, but that's a conscious choice to go after those special items and completely optional. I just wish that more companies would follow that example.


Companion Affection vs. Social Points

After writing about just how social an experience SWTOR can be, I finally managed to discover one area of the game where grouping actually has a negative side effect. A-ha! This area is companion affection.

It took me a little while to notice, but it really became apparent once I began to seriously level my first alt. On my trooper main, I've been trying to make friends with my first companion Aric for a while. At first I found him annoying, but he's really grown on me over time, and he and my trooper actually end up agreeing on a lot of things. (Except when she flirts in front of him, which always gets a -1 of Shame, but I can forgive that because it amuses me. It feels like playfully winding up a friend.) The problem is, my increased affection for him is not reflected by Aric's affection for my character in game. At first I thought that it was just a naturally slow process, but once I started to level an alt I was immediately taken aback by how much faster she gained affection with her companion. My Imperial Agent is only 19, and her companion Kaliyo can't stand her patriotism (I reckon that I get about three -1s for every time she approves of something), and yet her affection is already soaring.

Then it finally hit me: it's because my trooper is constantly duoing, so she only gets to talk about half the time during conversations, and you only gain companion affection if you win the conversation roll. So that's my affection gains already halved, but if I get unlucky on the important rolls it can be even worse. There was this one quest where our little squad agreed to do something really goodie-two-shoes - but while my boyfriend got to cheer about massive affection gain with his companion, I was left with nothing, even though I had made the same choice and I knew Aric would've loved it. Sadface.

I kind of wonder whether Bioware could be convinced to change the mechanic so that you gain affection based on your conversation choice regardless of whether you get to talk or not. It wouldn't make any sense from an immersion point of view, but then you also gain light/dark side points based on what your character wanted to do instead of what they actually let their group mates get away with, so I don't think it's that much of a stretch.

I suppose the bright side is that even if they leave it as it is, it's unlikely to matter in the long run as the game seems to be designed around gaining huge amounts of affection via gifts anyway. (If you think Vette liking snark fifteen times more than she dislikes receiving electric shocks is odd, just wait until you give one of your companions an epic shiny and they'll pretty much forgive you for killing innocents three times over.) Right now it just kind of feels like my dear cat-man is really dragging his feet, considering how well we've been getting along.



Late last night I decided to hop onto my Imperial Agent for a bit and knock out a few quests. One problem with playing alts in SWTOR is that if another character's story captures you, it then becomes hard to decide which one to work on first!

As I was doing my thing on Dromund Kaas, someone piped up in general chat that they were looking for more for a Heroic 2+ quest that I had in my log too. In fact, I had tried to solo it the other night - because I'm an Operative, I have a companion and stealth, surely that must be easy, right - and had subsequently got my arse kicked repeatedly. The thought of getting revenge on those mobs was quite appealing.

So I sent a quick whisper to the guy and started trudging over to the quest area. (Maybe I'm missing something here, but for some reason that I can't quite fathom, Dromund Kaas has a lot of flight paths that aren't actually connected, forcing you to walk between a lot of them either way.) I immediately told him about my attempts to solo the quest and how badly I had failed and he laughed. As it turned out, he was a Bounty Hunter.

Once I arrived in the quest area, we immediately set to work and I got to admire the Bounty Hunter's AoE abilities. Even though they are supposed to be an exact mirror of my main class, the trooper, the abilities had a very different look and feel about them. At least I never get to set that many things on fire.

When we got to the first group of mobs in the heroic area, I let him take care of the weenies, based on what I had just seen, while my companion and I did our best to stab and lock down the hardest one of the mobs. "Oh, this is so much easier!" my fellow Imperial exclaimed with delight once the first pack was down. "Admit it, you tried to solo it too," I teased him. "Yes, and I almost died on the first pull."

We proceeded to stab and shoot our way towards the final quest objective, where we were jumped by two packs of attackers spawning right after each other, and then a boss-level mob. "Whew, that guy was quite tough," I commented afterwards. I'd never even made it that far on my solo attempts, but I knew that I definitely wouldn't have been able to take both the waves of mobs and the boss guy on my own.

Afterwards my Bounty Hunter friend muttered something about a nearby datacron - I said that I didn't know anything about it as this is a part of the game that I haven't really looked into in detail. He tabbed out for a minute to look it up online while I watched his back. As it turned out there wasn't actually anything in the area, so we made our way back out of the canyon while joking about bad lift safety in Star Wars. As it was really late by now, I bade my group mate farewell after handing in and went to bed.

Now, there isn't anything unusual about this story, and I'm sure people are having similar encounters in SWTOR and other MMOs all the time. However, after coming at this after years of playing WoW, even a random encounter like this left me feeling extremely delighted. I don't care if I never see this guy again, we worked together and had fun. But I might see him again. I had almost forgotten what it was like.

It's funny because I have moaned about many of WoW's more recent changes, such as the introduction of the dungeon finder and the raid finder, but at the end of the day I still accepted them, used the new features and moved on. Things may have felt a lot more hollow, but I still got things done, right?

Playing SWTOR, in terms of grouping, has been like a massive throwback to my early days of WoW, and it's been wonderful. I shouldn't have believed those people who claimed that before the dungeon finder, everyone just spent all day sitting in chat and spamming LFG messages and it was tedious. I should have known better because I was there.

Suddenly I get to experience people treating each other with decency again. In each starting area, people were constantly exchanging buffs on the road (and considering that it's quite possible to die to a bad pull, every little helps). Multiple times while I was out questing on my own, I got myself into a pickle and some random stranger jumped in and saved my life just as I thought that I was done for. In a group, nobody blows a gasket at someone else being a bit slow or needing some help.

Part of it is probably simply that "new game smell" where everyone doesn't quite know what to expect, and with fewer expectations it's harder to get mad at people for not living up to them. On the other hand though, it definitely feels to me like SWTOR is actively trying to get people to be social. The conscious decision not to include a dungeon finder, group quests everywhere, social points - all of it seems to say: "I know you can do this on your own but... look at the people! Talk to them! Play with them! Have fun!"

It's made me very thoughtful, because I know some good people who really don't like this kind of thing and are big fans of systems like WoW's dungeon finder. I suppose at the end of the day it comes down to preferences, Bartle types, whatever you want to call them. I was looking back at this old post by Syl the other day and was once again surprised by my own test result in the comments. I'm not an achiever.

Things like an automated grouping system are great for achievers because it means that they can get things done, no matter the circumstances. They can say that they killed the boss and show off their new shinies. Me, I'd rather fail to get to the end but make a new friend on the way. If we do get things done it's a bonus, but it's not the most important thing.

From that point of view, I feel that SWTOR is a great game, and I do hope it stays that way. Giving people the opportunity to achieve is all fine and dandy, but there comes a point where even those who really love achievements start to wonder whether it's something that's worth sacrificing everything else. I was undecided myself for the longest time, but after being reminded of just how nice it can be when a game supports people simply being social and forming a community, I honestly wouldn't want it any other way anymore.


Bugs Suck

I'm firmly convinced that MMOs will always have bugs, at the very least some minor ones. A game that only just launched less than two weeks ago is bound to have some more, even if it's very polished overall.

On the whole, my experiences with The Old Republic have been very good in this regard. I have encountered a fair few bugs since I started playing, but mostly they were minor display issues. Sometimes they were actually quite amusing - but at worst they were a minor nuisance, such as when I tried to talk to a certain NPC on Coruscant and every time the camera was supposed to show me his face, I saw the flickering skyscape beyond the walls instead.

However, yesterday the game rang in the new year in a fairly painful manner for me. First I began to suffer from the silent companion bug. Your companions are supposed to give you a primer whenever they want to have a conversation with you in a private place, but there's currently a bug where this primer will keep appearing and disappearing, so you're constantly taunted with the promise of story advancement which you're then not actually able to access. There's a thread on the official forums about it which is currently sitting on 39 pages. Still, while this is a bit more annoying as far as bugs go, it's still not game-breaking.

Then I got to go on the final class quest for my trooper's first story arc. Without spoiling too much I think it's safe to say that it takes place on a hostile ship. From the design of the environment it quickly became apparent to me that enemies were meant to receive reinforcements out of side doors every now and then, as I'd seen it in several flashpoints before. There's nothing wrong with that, it makes the fights a bit more interesting... problem is, on this particular quest pretty much all the mobs seemed to be hopelessly borked one way or another. They popped into existence out of nowhere, awkwardly "skating" around, evading, vanishing, and not necessarily in that order. And we're not just talking about one or two evading mobs here, it was very much a systematic problem. Though the one guy who seemed to be stuck under the floor and chased me across half the ship shooting from where I couldn't target him definitely stood out. The droid boss who could shoot through closed doors was memorable too. It was quite annoying.

However, I would have been able to immediately forget all of that, had I been able to actually complete the mission. Unfortunately, just as I got close to the end, I turned around to leave a room, had the little speech bubble pop up over my head to indicate that I was about to enter a conversation... and then, nothing. I just stood there, rooted in place and unable to move. Trying to use /stuck or any abilities resulted in a prompt telling me that I couldn't do that while in a conversation. Trying to hit escape to exit the conversation, as you do, just brought up the main menu however - apparently I wasn't conversing quite enough. I quit the game and restarted. For a moment I thought that I was free, but as soon as I hit a movement key, the bubble was there and rooting me in place again. I opened a ticket to ask for help and complained to my guildies about my predicament for a while but eventually figured that my chances of getting a GM response any time soon probably weren't very good, so I logged off for the night, disappointed that I couldn't finish what I had started.

The next day, I came to log in around lunchtime, still stuck in the same place and with my ticket unaddressed. However, something I had seen while prowling the SWTOR customer service forums had given me an idea: immediately upon relogging there was a moment when I wasn't completely stuck and could use abilities - so I could use my Emergency Fleet Pass to get off the ship and start over.

Unfortunately all the trash mobs appeared to have respawned when I returned to my class quest's phase, and I ended up getting massacred by more awkwardly skating mobs and through-the-wall-shooting. Frustrated, I quit without even reviving my character and went to work.

Tonight, I sat down calmly once again and decided to give it another try. This time I took things very slowly and carefully, trying to give all the mobs a chance to get all their evading and general weirdness out of the way before even trying to move on. As it turns out, the mobs behind the droid boss hadn't respawned anyway, something for which I was very grateful. Finally I approached the last quest hand-in, the speech bubble popped up - and the conversation actually started. I was so relieved.

I don't think this negative experience will colour my overall feelings about the game - I'm still enjoying it way too much for that. But running into such a giant cluster of bugged mobs was a bit of a shock - did no trooper in the beta complete the first act and report on this?! And the "stuck in conversation" bug is just horrendous. They really need to implement some way to let players extract themselves from that kind of situation if they can't click on their buttons. I feel lucky in that I managed to activate my Emergency Fleet Pass during that brief period of not being completely stuck after relogging, but I'm not sure everyone else is lucky enough to get that chance - I did see several people reporting on the forums that they had the same problem at different points in the game, sometimes even on their ships, and still hadn't received any help after being stuck for days. I think that being unable to even move your character for so long would be majorly off-putting.

What other notable bugs have people encountered in the game at this point?