SWTOR Predictions for 2018

2017 is nearly at an end (in fact, in some parts of the world, 2018 has already arrived) and for the past few days my blogger feed has been filled with retrospectives about the old and predictions for the new year. I've already done my own looking back and do so every year, but I've never tried my hand at predictions before! As I've actually been thinking about what might be in store for SWTOR in the near future for once, I thought I might as well share those thoughts.

I don't think any of them are outrageous enough to be funny, but then that might just mean that they are more likely to come true! Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments or just let me know whether you agree or disagree.

1. I expect that we'll get an expansion announcement once the current storyline has been wrapped up, and that the three flashpoints that comprise it will tie into the new expansion in the same way Forged Alliances tied into Shadow of Revan. The expansion's theme will be related to the Heralds of Zildrog and have a name that is designed to sound vaguely like the title of an existing Star Wars movie, such as "The Serpent Awakens". The actual release will be set to happen only a couple of months after the announcement, since Bioware never milks these things for hype, and will happen in early autumn at the very latest but probably earlier. The expac will feature another five levels of story content but no new operations.

2. Speaking of operations, the last boss for Gods from the Machine won't be released until June or so, making it the most drawn-out content release EVAH! In hindsight, all the fights will be excellent, but nobody will care because people lost interest months ago. Master mode will continue to fail to materialise or at the very least get delayed even more. If it does ever see the light of day, it will come with a hefty nerf to all of veteran mode. (Note that I'm not saying that this is what I want to happen, just what I expect to happen based on past observations.)

3. Either with the expansion's release or somewhere around it, Bioware will reveal some major change or new feature that will leave everyone going "What the hell?" - not necessarily because it's a bad idea (though it might be), but because it seems utterly random and feels like something that nobody ever asked for. (Again, not saying I want this to happen, just speaking from experience...)

4. One thing that will definitely be changed is conquest. That's not much of a prediction, considering that Keith himself has officially said so! However, I will add that I expect them to add a lot of new activities as ways to earn conquest points, and more importantly, the system will be revamped in some way that allows smaller guilds to get more out of it than they currently do.

5. Story-wise, the Eternal Alliance will either be disbanded or become irrelevant in some way, finally returning us to the story of Republic vs. Empire. Now this one I might actually be hoping for...

Happy 2018! I'm looking forward to looking back on these in a year and laughing about how wrong I was about everything.


The Last Jedi

Due to various real world issues, it took me nearly a week to see The Last Jedi. I was really glad when I finally got to go just so I could dive into all the spoiler talk that so many people were already engaging in. Everyone I follow on social media has been very considerate about not hitting people with unexpected spoilers, but the longer anything is out, the fewer aspects of it are considered truly spoiler-ish, and bits and pieces start to leak through.

I had also heard that the film's reception from the fans had been kind of mixed so far. Many people on my feed seemed to love it, but YouTube also decided to add things like Angry Joe's "Top 10 Reasons Why The Last Jedi Made Me ANGRY" to my recommendations... as I joked to my pet tank: "I wonder what he thought of it."

The general, spoiler-free tenor from the naysayers' side seemed to be that it was too different and did too many things that didn't really feel like Star Wars. I wanted to keep an open mind but used this as a cue to temper my expectations; though different actually sounded good to me, especially since I thought that one of the biggest and fairest criticisms of The Force Awakens was that it retread too much ground from A New Hope. I wanted Last Jedi to go in a new direction.

Movie poster from starwars.com

I'm writing this on the same day that I actually saw the movie and setting the post to be published next week, when I'm away for a few days. Maybe my feelings will have mellowed a bit by that point, but right now I'm unfortunately feeling kind of disappointed.

I didn't mind that things were different, but the whole film was just waaay too fragmented for me. As I saw someone else put it: It's one thing to subvert expectations now and then, but it's something else to try and do so all the time.

There were things I enjoyed: There was some fantastic cinematic imagery as well as some great character moments. Mark Hamill acted his damn heart out. Rose was a cute new character. Etc.

However, it felt like every time something cool happened, it had to be followed up almost immediately by something else that was weird and took you out of the moment. Think this is a serious and important moment? Let's make a random joke! Looks like a beloved character just died dramatically? No wait, they're miraculously alive but nobody even bats an eyelash at the strange circumstances of their survival! You think this new character is going into a specific direction? No, they are something completely different! On and on it went.

Surprises and about-turns like this are fine and even powerful in moderation, but when one relentlessly follows the other, it just makes it impossible to feel emotionally invested after a while (because the outcome of every scene essentially becomes random). The film repeatedly gets you to care about things just to discard them shortly afterwards and then goes off into a completely different direction. It's as if it was their top priority to not be predictable, so they took it to the point where the plot just became a mess. I'm surprised it got so many positive reviews from the critics to be honest, because Star Wars or not, the sheer amount of emotional bait and switch in this movie just strikes me as bad film-making. Here's hoping Episode IX will be better.


Six Years of SWTOR Blogging

With six years of SWTOR come six years of me blogging about it. As usual I'd like to take this as an opportunity to look back on the past year and what I've been up to and writing about.

My post count has been down considerably compared to last year, largely due to me changing position at my place of employ, which resulted in a lot less free time for me. Still, I'm hoping that this isn't a situation that will go on forever. Also, at least I still achieved numbers comparable to past years - I had been more prolific than usual in 2016, which made it a hard year to live up to.

Anyway, January didn't start off too great, with me still feeling the effects of early Galactic Command and then feeling seriously let down by both Bioware and the community when it came to the subject of exploits. On the plus side however, I appeared on a podcast for the first time and tried my hand at KotET's veteran mode. That second chapter was not a pretty affair. KotET also inspired me to once again write a chapter-by-chapter review of the expansion, and I got excited to hear the announcement that a new operation was coming. (Ouch, I had forgotten that we first heard about this back in January. Makes it all the more disappointing that it still hasn't been released in full.)

At the start of February I was still feeling the blues a bit and wrote an opinion piece/guide on which classes suit the KotFE/KotET story best, which blew up unexpectedly after getting linked on reddit. The news of a new operation being worked on got me musing about the point of raiding in SWTOR and in general. I was also pleased that Bioware finally listened to a certain minority of players of which I am a part and returned the option to turn off double XP events in the game.

March started with me hitting the initially elusive-seeming Command rank 300 and not being all that excited about it in the end. The Cartel Market caused controversy with an expensive lightsaber and I held another giveaway, this time of in-game items instead of Cartel Coins. I also finished KotET's veteran mode (fortunately nothing else was as bad as chapter two had been) and said farewell to the Sith Emperor.

In April I participated in Developer Appreciation Week by sharing how my not-at-all gaming-related job has nonetheless changed my perception of MMO development. (It's also changed my view on finance and marketing since then... but maybe that's something to talk about during next year's DAW.) I mused on the importance of NPCs in MMOs and completed KotFE on veteran mode (not nearly as bad as KotET). I shared first impressions of Iokath when it launched and moaned about the grindiness of companion influence.

May saw a big change in the form of Keith Kanneg, who had been appointed the game's producer the month before, treating us to a road map, something we hadn't seen in years. I also looked backwards and mused whether people would actually like to go back to a previous version of SWTOR. I started my Pugging with Shintar video series, and I got caught up in trying to save the grophets from disintegration.

In June, SWTOR was part of a charitable event that EA was holding but which wasn't promoted very much. The Nightlife event made a return after two years and I noticed the subject of server merges getting discussed a lot. (I was not in favour.) I also noted that I got my second character to Command rank 300. (By now I'm up to six.)

In July I randomly hated on Voss and people who go AFK in PvP, finished the Imperial agent story for a third time as a really evil agent, and mused about whether Command XP can possibly continue to work as a system in the long term. I also decided to update my LFG guide from 2014 for 2017 - of course Bioware revamped the group finder only a few months later, immediately making parts of it redundant again.

In August I could proudly announce a second podcast appearance and wondered about why we want certain features to be character-specific and others legacy-wide. I was surprised to find some challenge in levelling my Jedi Sentinel and wrote about both the story and the mechanics of the new Umbara flashpoint.

September started with me finally finishing the Jedi knight story for a second time and pondering the importance of character hair styles. I ran into some interesting surprises while levelling an alt, and went into a bit of a rant about why I think Shadow of Revan is overrated as an expansion, after parts of the community had just declared it their favourite expansion ever when this subject made the rounds as a discussion topic. That post ended up receiving a surprising amount of support.

In October server merges were announced, I decided that Imps are the better players but also kind of mean, and I pondered what kind of personality it takes to be a good tank.

In November I took part in International Picture Posting month again and the announced server merges actually happened. I also attended a community event organised by Swtorista and made a list of all the MMOs I've ever played. Oh yeah, and I also had the gall to say that Galactic Command is much better now than it was at the start of the year, which some people on reddit found hilariously offensive.

Finally, I ended the year with some in-depth analysis of the story and mechanics of the newly released flashpoint A Traitor Among the Chiss, saying farewell to the Galactic Command Window and hello to a new warzone, and finishing my pug levelling series after seven months of regular video creation.

I hope you all had fun with those posts. Onwards to new adventures!


Six Years of SWTOR

Once again, SWTOR's birthday has come around. I can't believe it's been six years since it launched - in internet time, that feels like forever! Even with a lack of new major MMOs coming out, I bet it's becoming somewhat hard for them by now to attract new players at this point. Then again, the game seems to be holding up alright, especially when you consider the news coming out of other MMOs that came out the same year these days...

Fun fact: I only bought that new assault cannon the other day and because I knew that this post was coming up. I didn't want to be seen using the same weapon two years in a row; I mean how terrible would that be?

2017 has been yet another interesting year for Bioware. They just can't seem to do boring and routine, can they? Mainly we saw a shift back towards paying attention to the game's "MMO bits". We still got story updates too of course, three of them to be precise (Iokath, Umbara and Copero), but that's nothing compared to the deluge of story chapters that had been released over the course of 2016. However, at the same time we got our first new operation since 2014 (well, three out of five bosses anyway), two new "proper" flashpoints of the kind we also hadn't seen since 2014, a new daily area (not seen since 2015), a new warzone (we had one of those last year to be fair), and a new Galactic Starfighter map (also something we hadn't seen since 2014).

I've welcomed this change in direction overall, but I do have to admit that in terms of output this hasn't been SWTOR's most productive year. In fact, this was the first year since 2011/12 that Bioware didn't release a new expansion. I suppose this isn't something you need to read too much into, considering that it's always been a bit arbitrary what they decide to call an expansion and what not, but to a long-term player of the game it's still noticeable. I think the current speculation is that we'll see a new expansion announcement in early 2018, once the current story arc has been wrapped up. It might even tie into the new expansion the way Forged Alliances became a prelude to Shadow of Revan.

Also, because you can never please everyone, we now have people complaining that Bioware is paying too much attention to things they personally don't care about, and asking why everything isn't about single player story anymore. Even if I'm happy with the change of focus personally, I think that if you joined the game within the last one and a half years, it's a reasonable complaint to have. Changing focus all the time just isn't a good idea for any business. That, and "we have half a new raid again" doesn't make for as much good PR as a shiny CGI trailer with a whole self-contained story in it.

My personal theory is that a lot of development time this year ended up being sacrificed to retooling things. The dumpster fire that was Galactic Command's release and how it was received by the community at the end of 2016 took several months to be shaped into a somewhat more acceptable version of endgame (largely by back-pedalling on a lot of decisions and trying to make them sound like new and exciting changes), and later in the year server merges were announced, something that had clearly required some background work to minimise disruptions as well. Finally the group finder was revamped towards the end of the year, and according to Keith's road map from earlier in the year, changes to Conquest are in the works for early 2018. The time to work on things like that has to come out of somewhere, and I'm guessing that's why we saw less actual new content come out in 2017. Whether that's a good investment of the devs' time depends on where your priorities lie I guess.

Either way, I'm still loving the game and looking forward to what's coming next. (I was really down on it after Galactic Command's initial release, but they managed to turn things around for me at least.) Here's hoping that if they actually manage to stick to their current direction for a while, the speed at which they can release updates will increase once again after they manage to get back into the swing of things. Happy Birthday, SWTOR!


A Look At The Yavin Ruins

Last week's patch saw the (delayed) introduction of the new warzone Yavin Ruins. While I had initially been a bit disappointed when it turned out that the announcement of a new warzone actually meant "a new map for an existing type of warzone" instead of "a new game mode", remembering just how different Quesh Huttball turned out to be from regular Huttball still left me feeling excited.

Unfortunately it took a while until I actually got an in-depth look at the new map - even though Bioware stated in the patch notes that they had increased the new warzone's chance to pop, I saw little evidence of this on my first day of trying to play it. Two hours of chaining one warzone after another only took me to Yavin once, while Voidstar popped three times in a row. I'm guessing that they were trying to avoid a situation like during Odessen's release, where people were complaining about getting nothing else... but to me it seems that they turned the dial too far in the other direction this time.

Either way, eventually I did manage to get a closer look, and it's been... interesting. Yavin Ruins is not as different from Alderaan Civil War as Quesh Huttball is from regular Huttball, but there are still some noteworthy changes. It's also oddly... pretty. I never thought I'd say that about a warzone. So much beautiful foliage! I suppose it impedes visibility somewhat, but I consider that more of a feature than a problem anyway.

What has stayed the same is the basic layout of the battlefield: Three turrets lined up in a straight row from left to right, with the two on the sides being connected via an underground tunnel that goes under the central turret. Said central turret is once again encircled by two crescent-shaped walls.

Changes in the layout are comparatively subtle. For example you don't have to circle around the front or back to go from one of the sides to the middle, there is actually a little staircase leading straight up and across the wall on this map. The platforms in the middle don't have "railings" and offer slightly fewer opportunities to break line of sight. However, there is more space to fight around the side turrets, as they aren't directly up against a wall but instead against a slightly elevated platform which is nice for range and healers to stand on.

I  spotted two real mechanical differences: First, the turrets fire a bit faster, making the ships' health go down in increments of two instead of ten. This seems to make a psychological difference more than anything else - since a lot of people are bad at maths, the non-round numbers make it a bit harder to instantly spot the "point of no return" by which you are guaranteed to lose unless you manage to capture all the turrets, and which many therefore like to interpret as an excuse to give up.

The biggest addition however is a new orange buff that can be picked up in the underground tunnel where you also find the two speed boosts (like on Alderaan). These give you a buff that lasts for a couple of minutes and cuts your turret capping time in half for the duration.

These are pretty fun to use right now because a lot of people haven't quite caught on to their existence yet and are startled when someone suddenly caps a turret in only four seconds, making them great to use in the middle of a large scale melee when people don't expect it. However, it's a bit hard to predict how much of a role they'll end up playing in the long run. The basic idea seems to be to make it easier to cap a turret without requiring either the complete annihilation of the enemy team or use of a stealth class. (The buff does not let you go into stealth, so no need to worry about it being abused by stealthers.) That seems like a noble goal at least and something that could make Yavin Ruins a bit more dynamic and fun to play than Civil War. I generally like these base-capping warzones, but the sheer difficulty of capturing an objective on Alderaan can sometimes be a bit off-putting, something the speed buff seems designed to counter.

Aside from that, I've been having fun watching people try to come to terms with communication in the new environment. I've previously expressed my amusement about the arbitrariness of "grass" and "snow" as directional markers in Alderaan Civil War, and of course Yavin provides a new challenge here because if you eschew cardinal directions, you have to decide on which landmarks to use as reference points instead and there is no agreement just yet on how to go about this.

Things seem to be trending towards calling the side with more undergrowth "jungle" (though this can lead to confused calls of "everything is a jungle here", the same objection I've always had to "snow" in Alderaan) and to naming the other, more open side after the ruins that are located there, which I've seen referred to as both "relics" and "statues" so far.

Finally it's worth mentioning that after Odessen, this is the second warzone that mixes players from both factions in its teams. While I'm against implementing this for all warzones (yes, I'm one of those suckers who cares about lore in PvP), it's nice to have another warzone where it can be justified and helps to give the losing side a break if one faction is constantly dominating (as you have a chance of ending up on the same team as the people who were beating you before).

My early conclusion is that it's a solid addition to the roster. I've always ranked Civil War pretty highly among my favourite warzones, though I like both Odessen and Novare Coast even better. Yavin Ruins therefore has a solid foundation to build on and so far it hasn't disappointed, even if it's not as different from Alderaan as Quesh Huttball is from regular Huttball. Have you given it a try yet?


A Farewell to the Galactic Command Window

Patch 5.6 didn't just revamp the group activity finder, it also got rid of the Galactic Command window. Unlike the former, the latter hadn't really been announced in advance but came as a bit of a surprise in the patch notes, though in hindsight it shouldn't really have been that surprising. Still, I kind of liked the Galactic Command window, so I didn't want to just let it go into the night without comment.

I'm glad now I took this screenshot.

I remember when Galactic Command was first announced and everyone was wringing their hands about how bad it sounded, the actual Galactic Command window was this tiny bright spot in a sea of chaos. "Well, at least the UI for it looks nice." I honestly loved all the little animated graphics for each activity. Look at the little raiders fighting a mini-version of Operator IX - too cute! Even if I knew that the warzone animation at least could also bug out and leave you stuck with unending lightsaber "whoosh whoosh" noises even after you'd closed the window.

The Galactic Command window was also tied into at least one exploit. I think I can talk about it now since it's long past... but basically you could click on "queue for warzone" from the GC window while you were already in a warzone, which had the bizarre effect of instantly adding another person to your team, letting you go above the maximum number of players you were supposed to have. I once did it by accident and was mortified.

This kind of ties into the window's biggest issue though: Its functionality was pretty much redundant from the start. It's as if when they first came up with the idea they had this grand plan to have it replace the regular group finder, but then when they were nearly done the designer broke down and went: "There's no way I can possibly fit all those options into this graphics-heavy UI" so they just added what they could and left the old group finder where it was.

The result was that I pretty much never used it for anything other than to check my Command rank. Whether it was flashpoints, operations or uprisings, you were still better off queueing for them through the group finder because it gave you more control. Only occasionally did I use the window to queue for GSF, since I'm not particularly fond of the GSF hangar.

The one thing you did want to do through the window however were dailies and heroics, since it was only by going through Galactic Command that you received an extra quest to complete a given daily area, which actually (initially) netted you more CXP than all the zone's regular missions put together. However, since you didn't need to do anything like that for any other activities, it was actually kind of confusing and easy to miss. I remember having a commenter on my blog complain that dailies were giving him virtually nothing - turns out he hadn't known to start them through the GC window. Baking the big bonus into the regular weekly instead has definitely been a smart change.

That said, I do kind of miss having a good place to check my Command rank and the current state of Dark vs. Light. The former feels a bit tacked on at the bottom of the new activity finder, and the latter even more so in the bottom right corner of the galaxy map. And if you don't have a ship yet, you can't check the current DvL status at all! It almost got me wondering whether they may be working on future plans to de-emphasise Galactic Command, if not remove it from the game entirely after all...


Tales from the Group Finder: Eternity Vault

I don't often run operations with random groups nowadays since ops are one of the few activities that I regularly get to partake in anyway (with my guild) and you never know how long a pug run is going to take you. Some are super smooth but others can turn into unexpectedly long-winded adventures (to put it mildly). Not having a lot of free time anymore plays into it too.


I've been really curious whether the changes to the group/activity finder in the last patch have made any difference to people's willingness to use the tool to run operations. Most of the time players seemed to avoid it, presumably mostly because of the large degree of uncertainty in regards to when you would get a pop, if at all. It might sound weird to anyone who really hates talking to other people, but often just putting a group together in general chat was simply faster and easier.

Before the patch actually launched, there'd been some speculation about what shape exactly the improvements to the group finder might take. Display of average wait times and group formation progress maybe? Nope. However, Bioware did add a "role in need" display that shows you which role the group finder is currently short on for certain types of content. While the extra reward promised to those who queue up as that role isn't really worth it from my point of view, it has added a new dimension to queueing, because the promise of a guaranteed, fast pop holds more appeal than anything else.

So when the rotation had just switched to Eternity Vault on Sunday afternoon and I saw that healers were needed on Imp side, I decided to hop in on my Sorcerer. I felt slightly disappointed when I didn't get an instant pop, but I guess more than one healer was needed. However, I only had to wait between five and ten minutes for the group to fill up.

Everybody zoned in quickly and of course someone was over-enthusiastic enough to pull the turrets and get us all in combat while we waited for the group to actually assemble. The off-tank asked for someone to share the weekly mission, so I did. Then he asked for it again. I said that I'd already shared it, and I'm guessing someone else did so again. But the off-tank just kept asking. According to the chat log he already had a sharing request but he kept insisting that he didn't. After several more minutes of this he eventually went back out again to pick up the mission himself.

The first boss went smoothly enough, but then came the question of how to deal with the trash. The jumping shortcut seems to be quite well-known by now, but I suck at successfully making the jump as a Sage or Sorc, and nobody else wanted to volunteer for ages. Eventually the off-tank (an Assassin) made it across though and got the speeder sorted. However, another Assassin who was playing dps didn't seem to understand what was happening and tried to stealth his way towards the boss the long way, all on his lonesome. After he pulled something and died, everyone encouraged him to take the speeder this time, but he just left. It took surprisingly long to get a dps replacement, several minutes in fact.

On Gharj I witnessed a bug that I hadn't seen before, which is saying something! When he started jumping up and down on the first platform and a second one appeared, we moved across as usual, but then it was the second platform that suddenly disappeared. Everyone went "wtf" at suddenly finding themselves knee-deep in lava, but fortunately most of the group had the sense to quickly run back, so we only lost two people and were able to revive one of them.

The journey through the jungle was strangely heart-warming, with one guy taking the lead and me and another hanging back to make sure no stragglers got lost. Nobody needed help jumping up the cliff, but I had to rescue two people after they had fallen into lava. The system had designated me as the ops leader by the way, which caused me to somehow feel responsible for the group even though I hadn't had any plans to take charge.

The pylons were kind of amusing in that everyone wanted to click the consoles, to the point that at one time people actually clicked on them on opposite sides, making the wheel go left, right and then left again, wasting a lot of time. Fortunately it wasn't enough to cause a reset though. I also noticed that the Marauder wearing the Crest of the Dread Master (one of the few truly prestigious items of gear in SWTOR) kept nearly killing themselves on the adds with the reflective shield. Bought account?

The Council fight went alright, though I was baffled when the last person still fighting ended up being my co-healer, who was both well-geared and clearly experienced. I joked that they must have felt like taking on a challenge to pit themselves against one of the Marauders as a healer (mobs intended to be fought by damage dealers) to which they replied that they'd known something was wrong as soon as we pulled...

Soa seemed to go smoothly enough, but then he evaded and reset at zero percent - WTF, Bioware. Just how long has this stuff been going on? My co-healer announced that they had to go because "the GF" was giving them evil eyes. It took me a moment to puzzle out what the group finder had to do with anything... Anyway, they left but not without dropping group, so we unfortunately had to initiate a vote kick to make room for a replacement. And then we didn't get one! The wait for a replacement dps earlier had seemed long enough, but this was worse.

People asked me if I was okay solo-healing the fight and I said yes. It's only EV story mode, what can go wrong? Well, everyone but you jumping down onto the wrong platform for example. Wipe again! The third time was the charm though and we finally made it. Coincidentally, the group finder decided to finally give us a second healer just as we had reached the last phase. We warned him in chat that this was what was going on and he had the good sense to leave. I'm not sure how these things work exactly, but I suspect that he might have gained a lockout without any reward otherwise.

Overall, the run felt like a success to me though. I mean, I've also had EV pugs that had to give up on Gharj because he kept enraging... but that is why I never get tired of jumping into random groups. The potential for strange new experiences just knows no bounds.


A Traitor Among the Chiss - Mechanics

I didn't want to make this post until I had actually cleared the new flashpoint in all difficulties, and since I didn't get around to tackling master mode until this weekend, it took a bit longer than anticipated to get this write-up done. However, it's finally ready now. And boy, was there a lot to talk about on this subject.

It starts before you even enter the flashpoint, with the fourth "one-time story mode" flashpoint difficulty that Bioware introduced with Crisis on Umbara. For Umbara, this was baked directly into the purple-coloured story quest, which could be a bit confusing if you had picked up the story but wanted to try another difficulty mode before completing the storyline, as the game wouldn't let you pick any other difficulty and didn't tell you why. (Officially you were already on another difficulty, but this wasn't obvious.)

While I suspect that this was only a problem for a minority, Bioware decided to try to fix it this time around, by making you pick up the flashpoint quest at the door, independent of the story mission, like we're used to from the older flashpoints. There were two problems with this, however: Firstly, while we're used to the flashpoint quest being a separate thing, most story missions put the solo mode into your log automatically. Since this wasn't the case here, people had to go pick it up themselves... and here the issue was that for some reason, the one-time story mode (required for the mission) was called "solo mode", while the repeatable solo mode was dubbed "story mode". This makes no sense, and as a result many players picked the wrong one and were then confused why their story wouldn't advance. Since the story mission technically tells you correctly to pick up "solo mode" (which is story mode, remember) you could theoretically say that it's people's own fault for not reading the instructions, but I do feel that Bioware is definitely to blame for using very confusing nomenclature here. They should really swap those names around and give you the correct one by default when you actually pick up the storyline.

Okay, so we're finally ready to enter the flashpoint itself. Remember how one of the main draws of splitting the story into a separate solo mode with unique cut scenes was to avoid people accidentally getting spoiled if they end up in the instance early due to running a random flashpoint through the group finder? Why oh why do you then start the cutscene-free, generic difficulty modes with a voice-over that is a giant spoiler for Crisis on Umbara? Someone didn't really think this through.

But enough of all this ranting for now. Loading into the flashpoint for the first time actually took my breath away because of how beautiful it is. So many screenshot opportunities. It also has no fewer than three different bonus missions as well as a couple of hidden achievements, none of which you will complete by just following the straightforward path. In my first run-through on solo mode, I spent over an hour in there and had a really good time sticking my nose into various different corners.

I did notice however that everything took me longer than usual to kill, and there was more damage going round than I had expected. As someone who always runs as a healer, I'm used to killing things slowly, but this was something else. It turns out that I wasn't the only one, and Bioware has already announced that they will reduce both boss health and damage as well as the number of mobs in the flashpoint in the next patch. While I'm glad to be able to say that I got in there and did it all "pre-nerf", I think the move does make sense.  FibroJedi, who has a disability that makes long and intense play sessions painful, came out on Twitter to talk about what a literal pain the flashpoint had been for him, and that's just not right. I've always said that if you intentionally make an easy mode for people to just see the story, then it needs to be easy enough to actually fulfil that purpose. With a return to telling story through flashpoints, you also have to consider that these don't work like KotFE and KotET's chapter format, where you can just pause in the middle. A flashpoint has to be done in one session or it will reset after a while. (That said, since I'm not the kind of player who is the target audience for easy solo modes, I'd still appreciate not being forced into them. /forlornly waves her little "let story advance in groups again" flag)

So what exactly is it that has been deemed to need nerfing and reducing? Well, let's talk about the trash first. My first impression of it was actually quite positive. Many of the trash mobs on Copero, especially in the first section, have distinctive abilities that you are pretty much forced to take notice of, so you can't just round them all up for AoE without a care in the world. That said, this positive first impression wore off once I realised that two of the most prevalent abilities are an instant flash grenade (stun) and an instant-cast shield that makes the mob immune to damage for several seconds. Being instant casts, neither of them can be reliably avoided, but at the same time there is no real consequence to them either other than that they just cause everything to take longer. The flashbang breaks on damage so you're not going to die from being stunned, it just means you stand there for a couple of seconds doing nothing while the mob ignores you. Likewise, the immunity shield just means that you're not able to do damage for a couple of seconds. Where is the fun gameplay in that?

What's also noteworthy is that at least in the first section of the flashpoint (the resort), the mob groups are quite tightly packed, to a degree that we haven't seen in game in a while. Personally I didn't really mind that, but a lot of players did, to the point that Dulfy's recommended strategy for dealing with the trash is to suicide run to the nearest medical droid because dying and reviving further in is deemed to be more efficient than actually fighting things. If you have a stealther in the group, they can avoid the mobs in the first area in their entirety, and if the rest of the group then commits suicide after the stealther has briefly engaged the first boss, they'll immediately respawn right next to them. I tried the latter once and it felt weird. I actually don't mind killing trash all that much in a group - all those silver and gold mobs give pretty decent CXP too. But when you've got characters jumping into the sea instead of actually fighting and it results in faster advancement, something is definitely wrong. We'll see what things are like after Bioware culls the Chiss' numbers on Tuesday.

The first boss, a big droid, is my least favourite of the lot and probably many other people's too, based on the comments I've seen. Part of this is probably that he's currently the most egregious hitpoint sponge in the instance, but we'll see what that's like after the nerf. Even without that though, he's just kind of... boring. Basically he's got two abilities that you need to avoid, and he spawns a lot of adds that take ages to kill. This last part is actually the one thing that's at least somewhat interesting, as the idea seems to be for players to kill adds selectively for a change. The smaller ones without a lot of health are best off killed because they do more damage, but the big "tank droids"  - the clue is in the name - might as well be ignored, as they take ages to kill, do little damage and don't multiply if you ignore them (however, killed ones do get replaced quite quickly). On master mode we just opted to kill one of them to give ourselves a bit of room to move (as you otherwise end up with pretty much the whole room covered in circles to avoid).

I've also seen it suggested to just ignore all the adds, but I reckon that would be a bit painful to heal through and likely lead to disaster in a pug group. I'm not sure how feasible it would be in a veteran mode run with no healer at all. In a group of random people, you're probably better off taking a bit longer and killing more adds just to play it safe.

The second boss is a Chiss sniper whose gimmick is that she moves up and down between two floors and summons a lot of adds (even more on master mode). This was actually the fight that gave my own master mode group the most trouble, as the adds are just all over the place and hit pretty hard. The trick seems to be to control carefully just when and where to kill them, especially near the end, taking out the last group just before the boss hits 25% health and goes into her last ground phase, at which point you try to burn her down quickly. Otherwise you get the little buggers running all over the place and killing people.

Like in Crisis on Umbara, there is a challenging bonus boss that doesn't require a quest chain to unlock, you just need to know where to look. This fight is probably the most intriguing encounter in the whole flashpoint, managing to be interesting simply through a peculiar combination of mechanics. It's a walker that gets plopped down on a narrow platform on the mountainside, buffed by a probe droid that is immune to damage and occasionally reinforced by a small group of soldiers. On solo mode you can pretty much get away with just tunnelling the boss, occasionally taking out adds and avoiding fire. However, on master mode, the walker itself has an unavoidable knockback that can send everyone flying off the platform and the probe droid needs to be stopped from healing and buffing it too much.

The solution to the first is that the tank needs to position himself with his back towards the walkway you used to enter the area, so he only gets knocked onto that, while the rest of the group huddles near a bunch of boxes on the other side so you always bounce off those when the knockback comes. And throughout all of that, people have to cycle through interrupts, stuns and longer-duration crowd controls (though the probe droid refuses to be controlled for longer than 20 seconds at a time) to keep the probe droid locked down. As a healer my job was actually the easiest one, as me helping out with probe droid control was welcome but optional. It was actually pretty damn fascinating to watch our two damage dealers continuously dart back and forth between the boss to do damage and the support droid to cycle through all their interrupts and stuns. I'd imagine it to be quite difficult to achieve this level of co-ordination in a pug though.

Up next we have a sort of second bonus boss, a giant ice cat that you're actually not supposed to fight but simply pass by after pacifying it with a piece of fruit. (Ooh, so clever!) However, if you want to, you can kill it anyway and get an achievement for it. (Poor kitty.) The only thing to really discourage you from doing that is the fact that the cat has an absolutely monstrous amount of health and therefore takes a very, very long time to kill. On master mode it also has a highly deadly, channelled attack that places a stacking dot on the target which will pretty much insta-kill if it isn't interrupted within a second or so. So again, our damage dealers had to rotate their interrupts. There literally is nothing else to the fight, but even one mistake will most likely cause you to wipe. Is that good design? I don't know, but I have to admit the relentlessness of the interrupt requirement gave me fond flashbacks to my prime raiding days in WoW (it made me think of Reliquary of Souls phase two, if that means anything to anyone).

What follows next is a series of puzzles with few trash mobs: having to start a machine to melt an ice wall, navigating a little maze with lasers in it etc. Initially I found this really refreshing, and I still think it's a neat idea, but what makes the whole concept fall down on repetition is that the "puzzles" never change and that there are no consequences to getting them wrong. For example the part you need to start the machine is always hidden behind the leftmost door up on the hill, which is easy to remember so you'll only ever open any wrong doors the first time. And the lasers in the maze do so little damage, even on master mode, that you don't really have to bother with deactivating them but might as well just run through to the end right away.

The final boss is a slightly confusing one. First off, he has a new mechanic that causes him to be invisible to you if you aren't in close proximity during his last phase. (The new operations boss Nahut is based on the same basic idea by the way.) That's good for a little game of hide and seek near the end when he decides to temporarily disengage, but doesn't really add anything else. Aside from that, he once again just has a few things to dodge and at least one attack that you can't really do much about, an instant stun. Somewhat bizarrely, he's probably the easiest boss in the instance.

Also, he has some sort of mechanic that I haven't really figured out yet and haven't really seen any in-depth information about anywhere either. There are some pillars around the courtyard in which you fight him, and if you hide behind one of them when he fires certain abilities, it actually crumbles! I thought maybe he was like Kephess in Terror from Beyond and would take increased damage if you managed to drop the pillar on his head, but I couldn't get that to work. When trying again on master mode today, I noticed that the pillar actually fell apart into a bunch of rocks that the boss then hurled at us! So breaking the pillar actually gives him more ammunition? Even though it's clearly not necessary to beat the encounter, I hate feeling like I'm missing something here. Feel free to share in the comments if you have any more information about this mechanic.

So, after more than two thousand words, what's my verdict on A Traitor Among the Chiss? Yay or nay?

Despite of my initial ranting at the start of this post, it's a definitive yay. I love how much effort clearly went into designing the environment for this flashpoit, and you can tell the designers tried really hard to come up with some creative and new ideas mechanics-wise as well. Unfortunately the tuning for some of them was off, but they were quick to promise fixes for the worst issues. It's just a shame that they couldn't make the trash mobs' abilities actually reward smart play (for example by making the immunity shields an interruptible cast) and give actual replay value to the puzzles.


Pugette Hit 70

After seven months of (near) weekly recording of her adventures with random groups in the group finder, Pugette the Commando has hit level 70! Her actual /played time is pretty short though, only 1(!) day and 9 hours, which once again reinforces my impression that flashpoints are actually a pretty good way to level but also that levelling is just super fast in general nowadays.

I got to finish on a nice round number after exactly 30 episodes. Towards the end I decided to ditch the random queueing in favour of choosing some specific destinations, to make sure that I would go out on a bang instead of by blitzing through yet another randomly assigned Hammer Station, and I think it worked out great, with several of the last few episodes being (in my opinion) among the best ones of the whole run. The only thing that could be considered an issue with them is length (if you don't actually like long videos), as two of them ended up taking close to one and a half hours in the end. Either way, without further ado, here's a list of the final six episodes with links:

Episode 25: Racism in Progress in False Emperor - Even though I always had the option to accept in-progress runs ticked, this was the first and only time I actually got into one, with the group already standing at the second boss in False Emperor. My entrance was kind of overshadowed by one of the pugs greeting Pugette (who, unlike me, has dark skin) with a racist term. That was just so confusing, I had no idea how to react. I let it go and moved on and nothing else offensive was said, but it was certainly a strange experience.

Episode 26: Thinking About The Future in Assault on Tython - After having already bested this flashpoint on master mode in an earlier episode, veteran mode felt very easy, and I mostly used the opportunity to do some speculating about the changes coming to the group finder in patch 5.6. I was wrong about pretty much all of it by the way.

Episode 27: Noobing It Up in Blood Hunt - At last, the flashpoint I had been simultaneously dreading and looking forward to since I started this series. All things considered, it didn't go too badly, though we did have the inevitable wipes on Jos and Valk. I also always find this flashpoint to be a bit of a team-building exercise, and our dps Commando in particular had me in stitches at times, which made for a very fun run.

Episode 28: Going Old School in MM Lost Island - I got this one as a random quite often lately, and every time I was surprised by how smoothly it went. This run was not like that. However, it was still fun because people took the wipes in stride and tried hard to do better. When we finally bested the last boss, it sure felt very satisfying.

Episode 29: Reliving Fond Memories in MM Kaon Under Siege - This one was much easier than Lost Island and I mostly used it as an opportunity to reminisce about all the good times I had in this flashpoint and how it provided all kinds of memorable moments for me in the past.

Episode 30: Pug Interrupted in Traitor Among the Chiss - This is the one in which Pugette finally hit 70, and also the first one in which she encountered a type of obstacle she hadn't run into before (I won't spoil what it is). Just prepare to be exposed to some eardrum-bursting laughter at one point...

What's in store for Pugette and the channel next? Well, as for Pugette, I'm planning to keep her "pure" and out of guild runs, limited to what she can achieve in the pug world, but first on the agenda is probably finishing her class story up to the end of Coruscant at least so that she can finally get her ship and make that damn galaxy map icon stop flashing.

As for the channel... to be honest, I don't know! I was pleasantly surprised by how many subs and views I gained while recording this series, especially considering that the original purpose of the channel was just to have a place to upload boss kill videos for my guild and the like. I do think I would like to record a "season two" of pug adventures and I do already have an idea for it as well, but even if I do go ahead with it I won't actually put my plan into action until early next year. You'll just have to content yourself with reading the blog in the meantime. /wink


A Traitor Among the Chiss - The Story

Just like with Crisis on Umbara, I'd like to make two separate posts to talk about the new flashpoint Traitor Among the Chiss: one about the mechanical side of it and one about the story. Unlike with Umbara, I'd like to start with the story his time around and talk about the mechanics later.

As usual, this means: spoiler warning! Though I was shocked by how little Bioware themselves seemed to care about that this time, considering that they spoiled Umbara's big twist in the very patch notes for 5.6...

Either way, let me start by saying that I enjoyed the story of this one a lot more than that of Crisis on Umbara. Admittedly my first thought on initial completion was that not very much happened in this flashpoint, but on replaying it I realised that there was actually more going on than I initially thought; it's just more subtle. After some of the clunkers delivered in Crisis on Umbara, that felt like a welcome change.

I liked the intro with Raina Temple and Aristocra Saganu - not just because we're getting another one of the original companions back as part of the main storyline, but also because I like Bioware bringing back minor characters for another run. I also feel like I really, really need to bring my main agent up to speed now so she can see what class-specific dialogue there is in this bit of the story. Worse, I kind of feel like I should level my Chiss sniper who romanced Saganu too, just to see what that changes. Damn you, Bioware...

Anyway, then we're off to chase Theron. In my Umbara story post, I said: Hopefully we won't be chasing Theron for the next couple of patches. Yet here we are of course. Surprisingly, I didn't mind that much.

Actually, let me go off on a tangent here. I realised the other day that the ending of the main Eternal Throne story has put Bioware into a tricky situation in more than one way. Not only is the Eternal Alliance way too powerful to be challenged by much of anything, but there is no clear direction for the story to continue, and that is a problem.

When a player chooses a class at level one, they sign up for a particular kind of plot, and Bioware knows how to appeal to them. If you roll a trooper, you expect a story about fighting for the Republic. The choices you get to make throughout the process allow you to fine-tune the experience, turning into a benevolent hero of the people or a bit of an opportunistic asshole who just likes to shoot things, but the overall direction remains the same. Nobody would create a trooper and then be disappointed that they can't run off to join the Empire.

The story of the Outlander - even if we disregard all the issues with whether it's appropriate for your class to become the Outlander to begin with - was all about fighting the Eternal Empire, an opponent that is now gone. As a result you're left with a bunch of players who may all want completely different things from the story going forward. Some may want to go out and conquer the galaxy. Some may want to trash the Eternal Fleet and step off the galactic stage to focus on smaller issues again. Some way want to side with the Empire. Some may want to help the Republic. Many of these motivations are at direct odds with each other, so there is no single direction you could take to please everyone or even most people. So where do you go from here?

Making a story arc focused on one of our companions makes sense at this point because it avoids the issue by simply ignoring it. It doesn't matter what exactly we want to do with the Eternal Fleet if we don't have to make a choice about it because we're not doing anything where it would actually come in handy. And while you can still get people like me that grumble that they don't like Theron that much and aren't there more important things to worry about than chasing him around the galaxy anyway, at least it's not something that feels utterly wrong for any character. With that in mind, I've decided to embrace this arc and roll with it.

To get back to the actual flashpoint's story, Saganu tells you that Theron is hiding on the Chiss world of Copero, sheltering under the roof of a Chiss miscreant who is too powerful to be taken out openly - but if the Outlander just happened to kill her while chasing Theron Shan it would be most welcome. That... feels a lot less contrived than anything that happened on Umbara, well done.

I also really liked the use of environmental voice-overs during the early part of the flashpoint to give you a bit of time to talk to Temple. More importantly, at one point you pass a holo terminal where a news bulletin is running which updates you on what's been happening with the Republic and the Empire after the events of Iokath. If you sided with the Republic, you learn that Empress Acina has been supplanted by Emperor Vowrawn (last seen kneeling to Emperor Arcann in KotFE chapter two). If you sided with the Empire, you hear that Chancellor Madon has resigned (looks like Calph's burning desire to finally find out more about him won't be sated any time soon) and has been succeeded by Galena Rans. (Is that the former Supreme Commander Rans or a relative? I have no idea what his first name is actually.) As someone who always devours every bit of info about what's going on with our old factions I appreciated the way they managed to fit that in there without making things too complicated.

Anyway, you have no trouble locating the Chiss miscreant and taking her out. Unfortunately Theron played her too and is already on his way out again. You run to catch his shuttle but he gets away again. The big revelation comes at the end when you see Theron talking to the masked guy from Umbara again and he reveals that the mysterious order he is working for is basically another branch of the Heralds of Zildrog. Okay, that's... not totally surprising I guess? But on Zakuul those guys were a bit of a joke, how can they be such a big threat now?

The above paragraph sort of sums up how I saw the flashpoint after my first playthrough. It's all fine and well, but we didn't really accomplish anything here, did we?

The main thing I realised on my second playthrough is that this flashpoint more or less confirms the theory that Theron is actually a double agent. It's easy to miss the first time because you don't know what it is, but you see Theron switch on a little device when he talks to the Herald at the end. Afterwards you get a message from Hylo that she was able to intercept a transmission that basically reveals Theron's conversation with the Herald. Coincidence? Clearly not when the recorded message is exactly the bit of conversation that happened after Theron switched on the little device! So while our characters still don't officially know, it's pretty clear to us as players that Theron isn't really on those guys' side.

Then there is the star map that reveals Theron's next destination. Bioware has already hinted that the next story update will take us to a planet we likely didn't expect to return to, but now we know the details. Well, if one can read star maps that is. I don't, so I still don't really have a clue. If you were able to make out where Theron is going next, do let me know in the comments!

Finally, I liked the nuances many of the cut scenes delivered. I liked the conversation where you are asked to pass judgement on Syndic Zenta for example. She's not exactly sympathetic, but she hasn't done anything to make you hate her either, and you know virtually nothing about just why she's so hated by the other Chiss. The usually rather charming Saganu's pressure to kill her on the spot feels uncomfortable. It's something that made me think twice even on my dark-sided Marauder.

The cut scenes with Theron and Valss are also a joy to behold - their faces tell so much yet leave you guessing about even more. Theron is clearly somewhat uncomfortable with what he's doing, but also seems to hold a certain affection for Valss, while the latter's face repeatedly shines with an almost religious zeal. It makes you wonder what the story is between those two - could be good material for a short story to post on the website or something.

What are your impressions of the Copero storyline? I've seen a lot of people talk about the mechanics this time (which I will cover in another post) but I haven't seen much feedback about the actual events of the flashpoint other than that people hate Theron's new haircut. (No shock there.)