The Hammer Station Experiment

What with 2016 coming to an end and me going through my blog archives for my look back at another year of blogging, I was reminded of how I was engaged in my "flashpoint levelling experiment" around this time last year. With that still in mind, a random comment on Reddit (I couldn't find it anymore now) caught my attention the other day, seeing how it once again claimed that tactical (now veteran) flashpoints are still way too hard. The reason this complaint stood out to me was that it was oddly specific in citing Hammer Station as being impossible to complete for a group of level 15 characters these days (which is the lowest level at which you can start doing most flashpoints), even though it was originally designed for levels 15-21. I also remembered a supposedly new player posting a similar lament some months ago, claiming that he and his friends had been unable to make it past one of the early trash pulls even though they'd gone in with a proper trinity group.

All of this sounded kind of hyperbolic to me, but I do know from experience that group composition and level can certainly make a massive difference to your experience of a random tactical flashpoint run. But how to know for sure just how bad it is with a full group of level 15s? It's not like you're randomly going to get a group like that through the group finder... fortunately my guildies came to the rescue and agreed to support me with yet another one of my random projects.

I asked three of them to level a new character to 15 (and no further!) on Tomb of Freedon Nadd, where none of us had a legacy already, therefore ensuring that none of us would benefit from any legacy-wide buffs such as the stat increases you get for having collected all the datacrons. Of course we couldn't precisely reproduce the new player experience like-for-like, since we can't "un-know" what we know about things like pulls and tactics, but I tried to at least up the difficulty a bit by imposing the rule that nobody was allowed to pick an advanced class that had any healing abilities, because having a healer is easy mode, right?

It was therefore with great excitement that we ventured forth today with a group consisting of a Vanguard (me), a Shadow (my pet tank), a Sentinel (Calph) and a Gunslinger (all dps) to brave the challenges of Hammer Station at level 15. And of course I recorded it, because what good is an experiment if you can't share the results with anyone?

If you don't want to watch the entirety of our silly half-hour romp, let me point you at some of the highlights:

5:11 - "The Pull of Doom"
9:50 - 1st boss
17:50 - 2nd boss
21:06 - Champion turrets at the bridge
25:25 - 3rd and final boss

Actually, it was a lot easier than I expected - I certainly anticipated a lot more deaths on trash with us having no healing abilities whatsoever. There were only two pulls that gave us trouble though: the early "Pull of Doom" highlighted above, which everyone who's ever done Hammer Station probably knows because it was the most painful pull in the instance even at launch. We had to hurl ourselves against that one and wipe twice, slowly reducing its size by killing off some of the weaker mobs before dying ourselves. The other one was the pull of two champion turrets just before the laser bridge, where we could only just kill one of them before wiping and then had to run in again to kill the second one. The first and third boss could have been tough I suppose if we hadn't known how to react to the mechanics and when to click the kolto stations (in fact on the first boss I had a brief moment of panic when we ran out of kolto stations to click from going through them too quickly).

Still, dying a couple of times is a far cry from "impossible for a group of level 15s". I'm not saying it can be done without dying if you have the sort of group composition we did, and I don't know how a group of level 15s would hold up in any of the other tactical/veteran flashpoints (considering how quickly you level up, it would be hard to test this for every single one of them), as I've observed previously that the tuning can vary a lot from one flashpoint to another. Hammer Station though? Definitely still working as intended and doable at level 15. I'm just not sure about those double loot drops...


Those Dark vs. Light World Bosses

About ten days before Christmas, Bioware sent out a survey to many SWTOR players to quiz them about their opinions on the newest expansion - you bet I used that to also tell them through this more official channel that I don't like (the current implementation) of Galactic Command! What gave me pause though was that they specifically asked you to rate what they apparently considered all the major new expansion features, and one of them was "Dark vs. Light boss battles" (or something to that effect), something that had almost completely passed me by until then.

When the new server-wide Dark vs. Light system was first announced, I didn't have much of an opinion on it because I honestly thought it just sounded confusing. I was hoping that seeing it in action would make everything that much clearer, but that didn't work out so well either. The sheer amount of times we've had conversations like the following in guild chat or on TeamSpeak:

A: So I get a token every time I open a box?
B: No, when you earn a box, but only if your side is winning.
A: So like right now?
B: No, while the light side is on its way to winning right now, only the one hour "victory state" after hitting rank five counts.
A: Okay... but what do I even do with the things?

The bosses that were supposed to spawn during the victory state didn't even enter into it (probably at least partially because of the heavy emphasis on Galactic Command during the previews and how nothing was going to drop any actually useful items anymore). So it was with some curiosity that I eventually suggested at the end of an ops night that my guild should have a look at them, as we had about twenty minutes of ops time left (which isn't enough to start anything new) and the dark side had recently entered a victory state.

We eventually found two of the new bosses on Tatooine, called Erdi the Relentless and Tormentor Urdig. I recorded and uploaded the fights to YouTube, because I thought they might be useful to someone out there and I couldn't find anything else about them other than a mention in the Dulfy guide when I googled their names.

We did get both of them down on the first attempt (and as I understand it there wouldn't have been a chance at a second attempt as they despawn if they get an opportunity to reset after the first pull), but we did suffer several deaths and the outgoing damage was certainly considerable. They also had about three major abilities each which seemed to have been borrowed from existing operations bosses seemingly at random: Tormentor Urdig for example had what looked like Dread Master Raptus' Force Execution at his command. With this in mind, the bosses certainly didn't strike me as designed for your average general chat pug, even if their fickle way of spawning seems to make them more suitable targets for such transient groups than for a pre-scheduled ops night.

They did seem like worthwhile targets though, as they dropped a reasonably sized CXP pack for everyone in the group (up to sixteen I believe) as well as a light side token (if you were light side too, since they were dark side bosses). We were just annoyed that the achievements to kill them appeared to be bugged as neither was ticked off anyone's list successfully.

Still, there's your new group content, folks! You just need to know where to look for it I guess. I'm actually really intrigued by these now and hope that I'll be able to persuade my guildies to have a go at all of them sooner or later, if for no other reason than to see the fights.


Rogue One

I'm a bit late to the party with this one - what kind of self-respecting Star Wars fan waits almost a week to see the latest installment in the franchise? One whose partner was too busy to see it right away I guess... but I did finally see Rogue One this week.

The spoiler-free version is that I liked it. I've always loved the Star Wars universe as a whole, with my interest not being limited to Jedi and lightsabers (that's why I play a trooper!), so seeing a film that tells the story of a bunch of "normal" people in a Star Wars setting was right up my alley. I've also seen people say that Rogue One seems to be made for fans who enjoyed the original trilogy as kids and have been longing for a grittier and more adult Star Wars film targeted at where they are now, and I do agree that the film hits that spot very well. Personally I just felt that it did the whole "grit" thing almost a bit too well, to the point where I actually found it pretty exhausting emotionally, as I'm a huge sap when it comes to my entertainment and there's only so much "bad things happening to good people" I can take. I can also relate to some of the criticisms I've seen: that Jyn's journey isn't very fleshed out and that the relationships between the different characters aren't sufficiently developed. It did work for me, but my pet tank didn't find those parts compelling at all, which led to an interesting discussion on the way home.

Rogue One poster from the film's Wikipedia page.

Getting into spoiler territory, let me describe to you my rough train of thought throughout watching the film:

- That's a lot of hopping between different people and planets. I have no idea what's going on, but I guess it will eventually start to make sense.

- OK, I'm starting to get the hang of who is who... except that I can't remember anyone's names. There's Jyn, and her father is called Galen, but as for anyone else? This sadly lasted throughout the entire film, and in the discussion afterwards I had to keep referring to people as "the guy who..." and similar designations. If anything, I would say the film's biggest flaw is giving everyone names that are hard to understand and remember.

- Watching a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin, I kept alternating between being amazed by how far the technology has come and being slightly wigged out by the whole thing. However, I'm not sure if the latter wasn't simply the result of me knowing that Peter Cushing is dead and that it therefore can't really be him. Either way the digital artists did an amazing job.

- I was less enamoured with Darth Vader's appearances. I thought they tried very hard to stay true to the way he was presented in the original trilogy, but what seemed scary in the seventies doesn't necessarily have the same impact forty years later. To me he came across as awkward rather than menacing.

- About halfway through the film, I suddenly thought to myself: Hang on, how close to Episode IV is this supposed to take place? Because this is starting to look very close. But none of these guys even get a mention in A New Hope... oh god, that means they are all going to die, aren't they?

- /cries

- OK, some people died, but they do have an escape plan, some of them might still make it...

- /cries some more

And that, dear readers, sums up my feelings about Rogue One. Happy Christmas! :P


Five Years of SWTOR Blogging

As usual, two days after the game's birthday follows this blog's anniversary. While I've been blogging in some capacity or another since 2004 and it does feel like something that I've been doing forever, it still feels kind of weird to consider that I've been keeping this blog in particular for five years by now. I still tend to think of it as "my newest project", so realising that I've actually been maintaining it for five years already feels weird.

This year has also been an interesting one in so far as I've been way more prolific than I've been in any of the past years except for 2012. For all the criticisms Knights of the Fallen Empire has had thrown at it, I really found it interesting to talk about, both in terms of story and in terms of what I thought didn't work so well. In October/November I also managed to temporarily ramp up my posting schedule considerably, which was actually at least partially related to my work. I work in an office and I've previously never understood how people can read or even write blogs from work because I've always been way too busy to slack off like that during working hours. However, something happened this year that suddenly caused my workload to drop massively towards the end of the year, leaving me with whole days of nothing to do, so I started passing the time by drafting blog posts. This has now changed again (for now), but to be honest I'm kind of glad. As much as I enjoy blogging, having time to do it during work hours felt kind of wrong.

Anyway, time for my annual review of what I've been writing about!

I started the year by holding my first ever giveaway - I've actually been thinking about holding another one, but I don't want it to be boring and haven't really been able to come up with a good way of making it interesting yet. I also summed up the findings of the flashpoint levelling experiment I had conducted at the end of 2015 and started reviewing KotFE one chapter at a time. After four years, I finally completed the trooper story for a second time, and 4.0's game changes made me muse about the many ways in which Bioware's treatment of companions has changed. As if all that wasn't enough for the month of January, I also railed against people complaining that SWTOR has lockboxes in a misleading way, and joined Traitine for some lowbie PvP on his stream for the first time, something we would repeat many times throughout the rest of the year.

In February, I tried my hand at writing a little guide on how to choose the right healing class, and bemoaned the lack of regular old questing opportunities for groups in the newest expansion. I also wasn't thrilled to find that heroics had effectively become just another set of dailies thanks to 4.0's retuning, though the comments on that post quickly showed that my disdain for this was very much a minority view.

March once again showed that datamined information always has to be taken with a grain of salt, when mined details about the new PvE/PvP instance split caused people to wrongly conclude that server merges were imminent. KotFE chapter eleven released and left me quite disappointed due to its initial bugginess, including the infamous naked cat-man bug. I decided to roll an alt on the Ebon Hawk and tried to get to the bottom of why the combat sections of KotFE annoyed so many people (myself included).

April saw the release of a new warzone, which quickly became my new favourite. Once again on the subject of KotFE, I wrote about how I was feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the way the Outlander's story was developing as it didn't seem to fit my trooper background. On a happier note, I expressed my appreciation for side quests and pondered the role of puzzles in SWTOR's gameplay.

In May I tried switching to a dedicated PvP instance for the first time and wasn't impressed. I also tried my hand at the newly released Eternal Championship - there were interesting aspects to it, but I didn't end up coming back to it more than a couple of times. I also wrote what's probably the most personal post I've ever put on this blog, talking a bit about my childhood and gaming background.

June was the month of the New Blogger Initiative and I contributed a post with some advice. I took one of my bounty hunters into Knights of the Fallen Empire content and explained which parts of the experience did and didn't work for me. I also laid out how my guild had been progressing through operations in KotFE. And of course this was the month when the Dark vs. Light event was announced, and while I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about it at the start, I was still happy to jump right in.

In July I attended the second ever Community Cantina event to be held in London, and of course Knights of the Eternal Throne was announced on that occasion, though we had nothing but a teaser image to go by at that point. My guild held a hilarious summer fun event, and I mused on the amount of hours I had accumulated in the game based on the /played command.

In August I tried to gauge the chances of our still missing companions returning any time soon and finished my chapter-by-chapter discussion of Knights of the Fallen Empire shortly after the release of its final installment. I got quite invested in the DvL event and decided to finally play through the original Knights of the Old Republic - on my tablet, to keep myself entertained while commuting on the train.

After almost exactly a year of writing about one of the game's flashpoints every two weeks, I rounded off my Flashpoint Friday series with a post about the Star Fortresses at the beginning of September. I finally completed the Imperial agent story for a second time and wrote about my experiences with trying to defect to the Republic. People datamined some pretty drastic class changes coming in 5.0. And in what was a very exciting moment for me, I was able to post an official interview with Bioware's lead designer Michael Backus on the subject of flashpoints.

In October I completed the final tier of the DvL event and details of Knights of the Eternal Throne were finally officially announced after people had spent three months speculating about that teaser image. Of course we were less than happy to find out about Galactic Command. I also got a new PC and got ready to participate in International Picture Posting Month by giving my "10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots" series another run throughout the month of November.

With that going on and for the reasons mentioned at the start of this post, November was my busiest month with a (for me) quite impressive post count of 20. I had kind of mixed feelings about the upcoming KotET release at that point. I finished my KOTOR playthrough on the tablet and then Knights of the Eternal Throne finally launched.

December has mostly been about me trying to get to grips with Galactic Command and failing. Fortunately changes are already supposed to be coming to the system in January. On the plus side, I finally managed to hit my goal of becoming an Elite Warlord.

To the next twelve months of talking about all things Star Wars: The Old Republic!


Five Years of SWTOR

Today, Star Wars: The Old Republic turns five years old, despite of many nay-sayers pronouncing it doomed and dying almost from day one. Looking at it now, I would expect it to easily last another five years at least, even though people are proclaiming that it won't last another year even now, and someone is going to release Star Wars Galaxies 2 any moment now to replace it as "the Star Wars MMO" (heh).

I don't want to use this post to look back on the entirety of those five years though, because I already covered four of them previously!

Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4

Shintar the trooper over the course of five years.

Year 5 has once again been an "interesting" one, largely because Bioware doesn't seem to be able or willing to settle into any sort of rhythm. We've had a total of six "expansions" by now (you can argue about the label but the specifics aren't really relevant for this discussion), and I still don't have a clue when to expect the next one and what it will entail, because they are constantly trying to change things up. In some ways this is good, because it keeps things fresh and I do enjoy being positively surprised, but at other times it feels like Bioware still isn't entirely sure what they want this game to be. After five years, I think it's about time that they make up their minds.

2015 was supposed to be the year of big change, with their massive revamp of nearly all existing content and a focus on single-player story in the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, but 2016 followed up on this a bit awkwardly.

We did get KotFE chapters 10-16 as well as nine chapters of Knights of the Eternal Throne, which were pretty great and did provide more "quest content" than we've had in any previous expansion. (While the chapter format is very different from classic MMO questing, I still think it's fair to call it quest content, because at its core that's what it is.) But everything else...? Eh.

We did get a new warzone for the first time in ages, and it quickly became my new favourite, so that's a win. There was also a new arena and the new uprising format for small group content, which launched with five different scenarios. The new Dark vs Light battle system introduced in KotET gave us some new world bosses, and the Alliance system provided us with a bunch of new companions. We also had a "world event" in form of the one-off Dark vs Light event, but that didn't really add anything new to the game, it was more like those double XP events that encourage you to level alts. Still, looking at that list there was actually more additional content there than I thought. Nonetheless, people have been feeling the lack of new operations, flashpoints or explorable planets for the second year in a row very keenly.

Also, the time spent on systems changes this year did not feel like time well spent. The split into PvE and PvP instances instead of having dedicated servers for each didn't generate much interest. The "New Pack Opening Experience" was widely derided as a waste of resources and from what I've heard even people who like to open packs tend to find it a bit annoying. And then of course there has been the blunder of Galactic Command, which has been decidedly ill-received by the paying community as well as serving as bad PR for the game in wider MMO circles. You need to look no further than Massively OP, which voted for SWTOR as the MMO with the "Worst Business Model" this year, after it was in the running for "Most Improved MMO" last year. I personally don't think that award was deserved, but it shows just how much bad publicity the game has managed to generate this year compared to last, which is a particular shame after it seemed to manage to garner so much goodwill from the public in 2015.

So in summary: I wouldn't say that it has been a bad year for SWTOR, because they did release a good chunk of content, but a lot of fans that were disappointed by the areas in which KotFE has been lacking have had reason to grow even more jaded. Last year the revamp of nearly all levelling and group content seemed to offer a good excuse for the lack of non-story additions, but this year it has been harder to justify. Once again I can only hope that Bioware will find a better balance going forward. According to a rarely-seen guildie who claims to have talked to a Bioware employee in Ireland, those new operations are coming.


Tis The Season

... for "totally Christmas, we're just calling it something else" holiday events in MMOs, and this is one holiday that even Star Wars can't escape from, thanks to Life Day, introduced by the Star Wars Holiday Special. This year's Cartel Market offering saw the official release of the red-nosed tauntaun that was already data-mined a year ago - or it might even have been two? I remember thinking what a decidedly silly mount that was the first time I saw it... of course I bought it, why do you ask? (Fortunately they also fixed the strange bug that caused my character to lose her head while riding a bipedal mount.)

In terms of in-game activities there's nothing new to do, though the time-honoured tradition of snowball-throwing for gifts has received a new incentive since a successful gift proc also awards Command XP for max-level characters, encouraging people to throw snowballs purely for that. It's not something I would want to do for hours on end, but it's a fun little source of entertainment between warzone pops.

This time of year is also when SWTOR celebrates its birthday, though that will be the subject of a post of its own. I just thought I'd mention that they actually gifted their long-time subscribers a special stronghold decoration this time. From what I've heard from guildies they've also been decent and gave a bit of leeway to those whose subs may have lapsed briefly at some point due to a credit card expiration or something similar, which is nice. It's just a shame that you can only unlock it once, especially since they sent a copy to every single one of my alts.

But the biggest gift from my point of view has been the news that Bioware is already backpedalling on Galactic Command by bringing back gear drops from operations and vendors for PvPers in January, if in a slightly different format. I'm almost embarrassed to say what a relief it has been to hear that. I'm just hesitant to praise them too much, because everyone has been telling them that the system as it is right now was a bad idea from the moment it was announced. Granted, there are always people complaining about every change they make, so I appreciate that it might be hard to filter the useful feedback from the noise, but still...

I do wonder what made them change course so quickly now, especially as the outlined changes will only serve to appease raiders and PvPers - players sticking to solo and smaller group content will still be subject to the Galactic Command gear lottery. These days everyone seems to like disparaging raiders and PvPers as loud minorities that contribute nothing to the bottom line, but this suggests that what Bioware saw happening to these player populations in particular since 5.0 was enough to cause serious concern after all.

Either way, I'll take it, play my alts with a clear conscience from now on and fret less about those Galactic Command ranks on my main. Merry Christmas to you too, Bioware.


It Only Took Me Five Years...

... but I can finally call myself Elite Warlord Shintar O'sirisen!

For those who don't know, Elite Warlord is the title you gain for reaching (the final) Valor rank 100. Valor doesn't really do anything other than fill up a bar to show how much PvP you've done and has a reputation for getting ridiculously grindy towards the end, but precisely because of that reaching the top rank is still somewhat of a badge of honour. I've heard people say that 90-100 takes as long as 1-90 combined, and while I don't know if that's true, the last ten levels certainly did feel very slow. Also, it has been nearly three years since I posted about hitting rank 90.

I wish I could tell you just how many matches it took me to get there, but unfortunately the in-game stats seem dodgy to say the least. If I truly only ever won 408 matches, that would mean that at a win rate of roughly 1 in 3 (which I can back up with science! sort of) I played a total of 1,224 games. But if you then apply that number to the other stats, I would have received nearly 2 MVP votes per match and earned over 14 medals each time. That seems like quite a stretch.

Next PvP goal: I am Death Incarnate! (About 9,000 kills to go.)


Control Alt Escape

I feel a bit bad that all my recent posts have been about Galactic Command this, CXP that, especially since the overall tone of said posts has been rather unhappy. While I'm not afraid to offer criticism when I feel that things aren't done well, I do prefer to try to maintain a positive tone overall. I wouldn't be playing the game if I didn't still enjoy it!

The problem with Galactic Command is that it's hard to escape from if you're not happy with it. The very thing Bioware seems to have taken so much pride in - that it's tied into almost every aspect of the game, save maybe for roleplaying and on-rails space combat - makes it very hard to ignore the system if you spend time playing a max-level character at all, even if it frustrates you.

I was thinking about writing up a diary of my second week of Galactic Command, similar to the format of my post about week one, but this turned out to be unnecessary for the simple reason that the entirety of my second week of Galactic Command could easily be summed up in a single sentence: I earned 28 more Command ranks/crates, claimed a couple of schematics because I enjoy collecting them for my alts' crew skills, and destroyed everything else. Apparently I really was incredibly lucky to get six useful pieces out of my first week's 38 crates, and this luck has now run out. People have been talking about the difficulty of getting "that last piece you're missing", but here I spent a whole week grinding, still wearing level 65 gear in eight of my fourteen gear slots, and couldn't get a single upgrade for any of them. I think at one point I disintegrated four copies of the same green assault cannon in a row. I almost feel sad for whoever at Bioware thought this up. Did they really think people would be happy to be rewarded with a box that contains a green worse than their gear from the previous expansion, a reputation trophy for a faction they maxed out three years ago, a pair of orange bracers and a companion gift? I don't even know.

I've talked about how being in a guild that raids results in a certain amount of social pressure to do as much as you can to upgrade your gear at a solid pace, but the past week has actually worked against that somewhat because it showed me that while time spent on an alt might feel "wasted" in terms of progression, time spent on your main can end up feeling wasted just as well under this new system. So I finally gave in and decided to devote some time to an alt to get away from that darned CXP bar.

I decided to focus on my Marauder first to see a different side of Knights of the Eternal Throne, but as I've previously done on similar occasions, I felt the urge to "clear out" her quest log a bit first, which in this case meant doing the last couple of Alliance alerts she hadn't done yet. One of these was the one for Qyzen Fess, which actually had me grinding "Worthy Jagannath Targets" for the first time, as I'd only recruited him via the world boss kills previously. It wasn't actually as bad as I had feared, especially when I found this useful guide on Reddit. The locations listed there weren't nearly as overfarmed as the ones recommended by Dulfy, probably because it's harder to actually read written words than to look at a picture of a map and go to where the dot is.

While traversing the plains of Hoth, I also queued for a story mode operation through the group finder and ended up in a Ravagers pug. I was a bit hesitant since a previous unsuccessful run that had failed on Master and Blaster was still vividly on my mind. I needn't have worried about that though, because this time we couldn't even kill the first boss - she enraged with twenty percent of her health left. I suspect that pugging story modes will remain painful for a while yet. After that wipe I as well as some other people bowed out politely - no point in "working on it" when already the first boss is clearly so far out of the group's reach.

Finally, I also replayed the HK bonus chapter for the first time - even though I had enjoyed it the first time, I had somehow never quite gotten around to replaying it. Like his dark mistress, this version of HK took all the "evil" choices, and by the end I felt like a true monster, having actually killed off a certain incredibly cheerful character...

None of these things were amazingly rewarding - heck, the attempt at the operation only earned me a repair bill and I suppose some knowledge about the current pugging scene on TRE. But it was still such a relief to feel in full control of what I was going to get for my efforts again.

One can only hope that Bioware will come around about Galactic Command sooner rather than later. Loving to play alts is one thing, but when I feel that I need them to "escape" from my main, that's a very bad sign.


Redefining Progression

My guild is facing an interesting dilemma: Just how are we going to deal with operations going forward?

The classic progression model goes like this: You go into a raid, kill some bosses, and get gear that makes you more powerful, which in turn allows you to get into the next raid and kill the bosses there, and so on and so forth.

4.0 already messed with this system by nominally elevating all the operations to the same level, even if in practice Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace were still easier than any of the others. But at least there were still the three different difficulty levels to tackle: story, hard and nightmare.

What made things really confusing was the priority operations system, which meant that the easiest and most effective way to get the best gear wasn't actually to kill the hardest bosses but to tackle whichever "medium" difficulty was highlighted each week.

Once you had best in slot, why would you continue to slam your head against a wall for nothing? There were people who said that this was already the end of nightmare operations, and there certainly were those who dropped out as soon as the gear incentive was gone. But for the most part, my own guildies stuck with it, because we did enjoy coming together for our raid nights, and it's not like there was anything else to strive for once you had fully kitted out your character. Gear wasn't an incentive anymore, but it wasn't an issue either.

5.0 on the other hand has come with a system that has made sure that the interests of people focused on gearing up and people focused on beating the hardest bosses are now pretty much diametrically opposed to each other.

For the person wanting to gear up through Galactic Command and get those precious, precious set bonuses, the best way to go about it is to chain-run easy content, because that progresses you the fastest. Oh sure, the harder difficulty modes of operations might drop slightly bigger CXP tokens, but that benefit is easily negated by even a couple of wipes. Better to play it safe and stick to the content that will reward you quickly and more reliably.

For the person interested in progression on the other hand, this is the exact opposite of what they want. For them it's best to skip/ignore most of Galactic Command and gear up through crafting as quickly as possible, while maybe leaving their old armorings in for the set bonuses (if they have them). Then they can go right ahead and throw themselves against the biggest challenges in the game without expecting any reward except overcoming the challenge itself (eventually, hopefully).

You can't really be in the middle of this conflict, because any action you take is a choice to support one and not the other. It's left some of our raiders (myself included) divided and uncertain. We haven't found a solution yet; our saving grace for now is simply that at this early point, the "progression" types are still interested in running the story modes for the crew skill schematic drops at least, providing some common ground. But already some people are getting restless.

If you are in a guild that raids as well, how are you dealing with this complete separation of content progression and loot? I fear that the number of guilds doing large group content will only keep shrinking if the game pits guild members' interests against each other in such a fashion.


Are Galactic Command Boosts on the Cartel Market One Step Too Far?

Let me preface this by saying that I hate discussions about pay-to-win in MMOs, simply because I have yet to see any such discussion go anywhere interesting or useful. Since MMOs don't have a clear and indisputable win condition, whatever area you personally don't want to see people overtake you in is at risk of any related cash shop purchases being perceived as pay-to-win. I'll never forget Liore's post about how cash shops selling all those cosmetics kind of sucked the fun out of MMOs for her since collecting cool outfits had been an important part of her gameplay until then.

But even when we're talking about an aspect of the game that is clearly meant to be competitive and where most people would agree that they don't want money to buy someone an advantage, players are easily distracted by simple obfuscating tactics. People protesting about the Sword of a Thousand Truths being sold in the cash shop? Well, make it so that by collecting a thousand rare "sword shards" in game, people can acquire it without paying as well. Never mind that it's going to take three years and nobody is realistically going to do it, a lot of people will suddenly give it a pass if there's a way of getting the same thing without paying, never mind that it's not really viable in practice.

The only thing that I see all pay-to-win accusations having in common is that the cash shop items in question make people uncomfortable. To be fair, that also applies to things that don't necessarily have anything to do with pay-to-win, such as lockboxes, but let's use it as our standard anyway. Galactic Command boosters definitely make me uncomfortable.

To explain why, let me first talk a bit about what I tend call my secondary MMO: Neverwinter Online. There are definitely things I really love about that game or I wouldn't be playing it, but its cash shop is not one of them. I do want to give Cryptic money every now and then because it only seems fair when I've spent a significant number of hours playing their game... but deciding what I actually don't mind spending money on is always an agonising experience.

My biggest annoyance and the things I've sworn myself to never buy are what I would call anti-grind consumables. For example there is a process where you upgrade enchantments in your gear, but the higher you go up in level the higher the chance that the upgrade will fail and that you will simply lose all your expensive mats in the process, up to the point where the game will literally present you with a 99% failure rate. Except... you can avoid the issue by using a consumable from the cash shop! (Yes, they also exist as very, very rare drops that you can get without paying... but I refer you to my point above.)

Or take refinement, a related process through which you upgrade your gear in Neverwinter. For this you need to use up "refinement points", which again you do get through normal play, quite commonly in fact, but you need literally millions of them to actually fully upgrade an item, which is never going to happen for most people by playing normally - but once again, the cash shop offers relief in the form of expensive items that are worth tens of thousands of refinement points at once.

The reason these things bug me is that they are basically a sneaky way of trying to get a continuous stream of money out of players. I'm actually someone who is quite happy to continually support a game financially (aka pay a sub)... but be honest about it! Don't make your game free and then make it such a pain to progress that you have to shell out money over and over again (unless you're willing to literally just pay hundreds of dollars at once to get your items to cap right away).

What does all this have to do with SWTOR? Well, SWTOR does charge a subscription. But now we have a new, super grindy system for subscribers anyway, and lo and behold, there's also something you can spend money on to ease the pain for a little while, again and again. Not subtle, Bioware. The main mitigating factor in my eyes is that it's really a pretty weak boost. 25% extra CXP doesn't really speed you up significantly in the short term, and you still need to actually play too - the boost increases your Galactic Command gains but doesn't just "give" points to you. But it still feels like a pretty cheap move, and I think Bioware can do better than that. If Command XP were a thing for everyone and then subscribers got a boost to it automatically, fine. But paying to be able to grind and then paying again to lessen the grind is a poor way to be treated as a customer.

All that said, I will confess that I actually bought some of these boosts. Why? Because thanks to referrals, I'm sitting on tens of thousands of unused complimentary Cartel Coins that I never use for anything since I'm not really one to buy lots of cosmetics or crates of randomness. There's just little for me to spend them on right now, and at least these boosts are actually useful to me. I don't know how I'd feel if I actually had to pay for them with real money though. I don't think I would want to.


Shintar's Galactic Command Diary, Week 1

Day 1:

I hit level 70 from completing KotET chapter seven and had earned two crates by the time I was done with the story - unsurprisingly, the first couple of Command levels come easy. After the horror stories I'd heard about the livestream where Musco got nothing but greens from the crates even at Command rank 90-something, I was pleasantly surprised to find ilevel 230 blues in mine. While they still weren't upgrades, their quality at least didn't feel insulting. None of the cosmetic items interested me either, so I just disintegrated everything - including the companion gifts because you can buy them for credits anyway, and every little counts when early estimates suggest that it might take a whole year to reach Command rank 300, even for a pretty active player. The only thing I kept was a Cybertech schematic for a purple 230 earpiece, which I sent to my Guardian alt.

Next I did some PvP, which turned out to be a much better source of Command XP than anticipated. Out of the four crates from that I got some greens and reputation trophies which I disintegrated, four more crew skill schematics for my various alts, a Pyroclastic Subteroth pet and... dun dun dun - a purple 230 set piece (legs), which really surprised me as I had read somewhere that set items wouldn't start dropping until a much higher Command rank.

In the evenings I ended up doing some uprisings and operations with guildies to evaluate how good these were for CXP. Sadly Bioware appears to have taken out the "get a bonus while in a group" concept at the last minute, as killing a gold or champion mob solo yields the exact same amount of CXP as doing so in an 8- or even 16-person group. I finished the evening with another six crates, whose entire contents I ended up disintegrating except for a Synthweaving schematic.

Day 2:

Back to work, so there was less time to play, though I still managed to acquire five crates through an intense mix of operations, uprisings and warzones in the evening. In one of the warzones we did I managed over 8.6 million healing and the other healer on my team (a Sage) even broke the 10 million mark. Warzones were also supposed to be the highlighted Galactic Command activity of the day but we noticed no difference in our CXP gains compared to the previous day - shortly afterwards this was confirmed as a bug.

Screenshot or it didn't happen.

Anyway, most notably these five crates contained: more schematics which I saved for my alts, though I'm foreseeing the need for a spreadsheet or something here to keep track of which of the various schematics I've already collected; and another 230 set piece - but since it was the legs again it ended up disintegrated. A 230 relic got disintegrated as well since it wasn't the type I actually wanted. I claimed a blue 230 implant even though it wasn't an upgrade because my main's a Biochem and I could have sworn that I'd heard somewhere that you can also learn schematics from reverse engineering, however I was disappointed to be presented with a "no research available" message when ripping it apart.

I noticed that things like pets and cosmetic gear don't actually bind on pickup and some people have opted to claim these purely to sell them on the GTN - however, since credits are not a problem for me, I'll continue to go with disintegration because that actually "buys" me progress that I can't get any other way.

Day 3:

More miscellaneous group content in the evening; end result: six crates. Light side seems to always dominate during my main play time now, which is handy for the CXP bonus. Claimed a purple 230 ear piece, a blue 230 main hand and a cosmetic bounty hunter chest piece, though I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the latter as I only decided to keep it on a bit of a whim. Collected another schematic for an alt. Everything else disintegrated.

Day 4:

A day of exciting changes. A patch was supposed to fix the bugged bonus for the highlighted Galactic Command activity, but neither me nor my guildies could notice a difference between the numbers from before and after the patch. The system remains opaque. Also, the amount of CXP you get for killing a gold mob was dramatically nerfed, from 10 to 1. Why? Because a player who goes by the name of Jerba on the forums hit the supposedly unhittable weekly cap for Command XP after only three days. Apparently he had spent all his waking hours grinding mobs until he ran into a dead end at rank 100. (He even uploaded a video, which shows the location on Tatooine where he grinded and that he had a full ops group of people happily joining him - oh, and you can see that he's German. Insert joke about German work ethic here!)

For some reason, people on the forums and on Reddit completely lost their shit about this nerf. To me it made perfect sense: The mob killing bonus was clearly meant to serve as "padding" for people's XP gains while doing the harder content, but the last thing a game like SWTOR wants to encourage is mindless mob grinding. That this was actually the most efficient way to level up was clearly a bad calculation on their part and needed to be fixed, but either way it changes little about the overall nature of the system. Though I am a bit sad that I'm now unlikely to see a repeat of my ops group clearing out the entire jungle area in Eternity Vault.

Probably unlikely to be a repeat occurrence now.

In the afternoon, we tried a couple of hardmode flashpoints to see how they held up as sources of Command XP, and they weren't too bad - though we did suffer a lot of deaths since we weren't used to things hitting that hard anymore. What we did notice however is that Bioware made a right pig's ear out of their naming conventions with the whole veteran/master thing. While for uprisings, veteran is the equivalent of hardmode and master will be nightmare, for flashpoints they decided for some reason to rename tactical to veteran and hard to master. Even in that they haven't been consistent though, and in various bits of mission text and achievements, hardmode was alternately referred to as veteran or master, while at other times both tactical and hard still had their old names. If that sounds confusing, it's because it bloody is and makes no sense.

I also ran into a thread on Reddit that claimed that Galactic Starfighter was a good source of CXP too. I did a couple of matches myself to test this and they certainly weren't wrong. What was funny though was that I hadn't done a GSF match on Shintar in ages and apparently some patch (might not necessarily have been the latest one) had reset all my main ships' weapons to "none" - so I excitedly hopped into my first match just to find that I wasn't actually able to attack anything as I had nothing to shoot with! Pfft.

All in all, I could tell that my CXP levelling is starting to slow down, as despite of playing all day (it was Saturday) I "only" ended up with seven crates by the end of it all. The contents were pretty good though: Aside from even more schematics, I ended up claiming a blue 230 off-hand and a purple 230 relic that was actually of the type I wanted, woo! I also disintegrated another relic, which bizarrely said in its tooltip that it wouldn't proc in PvP areas, which can only be a bug or mislabelling at this point.

Day 5:

Warzones were the highlighted activity of the day and this time we could actually see the bonus working. Even though it was a Sunday, I played less than I had the previous couple of days and only earned four crates. One contained the exact same relic I had claimed the previous day, forcing me to disintegrate it this time. After seeing oodles of schematics for Cybertech and pretty much all the other crew skills, I finally got my first Biochem schematic, hurrah! Oh, and a belt with set bonus.

Day 6:

After successfully besting EV and KP hardmode the night before, several guildies were keen on more hardmodes, even though we had alts in the group that wouldn't even have been considered well-geared back at level 65. Unsurprisingly, we kept running into a wall already on the very first boss of EC, hitting the enrage with quite a bit of boss health left to go. In the end people could be convinced to settle for a Dread Fortress story mode run instead, but due to the amount of "wasted" time I only earned two crates that evening, and both had all their contents disintegrated.

Day 7:

After another bout of quick maintenance, we saw the introduction of CXP boosters to the Cartel Market. I bought a bunch, but that will be a post for another time. Since I was tired from work and my guildies had a full group anyway, I didn't join for ops that night and only did a bit of PvP. Finished with two crates whose contents got disintegrated once again.

Week 1 Summary:

It feels a bit strange to admit it, but despite of all my concerns about Galactic Command, I did have fun with it this week. It helps a lot that I'm someone who enjoys participating in most aspects of the game to some extent, so I didn't feel like I was "forced" to engage in a specific activity that I didn't really like just to earn optimal amounts of CXP. In fact, it was quite a bit of fun to experiment to see how different types of content interact with the new system. The only CXP-granting activities I didn't participate in at all were dailies/heroics and pure mob grinding (before the nerf to gold mobs).

I also felt pretty lucky in that I got six pieces of gear that were upgrades for me during this first week, two of them with a set bonus. That was after 38 crates though, so on average I got one useful item every sixth or seventh crate.

That does segue nicely into the concerns that still remain though: The grind is real. As explained in the Reddit thread linked earlier in this post, someone calculated that if you managed to earn 20k+ CXP per week, you would hit Command rank 300 in a year. I hit over 90k CXP myself this week, but that was with a crazy amount of time invested for my standards and is definitely not sustainable. I suspect that my enthusiasm in the face of such a system - where even a Herculean effort on my part is nothing but a drop in the bucket - will diminish quickly. Finally, there were all the social issues that I made a separate post about: Guildies getting upset about who was and wasn't favoured by the random numbers; me kind of yearning to play alts but feeling vaguely guilty about it and then not doing it.

How has your own first week of Galactic Command been treating you? Do you want to curse me for being so lucky? I wouldn't blame you! Or have things gone even better for you?


Rise Up, Rise Up!

Uprisings were one of Knights of the Eternal Throne's features that I was the most curious about. Our first new group content in two years! No, I'm not counting the Star Fortresses because they felt more like solo content with the option to bring a friend.

After running all of them several times, on both story and veteran (hard) mode, and completing most of the associated achievements, I find them... interesting. I'm still not entirely sure what I think of them though.

My first impression honestly wasn't that great. I kind of coasted through my first couple of runs, hardly even taking in what was going on. To avoid "spacebar please" issues, there are no cut scenes in these, with all story context simply being delivered by a voice-over from one of your Alliance members (Hylo, Theron or Lana). I don't exactly mind that, but it does make it easier to miss what's going on if you're late to zone in or get distracted by boss mechanics. After a few runs I started to pay more attention though, began to take note of more of the details and started to have fun with them. I'm just not sure how sticky the whole thing is going to be.

From what I've read and heard, Bioware's design goals for uprisings were to reuse existing locations that had been somewhat underused and to provide an alternative to flashpoints that was a bit more fast-paced, with less worrying about how to correctly handle trash pulls and more charging in and smashing things. I do think they succeeded at both of these goals.

There are currently five uprisings and all five locations immediately look familiar to the long-time player. Done and Dusted takes place on Tatooine and actually has the most "original" setting of them all as the compound you enter didn't immediately remind me of an existing location on Tatooine. Firefrost (five years of WoW make me want to call this one Frostfire all the time) is set on Hoth, in an underground forge which I'm pretty sure was used in an existing quest, though I can't remember which one exactly... I think it was either a bounty hunter class mission or a world story arc? Crimson Fang takes place on Port Nowhere, a location from the smuggler class story. (Where's Corso? He said he'd be there!) Inferno reuses the base inside the volcano on Ord Mantell, and Fractured recycles the Emperor's space station one more time.

As far as fast-paced goes, there is indeed no time to spend on planning pulls as a lot of them spawn in from different directions in the way with which we've become so familiar over the course of Knights of the Fallen Empire's chapters, but somehow it's not as annoying in a group because there's a kind of friendly competition going on as for who kills the most mobs the quickest. Elite mobs are almost non-existent but weak ones appear in abundance, turning many a pull into an AoE-fest. This could be boring, however the way things spawn and are spread out differently every time does keep things somewhat interesting. There are also three types of temporary power-ups that you can pick up from boxes throughout the instance, which add an additional way of sowing destruction and another layer of friendly competition for group members. ("Nooo, I wanted the rocket launcher!")

While there are many mobs per pull, the number of trash pulls itself is fairly small and you go from one boss to the next quite quickly. The bosses themselves are another exercise in recycling as they re-use a lot of mechanics from existing flashpoint fights; for example the last boss of Crimson Fang AoE-stuns the group to duel one person à la Malgus, and an earlier boss scans group members to summon specified "kill squads" similar to the way the Interrogator in Directive 7 chooses to clone people. Again, I didn't mind this too much because for the most part they have copied good boss fights, so why not? There's nothing to say that you're only ever allowed to use a mechanic once. I just wish the bosses had a bit more personality - just like the "story" of the uprisings, they are pretty generic. Even after several runs I struggled to remember any of them by name, with the exception of Crack-Shot Aggy from Done and Dusted (modelled after Colonel Daksh from Maelstrom Prison), and that might simply be because the name is short and easy to remember, and Done and Dusted happened to be the very first uprising I set foot into.

One thing I did like a lot were the small touches added for achievements that don't necessarily serve any purpose other than to have a bit of fun. For example in Done and Dusted you get the opportunity to summon a random desert beast to fight for you for a bit. While they make no real difference to the fight, it's plain fun to suddenly pull a bantha out of nowhere and to try to "collect" all the different animals. Crimson Fang and Inferno also feature friendly spies in hidden locations that grant you achievements for finding them.

Getting to this guy needed the help of a Gunslinger's roll and a Vanguard's Transpose. Not sure that's quite working as intended.

All that said, after completing both weeklies for this new game mode, I felt little inclination to go back to them for the rest of the week. If I want to play something fun- and fast-paced, I'm more likely to queue for a PvP match, which is less repetitive and also better for my Command XP bar from my personal experience so far. Maybe uprisings will fill a niche for a certain type of player that doesn't enjoy PvP, but I think that if I'm honest with myself I prefer my group PvE to be a bit longer and slower.

Oh, and you may be wondering why these currently don't have a solo mode, even though it sounded like there was one in the works at an earlier point in development. After seeing all the current uprisings for myself, I'm pretty sure that it has little to do with Bioware wanting to force people to group up and everything with the viability of the all-powerful Jesus droid that makes solo modes possible in the first place. There are a lot of mechanics like odd movement and target switching going on, which are not really that difficult but I strongly suspect that the GSI droid's current AI is simply not up for dealing with them effectively.


Social Implications of Galactic Command

I've already had my moan about why I don't like 5.0's new design philosophy of moving all gear progression into random loot boxes and the many ways in which this is frustrating for the individual, but it's only over the last couple of days that it has really hit me how much the new Galactic Command system is affecting relationships between players as well.

You don't have to be particularly competitive to feel a certain pressure whenever an expansion launches and raises the level cap. Even if you don't want to rush, there can be something awkward and uncomfortable about seeing your friends level up much faster than you and hearing them tell tales of the exciting new content that lies ahead - especially if there is a risk of being left behind and having a harder time finding friendly group mates for the same content later on. Fortunately though, most of the time these issues don't last long, because the new level cap isn't far, and once you hit it, personal progression tends to slow down significantly, allowing slowpokes to catch up.

In my first post about Galactic Command I noted that the way it was described made it sound like a process of endless levelling, and so far that impression has certainly held true - but keeping in mind the scenario I just described above, that isn't entirely a good thing. While Command level by itself isn't displayed and doesn't increase your power, psychologically there is still something unsettling about watching the growing gaps between people's levels. Since we're only a few days into early access of the expansion, all my guildies are still relatively close together, but already one can see certain players shooting ahead and others lagging behind. It stands to reason that once the gap widens enough, some characters will be ready for hardmode/nightmare progression way before others... with limited ways to help the ones at the bottom catch up.

I'm really bothered by this because I don't like the thought of falling behind in such a manner, yet as someone who works full time these days and gets home late I'm likely to be among the ones ending up near the bottom sooner or later. I've been playing like crazy for the past couple of days, and still there are guildies who are already more progressed. I wonder even more about the ones who usually play less than me and often only log on for operations - they will be perpetually behind and really risk dragging the team down, effectively enforcing a certain segregation of players by available amount of time to play instead of by skill or friendship if you are at all interested in progression.

This also turns alts from something almost universally beneficial to guilds into a guilty pleasure, because any time spent on an alt is now effectively time "wasted" not working on your Galactic Command level. This didn't used to be an issue because the actual time spent on progression through operations was pretty limited, leaving people with lots of opportunities to do other things without impacting their performance in group content. You know something has gone wrong then raiding - so frequently derided as the bastion of the unpleasantly hardcore - comes out as the more casual option in a direct comparison!

And in all of this, we are only talking about the way players will be progressing on average - because the RNG-heavy nature of the thing also creates additional opportunities for conflict. When one person in the guild keeps getting nothing but greens while another gets a set piece every other level, without any way of "sharing" their wealth, this breeds frustration and envy that players have no way of actively countering, no matter how good their intentions.

I am annoyed because it feels like this change has moved progression raiding - something I'm very much interested in at a basic level - into the realm of the stereotypical "no-lifer" only. The time investment required for gearing up for harder content is just too great. As if raiding in SWTOR needed the odds stacked against it any more than they already are right now...

Many of you who mostly play solo might say: "Why do you even care so much?" And the truth is: I don't care that much about having the best gear for the sake of having the best gear. But I do care about bringing the best I can to group content with my guild, something that Galactic Command will make unreasonably hard going forward. And I'm already tired of the tension created by the constant conversations about who got what from their crates.