Faces of Onslaught

November and with it IntPiPoMo is coming to an end, and even though I've been more prolific this month than I was during the rest of the year, I haven't quite been able to stick to my resolution of illustrating my posts with more screenshots - what can I say, I'm clearly too fond of dazzling my readers with walls of text.

So to reach my IntPiPoMo goal of at least fifty pictures, I'm going to round out the month with this one screenshot-heavy post, dedicated to facial expressions and body language in Onslaught. I always love the way characters in SWTOR manage to convey so much outside the dialogue with these.

I have no idea what creating this level of detail in cut scenes is like from a developer's point of view, but I like to imagine that there's one guy or gal at Bioware whose sole job it is to tug at limbs, mouths and eyeballs for each and every one just so to make sure that all characters have the right expressions. These screenshots might be slightly spoiler-ish.

I love the way this simple shot is set up. Malgus is towering over everyone looking ridiculously threatening, but Anri stays relaxed while chatting with you anyway. If I recall correctly she does straighten up when Malgus addresses her, but you can tell that she's not particularly scared of him. She still seemed somewhat nervous on Ossus, but Malgus has once again shown himself to be respectful of his assets and immune to the superiority complex that seems to affect so many Sith, making him not such a bad commander to have as a non-Sith. I always thought that he and Marr should have got along great if Malgus hadn't had that major lapse of judgement on Ilum... but this is turning into quite a tangent!


I don't recall what exactly bothered my Guardian at this point in the conversation, but you can tell from her pose that she wasn't happy.

Taking it another step further, my Commando is looking quite distressed here! I'm not 100% sure but I think this shot is from when you first enter the throne room on Onderon.

I can't remember now whether it was with the launch of KotFE or a bit later, but at some point Bioware gave their facial expressions a major upgrade. Unfortunately they then went a bit overboard with them for a while, as evidenced by many an exaggerated O-face in both "Knights of" expansions - I wasn't exactly bothered by these, but they did often seem somewhat comical when the scene was supposed to be serious. I'm glad that Bioware seems to have toned it down again since then, as my trooper's expression here is about as "strong" as it gets.

I like how your character does this slight gloating pose over Darth Savik after defeating her (might depend on chosen dialogue options).

Darth Shaar is smooth as silk and the game gives her some great shots while she introduces Imperials to Mek-Sha.


I mentioned in a previous post that my Sage made quite a funny face when she recognised Tharan, and this is it. This is her "Tharan, I'm so glad to see you" face. Can't you just tell how fond she is of him?

In this shot however she looks very thoughtful, which I liked. I'm not sure why her forehead came out quite so shiny though.

I do love fighting at Malgus's side on my Sith characters. They look united in their wrath. Too bad my Marauder is unlikely to feel as favourably about him next time they meet...

Darth Anathel is only a minor character in Onslaught but I love how bored and condescending he manages to look in this shot. Like a space version of Jacob Rees-Mogg, which seems quite appropriate. (Sorry, joke for my UK readers.)

One thing I didn't really notice consciously while playing but that was quite apparent when I went through my screenshots afterwards is the careful framing involving Republic flags and Imperial logos while your character talks to their faction leader at the end to discuss the Alliance's future in relation to their old home. I just thought that was a nice touch.

Finally, a simple smile! I think I mentioned before how this isn't an expression our characters or their associates get to assume often - maybe because we are often on serious business, maybe because Bioware generally wants to leave it up to the player how they think their character feels at any given moment. However, every now and then they dare to insert a simple smile as our characters (or their companions) would be unquestionably pleased with a situation, and this was one of those moments.


Hammered Home

Last time on "levelling through flashpoints" I wrote about plunging my little Nautolan Shadow into the pool of "random" flashpoints at level 15 and finding out that nowadays "random" means "Hammer Station over and over". I initially tried to shrug it off as bad luck and figured that the very limited selection of flashpoints available to low levels now was at least partially to blame, so I kept going in hopes of getting a pop for something else eventually.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 23-25

*cue a heavy sigh*

At least this turned out to be my least aggravating Hammer Station run up to that point. Still, considering that we had two level 74 damage dealers and a level 60 healer, I was surprised by how much difficulty we still had with many pulls. I got the impression that the healer wasn't actually doing very much healing, though I was too busy trying to stay alive (thank god for finally getting Force Cloak) to look too closely. She definitely wasn't in the wrong spec or anything.

That said, everyone stuck together and at least visibly tried, with all kinds of cooldowns getting obvious use. I was quite amused and proud when me and the level 74 Sentinel were the last people left alive on the turrets before the bridge and skilfully finished them off with a game of what I like to call "turret tag", which had the person with aggro hiding out of line of sight while the other one did damage without getting attacked, and a role swap once aggro switched.

Our dodgy healer eventually DCed, and once we replaced her with a companion the rest went pretty smoothly (as sad as it makes me to say that).

Hammer Station
I levelled: 25-26

I was simultaneously horrified and impressed by how I was technically up to being able to queue for five different flashpoints at that point but Hammer Station was still the only one that kept popping. This is not just bad RNG but clearly some bad apples queuing for nothing else and dragging the rest of us along with them. Damn you, people.

In this run we had three level 75s, two of them from the same guild. The guildies dispatched the first couple of pulls quite quickly and skilfully, but the third player still hadn't even moved from the door by that point, which eventually prompted them to initiate a vote kick on him for "being AFK". I thought it was too soon for that and would have preferred to try talking to the person first, but since the two guildies were obviously on the same page the kick went through instantly and by the first boss a replacement had arrived.

The rest of the run was very smooth as for once everybody clearly knew what they were doing and it was actually kind of nice. If only it hadn't been Hammer Station again.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 26-28

My growing frustration with the pug-inflicted Hammer Station spam prompted me to take a break from the project for a few days. Returning to it with a fresh mind, I came back to... Hammer Station again, of course.

I will say that this was probably my nicest run so far. The group consisted of a level 75 Commando, a level 73 Gunslinger and a level 59 Sage, who were all technically dps but played it smart, which meant that the Commando and Sage threw out the occasional heal when needed, and everyone tried their best to round things up for efficient AoE. Someone even cleansed the debuff stacks on the Tunneler droid, which initially made me happy - until I realised that it had taken six runs for someone to bother doing that and then I felt sad again.

I was unsure how to proceed at this point - I simply could have unticked Hammer Station from my limited flashpoint selection and foregone the daily random reward (which is only a little bit of extra XP at my level anyway) and I doubt that it would have affected my queue times all that much, but another part of me was feeling stubborn and viewed the whole situation as being stuck in a game of chicken with the group finder: Who would give up and send me somewhere other than Hammer Station first? Would the randomiser do it or did I have to do it myself?

Hammer Station
I levelled: 28-30

I decided to give it one last try with the full random selection, playing on a Wednesday afternoon for a change since I had a half day off from work, just to see if queueing with a different crowd would make a difference. The group I got consisted of two other dps and a healer and we worked very well together: Cleanses were made on the Tunneler boss and one of the two Sages even controlled the second turret by the bridge. Too bad this synergy was wasted on Hammer Station yet again.

Enough, I say! On the next run I'm unticking Hammer Station, never mind the bonus XP for choosing a "random". (I have to put that in quotes because it really isn't.) Especially since I'm up to having six other flashpoints on my list that never pop. After fifteen levels of nothing but Hammer Station (except for that one not-very-great Athiss run) I want a change of scenery.

Plus, I'm running out of interesting new screenshots to take of my character running Hammer Station yet again.


Conquest Rebalanced

The last time I really talked about Conquest was back in June, when I expressed severe disappointment about the change to award Conquest points for anything, not just completing Conquest objectives. It's not that I hated the concept, but the implementation was severely lacking in my eyes and effectively made the pursuit of Conquest objectives pointless.

I was properly annoyed with this, but even so I was kind of surprised when I realised that it was actually contributing to me playing less than before. The logic for this is a bit strange and unlike many a forum warrior I won't make any claims to represent a significant number of players, but for me it effectively felt like the game was telling me to play less.

What I mean is this: When I'd log onto an alt to make some story progress, I'd hit my Conquest target barely two missions into their current chain and find myself thinking: "Hm, any additional points I earn on this character are going to be wasted... I should probably relog to a different one." However, I didn't actually feel like playing a different character, so in the end I'd just log off.

All that said, I didn't expect Bioware to nerf point gains again, because as I said in the post I linked at the beginning, nerfing things and taking away people's free stuff is never popular. However, Bioware surprised me in a good way by nerfing point gains from regular play indirectly with Onslaught's launch, which still had some people up in arms but probably a lot fewer than if the numbers that pop up on screen when you kill things had actually gotten smaller.

What they did was apply a multiplier to both Conquest targets and objectives, meaning that the contribution from doing random content became smaller, which in turn put objectives back on the map as something meaningful to do.

Aaand I'm loving it! Now it actually feels to me the way I wanted it to be in the first place: allowing you to attain your Conquest goals without doing objectives if you spend enough time playing that character, but making it so that completing objectives is the most efficient way to reach your Conquest target if that is your main priority.

Since Onslaught launched I've regularly capped three to four characters a week again, often with limited effort involved. Last week though I hit my target on five characters, and for the first time in months I actually logged in specifically to spend some more time on two of those characters to make sure they'd earn enough points before the reset. It was a goal to pursue and felt really good.

As a bonus, the application of the multiplier also makes it easier to level smaller guilds now, as the XP requirements for guild levels have not been increased the same way as far as I'm aware, meaning that the same amount of Conquest activities completed will gain your guild more XP than before. Even our little Imperial alt guild is up to level 35 by now.

So all I can say about this one is: Thank you, Bioware!

(And before anyone comments about last week's Conquest event lacking objectives, the way I read Eric's response on the forums it doesn't sound to me like that was an intended part of the plan. Bugs and mistakes are something else.)


Gearing After a Month, Tacticals & Set Bonuses

Onslaught has been out for a month, there's still a lot of stuff I haven't seen or done, and I'm loving it! Let's talk about gearing though.

My tentative first impressions after only a few days were that Spoils of War seemed a lot better than the PTS had led me to believe, and this positive impression has only been reinforced throughout the last month. I reached item rating 306 a few days after making that first post, and since then I've basically been... kind of done? It still feels weird to say that.

I feel confident in saying that it's never before been this easy to get your character fully geared in the highest item level available, not even back when you could get the best gear from hardmode Eternity Vault during certain weeks. Even better, since all this gear is now legacy-bound, your entire legacy is instantly geared to the same level. I have several bank tabs full of 306 gear for all slots, so any new alt of mine that dings 75 can just grab a full set and be powerful instantly. It's pretty amazing.

Now, this random 306 gear is not "best in slot" exactly, since there are things to fine-tune, such as amplifiers and augments and what not - but these feel very much optional and like something for min-maxers. For your everyday play, any set of 306 gear is going to be just fine and feel great.

It's fantastic to feel so liberated of the need to grind for gear. SWTOR has never been a game that had gear grind as its main focus, but Galactic Command and Ossus shifted the needle towards requiring a lot more effort than used to be the case pre-5.0. It's nice to see the game shift back towards a more casual-friendly system that frees you up to focus more on things like story and alts.

For those who like to optimise and as a secondary objective for everyone else, there is the option to work on changing your stat balance, or to collect different Tactical items and set bonuses, two of the new features of the expansion.

I saw someone compare Tacticals to legendary items from WoW's Legion expansion, but never having played that I can't comment on how accurate this comparison is. The general pitch of "items that can change the way you play/use certain abilities" didn't particularly excite me in theory, but now that I'm seeing it in practice I'm quite liking it.

For example my Commando main has two Tacticals, one that changes the interaction between one of my cooldowns and my main AoE heal, making AoE a bit more ammo-efficient, and another that buffs one of my main single-target heals and makes it castable on the go. As a general rule I find the AoE healing one most useful in operations and use the single-target healing one in flashpoints, but it's not a hard rule and it's interesting to me to test them in different environments, which I'd say means that the system is working as intended! Unfortunately not all classes/specs currently have equally interesting Tacticals from what I can tell.

The set bonuses similarly apply a mix of minor buffs and small ability changes, and there is entertainment value in collecting different ones to mix and match for different purposes. Is the six-piece bonus of one set interesting enough or should I only go for the four-piece and get a small buff from another two-piece set bonus? There are a lot of possibilities.

If I had to point out any weaknesses in the system there would be two so far: The first is that the acquisition of both Tacticals and set pieces feels heavily lopsided towards the vendors right now. While I'm glad that the vendors are there as an option if you're after one specific piece, as a general rule I'd prefer to get gear from doing the content itself (whatever it is). When one of our Sentinels got an awesome Tactical during a Traitor Among the Chiss run and then proceeded to lay waste to everything that came after the boss that had dropped it, it certainly made for a memorable afternoon!
Technically many sets state that they are best acquired from doing this or that, but from my experience you usually have enough tech fragments to buy what you're after from the vendor long before you get anywhere close to acquiring something useful from a drop. And if the item isn't on the vendor at all, you're just flat out of luck. For example I've been after the Apex Predator set for Commandos for a while, and it's supposed to drop in the Dxun operation, but after weeks of killing things in there I haven't seen a single set piece drop from any of the bosses - I only have the belt because it randomly dropped as shared loot from Dreadmaster Brontes on story mode of all places.

The other issue I have is that the sheer number of Tacticals and set bonuses is clearly posing balancing challenges for Bioware, and so far it seems that if these don't work out in your favour, they don't really have any sort of plan for dealing with it. For example I had bought four pieces of the Nimble Master set for my Guardian because the four piece set-bonus sounded extremely fun, but literally one day after I'd acquired the fourth piece, they changed the set bonus to something completely different that I did not like at all, which meant that the set went into the bank (there was no option to refund it) and I had to start over from scratch.

Four million credits and twelve thousand tech fragments is not the end of the world for me as someone who plays a lot, but I still felt cheated and I could easily see a more casual player, for whom this may have been all their savings, quitting over being screwed over like that. I think Bioware will have to think about how to handle changes like that going forward - I don't think just leaving players out in the cold and telling them to deal with it is a good way of doing it when collecting these sets is supposed to be an aspirational aspect of gameplay.

On the whole though, Spoils of War gets a definitive thumbs-up from me!


Stuck in Hammer Station

At the end of the Esseles, Nautalie the Shadow was level 14, but handing in the introduction to group finder quest ticked her over to 15, which was just as well since I didn't really want to do the Esseles a second time. (Ironic, considering what was to come.) At that point, the Esseles disappeared from her available group finder selection, to be replaced with... Hammer Station and Kuat Drive Yards. I picked up the KDY story quest and queued up for both, hoping to get KDY, just to get...

Hammer Station
I levelled: 15-17

So I should probably mention that my relationship with Hammer Station has really soured over the last few years. I used to think that it was a nice little instance, and to be honest it still is, but it's also somehow turned into the lowest common denominator of flashpoints, in the sense that it's usually the easiest and most popular way to gain whatever rewards are being given out for flashpoint running at any particular point in time.

This led to people targeting it specifically instead of opting to queue for a random, and many have run it over and over again so many times that it's been given the nickname "Spammer Station". While I don't particularly care if other players want to do that, it becomes a problem if those people put themselves in the shared group finder queue, as it means that many others who are queuing for the full variety of flashpoints also get funnelled into Hammer Station over and over.

If low-level characters are now additionally limited in their queuing options, with Hammer Station being one of only a few, I suspect that this problem will only get worse.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I wasn't surprised to be put into a Hammer Station run that was very business-like and quick. With three of us having stealth we ended up skipping even more than usual, only killing the occasional mob that the Guardian in the group couldn't bypass otherwise. As two of our dps were level 75 and one of them in full 306 gear to boot, things also melted pretty quickly. I was very surprised when I somehow managed to pull aggro on one of the trash pulls and died, though others suffered deaths throughout the run as well.

This was mostly because despite of the raw power at our hands, the group seemed terribly inefficient in some ways. The Scoundrel never seemed to bother to throw a heal on anyone but themselves, no matter how low they got, and nobody ever seemed to bother with any sort of survival cooldown before keeling over dead. I had an excuse because I was too low to have any, but they didn't!

Hammer Station
I levelled: 17-19

Level 17 added Athiss to my list of available flashpoints, so with three options to choose from, the randomiser of course threw me into Hammer Station again, this time with another Nautolan one level below me (a Guardian tank), a Sage healer in his fourties and a badly geared level 70 gunslinger.

Fun fact: I remember how that one pull with the two gold droids near the start used to be considered the instance's one real stumbling block, until I saw someone handle it via corner-pulling one day, and over time this knowledge has spread so far and wide that most groups deal with it quite easily these days. Our Nautolan tank didn't know though, so he jumped at the mobs right where they were and it was a mess.

Also, despite of having both a tank and a level 70 damage dealer, it was my lowly level 17 Shadow who ended up pulling aggro a lot of the time, and I didn't seem to be getting a lot of heals either (the healer's choice of spells seemed somewhat erratic to me), leading to me tanking the Tunneler for most of the first boss fight, until I failed to click a kolto station in time and died from lack of healing.

I always love it when that message pops up while I'm still alive on my screen (though I was falling over by the time I managed to hit my screenshot key).

Lest you think that I'm making myself out to be some kind of elite player being dragged down by flailing baddies, I did quite a bit of derping of my own in this run, such as getting knocked to my death on Battlelord Kreshan, something that literally hadn't happened to me in years.

As I respawned in Vorgan the Volcano's room, I did my best to run back quickly. To make matters worse, I then managed to pull one of the Boarder Suppression Droids that we had missed, but instead of attacking me even once it instantly made a beeline for where the rest of the group was fighting. It fell off the bridge in the asteroid tunnel but unfortunately climbed right back out again.

And I was so hopeful when I saw this...

I felt a bit bad bringing an additional gold mob with me but figured it shouldn't cause too much of an issue... easy fight, right? Then I rounded the corner into the final room, just to find the area absolutely swamped with adds and two of my three group mates about to die. I rushed in and started AoEing down the adds, and while the tank and healer died soon after, the boss and all his adds did too. Too bad the gold droid was still there and killed me right after. Unfortunately the level 75 gunslinger had little interest in helping to kill it and ran over to loot and click the console instead. This resulted in the droid killing her too once I was gone, but hey, at least she got that loot, right?

For me, things weren't over yet though, since releasing put us all back at the very start of the instance and I still wanted my tech fragments, so I started running back towards the boss room. So did the tank, who was running a bit behind me. Unfortunately I then managed to aggro another droid we had skipped. The tank caught up and tried to help, but couldn't keep aggro off me yet again, so that I died just before the droid did. "Oh well," I thought, "at least he can revive me and we can move on!" Nope, he ran right past my body and I had to release and go back to the start a second time. At least the boss's corpse and my loot were still there when I finally reached him.

I levelled: 19-21

Yes, something other than Hammer Station! Unfortunately it was another weird run. This time I got teamed with a level 75 Guardian, a level 75 Gunslinger, and a level 73 Commando (all dps), so I thought it should be smooth sailing. However, the Commando shot off like a bat out of hell and kept pulling things so fast that nobody had a chance to regain health between combat encounters. In fact, he himself was often at less than half health when he pulled, but he kept rotating cooldowns and somehow managed to stay alive.

One of the other dps asked him to slow down please but this request was ignored, and things came to a head in Professor Ley'arsha's room, where he climbed up the ledge on the side for the shortcut that I've occasionally seen people use but that isn't particularly popular from my experience since it takes most people longer to get up there than it would take to simply kill the two trash groups that it allows you to skip.

Stuck on the wrong side of those droids... (I'm only posting this cause you can't make out the Commando's name in it).

Worse though, he jumped right down at the end without even checking whether anyone was following him and pulled the boss all on his own. Despite of my long history of failing at jumping shortcuts, I somehow managed to scramble up the ledge to follow him, but the other two dps decided to start pulling the remaining trash instead while the Commando was trying to solo the boss, and unsurprisingly we wiped soon after.

The Commando actually had the gall to start WTF-ing at people and asked why they were pulling unnecessary trash, which resulted in one of the other dps initiating a vote to kick the Commando with the reason "he's being a dick". I can't say I disagreed with the sentiment, but since I loathe kicking I abstained and instead told the Commando that most people can't even make the jump on that ledge. He didn't seem to think much of that, but the vote to kick didn't go through and we suffered no more deaths throughout the rest of the run, though he kept pulling more or less just as recklessly.

Hammer Station
I levelled: 21-23

When I saw the pop for this group I noted that aside from a level 75 tank it also included two other lowbies that were level 22 and 24 respectively. Still, they were all higher than me and Mandalorian Raiders had just been added to my selection, so maybe I'd finally get to do something other than Hammer Station? Nah, that would be silly.

The level 22 charged into the first pull all on his own and while I made it in time to help him kill things, the level 75 tank quit instantly. Then again, I'm not sure if his quitting was actually related to anything we were doing; for all I know he just might've been as thoroughly sick of Hammer Station as I was. Anyway, he was instantly replaced by another level 75 Guardian. In fact, this happened so quickly that the Commando later expressed surprise at our lack of a tank, presumably because he remembered seeing the tank icon on the pop-up window but hadn't noticed the switcheroo.

The level 22 dps Guardian kept running ahead and making more pulls on his own and died a few more times from this. We also wiped on "that pull" even though the corner pull was done correctly, but I think the Commando was lagging behind and with only the three of us we died.

On the Tunneler droid the level 75 Guardian tanked at first, died to the first laser and then complained about other people not clicking the kolto stations to heal him. I took over tanking and lived for longer (taking care of my own health as much as possible), however eventually I died as well since someone else had clicked the third kolto station when it wasn't needed, which meant that it wasn't available when I needed it. The boss died with the Commando being the last man standing.

After that things seemed to get better until we wiped on the two champion turrets before the bridge. I don't know if the Commando couldn't find his CC or if someone had broken it, but we just took too much damage and couldn't do enough ourselves. On the second round I did what little I could with Force stun and lift to keep the second turret off our backs at least for a little while, and to be fair the others also did what they could, with the Guardians swapping aggro and the Commando throwing out some heals.

Finally we suffered two more deaths on the last boss (this time it was someone else who got thrown off the edge) but we got him down on the first try at least.

I have to admit that this is turning out to be less fun than I expected so far. At this stage in my "experiment" four years ago I had already run four different flashpoints and was six levels higher. Being limited to four flashpoints is no fun, and even less so when Hammer Station is the only one of them that actually pops.

Also, no offense to anyone in particular that was in those runs, but I kind of feel like I'm stuck in the absolute dregs of the group finder right now, with people playing incredibly badly at times, failing to use any of their abilities and/or showing zero regard for the rest of the group because blind zerging is all they know and care about. I can only hope that it gets better soon or this diary is going to be very boring (and unhappy).


Group Finding in 6.0 (hey, the Esseles is hard again)

One thing that changed with 6.0 but wasn't mentioned in the patch notes and hasn't been documented anywhere else as far as I can tell is that Bioware made some pretty impactful changes to the group finder. I wasn't aware of a lot of them myself until commenter Diana pointed out in comment that she'd noticed that her selection of available flashpoints had been greatly limited on her low-level character compared to what it used to be.

To quickly recap the setup that we had since 4.0 when Bioware first introduced flashpoint scaling: From level 10-14 you only had access to the Esseles / Black Talon, but then at level 15 all other flashpoints available through the group finder would open up on veteran mode. At 50 you'd also gain access to all master modes (minus a couple of the newer ones that had minimum gear requirements) as well as to all story mode operations.

This setup always had its pros and cons. I levelled a Mercenary purely through flashpoints shortly after 4.0 dropped to test the waters and documented her journey here on the blog. It was mostly good fun, but there were definitely some kinks: New players could be totally lost in story flashpoints that told a tale meant to happen later in the game, and lowbies in general struggled in certain places that had originally been designed for characters with a bunch of cooldowns available and equipped with a full set of utilities; bolster or no bolster.

Hearing that this had changed now, I was immediately intrigued and decided that it was probably time to level another character through flashpoint running, if for no other reason than to be able to jot down which flashpoint unlocks at which level now. In fact, this was the main reason I created Nautalie the Shadow besides wanting to check out Nautolans.

While levelling her through Tython I made good use of her stealth to throttle my XP gains when needed to make sure that I wasn't going to be too high level by the time I left the planet. In the end I was about three quarters through level ten by the time I queued up for the Esseles, which is still the only option available to characters of level 10-14.

Somewhat to my disappointment, I had to wait more than half an hour for a pop. If I had actually played instead of standing around on the fleet during that time, I probably would have outlevelled the flashpoint's range before I got a group! I did a /who and there were more than enough characters in the right level range, but if they were doing the Esseles at all most of them seemed to prefer the solo version.

On the plus side, when I finally did get a group everyone in it was pretty chill and happy to watch the cut scenes. After previous negative experiences I was hitting space bar right away to be on the safe side, but quickly noticed that other people weren't doing the same - so I asked if they wanted to watch and we had at least one self-professed newbie who had never been before, and the others didn't mind.

The only hump we ran into at the beginning was that except for the group leader none of us could enter the instance. Even while trying to walk directly through the door I kept getting an error that the group leader had selected a different difficulty setting than the rest of us. I can only suspect that they had picked up the solo mode before queueing, though I'm not sure why the game would even allow you to queue for veteran mode then. By passing leadership to me and resetting the phase, three of us were able to enter, but now the unlucky previous group leader was unable to join us, even after he had abandoned all his quests to make sure nothing was conflicting, so he eventually just left. I did feel kind of bad for him. We did make a start with the three of us plus Qyzen and eventually got a new fourth while fighting Lieutenant Isric.

One thing that was very noticeable was that the whole flashpoint felt much harder than I remembered it. Now, part of that may have been due to us having no healer, but I also noticed that the instance now scales to 70, when pre-6.0 it scaled down to its original level (I forgot, something between 10 and 15). Bolster is good and all, but a level 10-14 party scaled up to 70 is still pretty weaksauce, meaning that we had to pause and regen after every other pull, and every fight involving a gold mob turned into a proper life-or-death battle. I even died on Ironfist, after having already used two of the three kolto stations and being unable to find the third one in my low-health panic. This level of difficulty was unexpected, but actually kind of enjoyable to me personally.

Other things I noticed were that veteran flashpoints apparently now also give the "Beginner's Luck" buff, which also appears to have been added to all story mode operations with 6.0. It's basically the mechanic from the Izax fight that allows you to use your revive every thirty seconds instead of every five minutes, now applied to all group content that is supposed to be easy. Can't say I mind the idea, though it obviously wasn't relevant to us in the low teens as nobody had a combat revive yet anyway.

I was also very surprised to get tech fragments and phat grade 11 crafting loot... at level 10, in the Esseles! I mean, the number of fragments was pretty low, and currently it seems like you aren't actually able to open the crafting bags until level 75... that could turn into an inventory problem quickly. But it was still nice to get some loot that is actually relevant to endgame and my legacy.

Over the next few weeks, I'm planning to document my levelling progress in the same format I used for my Mercenary back in 2015, so prepare yourselves for some more tales of pugs. As mentioned earlier, I'll also be keeping a log of just when each flashpoint unlocks now and am planning to post that in an easy-to-read format once I've hit max-level.


You are Nautolan, I am here with you

One of Onslaught's big bullet point features was the addition of Nautolans as a new playable species, again something that we hadn't seen in a few years. (Togruta were added in July 2015; how time flies.) While they were ultimately decoupled from the expansion purchase when its launch was delayed, they were released alongside the rest of 6.0, so I still consider them a part of Onslaught.

While I'm always interested in new playable species, the new story and gearing system were way too interesting for me to even think about rolling up a new alt in the first couple of weeks, but now that we're getting close to a full month of Onslaught, I decided to take the plunge and look at what life is like as a "noodlehead" as I've seen some people fondly call them.

As someone who quite likes playing around with the character creator, the first thing I noticed was that the sliders for Nautolans were kind of awkward. For example you have the choice of several different faces and head tentacle options, but instead of giving you a slider for each, there is only one called "head" which makes you scroll through more than seventy (!) permutations of all the different combinations, which makes it very hard to find the one you like best.

The same issue exists with their skin patterns and pattern colour. I really have no idea why they did this because it shouldn't be because they ran out of sliders. I went back to check and cyborgs for example have more sliders already. Going with this setup just makes the whole process a lot more awkward than it needs to be.

My second problem was... that I was kind of disappointed that player-created Nautolans look very different from the NPCs that we've had in the game for the last eight years. I really should have known better, considering that I went through the same cycle of expectation and disappointment with the Cathar. I guess I just hadn't given it any real thought beforehand.

In the case of the Nautolans, I can even kind of see why they had to be changed: the existing NPCs all have absolutely huge eyes and very narrow jaws, which I expect doesn't mesh with all the facial expressions that player characters have to display in cut scenes, so porting those features onto the skeleton of the player character model was always going to distort them a bit. I expect I'll get used to the new look over time.

One thing I definitely hadn't anticipated though was how disturbing I would find my own Nautolan to look at in cut scenes. You see, I have played characters of every single playable species in game at this point, except for one: the Miraluka, because their lack of eyes bugs the crap out of me. Nautolans do have eyes, but they are huge and not very expressive, though NPC Nautolans do at least blink a little occasionally. My little Nautolan Shadow on the other hand just stares into space with the most wide-eyed expression, without ever flinching, and it's actually kind of unsettling.

Let me look into your soul.

What makes it even worse is that for some reason all Nautolans have this little smirk by default, so that even in serious cut scenes in very unhappy circumstances, they always seem to be smiling a little - combined with the bug-eyed stare, this gives them a slightly creepy, doll-eyed expression, and I'm not sure I'll manage to get used to that.

I know you've come to kill me, but as you can see on my face I find this notion vaguely uplifting... apparently.

Looking around the forums and reddit, reactions to this new species also seem to be mixed. Some, like Swtorista, are absolutely in love, while others are more disappointed, for the reasons I listed here and others. I'm honestly still kind of undecided myself. I definitely don't love the Nautolan model, which is a disappointment in so far as this was actually a species I was actively looking forward to (unlike the Torgruta for example, which I didn't particularly care about), but Cathar also weren't everything I had hoped for at launch but definitely grew on me over time (and their hair options, which were very limited initially, did get expanded later on for example).

I don't expect Nautolans to be changed in any major way at this point, but just giving them the ability to blink or even just tugging at the sides of their mouths a little to give them a more neutral default expression would already go a long way in my opinion.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Kephesses

The new operation that came with Onslaught is SWTOR's first multi-boss raid to be released in full since late 2014. In the intervening years we got Gods from the Machine, which was released over the course of more or less a full year, one boss at a time. While I do like Gods, I think it did suffer somewhat from this piecemeal approach, at the very least in the narrative department, as no other operation is so confusing and confused in terms of what's actually going on beyond us taking out some big baddies one at a time.

With the Dxun operation - which does have a proper name, incidentally... I think it's Nature of Progress? However, nobody actually calls it that, and even the one-time story mission just tells you to "complete the Dxun operation". With the Dxun operation, Bioware's team shows us once again what they're capable of when they actually get to put a whole operation together in one go, and it's great.

They originally said that they were going for something similar to Ravagers, and I wrinkled my nose a bit since that's not one of my favourite operations, but I can see why they made that comparison. It also reminds me a bit of Scum and Villainy though, in the sense that there is a clear narrative progression from one boss to the next and you're not just entering some random lair full of monsters.

What really stands out though is how utterly hilarious it is. The basic story is that Czerka Interstellar - totally different from Czerka, honest - lost control of their research facility on Onderon's moon after an incursion by Trandoshans, and as usual this upsetting of the status quo has revealed that they've been up to all kinds of shenanigans.

During your journey to reclaim the facility you get constant running commentary from your "assistants" from Czerka, who are radioing you instructions about how to get past various obstacles, and their dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious. "The most important device in the entire facility routinely catches fire?!" became quote-worthy to me pretty much instantly. (It's over the top, but if you've ever worked in a certain kind of office, it may also sound scarily familiar...)

Now this is isn't entirely without issues, as I saw @DrSWTOR highlight on Twitter during PTS testing...
As I said in response to him then, I very much had an issue with this in Ravagers back in the day, where a big story twist happens in the middle of the final fight which I completely missed the first time around, leading to me being quite confused. I don't think it's as much of a problem in Dxun though, as the dialogue there consists more of jokes and tips about how to beat the fight, so if you miss some the first time around it's okay if you simply catch them next time (and the opportunity to catch jokes you missed before can in fact increase replayability).

The boss fights offer a nice variety of new mechanics compared to previous operations, without anything feeling completely strange and out of left field. For example the very first boss is somewhat reminiscent of the Enhanced Vrblther from Czerka Core Meltdown, in that you have to drag her around and pop little plants near her, though in Dxun their purpose is to reduce damage on you rather than to increase damage done to the boss. You also have a much larger area to move around in.

The second and third fight are gauntlet type encounters that force you to fight your way through a stream of unending adds, something that isn't exactly new and innovative for the genre but hasn't really been featured in SWTOR before.

The fourth fight was a source of much hilarity for my guild. We went into story mode completely blind, wanting to figure things out on the go. When we saw two mutant Trandoshans in colourful body armour standing in an underground lab, someone quipped that we only needed two more and we'd have our own set of ninja turtles, and what do you know, shortly after the pull two more of the reptiles joined in and it was a hoot. Even better was the actual lightbulb moment when we finally figured out what we were supposed to do to beat the fight. I managed to catch that one and the kill that followed on video.

It might not be as funny to others watching after the fact (maybe it was one of those things for which you just had to be there), but for us it was a right laugh. The end of the video also shows us running into a bit where the devs clearly decided to troll us raiders a little by making us climb a huge staircase that debuffed our characters with fatigue, causing us to go more and more slowly over time. We joked that on hardmode it would have holes and on nightmare they would be invisible (a reference to the infamous bridge on Darvannis).

There was one more encounter featuring some interesting mechanics and a little surprise that I won't spoil here for anyone who hasn't seen the fight. The final boss is the only thing I'm not so sure about, mostly because he took us more than ten minutes to kill even on story mode, which struck me as a little insane (then again, maybe we are still doing something wrong). It's also a slightly odd fight in that there is very little to do for most members of the ops group, except for the tank repositioning the boss every so often, and one guy having the unenviable task of running around the room activating various doodads at the right time to counter certain of the boss's abilities. I don't usually mind if a fight has a special job that you can give to one of your "star players" who then carries the rest of the group a bit, but in this case the contrast between what that one person has to do and what everyone else has to do is very stark, plus as I mentioned the fight just goes on a bit too long for my liking.

This does sort of segue into the aspects of the operation that are less good, of which I don't have many right now, but they are still worth mentioning:

First off, the new system of story mode lockouts resetting every day was a major pain in the butt during the first week as our blind approach meant that we weren't clearing the whole ops in a single night but had to start over from scratch every evening.

Also, the last boss launched with a bug that made him unkillable for anyone but a handful of world first teams as one of the doodads intended to counter his abilities wasn't working. That bug has since been fixed, but it was still annoying for the operation to launch in an unclearable state, even more so after we had (re-)cleared everything else three nights in a row just to get to the last boss... and then find him bugged.

Finally, effort vs. reward for doing the operation don't feel very well balanced right now. Each boss drops something like two pieces of gear, compared to the dozens you can get from a single flashpoint run, and I don't recall seeing a single set piece or tactical drop yet, despite of certain items being advertised as having a higher chance of dropping in this operation. I mean, we're still going to run it for the challenge and for fun, but it would be nice to get a little bit more reward out of it.

I'm also once again somewhat unsure about the difficulty tuning. Story mode is no Gods of the Machine for sure (thankfully!), but fights like the two gauntlet bosses still require an amount of co-ordination that I wouldn't expect to find in your average pug. This strikes me as a shame as it once again means that the content will remain inaccessible to many more casual players even on what's supposed to be the easiest difficulty, which is particularly sad considering what a fun operation this is.

Hardmode seems good fun as well so far, as after two nights we've beaten the first two encounters and made some progress on the third. This does feel more in line with the sort of hardmodes we used to get in the game's earlier operations rather than the "hardmare" that we've been treated to in more recent years (and which I personally tended to find rather off-putting).

Anyway, it's nice to see Bioware throw SWTOR's raiders a bone again, and such a tasty one at that. It's not a game about raiding, but for at least a percentage of us raiding is still one of our favourite pastimes between story updates and it's good to see ops players get some love again after the long and dry years of KotFE and early KotET.


Musings on Onslaught's Story, Part 3: Corellia & Beyond

After either helping or sabotaging the Republic fleets on Onderon and Mek-Sha, it's time for the big battle for the Meridian Complex on Corellia. Once again, spoilers abound!

On both factions, the briefing before the battle includes a lot of exposition about ships and battle plans. I couldn't help but think that to the type of player who just wants to jump straight into the action to get up close and personal, this could be a bit boring, but personally I appreciated the call-backs to weaponry developed in previous storylines such as the Isotope-5 powered ships of the Empire, and just the general effort to convey that both sides have competent leadership with an actual plan. Also, your involvement in these briefings emphasises that though the Alliance may have lost a lot of its power, it and by extension you are still considered very important to the war.

However, since you are also known for being good at kicking arse in person, you get asked to assist the ground troops, which leads to you doing the new Objective Meridian flashpoint. I think the flashpoint will deserve a post of its own later on... for the purposes of this one, it's enough to know that you spend some time fighting either Republic defenders or Imperial invaders in the streets of Corellia, until you get into the Meridian Complex itself, where it comes down to either shutting down or protecting the installation's shields.

The first place where you expect to do this turns out to have been rendered useless as controls have been rerouted to another level... by none other than Tharan Cedrax, yay! That leaves only one consular companion unaccounted for now. I'm really pleased that Bioware managed to weave his return into the main story here, and it fits well too. The encounter with him also features some pretty funny lines depending on your choices - I have to admit that I had to chuckle when I ordered him killed on my Marauder, and his last words "Holiday, I'm sorry" prompted Major Anri to go: "Holiday? What a weirdo." Also, my Sage looked hilariously put out when she recognised him.

On Imperial side you also get the option to flirt with Darth Malgus himself around this point! His response is a character-appropriate "ugh" before moving on. I just loved this.

Finally you have the big showdown between either you, Tau and Arn vs. Malgus or you and Malgus vs. Tau and some unnamed Republic soldiers/Jedi. These are both pretty well done and the fights quite interesting - though I swear the first time I did them they either bugged out in some way or I was completely zoned out because I came away thinking that they were really boring and the boss(es) had seemingly no interesting abilities.

Then I heard others talk about the fight and was confused when they mentioned all kinds of stuff happening of which I had absolutely no memory. The second time around I definitely noticed the actual mechanics too, so I have no idea what was going on there. (EDIT: On replaying the fight again last night, I think at least the first instance of me failing to notice any mechanics may have been simply due to the fact that if you have both Tau and Arn set to dps, they burn everything down very quickly, even Malgus.)

The one bit I found a bit wonky is what happens immediately after the fight, as your big feat of heroism basically consists of making a superhuman jump in a cut scene to get to the crucial console in time, which... didn't feel very heroic to me personally. Even worse, both your wounded opponent(s) and allies roll off the platform in the final moments and you just run off without as much as a: "Gosh, I hope he is/they are alright!" At least to me it didn't feel right for my character (any of them!) to have zero concern for the people that just fought by her side only two minutes ago.

On the plus side, everyone does definitely survive, and I do highlight this as a positive thing because I went into the final fight actively worrying about Malgus or Tau dying, which would have felt like a colossal waste to me considering how little time we've had with these characters so far. I didn't even want to have the option to kill either of them, not yet! So I'm glad to say that they lived to fight another day. Some enemies are just too much fun to have around for me to want to defeat them too quickly.

After securing victory for your faction in the final battle (from what I understand this is one place where you can't sabotage/betray anyone), you get a lot of honours bestowed on you. Regardless of your class, you get asked to integrate fully into the Empire or Republic or to make a conscious choice to maintain your independence. I thought that was actually an interesting question even for a loyalist, because while my trooper was instantly on board with simply serving the Republic again for example, my loyalist agent never liked being under the heel of Sith who had a 50-50 chance at best to be either competent or capricious. So while she's still definitely loyal to the Empire, it's because she cares about the people of the Empire. She definitely had no interest in going back to subjecting herself to the direct authority of the Dark Council again.

Then there are some neat rewards for you depending on your class: troopers get promoted to the rank of Colonel for example, while Jedi get offered a seat on Master Gnost-Dural's newly reinstated Jedi council. My warrior was basically offered her old job back (yes!) and I haven't played through the story on my inquisitor yet, but I heard that you get the option to go as far as to claim your old Dark Council seat back. All of this is simply awesome, period. I don't know how they are going to keep this much class specific detail straight if the story is going to stay generic, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth here.

Also worth noting is that Republic characters finally get to meet the new Supreme Chancellor Galena Rans, and she seems pleasant enough to deal with, which is nice. Republic leadership has not been painted in the best light for the last few years, and we really needed someone actually embodying the Republic's values at the helm again.

Anyway, you won and got your just rewards, time to roll the credits and do dailies, right? Not so fast!

For the first time in an expansion story, Bioware decided to not just wrap things up, but to also make it very clear where we'll be going next. (At the end of KotET Lana was worrying about trouble brewing ahead, but that was all very vague.) Back on the fleet, Tau or Anri introduce you to two people who want to meet you and who helped them out of the rubble after the battle: Kira and Lord Scourge! Finally! Now people can stop spamming each and every one of SWTOR's social media posts with "When's Kira coming back?", regardless of the post's actual subject...

Also, it turns out that Scourge was the mysterious Sith that attacked you on Mek-Sha, to test whether there was anything of Vitiate left in you. Also, it turns out that these two were the "mysterious observers" you could see in the distance from your base on Odessen just before the expansion. I remember someone on Twitter calling it (unfortunately I don't remember who it was) and me thinking that this was a weird theory, but they were completely right! Good on you, whoever you were!

For the Jedi knight, it's a great little reunion and involves some romance too: Kira is now open for some same-sex loving and Scourge can be romanced too! I was really hesitant about how to react to the latter on my knight because I wanted to romance him so badly back in the base game, but that was seven years ago at this point... since then my Guardian's gone through a lot of story and ended up with Arcann. I chose some of the flirt options anyway, just to see where they would go, and then pulled out at the last moment. I kind of thought there'd be an "I can't, there's somebody else" dialogue option or something, but since there wasn't, my knight basically just ended up saying that she thought it wasn't wise to rush into anything and that they'd talk about it again later. Cheeky minx likes to keep her options open!

Anyway, the big question with Kira and Scourge was always going to be why they hadn't shown up any earlier, considering everything you went through with Valkorion and that destroying the Emperor was literally Scourge's entire purpose in life. Surprisingly, they have a good excuse! They were busy destroying the Emperor's original body, which he had still stowed away somewhere as a sort of life insurance. (I did remember hearing/reading about that before at some point, so it didn't come out of left field for me.) Afterwards they were afflicted with some kind of disease caused by Vitiate's decaying body that knocked them out for more than a year until they were rescued by Master Satele and her new students, but then it afflicted them and they are currently stowed away on a distant transport ship, more or less comatose until someone comes to rescue them. Kira and Scourge want your help in saving them and destroying the Emperor's last legacy.

I thought it was a very interesting choice to finish on such a... not cliffhanger exactly, but obvious plot hook for the next story update, whenever that's going to come. I guess the folks at Bioware felt that making players feel too obviously "done" at the end of the story wasn't good for long term engagement. I can't say I minded though; the main story still feels like it wrapped up in a satisfying manner, and this is more of a tease of what's to come next. That said, I thought that going back to the old Emperor in any way, shape or form was the last thing I really wanted from the story, but Kira and Scourge kinda sold it to me. Of course, it also sounds very much like this next story update is then going to be the same for both factions again, which I'm less keen on, but I guess we'll see.

Bonus for Imperials only: They also get a scene that shows Darth Malgus strapped to a medical table while a doctor and a droid talk about what a nuisance it is to have to repair all those cybernetics again. The droid remarks that even the explosive device was damaged and needed taking out (forget subtlety, apparently Acina just decided to plant a bomb inside Malgus' body, dang), though the damage doesn't seem to have been caused by the debris under which he was buried... we have a brief moment of the doc going "oh noes" as he puts two and two together before we switch to a view of Malgus having set the lab on fire and demanding to be off with the medical droid. Exciting! So he's going to be on the loose as well now, another potential future plot thread. I guess we'll find out where he really stands on the subject of Republic vs. Empire when he isn't being kept on a leash by Acina or Vowrawn.

All in all, Onslaught's story has been very enjoyable to me, ramping up nicely after a bit of a weak start and finishing with an ending that once again has me excited about whatever's going to happen next. It has it all: class-specific dialogue options, companion returns, hanging out with entertaining NPCs - I couldn't really have asked for more!


I Read The KOTOR Comics

Back in September I had the opportunity to attend Stockholm Comic Con, and while browsing one of the booths there I found Star Wars Legends Epic Collection: The Old Republic Volume 1 on a shelf. (And you thought that SWTOR written out in full was a mouthful!) "Neat," I thought, "that must be that SWTOR comic series I remember hearing about" and bought it.

I was wrong and apparently the SWTOR comics are a different thing, as the series collected in this volume actually takes place in the KOTOR era, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment. Also, it still has some relevance to the game as several Cartel Market outfits were inspired by ones worn by characters in the comic for example. So I'd look at certain images and go...

Hey, that's the chest piece my Sentinel is wearing!

Or: Hey, that's the set Cal's Sage used to wear!

That was kind of amusing.

The comic itself was also entertaining enough, and I liked it enough to buy the other two volumes from Amazon.

The story is set during the Revan era, and s/he even makes several appearances as a shadowy figure, with the comic leaving his/her identity unclear as it was still respecting the fact that every KOTOR player had their own unique Revan. We get the backstory of the mysterious mask of Revan too.

The main story was interesting enough on its own as well, though it had its ups and downs. There were parts that were very good, but others were fairly mediocre.

I quite liked the main character Zayne Carrick, a Jedi who has a slightly awkward and uncomfortable relationship with the Force and who slowly learns how to deal with it over the course of the series (while pursuing other objectives).

The secondary protagonist and main female character Jarael left me feeling a bit disappointed: While she started out strong, she quickly became way too passive, mainly serving as an object for other characters to obsess over, which struck me as quite a shame.

The art was a bit of a mixed bag - I'm neither an art critic nor a comics connoisseur but I honestly wasn't that impressed by a lot of it. The worst thing was that the artists and style often changed quite drastically from one arc to the next, from pretty realistic to highly cartoonish. The former sometimes struggled to deliver the more humorous moments appropriately, and the latter was mainly used in an arc that was clearly meant to be quite dark and serious, leading to a horrible clash between tone and imagery.

Still, overall I can recommend this series. The writing is about on par with some of the better Star Wars tie-in novels (of which the author has also written several), so definitely worthwhile if you're into that sort of thing.