Blogging About Your Guild

I always find it interesting to see how much or how little detail people go into when they blog about their guilds. The question of when and how much to talk about my own guild on here is also one that I've been forced to think about more than a few times.

Positive posts are never a problem. Everyone loves to hear that you think your new guild is awesome. Maybe some of your guildies will even chime in in the comments, agreeing with you on what a great night you had or posting in-jokes. Nobody minds you bragging about how you just got a new boss down either.

Things become a bit trickier however, as soon as you can't be a hundred percent positive about your guild anymore. You may not even think that you're saying anything particularly negative - yet you might still find an angry PM about it in your inbox the next day, written by a guild member who you thought wasn't even aware of your blog. Outright complaining about anything, even if you think it's about an obvious issue and you're justified in bringing it up, is like asking for drama to break out in your comments.

After much deliberation, I've settled on the following rules for myself in regards to posting about my guild and its members:

- Unless your blog is literally protected from the public by a password or something, assume that the people you write about will find it at some point, so never say anything about anyone that you wouldn't be happy to say to their face. Not using people's real names doesn't really fool anyone. Also consider that writing about people in third person on your blog will usually come across as a bit colder and more distanced than if you were saying the same things in casual conversation. Adjust your tone appropriately if you want to make sure that you're not hurting anyone's feelings.

- Avoid being outright negative about your guild. You may think that it's not a big deal and that you're just expressing an opinion, but most people won't see it that way. To them you're a big bad blogger (never mind that you get less than a hundred page views per day) who's doing the online equivalent of slandering them on a national newspaper, or at the very least rudely airing dirty laundry in front of the neighbours. Try to keep conflicts private by addressing them only with others who are directly involved or by venting to your friends in private. I know this can be hard if you're used to using your blog as a place to let off steam, but trust me when I say that no good is going to come of sharing guild-specific grievances with the world at large. Unless you're the guild leader or thinking about quitting anyway and going out with a bang... in which case: sure, go wild and tell everyone about how much your guild sucks.

- If you really want to talk about a particular subject that shines a less than stellar light on your guild, for example because you think that it would make a good cautionary tale for others or because you want to ask for advice, try to focus on your own feelings instead of what other people did or didn't do. People are less likely to take offense to you saying that you're not happy with the new loot system than to you framing the same issue as leadership switching to terrible new loot rules.

- Keep in mind what kinds of comments people will leave on your post as well. I've found that especially with guild issues, readers really seem to love jumping to conclusions based on their own experiences. Pretty much every time any blogger expresses any kind of concern about something happening in their guild, at least one person will leave a comment about how the described events are a clear sign of the guild being a terrible place and that the writer should run while they still can. Don't be surprised if your guildies express unhappiness upon seeing such comments.

Now, with that said... your willingness to write about your guild also serves as a good indicator of how happy and comfortable you are there. Sure, the honeymoon period (during which you'll insert the words "my awesome guild" into every single post of yours) can only last so long, and sometimes you just won't have anything interesting to report. But if you find yourself actively restraining yourself from talking about guild matters because you don't want to say anything bad and yet that's the only thing you can think of writing about, maybe it's time to re-evaluate whether your current guild is still a good fit.


Nightmare Mode Light?

2.8 saw the release of nightmare mode Dread Palace and the removal of the Nightmare Power buff in Dread Fortress. The way I see it, the whole point of the latter has been to re-purpose nightmare mode as content for "hardmode guilds", who can mostly clear hardmode (and have therefore probably run out of content by now) but generally find nightmare mode too challenging. The underlying assumption is that the "real" nightmare mode guilds are done with the content by now anyway.

I was very curious about how that would work out in practice. My previous experience with raid nerfs (in MMOs in general) was that they made fights we'd been working on until then seem way too easy all of a sudden, making the final kill a rather disappointing one in the process.

In SWTOR, we were still working on Draxus when 2.8 came out. We had made some progress, but it was usually around the phase where dps have to first go under a shield where they can't be healed that things fell apart. I was curious to see how much of a difference the nerf would make.

Our first ops night after the patch came around, and we threw ourselves against Draxus as before. As a healer I thought the reduction in damage was very noticeable and definitely made it easier to keep everyone alive. What I didn't notice as someone who never pays much attention to boss health was that Bioware had actually left the bosses' health values untouched after all. One member of my group joked that we must have suffered from some sort of placebo effect, because even though dps had been an issue before and the dps requirements of the fight hadn't actually been changed, we finally got the boss down that night. It still felt far from easy however, and we were quite proud.

So my first instinct was to say: great job, Bioware, this nerf is right on target.

However, when we went back in this week, we just couldn't repeat the previous week's feat. It was just wipe after wipe after wipe once again. We were back to making the same mistakes as before, as well as struggling with dps on some occasions. The boss's reduced damage output was certainly still helpful, and even while messing up we generally made it through more phases than we usually survived pre-nerf. Yet at the same time... it didn't feel that much different from before, spending all evening wiping on the same boss, and I couldn't help but wonder if we would still be having these issues if Bioware had stuck with their original plan of reducing the bosses' health as well.

As it stands, I'm still undecided as for what to think of these nerfs. It must be hard to find the right balance between making the fights completely trivial for the target audience and changing them so little that it doesn't really make a difference to people. I'm hoping that this week was just "one of those nights" and that we'll be back to actually making some progress next time. Because otherwise Bioware might as well not have bothered with the whole Nightmare Power mechanic from my point of view.

I wonder how other guilds of a similar progression level are experiencing this.


Finding Playtime

Back in meatspace, I started a new full-time job this week. This is good news for a whole host of reasons, but there is one downside to this change in my life: less time to play my favourite games. Now, those of you with busy jobs and children may laugh at me stating the obvious here, but fact of the matter is that I haven't actually worked full time in many, many years. I got quite used to being able to manage my own time, and to have plenty of it, so this is actually... kinda hard.

First off, playing two MMOs at the same time feels like utter madness now. I'm still messing around in Neverwinter and have some goals that I'd like to achieve in that game... but now that I find myself reduced to thirty minutes to an hour of playtime in the mornings and maybe two hours in the evenings (if I can actually stay awake), I suddenly really don't have the time. I suppose it works for people like Syp because he has no problem with logging into an MMO once a week and considering himself an active player, but I really want to be more involved than that.

I've also been thinking hard about just what to do with my limited time in SWTOR in specific. Operations will continue as normal for now, as my group runs on Friday and Sunday evenings, but as for everything else... hmm. I used to do a lot of just "hanging out", logging into various characters to check whether I suddenly felt inspired to do anything with them. Now I feel like I really don't have the time for that anymore.

Organised group content aside, I think that most things you can do in SWTOR fall into one of three categories:

1) Roaming around different planets and playing in the outside world, whether you're doing missions, hunting datacrons or whatever,
2) Instanced small group content for which you queue up and which doesn't take overly long (flashpoints, warzones), and
3) General faffing around on your ship or on the fleet, which includes riveting activities such as browsing the GTN or working on your crew skills.

Point 3) is the one that's easiest to fit into my new schedule, because it usually takes little time. Sending your companions out is literally a matter of seconds, and since I'm not a GTN mogul, listing what few items I want to sell doesn't take more than a couple of minutes either. However, while doing these things can be a nice little cherry on top of an evening of play, they don't exactly feel like very satisfying gameplay on their own.

Point 2) is a bit of a tricky beast because while it theoretically doesn't take very long, the queue times can, depending on the time of day. I've decided that this one is out when it comes to playing in the mornings as it would either not go anywhere, or worse, I'd run the risk of the start being sufficiently delayed that the whole thing ends up running past the point when I'd need to quit. It's a good option for the evenings though, when it's busy.

Point 1) is an interesting one. With the long loading screens, travelling between planets can be annoying, and even with speeders and quick travel, getting from A to B on a particular planet can take quite a long time. Add listening to voice-overs and having conversations with NPCs, and even something that at its core is a pretty mundane "kill ten rats" type of quest can turn into a pretty epic (and time-consuming) journey.

However, the one thing that solo-questing/adventuring has going for it is that you can stop at any time. It may not feel great to log off just before you're about to confront the final baddie of this particular quest chain, but it's an option, and the next time you've got another twenty minutes to play, you can pick things right off where you left them.

Taking all of this into consideration, I think it may be time to dust off some of my alts. While I never tire of praising SWTOR's levelling game, I have to confess that I've frequently found myself neglecting my alts in favour of running things like flashpoints and warzones on my max-level characters, finishing off quests and achievements while I waited in the queue. However, when I don't actually have the time to play like that, being on my max-levels isn't nearly as compelling. So it might be time to dig out some of those alts and start levelling them again, one half-hour chunk at a time.

And I'll still have weekends to take care of some of the more time-intensive stuff. (Right? Right?)


June GSF Update

The other day I achieved mastery of my second ship in GSF - the Warcarrier bomber. While a nice achievement, this also left me feeling a bit aimless. One thing I've really come to enjoy about GSF is that feeling of slowly gaining enough ship requisition to become as powerful as possible. But where do you go once you've fully mastered your ship? Sure, you can spend spare requisition on maxing out other components, whether you actually plan on using them or not, but that's not nearly as exciting.

Working on my default scout and strike fighter wasn't really an option, as I just don't have the twitch skills to use them effectively. So I finally gave in and bought a new gunship: the newly released SGS-S1 Condor, the first gunship to also have missiles.

A gunship with missiles is actually something that I thought I'd like long before Bioware announced this release. Personally I would prefer them to work a bit differently than they do though: I would have the missiles replace the lasers as primary weapons. Sure, that would leave the ship quite vulnerable in some situations, but I'm rubbish with the lasers anyway, and at least that way it would be easy to swap between missiles and the railgun. The way the Condor works, I have to remember to swap secondary weapons if I go from long range to close range combat, and that just feels a bit clunky to me. Still, I figured that this is about as close to my vision as I'm likely to get, so I bought it.

The problem I have right now is that starting from scratch actually feels quite painful. It's not so much the fact that my brand new gunship is weak and squishy... though I won't claim that that's particularly fun either. However, I've previously hopped into the occasional GSF match on an alt and not minded my weakness there - because it's not as if I had a choice. The problem I have with the Condor right now is that to earn any requisition with it beyond the global reward you get from doing the daily and weekly missions, I have to make a conscious choice to fly into battle with the knowledge that I'll be under-performing, and this makes me feel bad. Surely I'm letting the team down if I'm putzing around on my dinky gunship when I could be flying my mastered one, put out more damage and die less? It's particularly bad in deathmatches, where I like to fly my gunship. (I generally prefer to take my bomber to domination matches anyway.) As it stands, I'll usually start in my Condor and if the game looks like an easy win I'll stay there, but if it looks like we seriously have to fight for it I sooner or later find myself switching to one of my mastered ships in hopes of making more of a difference.

How do other GSF players deal with having a new ship in their line-up that's incredibly weak when you're just starting out?


Nar Shaddaa Casino Event Impressions

I considered titling this post "Soovada Impressions" but then I thought I'd pick something that even the more casual reader would be able to make sense of.

So Bioware applied a hotfix on Friday to make the game playable again, and it apparently consisted of reverting the group finder back to 8-man as the load from the 16-man queue was bringing the servers to their knees. O-kay, I don't even know what to say about that one. Guess I won't be writing about any adventures in 16-man group finder ops anytime soon, but I'm glad that I can actually play again.

For the last couple of days, people on Twitter have been going on and on about how many hundreds of thousands of credits they've already spent on the casino event and it just boggles my mind because I don't really see the appeal. That wasn't going to stop me from checking it out however.

You start out at the event terminal on the fleet with a little advert for your faction-specific casino, both of which I thought were quite cute. The Club Vertica twi'lek lady wears an interesting chest piece - at first I thought it was identical to the old consular War Hero chest, but it's actually lacking the little spiky things on the shoulders. I don't think it has the little flaps at the bottom either.

Suddenly, my Sage feels fashionable again...

The Star Cluster Casino advert on Imperial side just cracked me up with its blatant silliness. "Tired of living the life of a chump?" Come to the Star Cluster Casino and have scantily clad people of both sexes dance all around you!

Also, my Aurebesh lessons have clearly paid off already: I admittedly didn't notice it while watching the adverts live, but when I looked at the screenshots I had taken afterwards, I immediately recognised that the text in the background was spelling out the name of the respective casino.

Watching the adverts gives you a quest to go to Nar Shaddaa, but sadly there is no great reception or anything. I was hoping there'd be a little cut scene of a casino employee welcoming you to the establishment or something, but it just pops up with the "mission complete" message and you get five free chips to play on the Smuggler's Luck machines.

Now while I'm not a big fan of gambling, I rarely say no to free stuff, so I logged all fifteen of my eligible alts and took them to Nar Shaddaa just to collect their freebies. With all those free chips combined I was able to tick off several of the achievements already and won three Golden Certificates. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them yet though.

My level 25 Sith warrior wins a prize from her freebies and gets an achievement in the process.

The event seemed reasonably popular from what I could tell, but I didn't see a lot of extra instances of Nar Shaddaa getting spawned. Then again, that might well still be a side-effect of people shunning the game after the servers were going haywire for several days. They definitely shouldn't cram more people into the existing instances than they currently do, because then the limited amount of slot machines would become quite annoying - especially since everyone who tried the event on the PTS recommended that you should alternate between two machines at the same time to use your chips at maximum efficiency. The result of this was that I frequently had to "elbow my way in" to get access to even just one machine to get my handful of free plays off.

The slots themselves are honestly pretty boring. There's the red circle to tell you that you've lost, and the green circle to tell you that you got your chip back... or two chips back... or won a prize. There are minor ways to differentiate between the different types of "wins" (I'm not sure I consider the machine spitting my chip back out a win really...), such as raid-warning type text popping up to say "Double chips!" or your character emoting, but it's honestly a bit hard to keep track of, so you just end up opening your inventory eventually and stare at your chip stack while you play to see whether it's growing or shrinking or some sort of prize shows up in your bags.

I've heard some people say that it's a compelling way of passing the time if you're just logged into the game without doing much (and I know some people who do that) but personally I tend to find better things to do if I'm bored. Others will keep gambling away as much as it takes to get all the achievements. Me? I still don't know. I maintain that it doesn't seem like a very interesting activity, but considering that the whole thing will be live until the end of summer, I can't exclude the possibility that I might decide at some point that one of the prizes interests me after all and I want to go for it.

To end on a more positive note however, I just want to say that I do love the general idea of having a bigger variety of events, including something like this which is light on content but runs for a longer amount of time. Doing something with Nar Shaddaa also fits the lore/environment very well, even if I'm personally not exactly blown away by it. But anything's better than Life Day.


2.8 - Broken Servers

Even with 2.8 being a much lighter patch than originally intended, I was looking forward to trying out and writing about its new features. What I didn't expect, especially with the patch delivering much less content than planned, was for the game to break down and become more or less unplayable for a lot of people (including me) immediately after patch deployment.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm usually pretty easygoing about this kind of stuff. I know that unexpected things happen... just acknowledge that there's a problem and get to fixing it. I love the song "Happy Patch Day" by Greyfoo - the random issues he sings about are certainly a good illustration of the kind of problems that can occur after a bad patch, even if it's been a while since I actually experienced one that bad myself. The point is, I do remember what it's like, and even if the refrain of the song rings very true for me right now ("when nothing's working, all I wanna do is play"), I can generally look at these things with a sense of humour.

On Tuesday I didn't even bother to log in, after guildies immediately warned me about just how broken the game was: subscribers being flagged as free-to-play, people continually getting kicked back out to the character selection screen, group invites having a five minute delay, warzones starting with a total of three people (one on one team, two on the other)... the list was endless. I figured that, based on previous experience, this sounded like a case of "server dying" more than a buggy patch and decided to just stay away from the game completely that evening, as these kinds of things usually result in a bit of a rollback once they restart the server.

The problem is: Bioware didn't restart the server. They barely even acknowledged that there's a problem at all! There's been a note that they are investigating an issue with area transitions and might get around to fixing it in a few days. Um, you realise that there are a lot more problems than "area transitions" and that your game is pretty much unplayable right now, yes? At least for people on The Red Eclipse...

I logged in early on Wednesday and immediately noticed that there was a considerable delay on me updating the guild message of the day and it actually appearing in chat. A couple of guildies were online however and claimed to be able to do group content normally. I queued for a GSF match and that seemed to go okay. When I tried to access the guild bank, I was unable to - as in, I clicked on it and no window popped up; nothing happened at all. I gave it some time in case there was simply a delay on that too, but it just didn't work at all. I went to Nar Shaddaa to have a brief look at the casino thing, and got stuck on the "ship flying towards the planet" screen for a good minute or so before it switched to the normal loading screen. When I hit my quick travel to ship to leave after having inspected the casino, nothing happened. Everything around me froze and I soon ran into invisible walls if I tried to move, so I hit my quick travel again as it hadn't gone on cooldown. I tried to fleet pass. Nope. After a few minutes of being stuck in limbo I suddenly got teleported back to my ship after all. I logged out again, deciding that the game still wasn't playable enough.

In the evening, some of my guildies tried to raid, but from the sounds of it the server was back to being as bad as on Tuesday evening and they didn't get much done.

This morning (two days after the patch) I logged in to check on a few things and they seemed... better. I was able to access the guild bank and everything seemed to be as responsive as it should be. However, people in general chat were saying that the game was only playable in the mornings and that it would likely all go to hell again in the evening. Again, this sounds like more of a server issue to me than a universal patch problem, especially as people on other servers are reportedly able to play as normal.

More than anything, I wish that Bioware would communicate about this issue. I know others might disagree, but usually they really aren't that bad at this. I've seen my server go wonky a few times since I started playing, and their usual reaction is to acknowledge that there's an issue, whether it's on the official forums or on Twitter, then take the server down for a bit and fix it. This time, they haven't acknowledged anything but the "area transitions" and done nothing.

More than anything, I just hate not knowing what's going on. If I log on now and the game seems to be working, how can I trust it not to suddenly go all buggy on me again at a crucial moment? I don't believe in bugs miraculously fixing themselves, and Bioware themselves apparently haven't done anything (yet). I just want to check out the new patch content in peace. This sucks.


Aurebesh Posters

While sorting through my latest batch of screenshots the other night, I found this picture taken in one of the Czerka flashpoints. It's easy to just run through these without paying much attention to the environment, so I was pleasantly surprised when I actually paused to look at a wall for a moment during a tactical run and noticed this interesting looking poster.

I looked up an image of the Aurebesh alphabet and transcribed the text into Latin letters, which made me think that it must've been from the entrance to the jungle habitat in Core Meltdown, since it says:

Dromund Kaas

On the remote jungle world of Dromund Kaas, the Sith have spent a thousand years building their mighty war machine to prepare for an assault on the galaxy.

Appropriate, but also a little disappointing in my opinion. I would've expected them to tell you something about the critters they were keeping in the habitat instead of just a vague note about their home planet. That's kind of like visiting the lions in the zoo and the sign at the enclosure just tells you about the continent of Africa.

Also, my inner language geek couldn't help but notice that the Aurebesh alphabet has separate letters for sounds like "th", yet on the poster they always just use the ones for t and h together. Sloppy!

A quick look at my screenshot folder also revealed this slightly older screenshot I took of posters on the Republic fleet. The ones on the side say:

Fly with the best
Sign up now!

And the one in the middle says:

Protect the Republic
Become a Starfighter pilot

Now I want to go back to Core Meltdown just to check what they have to say about the desert habitat area/Tatooine. And I should really pay more attention to those signs in general, now that I've figured out how easy they are to transcribe.


Playing Without Addons

The other day The Grumpy Elf mused on whether he's become too dependent on his World of Warcraft addons, and the subject of addons has generally come up a fair bit as of late with the two latest major MMO releases, ESO and Wildstar, both allowing and supporting addons. It's made me think about how I feel about the fact that SWTOR doesn't allow them, and the answer is: I'm actually quite happy about it.

Don't get me wrong: addons can do many good things for a game, such as allowing people to modify their UI juuust right, or offering support for people with disabilities that isn't included by default. However, there is a dark side to them as well that people don't always consider.

1. They add a considerable amount of annoying busywork.

It's bad enough when I have to reconfigure the default gameplay options from scratch to match my preferences again (for example after rolling a character on a new server), but addons add a whole new layer of complexity to that. They also need updating and often reconfiguring after every major patch - if you can get an update at all that is, and if it doesn't suddenly clash with one of your other addons... basically just getting them set up and keeping them running can be a major pain in the butt. Back when I played nothing but WoW, it wasn't unusual for someone to spend their first hour (or more!) after a major patch just sorting out their addons instead of actually playing.

2. There is no quality control, and some addons genuinely make the game worse for people.

Unlike in a single player game, where your choice of whether to modify the game or not only affects you, in an MMO, other people's addons affect you even if you don't use them yourself. Obviously every addon developer thinks that they are providing a valuable new tool, but the reality isn't nearly as rosy. People create tools to judge, spam and harass other players - which may very well be good for them, but simultaneously ruin the game for a lot of others. During the late Wrath of the Lich King expansion, you could find a lot of players claiming that the GearScore addon completely ruined WoW for them. Hyperbole aside, it clearly detracted from the game for a lot of people to have random strangers judge them and exclude them from their groups purely based on an addon-generated number. Or how about addons that spam unguilded people with guild invites every five minutes until they either join a random guild or block all guild invites? If you follow the link to that WoW Insider article, it's full of comments from people talking about how awful that is and how it can really affect the new player experience in a bad way.

3. Even genuinely helpful addons can have bad side effects.

I'm sure the person who wrote the first damage meter addon for WoW had perfectly good intentions, wanting to find out how much damage they and their friends were doing and how to do more. For some people it serves that exact purpose... but at the same time it's created players who can't stare at anything but their dps bar at the expense of all else, as well as players who'll arbitrarily kick others from their random groups because they don't like their numbers, even if the group is beating the content just fine.

Blizzard has also gone on record as saying that their allowing of raid addons has created a neverending arms race of addons trivialising fights and the devs having to make things even harder to maintain some level of challenge, effectively making those addons mandatory past a certain point if you want to be able to beat the content at all.

I like that in SWTOR (or Neverwinter for that matter), I can log in after a major patch and just play, without having to worry about my UI looking funny or some major functionality that I've grown used to suddenly not working. And while there are annoying people and jerks in the game - like in every MMO - at least they can't create tools to make their spamming and bullying more efficient.

Looking at some of the boss fights in SWTOR, I can't help but think that they would be trivially easy with addon support - if you had an automated timer warning you about every major boss ability, would fights like the Dread Council be nearly as much of a big deal? No, but as it is, actually having to deal with every mechanic yourself is part of the fun. You have to watch those castbars and communicate with your group. At the same time, not being able to "out-source" any of the work to addons keeps a sensible cap on how difficult Bioware can make most encounters, making for a more balanced game for everyone.

Like I said at the beginning, addons can have their uses, and I'd lie if I said that I've never wished that I could modify the (fairly flexible) UI even further to make my job as a healer a bit easier. But after having seen and experienced both ways of running an MMO, with addon support and without, I have to say that not having to worry about them is definitely much more to my liking.


An Evening of Pugs

I log in on my main first, sending the minions out on some crew skill tasks, and pick up the freshly reset Galactic Starfighter weekly and daily. My first queue pop puts me into a deathmatch already in progress, and the enemy team is already 27 points ahead. Oy vey. I hop into my gunship and shoot what I can, but I only manage to earn two medals before it's all over.

My next match is almost the complete opposite. As the teams start to fill up for a game of domination, I can tell right away that we're probably going to win, and easily at that. There are no less than seven people on my team who have five ships in their line-up - and while a greater selection of ships doesn't exactly make you more powerful, it's generally a sign of a player who's really into GSF and knows how to play. The enemy team only has a couple of strong players like that, but several "two-shippers", who are often inexperienced free-to-players. Unsurprisingly, we end up holding all three satellites for most of the match; only at the very end do they manage to wrest one away from us by throwing their whole team at it and earn a couple of pity points that way.

With the daily done, I log onto my Sage for a bit of PvP, as I remembered that I got most of a random warzone weekly done on her last week but forgot to actually complete it. My first match is a same-faction Civil War, and our opponents are strangely... absent for most of it. Are they short a player or two? I never see more than three people attacking a node at once. They seem to have a couple of stealthers who keep trying to cap when they think that nobody's looking, but we interrupt them every time and as soon as that happens they run away and re-stealth. An easy win, but kind of boring due to our opponents' apparent disinterest in actually engaging in combat.

Next I get put into a Tatooine arena match. I'm healing three dps vs. a team of four dps. Should be doable if we can outlive them, but I'm a bit concerned by the fact that my team consists entirely of consulars. Light armour is not that great for surviving burst. At one point it's down to two of our dps vs. two of theirs, but both of my team mates die without killing a single enemy. The second round is much the same. I'm a bit frustrated because I feel like I should have been able to do more, but as I'm lying dead on the floor there isn't a single cooldown on my bars that I haven't used. I give my MVP vote to the Shadow on my team who did the most damage and try not to think too much about it.

I queue up for one more match to complete my daily and weekly and get into a Voidstar. Though not my favourite warzone, this game is fun. We start out defending and manage to hold them at the very first door for the entire duration of the round, even though it's not easy and we have to do a lot of running back and forth. On the attacking round, one of our stealthers manages to plant almost instantly, making for a nice, quick win.

Since I have a bit more time to kill, I check general chat on the fleet to see what operations pugs are running that evening. There are a couple, but nothing that I feel I need on any of my alts. ("Need" usually meaning that I have some sort of non-repeatable quest for it.) I log over to my Imperial agent to check what things are like on the other side tonight, and end up joining what's supposed to be a full run of Dread Fortress.

We're off to a bit of a strange start when Nefra turns away from the tanks the moment they pull her and runs over to one-shot me. Err, healing aggro from my heal over time? I laugh it off and everything after that goes very smoothly. Even at the end of the Corruptor Zero fight, everyone is still alive. Brontes should be no problem with a group like that, right? Wrong. As soon as the lightning fingers spawn, they wipe out half the group, including - much to my shame - me. I could've sworn there was nobody behind me, except of course there was that one guy, and of course he of all people had to spawn a finger. Bah! One healer quits without a word, but everyone else is good to go again. We should be fine with three healers, as long as we don't noob it up like that again. Yet again, the lightning fingers spawn and people die - slightly fewer this time, but one of them is the main tank, and since the off-tank doesn't have the presence of mind to pick up Brontes when she reappears, she blasts lightning all over the group and wipes us out anyway. Suddenly everyone "has to go", including the guy who initially put the group together, and within a minute it's all fallen apart.

I'm always disappointed when that happens, even more so as it means that I don't get to complete the story quest that was my main reason for joining the run. However, I did get the Dread Fortess weekly quest done and won three drops of varying usefulness, so I guess I can't complain.


Neverwinter: Second Impressions

About a year ago I wrote about trying out Neverwinter Online for a while, to get back into a fantasy MMO for a bit. In the end I think I played it for about a month before my interest fizzled out again. The friends that had originally suggested it as a game to play together never actually bothered to group up, and even my pet tank lost interest after we accidentally outlevelled a skirmish and thereby hurt his completionist feelings because now we weren't going to see ALL THE THINGS (yes, this is a thing with him). I continued to log in on my own for a couple of days just to invoke and gained a few more levels that way, but eventually I just... stopped. No hard feelings; I just lost interest.

Recently, a couple of my SWTOR guildies have been dabbling in the game again, which led to my pet tank's interest reawakening as well and him suggesting that we should go back and give it another try by rolling up a new pair of characters, following our usual, tried-and-tested tank and healer routine this time. "Why not?" I thought.

The game almost immediately provided an answer to that question when I tried to pick up my level four cleric alt and found that her main quest line had been reset due to inactivity (???), asking me to redo the instanced starting area, which - as far as I'm aware - had already become inaccessible to me at this point. I fumed with anger for a little while but then decided to just cut my losses, delete and reroll her. It's not as if I was losing much after all; it just seemed like a random and very pointless obstacle to put in my way.

My half-elf cleric at level 40. Sadly the different bits of armour you get while levelling up all look more or less identical, but I do appreciate that the gear looks pretty realistic and functional. 

In general, the game immediately made me appreciate SWTOR's polish. SWTOR has got some minor bugs, sure, but I've only been playing Neverwinter for less than a week now and have already considered keeping a little diary just to keep track of all the random disconnects, instancing issues, group finder bugs and whatever else we've encountered so far, because there've been a considerable amount of them... though fortunately not enough to make the game unplayable. There have also been some improvements compared to when I last played a year ago: for example the game is now much more likely to put group members into the same instance when they transfer maps, something for which I'm eternally grateful considering the frequent zoning required by the game.

On the whole, I'm quite enjoying the change of pace. I'm still no fan of action combat, but it certainly makes for a very different experience. The constant dodging of special attacks is quite challening, and as we go up in levels we're finding the dungeon bosses harder and harder. To be honest, as it stands I'm worrying that we might soon find them too hard for our skill level (plus that of our randomly dungeon-findered group mates). The last boss in Throne of Idris wiped us about five times before we got her down, and when we tried to complete the Gray Wolf Den last night, we eventually had to give up after so many wipes because we kept getting injured (which gives you a debuff) and we had run out of injury kits to cure ourselves. Having read up on the boss afterwards, it seems that she spawns extra adds every time someone gets hit by one of her abilities, and since adds running rampant makes it even harder to successfully dodge everything, it's easy for things to spiral out of control very quickly.

It's also interesting that even though the game officially has a trinity system, group gameplay doesn't feel very controlled. I'm not sure if that's just a side effect of running with uncoordinated pugs, but Pet Tank keeps complaining that his tanking tools are too limited and I find myself getting swarmed by adds attracted by healing aggro on every major fight. At the same time, clerics aren't even "real" healers in the classic sense, as their direct healing abilities are extremely limited, and most of your healing will come from abilities doing incidental healing while you actually use them to dps. If someone takes a big chunk of damage from standing in bad, you can't really help them; they'll simply have to chug a healing potion. I'm still enjoying it, as I used to love playing support as a shadow priest in WoW's Burning Crusade too, but it certainly took some mental adjustments. Especially at the beginning I found myself getting frustrated a lot, trying to use my one targeted heal on people and always hitting the wrong person since it's extremely hard to stay on target when everyone's constantly running around and dodging things in melee.

These new experiences were created by me choosing a different class to level than I did at launch, but other than that the game doesn't seem to have changed much. There were a couple of new low-level quests to introduce us to systems we didn't know about, but I couldn't really tell whether they were actual new additions or just things that simply weren't explained very well back at launch. (I know the scrying orbs definitely weren't around a year ago, but the artefact gear slot? Not sure.) I'm guessing that all the major new content updates have been max-level additions. There's also the possibility that some things just didn't feel that new to me due to reading Telwyn's relatively frequent posts about the game over the last couple of months.

I've also come to take another critical look at the game's free-to-play model. On the surface it's very generous and you can play pretty much all the content for free as far as I can tell, but as soon as you go deeper it seems that there are a lot of systems that give significant advantages if you pay with real money, as the alternatives would require literally months of grinding. The companion system is a good example, limiting the basic companions available for in-game currency to being only half as powerful (possibly less) as the highest level ones from the cash shop. Do you need a companion that's that much more powerful? Probably not, but it certainly helps. Same thing with mounts: you can buy a very slow and basic one for in-game gold, but if you want a fast one you either have to shell out some real cash our grind out literally hundreds of thousands of astral diamonds (the "in-between" currency) over the course of weeks and months. Maybe it wouldn't matter much to me if I was only playing with other free players, who are on the same level as me, but Pet Tank bought one of their expensive starter packs at launch, providing him with an epic quality mount and companion on every character, and it certainly feels grating when he charges through groups of mobs ahead of me while I get knocked off and forced into combat because my mount is too slow.

Me on my free-to-buy-with-gold horse and pet tank on his monstrous armoured spider mount from the expensive founder's pack.

I did end up giving Perfect World some money again, because among other things they had a special offer going on that provided you with a "starter pack" which included a blue quality companion simply for buying cash store currency, while still leaving the actual currency to be spent on something else. However, the whole thing did once again reinforce my overall feeling that I prefer games with a subscription, even if it's optional. A one month sub is a relatively small outlay to get access to everything you need for the duration of your play time, and then you only end up paying more as and if you actually spend more time playing. When instead you have to shell out a bigger lump sum to get access to what I consider pretty basic gameplay features, it's much harder to judge whether that's going to be a good investment in the long run.