Finding Challenge While Levelling

After I finished replaying the Imperial agent story the other week, I made it my next levelling goal to finally finish my second playthrough of the Jedi knight story. The poor Sentinel I've been using for this purpose has been picked up and dropped again more often than a bouncy ball - originally created in May 2014, she only hit level 40 the other week. However, I think she might finally be getting somewhere, having finished her class story on Belsavis yesterday.

An interesting side effect of the haphazard way in which I've played her in the past is that she's only just high enough level for her class story and by this point actually slightly under-levelled. And boy, does this ever make for an interesting experience. I previously touched on this when I spoke about levelling my Sniper for the DvL event last year purely through the class story, but I thought at this point it probably deserved a post of its own.

I'm generally in favour of the level sync introduced in 4.0, but I was not a fan of how much easier the levelling game became at the same time, and I've been unwilling to blame that purely on level sync alone. Surely Bioware also must have reduced all the mobs' hitpoints at the same time or something? Honestly, at this point I'm not so sure anymore, because not being synced is such a different experience it's almost unreal.

Above anything else, gear actually matters. I don't know how the algorithm behind it works, but purely based on experience I'm confident in saying that levels trump gear any time. If you are over-levelled and being synced down, it doesn't matter if you're still wearing the greens from the starter planet, you'll be noticeably more powerful than your opponents. But if you're actually the same level... oh wow.

My Sentinel is wearing some very old weapons in specific, and it's amazing how long it takes me to kill anything. And I'm loving it! It's even more noticeable than it was with my Sniper, because with that one I ran with my companion as dps, so even if my own damage was low, my companion was still killing things reasonably quickly. My Sentinel on the other hand has her companion usually set to heals, so while she's pretty much never in danger of dying, combat is a much slower affair. You may be wondering how exactly this is supposed to be a good thing - well, let me count the ways:

With weak mobs not automatically dying in one or two hits, even they can be interesting to fight. If I get a crit that does kill the mob outright, it feels exciting. If I use one of those abilities that stuns weak mobs on top of doing damage, I actually notice it and it makes a difference.

Silvers actually have enough health for me to practise my rotation. And I don't mean that in a "high-end-raider practising on a target dummy" kind of way, though I suppose you could do that too. I actually have no idea what the optimal rotation for my class and spec is supposed to be, but I'm at least learning a little. Because abilities come off cooldown several times during a single battle, I notice how they can be woven together in different ways, and I'm reminded that hey, I should remember to use that one more often because it gives me a noticeable damage boost. It's fun and engaging. Gold mobs take it up another notch and almost feel like mini boss battles, which is how I remember them from the early game.

I also get to practise different strategies on different mob groups. For example when I encounter a silver and several weak mobs together, it makes sense to kill the weak ones first, right? Except... since I'm playing a dot spread spec, I sometimes focus on the silver instead and then hope that the weak mobs will die from the spread damage in the meantime. It doesn't always work, but it's fun to try.

I suppose if you didn't have your companion set to heal, there would also be a more serious risk of dying. The only time I've died recently was when I accidentally drove right into the middle of an Imperial base and got mowed down by the defense turrets. But I did come close another time when I accidentally sent my active companion off on a crew skill task and suddenly found myself in combat with an Ackley and another mob with no companion by my side. I scrambled for my cooldowns and to quickly find a medpack in my bag (I'm so used to not needing them that I hadn't even put one on my bar) but just about made it through. It felt quite exhilarating.

It does make me a little sad to think that this side of the game is unlikely to be seen by many players these days because it's just so easy to over-level content. The only reason my Sentinel is where she is is because I've done almost nothing but the class story on her since 4.0, plus a couple of PvP matches here or there. My Sniper managed to stay on track by doing only her class story plus full map exploration on every planet. If you did the planetary story arcs on top of that, or even a flashpoint or two, you'd already be likely to overshoot your target again.

It shouldn't be this hard to find a bit of challenge while levelling a new character. I don't mind that people can have it easy, but it would be nice if the experience was a bit more granular, with level sync and overpowered companions not being quite so overbearing by default. I mean, the levelling experience I'm describing in this post isn't even "hard"; as I said I'm rarely in danger of dying. But it gives me a chance to actually take in the mobs around me and what my abilities do to them, instead of just blindly AoE-ing my way through multi-mob packs and killing the large opponents in a few hits.


  1. Congratulations on finding a way to make the levelling game challenging. I have definitely felt the boredom of not being able to die. You know when you can go AFK for a phone call and mobs respond and your companion can handle them without you pushing a single key? Or without you even being in the same room as your computer? Honestly, I would much rather the game be tuned slightly too difficult than slightly too easy. I love that they have different levels of difficulty for expansion content (story, veteran, master) but I wish they would extend that to the planet missions and origin class story as well. I don’t always want to play on veteran mode, and I’m not good enough or enough of a gear hound to play on master mode, but story mode is just too easy to really be a game, it’s more like a movie. Not only that, many people are completely unprepared for end game content because they’ve been babied through their levelling experience. It’s really not fair to new players who want to raid or to experienced MMO players who are looking for team members who know their roles and rotations.
    PS I don’t know why it won’t let me just post as stardust legacy! I gave up and posted under my blog byline.

    1. No idea why it wouldn't let you comment as yourself; I haven't changed anything. :-/ Just Blogger being its random self I guess.

      I think levelling has built-in difficulty levels by its very nature: Over-levelling content makes it easy, trying to tackle things under-levelled makes things hard. When levelling is sped up as much as it has been in SWTOR however, the option to go in under-levelled becomes harder to access so to speak.

  2. I have fond memories of the early days when I had to keep my gear up to date and my companion up to date and learn my class as I leveled. I even remember on some fights having to go away and over-level a little before returning to get past the fight.

    Since they have level synchronization already, it must be possible for them to add difficulty levels to vanilla leveling. A simple implementation would be to have the option to pick story, normal, hard, master. With story being +2 of planet max as it is now. Normal = planet max, hard = planet max-2 and master = planet max-4.

    Add achievements for the harder versions and bonuses to rewards. Doesn't have to be fancy, a simple percentage boost to credits, companion influence, and better chance to get blue/purple drops.

    The original stories are still the best content in the game it would be cool if they added difficulty levels in some form. Maybe it would be something they'd consider if they ever ran a version of the DvL event again.

    1. That's an interesting idea, to tie it to the planetary level sync. I like it!

  3. They ramped up the XP gains at the same time they implemented level sync. I suspect that Level Sync was a way to keep the increased levelling under "control," a crude tool to keep some challenge in the system when you were massively overleveled.

  4. I'm just glad that (for the most part) these original class stories and planetary stories are still around. The more MMOs I've played, the more I've seen the ravages of developers who have decided to streamline things and chop off quests or even story questlines in their effort to get people to max level quickly. (And that's not even taking Cataclysm into account.)

    It makes me sad that more MMOs didn't do what SWTOR did and put more of the "flavor" side quests behind a selectable map button. In spite of what I think about the outfits, TERA likely left a far more interesting story on the chopping block than what is there now. And I suspect the same thing with Archeage.

  5. Im glad you had fun, I can understand the appeal... from an intellectual standpoint. personally I am not so fond of it...

    You see I had that type of experience recently as well!

    earlier this month I rolled a fresh smuggler to run through the class story so that she could get to experience the full adventure of 1-50 all the way though Iokath where I intended for her to side with Darth Acina.

    it was difficult because by the time she got to corellia she was about 5 levels below all her opponents so most of her attacks were dodged/paried or otherwise ineffective!

    with my Corso in Tank mode and my pitiful heals I was able to barely finish the class story but upon realising that as a level 46 I would have to grind levels just to activate makeb!

    needless to say, that the last of my motivation depleted and I ended up deleting her out of annoyance!

    from now on I will stick with my beautiful level 70 sith sorceress and not roll any newbies until a double xp event is running lol!

    1. Well, I'm sorry to hear of your unhappy experience but I'm afraid that this is something that I can't relate to at all. From my point of view it pretty much takes effort not to hit level 70 in the blink of an eye these days, so the concept of "grinding levels" is alien to me and would only apply if you literally hated everything about the game except for the main storyline and actively avoided doing any other content.

      I've also only very rarely deleted a character in any MMO. You could always try asking customer services for a restoration I guess? Double XP or not, levelling a new character from scratch is undoubtedly going to take longer than simply doing something other than the main storyline on your smuggler to get caught up again. Can't imagine it taking longer than an hour or two if you were up to 46 already.

    2. You have to skip almost everything that's not actually class story to do this; or be preferred, maybe (I don't know what the non-sub XP curves look like). No planetary arcs, no heroics, certainly no exploration missions or the story FPS (which are flagged as story mission givers).

  6. I love leveling sync and I do understand that it's necessary to dumb down the overall difficulty of the game for players that are struggling to get through, the type that would otherwise over-level content in order to advance. These people exist, even though you and me don't meet them that often (my impression they are often strict soloers).

    That said, I do really miss a challenge in leveling. I wish you could set a difficulty level, like with the Knight chapters. But I don't see a way to make that realistically happen in the open world. My boyfriend and I like to level 'naked' or with very low level quest gear equipped. When you get to Corellia, it tends to get tricky. But it still doesn't feel the same.

    1. Level sync puts a floor to the difficulty; it's the increased XP curve that puts a ceiling on it.

      The increased difficulty levels are possible in the Knights content because so much of it is instanced. It's been my impression that quite a lot of the vanilla content is open-world, with only a very little amount of instancing; even when overall gameplay would be improved by instancing (DK Heroics, I'm looking at you!)


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