A Farewell to the Sith Emperor

Be warned, this post contains spoilers for the Jedi knight class story, Shadow of Revan and KotFE/KotET.

The first character I ever created in SWTOR was the trooper who's still my main to this day, and I can't remember which one of the two I made first, but Jedi consular and Imperial agent were among my first alts. This meant that my image of the Sith Empire and its Emperor was pretty... fuzzy for a long time. Even on my agent he was a mysterious figure, as nobody I talked to ever seemed to know where he was, what exactly he got up to, or even what he looked like. Whenever Darth Malgus talked about acting according to the Emperor's will in a briefing, he sounded more like a religious zealot spreading a divine being's message than someone conveying what they'd been told in a private one-to-one. If there had been a plot twist later on, revealing that the Emperor was long dead and just being used as a figurehead by the Dark Council, I would have easily been able to believe it.

I realised I actually have no screenshots of the Emperor from the base game, so a shot of Malgus, who repeatedly claims to know the Emperor's will, will have to do.

Let's just say, I was in for quite a surprise when I finally levelled a Jedi knight, and later, a Sith warrior.

But that sense of mystery still stuck with me for a long time, also because Bioware kept writing the story arcs that continued the story at level fifty under the assumption that not everyone had played those two classes, so things needed explaining, yet the NPCs doing the narrating weren't exactly experts on the subject matter either. Was the Sith Emperor truly dead? It was fascinating to watch the story of a divided and confused Empire unfold on Ilum and Makeb.

Then, Shadow of Revan happened.

I didn't really have a horse in this particular race, having never played KOTOR at the time and only running a knight and warrior as relatively minor alts, but I always thought it was a bit cruel to Jedi knights to basically invalidate most of their class story. (You thought you heroically killed this guy? Nope!) At the same time it was a bit strange to make the Sith Emperor everyone's concern, from smuggler to bounty hunter. But I guess when the whole galaxy is in danger, one has to step in, regardless of one's prior role.

The Emperor's new clothes existence as disembodied shadow entity reached its peak in the Ziost story arc, where it was revealed that he was not only still alive and around, but also powerful enough to perform mass mind control on Imperial citizens and destroy an entire planet.

People were (rightly) asking where we could possibly go from there, but apparently the answer was: in a completely different direction, seemingly at random.

In Fallen Empire, it turned out that the Emperor had had a second body in a different part of the galaxy all along and had used it to get up to all kinds of hijinks. He also appeared to have received a personality transplant and suddenly lost a lot of his powers, suddenly being very dependent on his body again.

When KotFE was still very new, I wrote a somewhat frustrated post about this, hoping that some sort of explanation for what was going on was still coming. Now that we've reached the end of that story arc, I'm sad to say that this never happened. And for that reason, I'm actually pretty glad that Valkorion is dead, and hopeful that he will stay so for good now.

Don't get me wrong, I did actually enjoy fighting against all three of the Sith Emperor's incarnations. I really liked how mysterious he was to most classes in the original story. I suppose the incorporeal, planet-eating version of the character was my least favourite, mostly because he had no motivations we could understand beyond being insane and the question of how exactly we were going to fight him was never really explored. Valkorion, while totally inconsistent with everything that had come before, was at least an interesting character ins his own right (which was undoubtedly helped a lot by Darin De Paul's excellent voice acting).

Still, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at Bioware when they decided how the KotFE arc should come about. At least from the outside, it looks more than ever as if they just wanted to get away from what had come before and create something completely different. Claiming that Valkorion was actually the Sith Emperor was simply a weak way of retaining some kind of tie to the existing story, even if it made no sense for a being in his position to suddenly go back to being trapped inside and dependent on a single body.

Either way, I think he's been used for all he was worth and then some. It's time to give the guy some rest and let galactic politics unfold without him. I was ready for that by 2.0, and I'm still happy to see what's coming now.


The Eternal Veteran

I mentioned before that I used the occasion of replaying Knights of the Eternal Throne for my Chapter by Chapter series to try the story on veteran difficulty. In fact, I made a whole post about my struggle with chapter two. Now that I've finished the whole thing, I wanted to talk about the experience a bit more.

The good news first: There were no more roadblocks similar to the final boss encounter of chapter two, though there were a couple of notable milestones still. I don't recall anything giving me trouble in chapter three, but chapter four was interesting for example.

There is this part where you are supposed to defend your base against several waves of droids, and I immediately found it impossible. They enter the room from three different directions at once, and no matter where you go, your companions get nuked before you can kill everything. You can't be in three places at once! Of course, I've also played MMOs for long enough to know that in such a situation the obvious solution is to use line of sight to force all your enemies into one place. The problem I had was that the room was circular, and I couldn't find any obstacles to efficiently herd the droids towards me.

After a couple of wipes I decided that I must have been missing something important and searched the internet for advice. Shockingly, I initially found nothing. At least with chapter two, searching had yielded plenty of mentions of other people having problems, but for chapter four, I could barely find anyone talking about it at all. I felt extra dumb. Was I overlooking something so obvious that nobody even considered it worth talking about? Eventually I found a post buried in a thread that mentioned "pulling them back to the medical droid". What, you mean the medical droid all the way across the plaza and in another building? As it turns out, the solution wasn't complicated, only completely against the objective from a story perspective: Story-wise, you're told to defend the base, but from a gameplay perspective, you're best off abandoning it instantly and taking the fight somewhere else.

In the end I recorded the time I finally beat the fight and uploaded it to YouTube. At least I can now take comfort in knowing that it's not just me who had issues figuring out the solution, as I can steadily see the video grow in views and likes, even though I haven't advertised it anywhere.

Chapter five was another non-issue. As far as chapter six goes, I had been warned that the last fight could be a pain if you were light side, as it's hard to keep Arcann alive. Bizarrely, my own experience was the complete opposite, as everything melted within seconds and I was kind of left standing there, blinking in confusion. In hindsight I think I lucked out by using Arcann's abilities very effectively (it was only in chapter nine that I realised just how powerful they really are): Basically you just need to use his AoE taunt and then immediately throw up his (reflective!) barrier to watch all the hard-hitting enemies blow themselves up in seconds.

In chapter seven I had been warned about the Horizon guards but had also been told that knockbacks could be used against them to great effect. I had some fun with the elites on the bridge, where I apparently couldn't quite knock them to their deaths and instead got caught in an ongoing cycle of knocking one down, then fighting the other until the first one finally made his way back up. I can't tell whether there were really supposed to be four of them or if I caused something to bug out and reset at some point.

I initially tried to fight the champion guard the normal way, but quickly got annoyed by the fact that even though I was dodging and interrupting everything I could, his mere unavoidable attacks were still hitting too hard for Lana to keep me alive. Of course, then I realised that unlike most boss mobs, he, too, was susceptible to knockbacks and could be dragged all the way back to the cliff side without resetting. So that was that. No idea how you're supposed to do it without a knockback though.

In regards to chapter eight, I had been warned that the walker fight could be a pain and that simply using the stomp ability in melee was - while counter-intuitive - highly effective. That worked for me right away.

In chapter nine I did a lot of dying on the way into the Spire, as I had limited control over Arcann, who kept running into bad places, and the mobs just kept on coming. There was one pretty hilarious moment when three stealth troopers uncloaked next to me at the same time and one-shot Senya... But while there was a lot of death, none of it was an issue as anything I killed stayed dead, so I could make slow progress anyway. The final fight was actually pretty fun and relatively forgiving, except that you really had to keep your back against the stairs to not get knocked into the abyss (which happened to me a couple of times at first).

In the end, it was more fun than the horrible roller-coaster of chapter two had led me to expect, but something still felt off to me. First off, I still think that the sheer randomness of the difficulty is a sign of shoddy work and goes against the whole concept of letting you choose your preferred difficulty at the start. Nothing like selecting hard mode and getting nightmare-level fights. I have a hard time imagining that anyone actually play-tested chapter two for example and went: "Yeah, that's fine."

But even if I imagined a version of veteran mode in which all these random spikes had been dutifully ironed out, something about the experience would still leave me feeling dissatisfied, and I actually had to think hard about why that was. In the end I think it's how inconsistent the whole concept is with the rest of the game. We have the denominators of weak, strong and elite mobs throughout the whole game for a reason, and it just feels wrong when a single pack of so-called "weaks" takes you out in seconds. In the past, when Bioware made heroic areas, they didn't just make the weak mobs hit harder there, they actually replaced them with silver and gold level enemies so you could see right away that they were tougher.

But would it really help to do that in veteran mode? Not anymore, and that's the problem. Apart from certain named and boss mobs, there's never been much difference between the different mob types in terms of damage output. Mostly they just had different levels of health, but that actually did make them harder because companions were weak and could only keep you alive for so long. If your enemies had more health, the fight could take too long and you were likely to die from attrition as much as anything else. However, since the big companion buff of 4.0, outliving your opponent in a long fight has ceased to be a challenge, because there's little out in the world that your companion can't heal you through anyway. As a result of this, the only way to make things tough again is to make things hit stupidly hard so your companion can't heal you through them, but that also means that it becomes more about things like reflexes, and fumbling your cooldown once can already be enough to get you killed. I miss the slower, more tactical challenge of using the right abilities to disable and kill the enemy before they could do the same to you.

That said, I'm planning to give veteran KotFE a spin as well the next time I play through it. We'll see how that goes.


KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 9: The Eternal Throne

It's finally happening! After a total of 24 chapters of "Knights of..." (16 KotFE chapters plus 8 KotET chapters so far) we are finally approaching the finish line for the story of the Outlander, Valkorion and his family. I'm oddly proud of having managed to do all these detailed write-ups. Will there be spoilers in this one? You bet! And if you missed the last one...

The Story

So the last of Valkorion's recalcitrant children has been taken care of... what's left? Ah yes, apparently the Eternal Fleet needs someone to sit on the Eternal Throne to behave. (Funnily enough, Vaylin wasn't sitting on it just a moment ago either and the fleet was still perfectly compliant at the time... oh well.)

The chapter starts with your character having a dream/vision of the Eternal Throne in flames and surrounded by the corpses of both friends and enemies. Valkorion tells you that you are ready, but just as you want to sit down and claim the throne, Vaylin appears behind you and stabs you. You wake with a start aboard the Gravestone (strange time for a nap, considering, but I guess you must have been really tired after everything that's been going on). Lana tells you that she's been studying the holocron you brought with you from Nathema but still doesn't know what it really does. An annoyed Valkorion chimes in to mock the idea that this "dusty trinket" could harm him. The Emperor doth protest too much, methinks!

Soon it's time for the Gravestone to punch a hole through the ranks of the Eternal Fleet ships surrounding Zakuul, while you launch yourself into the general direction of the Spire inside a boarding pod. Depending on your previous choices, you'll either be accompanied by Senya and Arcann or by Theron and Lana. Your aim is passable and you land near the mid-level entrance to the structure.

At the door you get accosted by several Knights of Zakuul backed up by a couple of walkers. Fortunately Indo Zal and his rebel friends are at hand to help you take them down. I always feel like there should have been an option to reason with the Knights here. "You are not mindless robots, why are you defending an empty building while the fleet is out of control and raining death upon your people?!"

You fight your way past some more Knights and skytroopers inside, and take the lift up to the top. Valkorion uses this as an opportunity to try to convince you that your closest companions are actually dangerous and need to be disposed of. Have you lost all sense of subtlety, old man?

In the throne room, if you have a redeemed Arcann with you, there is a touching scene where he recalls his previous life but consciously turns his back on it. You can even offer him the throne and he will reject it. When you sit down on the throne, a strange power crackles through it and the Eternal Fleet stops attacking, but suddenly Valkorion appears and declares that it's time for him to take over your body to resume ruling the Eternal Empire. You can try to defy him, but it's futile; he forces you to bow to him and then knocks you out.

You awake in a dreamscape similar to the one you traversed in KotFE chapter 2, but... in Valkorion's body? You express confusion in his voice, while your own voice calls to you from far away, telling you that Valkorion tried to kill you and that you need to save yourself by finding the holocron.

What follows is a hilariously surreal section in which you run around what's supposed to be your own shattered mind, while in Valkorion's body and using his Force abilities against hostile "echoes of memory". Eventually your own voice instructs you to cleanse your corrupted memories or you will be trapped inside your own mind forever. This involves visiting tableaux of a couple of key scenes from the story, during which Valkorion monologues about how everything was part of his plan. He reveals that he was trapped inside your mind the entire time, with his departure in KotFE chapter 12 having been nothing but a ruse, and that he's been toying with you merely to sate his curiosity, until he decided to just hollow out your mind and take over.

Eventually you reach a representation of the Eternal Throne, which is located on top of some ancient looking stairs inside your mind. The holocron from Nathema awaits you there and allows you to regain your own body (mentally anyway). In the real world, we can see that you're still passed out and some skytroopers have decided to attack, which your companions are desperately fighting off to protect you.

Valkorion appears, amused by your continued resistance. He then raises Vaylin (and Arcann, if you killed him) from the dead, commanding their spirits to fight for him. Meanwhile, if you didn't release Lord Dramath from the holocron in chapter 7, you can call on him here to fight for your side. If Arcann is alive, he uses the holocron to join you in your mind and help you against Valkorion while Senya continues to defend your body. Dramath (if he was present) self-destructs at the end of the fight and attempts to take Valkorion with him, but only pierces his armour. After defeating Vaylin's (and possibly Arcann's) spirit, you manage to turn them to your side and you attack Valkorion together.

You seem to be doing well, when suddenly he pushes you all away and destroys the holocron. However, you push back, and when you utter the words "Kneel before the dragon of Zakuul" that conditioned Vaylin to be unable to attack, he is suddenly powerless. You have reclaimed your mind and the imagined environment follows your own rules again. Senya appears too (if she's alive, she has joined Arcann's meditation after successfully fighting off the skytroopers; if she's dead, presumably her spirit was inside you somehow, just like Vaylin's) and also strikes Valkorion. He denounces his entire family as "motes of filth" and you strike him down one last time.

Finally you awake in the real world as well, to claim the throne properly this time. You can either declare yourself a peacekeeper, intent on making sure the fleet is used to rebuild, or announce yourself as the new Empress. Either way, your Alliance is on top of the world.

The chapter ends with Lana and Theron talking outside the base on Odessen, where there's clearly been a celebration going on. Lana reveals that she's already worried again because she can sense "dark forces amassing" against the Alliance. Theron reassures her that you'll overcome whatever the galaxy decides to throw at you, but either way, that's a concern for another day.

My Thoughts

"The Eternal Throne" is a suitably epic conclusion to KotET (and KotFE). Even on my third playthrough there were sections that gave me the chills. It does have some issues, but the good outweighs the bad in my opinion.

First off, I absolutely adore the bit where you run around in Valkorion's body inside your mind. Bioware isn't always very good when it comes to making story and gameplay line up (e.g. important end bosses being pushovers vs. random trash mobs killing you hard), but this is a prime example of how great it can be when they get it right. I mean, on the one hand getting to play as Valkorion is simply hilarious. I think I actually broke out into giggles the first time I got to this part. And who else immediately checked whether Valkorion can /dance? (Sadly, he can't.) But on the other hand it's very strange and confusing for the player, and that's exactly how your character is supposed to feel at this point.

I also like the multiple ways in which the big showdown is slightly different depending on how you dealt with Valkorion's family in the previous chapters. It's incredibly satisfying to see it all come together. Seeing actual fear in Valkorion's eyes when he's confronted by Dramath. Vaylin getting some revenge even after her death, and the same for Arcann and Senya if you killed them. If they are alive, even better for them. It just feels right. Incidentally, the final fight is also pretty fun from a mechanical point of view, which isn't always true for Bioware's boss fights.

Personally, it also really tugged at my heart strings to see so many of my companions smile in the end, more so in the light side ending but to some extent in the dark side ending too - Lana and Theron look so damn happy that you survived! It makes you realise just how grim things have been for a long while and that things are finally looking up for the galaxy now. (As an aside, as a player I feel a little bit like that too - finally we're done with the Eternal Empire and can get back to the factions I actually care about!)

What doesn't work so well? Okay, I know that the Force is basically magic and we shouldn't question it too much, but everything that's going on with the holocron in this chapter made my head spin. How can I use its powers to unleash Dramath and weaken Valkorion in my head, while the real thing is lying several feet away from my unconscious body? I know it's a MacGuffin and we're not supposed to question how and why exactly it does the things it does, but come on.

Also, I know I've harped on and on about how certain situations in KotFE and KotET are super awkward for non-Force users, but this chapter is probably the pinnacle of it all. Yes, the commander of Havoc Squad, Cipher Nine etc. are all outstanding individuals, but able to defeat the immortal Sith Emperor in a straight-up contest of wills? The high point of awkwardness for me personally was when using the holocron transformation in the final fight actually caused my trooper to start wielding a lightsaber. Say what now?

You could also argue that while the chapter really delivers on an emotional level when you defeat Valkorion (by evoking feelings of vengeance, dispensation of justice etc. depending on your angle), there's also a certain sense of: "That's it?" After all we've been through fighting the Sith Emperor/Valkorion, all it took to take him out was basically someone taking him on at mind-wrestling? Talk about going out with a whimper instead of a bang. It's all dressed up very nicely, with cool cut scenes and dialogue, but the moment you stop to think about it even a little, it's easy to come away feeling disappointed.

Some have also criticised the duality of the final choice. Why can you only be a well-meaning steward of the Eternal Fleet or an evil Empress? Where are the options to leave the power to someone else or to be a proper ruler, but benevolent? Well... would I have liked to have these options? Sure. But I'm under the impression that Bioware is going to use our choice here as a springboard for how the rest of the galaxy is going to treat us going forward, and in that case I can see how it would make sense to limit the options a bit. Despite of how it's all framed, this isn't really the end. This is an MMO, remember?

Despite all of the chapter's flaws, I came away from it feeling very satisfied. Not every part of the story was wrapped up perfectly, but Valkorion and his family were given a proper send-off that hit all the right buttons for me, and I was left feeling optimistically excited about whatever comes next.

What about you?


The Joy of Pugging

This past weekend I took some time out of my Saturday evening to do something I haven't done much in a while: pugging. I tanked story mode Dread Fortress and veteran Hammer Station on my Vanguard and ran my Guardian through a whole host of story mode uprisings.

Also pugging again: my perpetually pugging Merc
I learned that Landing Party is better avoided right now, as the last boss is bugged, and finding out at the very end that you can't actually complete the instance is quite a bummer. I also realised that Trial and Error, the one with the rakghouls that I declared my favourite of the second set on release, is actually quite a pain on story mode due to what I can only assume is a tuning error. Dulfy has noted that story and veteran mode have the exact same damage and mob health numbers, and after trying both I'm inclined to think that those numbers are the ones that were intended for veteran mode. In my first pug for story mode that evening, which had no healer, my entire party simply melted on the first boss before we could even do much of anything, which caused the group to disband very quickly. I only managed to complete it later when I just happened to get a group that had an actual trinity setup. Now I really don't want to do it again, not until they fix those numbers anyway. But hey, at least the achievements work now. (Not long ago, these were bugged too and didn't tick off several of the uprisings when you completed them.)

Anyway, while none of these runs were super special (people were reasonably competent and didn't talk very much), I was kind of ridiculously happy to be out there among random players again. I'm coming to think that pugging is the perfect antidote to too much negativity.

And I have been struggling with the latter again for the past couple of months. I can't blame people for grousing about Galactic Command, but the regular old "Bioware sucks" and "dead game" I can do without - yet sadly these sorts of complaints just seem to be everywhere nowadays. "Just don't go to places like the official forums or reddit," you might say, but sometimes I do want to keep up with the news and see what people are saying! Where can I still engage in conversation about the game without seeing bland declarations of doom and gloom everywhere? Every game has its detractors, but where are the SWTOR community's happy places these days? (Actually, my Twitter feed is a pretty good place, as the SWTOR players there find a lot of joy in the game. But the format just has limited use for discussion.)

Anyway, what does pugging have to do with all this? To me, it's like an antidote to forum whining. When it feels like everyone but your guildies seems to hate the game (based on what you see in online comment sections anyway), there's nothing like joining a group of random strangers and seeing them actually have oodles of fun. In one of my uprising runs, two people said that they had never done it before, and one of them got super excited about everything; it was really cute. Recalling the bugs I mentioned above, not everything was sunshine and rainbows of course, but annoyances like a bugged encounter are very specific criticisms and not at all at odds with one's overall love for the game.

The other day, I read an article on Contains Moderate Peril, in which the author mused about "the average LOTRO player", and I couldn't help but think that if you replaced hobbits with Jedi and LOTRO with SWTOR, it would ring just as true for my own online home. The gist of it is basically that for all the loud complaints you see about any MMO online, the majority of the player base pays no attention to any of that and just sticks to playing the game itself, having plenty of fun in the process. Sometimes I really need to be reminded of that, after seeing enough people just hang out in comment sections and spout about how much they hate the game. And even though people daring to use the group finder are probably yet another sub-section of the player base that isn't necessarily representative of the average, pugs can be pretty great at reminding you that lots of people are still out there, having plenty of fun.

(Also, speaking of strangers providing you with a good time, you still have several days left to enter my companion giveaway!)


Red Eclipse Companion Giveaway! (Closed)

I've mentioned not long ago that I very rarely even look at the Cartel Market, but this past weekend a promotion on the launcher caught my eye: the "Grand Companion Pack", which was guaranteed to grant you a type of combat companion that's usually only available as a rare drop from a Cartel Pack. "Oh," I thought, "maybe I can finally get an Akk Dog. They're pretty cute."

I did eventually get one, but since it was still subject to some RNG, not before I ended up with a whole slew of other companions, including many duplicates. What to with all those droids and beasts? Well, I've been meaning to run another giveaway for a while, so why not use them for that? I feel like I should be giving back to the community anyway, considering that most of my Cartel Coins are generated by people clicking my referral link.

So here we go.

And the lucky winners, decided either by a lack of competition for their choice or by in-game roll, are:

Probe Droid - Ravanel (Republic)
Annihilator T4-1D - Aleura (Empire)
Personal Warbot - Xlaxi (Empire)
Exoboar - Rrogun (Republic)
ISO-5R - Soots (Republic)
QO-77 - Dibene (Empire)
TY-4N - Exiluminator (Empire)
Tuk'ata - A'rinka (Republic)
Nathema Beast - Sharack Snow (Republic)
H1-K1 - Aurrn (Republic)


The prizes:

You get to win one out of a total of ten different Cartel Market companions. Yes, you read that right, ten! Last I checked, each of these fellas went for at least a couple of million credits on the GTN. Here's the lot of them:

How to enter:

1. You need to have a character on The Red Eclipse. Sorry, but it's a practical limitation as that's simply where I've got these things lying around, and I'm not going to start server-transferring just to give stuff away.

2. Leave a comment in response to this post telling me which one of these ten companions you'd like to win and why. Example: "I'd love to win the ISO-5R because somehow it manages to look ridiculously cute for a killing machine!" You can only choose one, so choose wisely. Or, you know, you could hedge your bets and pick one that you think is unlikely to be picked by anyone else, therefore making you the default winner.

3. At the end of your comment, leave your character name and faction (of the char on TRE). This is so I know where to send your chosen pet if you win! This doesn't have to be your main if you're shy, just somewhere where I can mail the prize so that you will actually receive it.

The blog is set up to allow anonymous comments, so as long as you can cope with CAPTCHAs you don't have to sign up with any third party service to participate. However, should you still have issues commenting on this post for some reason, feel free to drop me an e-mail with what your comment was supposed to be and I will post it for you.

Who wins?

Each of the ten companions will be randomly given away among the number of commenters who picked it as their favourite. You have until 6 am GMT on the 27th of March to enter, at which point I'll close the comments for this post and announce the winner later in the day.

Good luck and have fun!


KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 8: End Times

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter eight! Though if you missed it...

The Story

You arrive on an Odessen under siege by a vengeful Vaylin, who has nothing holding her back anymore. The Gravestone was caught in dry dock when the attack happened and hasn't been able to join the fight yet. While the Eternal Fleet does its usual thing of just floating in space, with the frontline ships pew-pewing the surface a bit, you land your shuttle and, with Lana in tow, do what you can to help out your ground forces.

You commandeer a walker and get to play through another version of the walker assault on Voss from chapter one - only with the ability to heal at will as long as you're out of combat. While fighting your way through the Odessen Wilds, you make contact with various allies until you reach the Gravestone, where you meet up with either Arcann and Senya, or if they're dead, Theron. You manage to protect the ship just long enough for it to be able to take off and shoot a bunch of enemy walkers that are approaching your position. Then the Gravestone is off to help in the space battle.

At this point, you either continue with Lana and Theron, or Senya and Arcann, with Lana and Theron conveniently buggering off somewhere else. At a comm station, you contact Vaylin just as one of her underlings informs her that the battle is as good as won even though it's still going to take a while. You bait her into coming to the surface to face you (and potentially her mother and brother) personally, and she cannot resist.

After another brief stint in a walker, you receive distress calls from both Torian and Vette, both of whom claim to be pinned down. Valkorion unsubtly whispers in your ear that you can't possibly save everyone, and you are forced to choose to go support either one or the other. When you arrive at their location and try to raise the other on the comm... they are not dead, but Vaylin happened to land right on their head and has taken them prisoner. She gives you coordinates where she'll want to meet you. Your new target ends up being the Alliance base itself.

Just outside the base, where you usually bum around with other people while waiting in queues, picking up daily quests and stuff, Vaylin awaits you with some troops and her prisoner. After Valkorion shows up and they exchange some taunts, she angrily hurls her prisoner to the floor... but just as you kneel down to help them, Vaylin uses the Force to twist their neck.

With that final gauntlet thrown down, it's time for the big showdown, in which Vaylin's barely contained power cracks the very walls of the base, but with the help of your allies you finally defeat her. Her forces immediately break and retreat upon her death and it seems that the fight is finally over.

When you talk to your closest allies, they express grief about the death of either Torian or Vette, and Arcann or Lana comment that they could feel Vaylin's power flowing into you, though unlike her father she doesn't seem to have possessed the strength of spirit to live on in your head. Just then, you receive distress calls from the Sith Empire and Zakuul, and the Republic is under attack as well. The Eternal Fleet has gone rogue and is bombing planets everywhere into oblivion. Valkorion opines that the only way to stop it is to take control over it via the Eternal Throne. So you ask for the Gravestone to be readied as you have to pay Zakuul one more visit.

My Thoughts

In a nutshell, End Times is what Battle of Odessen should have been: an actual planetary battle, with armies clashing, people dying, and a big showdown at the end. (In fact, I accidentally keep referring to this chapter as "Battle of Odessen" in my head... KotET chapter 16 is more of a "Showdown with Arcann".) It's not perfect, but I certainly found myself sufficiently engrossed by the events to be excited about what was going to happen next and not nitpick any details until later.

The walker section from chapter one makes a return and feels less annoying due to the ability to heal up wherever you want, but at the same time the fact that there's two vehicle segments along the road makes it feel like the mechanic is overstaying its welcome a little bit. On replaying it, I found that it didn't actually feel as long as it did on my first playthrough, but the problem is that it's way too easy to run into some kind of nuisance. For example you cannot voluntarily exit the walker, and for some reason it walks quite slowly and has issues with obstacles that your character could ordinarily leap over with ease. During my first playthrough of this chapter, I realised fairly late that I had missed a companion for the bonus mission near the start... but since I was in a walker bit at the time, I had to plod back to the start really slowly, making the whole thing take forever. On this playthrough, which was on veteran mode, I died a couple of times and it respawned me way back at the start every time, enforcing a really annoying run back. I've also heard that the walker doesn't play nice if you want to bring a friend along to the chapter - since they can't get into the walker with you, they basically get swarmed and killed by the mobs every time.

The choice between Torian or Vette is simultaneously great and a bit cheap. It's contrived because you have several highly competent characters with you who can single-handedly turn the tide of many a battle, but for some reason you can't freaking split up? But it's also great because it really forces you to think and makes for a great talking point with other players. The emotional punch hits all the harder because while Valkorion pretty much warns you that the one you don't choose to help will die, nothing happens right away, allowing you to keep hoping that things will be alright somehow until Vaylin delivers the killing blow at the very last moment. Ouch.

The fact that you run most of the chapter either with Arcann and Senya or Lana and Theron makes for some interesting variety too. Personally I find facing off against Vaylin with her mother and brother by my side the much more satisfying option, but that may just be me. Considering the emphasis the Betrayed trailer put on the relationship between Senya and Vaylin (plus everything we saw of the two of them interacting in KotFE), the final confrontation between them feels kind of subdued, but that's what you get when Senya could theoretically already be dead by that point and the moment has to be more about you than about any of your companions.


Tiers Within Tiers

What, has it really been more than a week since I last had anything bad to say about CXP? Time to get back to complaining!

... I'm kidding. Mostly.

This particular subject isn't anything more than minor nitpick territory, but I haven't really seen anyone else talk about it so I did want to write a short post about it.

When I first hit Command tier two, I remember having a conversation with a guildie that went something like this:

Me: Oh finally, a useful piece of tier two gear!
Guildie: Oh nice, it is the artifact or the legendary version?
Me: ... bwuh?

The idea that there were two different versions of each tier item after the first one was initially just bewildering to me. After having had some time to take it in, and taking into consideration how much of the whole CXP mess appears to have been inspired by World of Warcraft's Legion expansion, I figured that this was another such thing that Bioware tried to copy. I haven't played retail WoW in several years, but purely from reading about it on other blogs I've gathered that there's a mechanism that sometimes randomly upgrades your gear drops to a better version of themselves or something. I don't entirely get the point behind it, but I could at least understand the basic idea: making you feel special and lucky when you get the rare piece that's better than usual.

But then 5.1's vendors came in, and all the gear they traded in was the legendary version of each item. So... the rare special upgrade became the new default, which turned the previous "regular" tier into "slightly crappier than usual". I mean, sure, tier pieces are still enough of a pain to get that it's not entirely bad to get a purple one, but it does feel pretty lame that unlike the orange versions, you can't trade them in for upgrades.

5.2 is slated to highlight the issue even more, with the newly introduced tier four also having blue items with set bonuses. I mean, on the one hand: Yay, more chances at a set bonus? But on the other hand: Why not just have one item level each tier and increase its bloody drop rate?

The point of having set bonus gear with different item levels used to be to reward people for doing harder types of content, e.g.: You did hardmode flashpoints! Have a set of set bonus gear. You did operations! Have a set of set bonus gear but with slightly higher stats. That kind of thing.

Having multiple different item levels of the same item drop from a box at random rewards nothing but pure luck. Worse though: With the vendors effectively treating the highest item level as standard, you don't get to feel lucky for scoring something better than the norm every now and then - you only get to feel unlucky for constantly getting drops that aren't even as good as the vendor-bought stuff.


Hyped for 5.2

The other day the official SWTOR Twitter account asked: "What are you most looking forward to this April in the 'War for Iokath'?" Somewhat to my own surprise, I found myself wishing that the poll had an "all of the above" option. I'm actually more excited for 5.2 than I've been for a patch in a long while. Let me explain why by going through the four things listed in the poll that Bioware figured we would get excited about.

New Iokath Storyline

I've liked KotFE and KotET well enough (and have spent a lot time writing about them on this blog) but... they weren't really the stories I would have chosen for my characters if it had been up to me. I can live with the class stories not getting continued, but the Republic-Empire conflict, for me, is too much of a core tenet of Star Wars to be able to let go of it. On my trooper main at least (less so on some alts), I basically played through KotFE and KotET with an attitude of: "Well, this is bad; guess I gotta sort this out before I can get back to saving the Republic." But I never let go of my roots and the wish to eventually get back to them.

It took them two years, but it looks like I'm finally getting what I wanted, a chance to reconnect with my origin faction! The option to ally with your former enemies instead is a nice bonus from a roleplaying perspective, though I'm not sure I could see any of my own characters going for it. I'm also genuinely curious to see how the story continues from here, as KotET's ending left things in a kind of awkward place from a storytelling perspective. I'm looking forward to seeing what Bioware's writers can come up with though.

I'm trying not to get too hyped because I don't expect the actual story part of 5.2 to be all that meaty, but just seeing things go in the right direction again (for me) makes me want to squee.

Iokath Daily Area

OK, this one doesn't have me that excited because I don't really like dailies (it also got the least amount of votes in the poll). But it has been two years since we last got a new daily area in the form of Ziost, so why not? I'm looking forward to getting another zone to play in and to actually have a reason to go there more than once for a story quest (unlike Darvannis for example). Also, I expect this to mark the first time since Ziost that my pet tank and I will be able to play story-related content from a new update as a duo (since 4.0 and onwards was all solo phases, and I'm not counting uprisings as they are meant for a full group). If that's not exciting, I don't know what is!

Returning Companions

Companions have gone into a slightly odd direction since 4.0, with somewhat contradicting design decisions being made. Specifically in this case, we have a lot of them but probably only care for very few because we don't have much of a story connection to most of them! Our original class companions are still different though. They all had their own story arcs, and especially the early ones really built relationships with you. I mentioned before how I didn't think I was too attached to my companions, but actually losing them made me realise that I missed them quite a bit after all. So getting Elara Dorne back, the last trooper companion whose fate had been unknown until now, has me excited. Conveniently my main alt for story purposes is currently a warrior, so she has reason to be excited about Quinn's return as well! Since she romanced him, that one's going to be somewhat emotionally charged, and I genuinely don't know how it will go. It will depend a lot on how Quinn acts after all this time apart I suppose. Either way, I'm very much looking forward to finding out! I'm not at all surprised that this option won the Twitter poll by quite a margin.

New Operation Boss

OK, so a single new boss instead of a full operation isn't exactly what I wanted, but I'll take it. I've probably weathered the drought of new operations better than many raiders since I seem to be able to rerun old group content for longer than the average player without getting bored, but I'm still excited to finally go up against a new enemy with my guildies again. And as Rav has laid out in an excellent speculative blog post, what little we know about the new operation seems to indicate that it will have interesting lore as well. Gimme!

Basically, all signs seem to point at this "Oricon-like" patch being a return to more traditional content updates instead of all story chapters, all the time, with more open world environments, new group content, story progression outside of dedicated chapters and a return to the themes and characters we love. I can't wait!


Cartel Controversy

I very rarely write about the Cartel Market on here. Even though people frequently complain that Bioware spends too many resources on it (while simultaneously complaining that not enough resources are spent on filling the Cartel packs with new and unique item models, because MMO players are nothing if not conflicted), I can tell you from experience that it's very easy to play the game very intensely without ever even looking at the shop. It's just not needed. Maybe things are different if you are always on the lookout for the newest fashion items, but that's not me.

However, yesterday a particular bit of controversy caught my eye. The Unstable Arbiter's Lightsaber (aka the "Kylo Ren Lookalike Lightsaber") is having a limited time stint on the Cartel Market as a direct sale item. While I have no interest in it myself, that seemed nice to me. Previously it was only available as an ultra rare drop from Cartel packs, and people are always complaining about those and saying that they just want to be able to buy the highly sought-after items directly, even if they were expensive. So Bioware has decided to finally give people what they want, at least as an experiment. That's great, right?

Apparently not, because... the price! 7600 Cartel Coins come in at about $60 - I haven't done the maths for myself, but considering the prices of different CC bundles, that seems about right.

Now, don't get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with people saying that they find this too expensive for what it is. But the sheer outrage accompanying the sentiment surprises me. I happened to click on my general chat tab last night just to be greeted by someone saying that this makes them so angry with EA, they hope that someone bombs their offices. Yeah.

People are treating this like some sort of insult or sign of moral failing and I just don't see why. We're not talking about food, medication or some other necessity here, but cosmetic fluff in a video game. The real world is full of stuff like this. You can buy a handbag for $30 or for $3000, without gaining any functionality, and yet I don't see anyone raging that Chanel hangbags are a thing that exists. People like to show off their wealth; it's a thing.

"But that's more expensive than many fully-priced other games!" Yes, and instead of buying a Chanel handbag you could buy a used car instead, but do you want to? If you are playing a lot of different games and spending money on a lot of different games, then spending $60 on a single vanity item is probably not an attractive proposition to you. But many MMO players aren't gamers in the traditional sense who buy lots of new releases every month. If SWTOR is all you're playing, you're having a good time with it and are happy to support it financially, this offer might not seem quite so crazy after all.

I suppose being the one to raise the prices on the market compared to competitors might cast any dev in a bad light, and I can't think of any other Western MMO that currently charges this much for a single cosmetic item in their cash shop. Though that does remind me of previous PR disasters related to expensive cash shop items.

Who could forget EVE Online's "Monoclegate", which was enough to earn the word monocle a special Urban Dictionary entry? Though from what I gathered from reading Wilhelm's blog, that seemed to be less about the item's mere existence and more about CCP threatening to drastically change the game's direction, of which the monocle was but a symptom. Or how about LOTRO's "hobby horse" from 2012? Though again, looking back at that now the annoyance seemed to stem less from the existence of something that expensive and more from it just not being a very desirable item.

One thing that makes the Unstable Arbiter's Lightsaber different is that it's not a new item, but something that has been around for a while and actually has a real-world value already. Sure, you can't officially trade real money for credits directly, but you can buy Cartel Coins, buy something from the shop and sell it on the GTN. Looking at the GTN on TRE this morning, I saw Unstable Lightsabers going for about sixty million credits. I compared this to the sale prices of popular cash shop items to re-sell, such as hypercrates and character boosts, and what do you know, you would have to buy and sell about 7000+ CC worth of stuff to earn those sixty million. So basically, people were already able to buy the item for that amount if they wanted, it's just that the supply was limited. But hey, evil Bioware for giving people more of a popular thing I guess. I hope it goes well for them.


KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 7: Into The Void

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter seven! Though if you missed it...

The Story

We start the chapter with a view of Valkorion on his throne, flanked by his two sons. Adult Vaylin appears and tells him that he should have left her on Nathema. He responds that Zakuul is where she belongs and hands her a lightsaber. There is a brief moment where it seems like she might strike at her father in anger, but then she kneels to him instead.

Your character wakes, revealing that this was something you dreamt. Valkorion's ghost comments that this is a sign of your increasing connection, since what you saw was one of his memories. You ask about Nathema and he explains that it's a "blighted, forgotten world where the Force has been corrupted" (if you read the Revan novel, you know all about that already) and that he sent Vaylin to be taught and conditioned there. He also suggests that the timing of this dream is a warning that Vaylin is seeking to return to Nathema to break her conditioning.

When you walk in on Theron and Lana speculating where Vaylin's disappeared to shortly afterwards, you suggest Nathema as an option. Theron locates it and realises that Vaylin had communications with someone there during the party. If Arcann is one of your followers now, he expresses fear of returning there and that being exposed to its taint might undo everything he's achieved since Voss, which is why he wants to stay behind.

Either way, you travel to Nathema by shuttle, only accompanied by Lana and Theron. Lana immediately starts having headaches upon arrival, as the Force is kind of "hollow" on the planet, and it feels like the void wants to devour her. Valkorion's ghost appears to flicker in and out of existence as well. We see Vaylin landing at a remote facility, speaking to an Anomid scientist and insisting on entering alone, without her guards. You land nearby to retrace her steps with Lana while Theron stays with the shuttle.

Meanwhile, the player sees Vaylin walk through a sort of indoor garden where she's assaulted by a number of monstrous beasts that bear some resemblance to Acklays. She is momentarily frightened when she realises that she can't use her Force powers here to swat them aside, but then she simply pulls out her lightsaber to cut them down manually. The Anomid scientist we saw her talking to in chapter six, Jarak, expresses distaste for her lack of control and the killing of his "pets". However, he also says that he made a breakthrough in terms of breaking Vaylin's conditioning and offers to show her to the main lab.

You and Lana fight your way into the "sanitarium" in her wake and find traces of what Vaylin must have gone through in her childhood, from her literal cell to holojournals detailing the gruelling treatments she underwent at the hands of Jarak, who was given free reign to do whatever he wanted to her short of getting her killed.

The scene returns to Jarak and Vaylin, where the scientist confesses that none of his lab rats survived his new treatment so far, but he is sure that Vaylin will be fine due to her strength. We see her getting engulfed by green lights and scream in pain as she unleashes a destructive wave of power. Even you and Lana can feel it and push ahead to stop the process. You run straight into Jarak, who's trying to flee the scene. He worries that Vaylin's power will destroy the facility and that there isn't enough time to escape. He offers to lead you to a safe place however, provided that you help protect him on the way.

Your safe haven turns out to be a vault that is shielded against Force powers due to Valkorion having used it to store particularly powerful and dangerous artifacts. Soon after you enter the vault, we see Vaylin freeing herself from the painful grip she in in. If Senya is still alive, she will wake from her coma during the height of Vaylin's pain, which makes for a nice throwback to the Betrayed trailer.

The burst of power has overloaded the circuits that open the vault door, forcing you to look for a way to restore backup power. A mysterious red holocron catches your eye, and when you touch it, it reveals the spirit of a Pureblood Sith Lord, who seems to have expected the Emperor - to whom he refers as "Tenebrae" - to come and torment him again. He reveals himself as Lord Dramath, the Emperor's father and former ruler of the planet - until his son murdered him and turned the planet into a wasteland by performing a dark ritual, similar to what he did on Ziost.

Dramath begs you to release him from imprisonment and end his existence, while promising that his holocron will serve you as a tool to destroy Valkorion. You can grant his wish or keep him trapped inside the holocron to make use of him later.

Your rummaging around has awoken some monstrous vault guardians that kill Jarak (if you haven't already offed him yourself). Once you defeat them, you can escape the vault. Vaylin is shown to already be back on her flagship, and she enjoys demonstrating her newly unfettered powers by killing most of her own guards without even breaking a sweat. She also channels her hatred into destroying the sanitarium, forcing you to make a run for it to make it out alive, but Theron manages to pick you up before things fall apart. Once off Nathema, Valkorion reappears and confirms that Vaylin has broken her bonds and is now more dangerous than ever. He also seems worried that you might have found something dangerous in the vault.

The chapter ends with Bey'wan Aygo calling you on the holo: You are needed on Odessen urgently as it's under attack.

My Thoughts

I thought that "Into The Void" was another interesting chapter. Nathema is compared to Ziost, and similar to that planet there is less of a focus on combat and more on letting the sheer deadness of the environment weigh you down. While there are more enemies to fight on Nathema than on Ziost, there are still fewer of them than in most chapters, and Bioware definitely lets the heaviness of the place sink in.

However, the focus is less on Nathema's own dark past and more on everything Vaylin went through. Even if you never saw the trailer for KotET, this is a turning point where you get to feel some sympathy for Vaylin upon seeing her prison and understanding what she must have gone through. While the story does point this out, the environment invites you to take a closer look and draw your own conclusions. For example I found it quite heart-breaking to find the "cell" that Vaylin clearly was confined to, containing nothing but a small cot, a desk and a chair. On the desk you can also spot what looks like the little toy she crafted in the trailer... though that would be a continuity error as the trailer also shows it lying in a puddle on Ord Mantell later... but who knows, she might well have made another one. There is a corner with beat up skytrooper dummies that are arranged in a similar fashion as the "knight pinata" she attacked in the trailer - was this the one place where she was allowed to try and exercise her powers sometimes?

You also wonder about the lives of the other people inhabiting the facility - while searching for a key card, you rifle through some books, and on flipping one of them open, I noticed that a postcard from Alderaan had been used as a bookmark - an odd splash of colour in an otherwise very grey environment. Personally I also couldn't help but wonder why the place was such a mess though, with rubbish and random papers on the floor everywhere. There were people living there after all, did they never bother to do even the smallest amount of tidying?

After seeing all of that, you can't help but feel for Vaylin a little when she's trapped in Jarak's machine and in pain. After she breaks free, there is some great work with facial expressions done in the cut scenes, as she slowly goes from a slightly confused "I'm alive?" sort of expression to a sardonic victory grin.

Meanwhile, your character is in a bit of an odd place because you keep chasing Vaylin around but don't really achieve anything on that front. The only interesting choice you get to make is whether to free or keep Lord Dramath, and the significance of that doesn't really become apparent until a bit later.

That said, just seeing Nathema realised in game and talking to Dramath feels great if you've read the Revan novel. So while this chapter is heavy on exposition and explaining Vaylin's (and to some extent Valkorion's) backstory, with a limited amount of action for your character, I've enjoyed it every time because it's just so atmospheric, achieving a very different feel from any other chapters of KotFE or KotET.



300 movie poster taken from its Wikipedia page.

Yesterday I hit Command rank 300 on Shintar and I feel that this is something I should make a post about. At the same time, I'm not entirely sure there is really that much to say about it because it doesn't really change anything other than my Command rank's number not going up anymore. It doesn't unlock anything new, at least not for now - though we've been told that 5.2 will bring a new tier of gear with it which will start coming out of boxes from 300 onwards. It doesn't finish anything either - after opening more than a hundred tier 3 crates, I only have two pieces of 242 gear... you do the maths in terms of how many more of these I would actually need to open to get a full set (14 slots). I suppose I can be glad that after all the buffs and boosts to CXP, getting to this point only took me three months instead of the full year people were estimating based on the originally datamined CXP numbers?

I don't really have any tips for "how to grind CXP" either, since I don't play like that. I just logged in to do things I enjoy every evening: mostly operations and regular warzones with my guildies, with the odd flashpoint, uprising or GSF match thrown into the mix. (Min-maxers would usually have you grind certain story chapters over and over instead.) If a new crate appeared in my bag, I opened it and moved on - as implied above, 99% of the time I had no reason to be excited about its contents, but fortunately I don't rely on them for my gearing anymore. I guess I can say I'm happy that Bioware managed to turn Command rank into a system that is now safe to ignore if you raid or PvP, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement of their work...

The actual ding shot in veteran Firefrost with guildies.

I suppose now I can wonder about how to "prepare" for 5.2. Originally I was planning to re-focus my efforts on one of my alts once Shintar hit 300, but with the knowledge that a new tier is coming, the common advice seems to be to "save up" both any legacy-bound CXP packs as well as all your recently earned crates, so you can use/disintegrate them for a quick boost once 5.2 comes out. All I can think of whenever I see people say that is: "Jesus Christ, people, do you have unlimited bag space or something?" I can sort of see it for the packs as they are legacy-bound and can be sent to alts for storage if needed, but the crates themselves? It's not like disintegration gives that much anyway. I've reserved one cargo bay for CXP packs for now and we'll see how quickly it fills up.