War! Still Surprisingly Good, Actually.

My guild has taken part in Conquest ever since the system was first introduced with the Galactic Strongholds expansion (you can read my initial thoughts about the system in this post from September 2014 for a serious blast from the past). We've never been a major player on our server, but depending on the state of the system we've had a chance to win prizes occasionally. Total Galactic War and the way it massively opens up the playing field has always been a good candidate for this in particular.

For some reason Bioware hadn't really taken that particular Conquest event out to play for nearly a year though, so it led to some excitement when we first found out that last week was going to be the first Total Galactic War in ages. Would we finally have a chance to conquer a large yield planet for Twin Suns Squadron again?

There was also some trepidation in the mix though: Several major changes had been made to Conquest since the last time and we weren't sure how those were going to affect the way the event worked and our performance in particular. The fix to put an end to "newbie farming" hadn't actually been implemented yet either.

Still, we started planning to the best of our ability. Honestly, that's the thing I like the most about the Conquest system in general, that it really gives SWTOR's MMO side a chance to shine, as it's one of those aspects of the game that greatly benefits from people sticking their heads together to plan and play in a coordinated fashion.

For example, if you know that "complete the PvP weekly" is going to be an objective that's going to award a lot of points, you can play a character up to having nine out of ten wins completed the week before, so that you only have to win one more match during the actual TGW week and get it done much more quickly. (Technically you could complete the quest entirely and just wait with handing it in, but that exposes you to some risk if you group with other people, as someone else doing the hand-in in your vicinity would also complete it for you.) A lot of my more PvP-obsessed guildies did this and I was quite proud of them. (Me, I was too lazy for that, though I did do some PvP and even GSF during the week itself.)

Then once the event starts, you've got to know which planet to invade and when. We knew that we wanted to avoid "the Shields" as well as another half-dozen, well-known large Conquest guilds, so we kept re-checking the table to see where they'd gone so that we'd know which planets to avoid, as it was impossible for us to compete there. On the other hand you don't want to wait any longer than necessary as it means that your guild misses out on the bonus points generated after invading, so once all the obvious players to avoid were out of the way, we decided to commit to Dantooine, which was attractive as a large yield planet (and therefore usually out of our league) and didn't seem too heavily contested yet at the time.

What looked like a pretty safe bet initially was put into some question though when a guild called Rapid Serenity decided to invade as well. Rapid has been somewhat of a nemesis of ours as far as Conquest is concerned, as we've gone up against them directly several times by now. I know that there was at least one occasion when we lost, but other times we successfully beat them, including the last time we went toe-to-toe on a planet before this event. I can only guess that since it had been so long, maybe they had a change in leadership since then and nobody remembered that we maybe weren't the best guild to mess with.

As far as I can tell, Rapid is a guild similar to ours, only somewhat more populated, which has been their main advantage in the past. We were initially a little worried that it could turn out to be our undoing this time due to the more recent Conquest changes really favouring doing any kind of activity in large numbers over players grinding specific objectives. As they are a Republic guild as well, we kept doing a /who to check on their progress and could see them going through all the big point generators en masse, from ops to world bosses to Star Fortresses, while we did our best to match their efforts.

Oh yeah, Star Fortresses! As I said there was some uncertainty about what this TGW's objectives were going to be, since Bioware had made several rounds of changes to objectives since the last time this event had been active, and there were some surprises in there indeed. For example the GSI weekly was removed as an objective - in the past TGW was one of the rare occasions when I used to do it on several characters. Good thing I hadn't tried to prepare that in advance!

On the other hand Star Fortresses, that slightly awkward side endgame activity introduced with KotFE, suddenly had multiple extremely high-paying daily objectives added, to the point that doing three Star Fortresses with a full group of four would give your guild's score a massive boost. I swear, getting characters through at least the first nine chapters of KotFE had never been this attractive to my guildies before! We got into a routine where we could complete each one in about twenty minutes, which made for a pretty good payout.

Anyway, that first night of TGW was pretty intense as my guild and Rapid Serenity competed for the top spot with all we had. We did come out slightly ahead however, and after that they seemed to be unable to overtake us again, even as we started to feel secure in our lead and relaxed a little. I can only suspect that they must have pushed very hard that first night and that seeing us overtake them despite of us having a smaller number of players online must have been demotivating enough that a lot of their own members stopped trying. Psychological warfare matters a lot in Total Galactic War.

When we took stock of the scoreboards for the other planets at the end of the week it was interesting to see that in some places the battles had been even closer than on Dantooine, with some guilds edging out their main competition with only a few hundred thousand points (which isn't a lot when the overall scores are over a hundred million), so there'd clearly been a lot of excitement in this event for other guilds as well.

I was really happy to look at the final tally of personal scores within the guild and see that 84 different accounts had contributed, which was a new record for us. I know that I can rely on most of our ops regulars to help out in events like this but it was great to see many of the more casual social members do their part too. It may all just have been for an achievement, a title and a general sense of accomplishment, but it's also the kind of thing that really brings a guild together.

Rumour has it that the next Total Galactic War is scheduled to happen at the end of March, so not quite so far away this time. The fix to neuter the "Shields" and their new player farm should be in by then, so we'll see what effect that has on the meta, plus there's also supposed to be a nerf to crafting incoming. I was worried that the more recent changes would make it all too much about just having lots of players in the guild, even if they don't pay attention to Conquest, but those massive objectives rewarding things like weekly completion and other bits of group content meant that you could still accumulate a lot of points strategically even with a smaller number of players. We'll see how things play out in a little over a month.


Rebels! Seasons 1 & 2

After finishing Clone Wars in December, it was time to look for some new material to very slowly consume in bite-sized chunks during my daily exercise bike ride, and I settled on Rebels as the most natural follow-up to Clone Wars.

One interesting thing about Rebels is that it only came out a few years ago and I actually remember people talking about it on Twitter a lot whenever a new episode aired. As I didn't expect to see it any time soon back then I allowed myself to be inundated with massive spoilers... but that hasn't really been detrimental to my experience so far.

I wasn't too impressed with the pilot (mostly I kept thinking about how much Ezra reminded me of Disney's Aladdin both in his looks and mannerisms - and I'm glad I'm not the only one who made that connection) but then first episodes often tend to be a bit rough, and things picked up quickly enough after that.

It's hard to not immediately draw comparisons with Clone Wars. I don't mind the softer, more rounded animation style, but besides that there are some occasionally (to me) very baffling artistic choices being made in Rebels. For example you know that thing film makers like to do sometimes where they hide the faces of evil minions and redshirts so the viewer doesn't feel too bad about them dying? For some reason Rebels loves doing that by having characters wear caps and open helmets with ridiculous visors and it just looks odd every time. Or there's a certain sound effect that they keep using whenever Ezra connects to the Force, which I guess is meant to sound mysterious but just makes me grind my teeth every time due to its awful pitch. Or what about those inquisitor lightsabers? I know new and slightly ridiculous lightsaber designs are a thing in Star Wars, and I was happy to let it slide as just another one of those the first time one of them started spinning, but when the inquisitors started turning into a squad of mini helicopters a bit later on it was just too much.

That said, in the grand scheme of things these are all just minor nuisances, and as a whole the show has been really solid so far. It feels much steadier than Clone Wars in the sense that there are fewer highs and lows and the quality is pretty consistent. You also get the idea that the writers actually had plans for the characters from the beginning, so you get episodes that have different characters interact with each other and develop their relationships in a way that feels like it has purpose.

The ensemble cast is varied and mostly quite interesting as well. Sabine being a lover of explosives but also artistic is an interesting combination for example. Or Hera with her odd mix of gentle, maternal caring and being a daring pilot. Even the crew's ship, the Ghost, has character, and that's coming from someone who generally cares less about the ships in Star Wars than most fans.

As the show progressed, the writers also started including more and more other, already established canon characters such as Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Ahsoka, Rex and more, which is something I feel somewhat conflicted about. On the one hand it's always been well done so far and it's just generally nice to see these characters again, but on the other hand it sometimes feels a bit like it detracts from what's supposed to be the main cast. For example, there's this two-parter at the end of season two that features Ezra being seduced by the dark side, but it also has Ahsoka meeting Vader so... you know where everyone's eyes will be!

I'm curious how the last two seasons will go.


Wasting My Tech Fragments so You Don't Have To

I remember when Onslaught had just come out and we were all chasing this new tech fragment currency for gear, one of my guildies said something like: "Give it a couple of months and we'll have these things coming out of our ears!"

God, was he right.

Initially I was after fragments to acquire my first set bonus and a Tactical item for my main. Then I did the same for alts! Then I did the same for even more alts. At some point I ran out of max-level characters that needed gear.

Then there were the achievements to collect all the various gear sets and Tacticals - though don't get me started on how buggy these have been since launch. Still, it was something to work on, so I started to spend fragments on filling those out instead, even if it wasn't very satisfying. I don't like being capped on any currency though, and even in their now overabundance, tech fragments still felt special somehow, and like I shouldn't just let them go to waste.

One of my guildies who found himself in a similar situation decided to regularly buy "unidentified unique items" from Kai Zykken instead. If you've never had one of those, they cost a thousand tech fragments and 500,000 credits each and can turn into any Tactical item or a (supposedly) class/spec-appropriate set piece item.

We poked fun at him for being a gambler, but there was a method behind the madness: He really wanted the extremely overpowered Emergency Power set, which technically has a chance to drop in Dxun, but our experience has always been that the drop rates for any gear in there are abysmal and that you could go weeks and weeks without ever seeing a single piece. As his Vanguard tank wasn't even his main, gambling at Kai's in hopes of having a random gear piece turn into a piece of Emergency Power was therefore the only real avenue open to him. And he did get there in the end! It took him several months but he still ended up being the first person in the guild to complete this set.

Anyway, I initially kept scoffing at him because I'm really against engaging with these kinds of RNG shenanigans, but the more I struggled with finding ways to use up my own tech fragments the more I started to feel tempted myself. I eventually gave in when the Fulminating Power set for Guardians was released alongside master mode Dxun. I knew I wasn't going to go there, but my AoE taunt having two charges sounded awesome for my flashpoint tanking!

And thus, I too started buying random pieces of gear from Kai every week, but unlike my guildie I kept a spreadsheet with the results, with the goal of eventually sharing them on the blog. I'm not necessarily done with this particular experiment, but as I actually did achieve my 4-piece Fulminating Defense last week, I thought I'd share how long it took me:

To get to this point, my Guardian bought a total of 114 pieces of random gear from Kai (that's 114,000 tech fragments and 57 million credits spent for those keeping track at home).

The most annoying thing was that only 28 of those (less than 25%) actually turned into tanking items. 64 of them (56% and therefore the majority) turned into one of those annoyingly generic items like the Luck Always Changes Tactical that aren't really obviously beneficial for any particular class or role and mostly quite useless. And 19 (or 17%) turned into outright dps gear, despite of my Guardian always being in tank spec. At least I didn't have anything turn into gear that my class couldn't even wear, which is something that happened to one of my guildies on at least one occasion.

Looking at the time invested (obviously this had to happen over the course of many weeks as Kai is only in town on weekends and you can't store more than 10k tech fragments at once) and money spent I unsurprisingly can't really recommend this as a method of gear requisition as it's kind of ridiculous. Then again, if you're like me and sitting on more credits and tech fragments than you really know what to do with, upgrading your gear at 14-15 million per piece isn't a considerably worse way of wasting that money than anything else. And at least you might eventually get something truly rare as not many people have cleared Dxun on master mode to this day.

First world problems, am I right?


Bioware Addresses Darth Malgus Conquest Shenanigans

Back at the start of December I wrote about the Conquest meta being in a strange place, both in general and on Darth Malgus in specific, where a sort of "syndicate" of guilds had been dominating pretty much all the planets in recent months. I found this very peculiar, because while I can understand the concept of alt/sister guilds, only a small number of planets are conquerable most weeks, so once you go beyond three guilds or so you can't even guarantee all your members a win anymore, and then what's the point of even being a part of the whole thing?

I got some interesting comments from an ex-Shield of Destiny/Rest in Peace member that didn't portray the man behind it all in the best light, as he apparently just loves micromanaging dozens of guilds for his own entertainment and gets most of his points from spamming invites at innocent newbies on starter planets and the fleet, letting them generate high scores for the guild via levelling and then kicking them out again once they've outlived their usefulness.

The other week he/they took things another step further by deciding to dominate the entire leaderboard for Ilum with his/their pet guilds - a move that may now turn out to be the whole project's undoing.

You will be assimilated... wait, wrong franchise.

As it turns out, that move was so obviously strange that it prompted people to start talking about it both on reddit and the official forums, some of them going into more details about these guilds' mode of operation. While I always try to take anonymous comments on the internet with a grain of salt, there was a clear theme there that aligned with the comments I'd received on my blog post a few weeks earlier, and someone posted a very convincing screenshot of the guild log of one of the guilds in question, which showed dozens of people getting invited and kicked within the space of an hour.

I wasn't sure whether anything was going to come of it (yet), but Bioware actually paid attention and responded surprisingly quickly, saying that they will take action and change the system so that newly invited characters won't immediately start contributing towards a guild's score, and if you kick them out their contribution goes as well. That would certainly put a hard stop to the questionable "noob farming" that people were describing, and in the spirit of preserving guilds primarily as social spaces it's certainly a good move.

(Though I'm still not sure why all this even became a thing. It's not like it used to be in WoW back in Cataclysm when guild members would passively generate gold for the guild leader. As far as I can tell, this guy isn't getting anything out of this strange project other than possibly an opportunity to feed some personal illusions of grandeur.)

So far, the reception of the proposed change has been mostly positive, though there've been some grumblings about how it would also kill or at least greatly diminish "Conquest tourism" - that is to say a person's ability to join whichever guild is winning during any given week, make their minimum contribution to get the achievement for the win and then leave again. I can't say I would personally see that as a negative as I never thought highly of this practice (again, for me guilds are social spaces, so this sort of purely utilitarian approach isn't my cup of tea), but if Bioware finds a way to preserve people's ability to do this while still countering the mass-inviters that'd be fine by me too. It's just nice to see them paying attention.

(Of course, from my point of view the easiest fix would have been to backtrack on Conquest being so passive nowadays - this sort of systematic abuse has only worked because levellers generate Conquest points without even knowing what Conquest is. However, seeing how popular that change has been with people who like getting freebies for nothing I understand that this ship has sailed.)


Spirit of Vengeance as a Flashpoint

When I wrote about the second part of 6.2's story update, I said that I would make a separate post about what I think of Spirit of Vengeance as a flashpoint and in terms of mechanics. It took me a bit longer than expected to write this post because I wanted to make sure that I replayed it enough times first to form a well-rounded opinion.

For a lot of people, I think it made a very bad first impression because despite of having been on the PTS for testing beforehand, it launched in a ridiculously buggy state. People falling through the floor, mobs shooting through the walls... apparently some people's story progression got stuck entirely for a while. I was shocked when the ever-positive Swtorista actually made a tweet telling people not to bother with the flashpoint on launch day as it was just too buggy. (Though I can't link it now as she ended up deleting it later.)

Personally I was relatively lucky as I only had to deal with some mob pathing issues, a slightly buggy cut scene, and of course the first boss being horribly mistuned on story mode and having master mode health values at first. You better believe that he took me bloody long to kill, especially as a healer, but that's about as bad as it got.

Still, leaving aside any bugs and despite of the fact that I enjoyed the story, something about SoV left me feeling a bit meh. I always think back to the gorgeous environments we got in the flashpoints released as part of the traitor arc, and spending half an hour running through grey ship corridors just can't compare nowadays, even if a lot of the game's launch flashpoints used a similar setup. The trash mobs are also mostly just damage sponges with lots of health and no really interesting abilities. During a run with guildies, about the most interesting thing we observed was that some of the Mandos cast a crit buff on each other and perform a sort of "woohoo" emote whenever they do so, which we thought was kind of funny, but that was pretty much it.

The bosses aren't particularly great either. Aside from Heta Kol, they all have at least one mechanic that is somewhat confusing or it's unclear how you're supposed to deal with it. In one particularly memorable master mode run, the first boss, Gorga Brak, wiped us about ten times and we weren't quite sure why. We checked the guide on Vulkk but the mechanics we saw didn't entirely align with what was described there and we just couldn't figure out what was going wrong. Yet on other runs we one-shot him with no problems whatsoever.

Similarly, I remember Bask Sunn using some sort of mechanic that tethers two players together and us wondering whether we were supposed to be close to each other or run away from each other, but ultimately it didn't seem to matter. Troya Ajak also has this long cast called Songbird Volley that - again - makes you think that you're probably supposed to do something with it, but nothing really seems to make a difference to its damage output. That sort of thing just doesn't make for the most satisfying experience.

That said, I don't want to sound like I'm all down on this flashpoint. I did quite like many of the small ways in which the devs tried to make things a bit more interesting. There are lore clickies and hidden achievements to chase for example. On the second ship, there is an easy jumping puzzle that is quite fun to race across when playing in a group. (Though in my first run on story mode, I just ran straight through the "wall of fire" that's supposed to be blocking the way and forces you into the jumping puzzle... I wonder if me being able to do that was a bug too!) And on the Ash'ad ship, they set this little trap for you where you fall through the floor into a garbage collector and get attacked by a tentacle monster, which was a genuine surprise to me the first time and quite amusing. (Though it's a really rubbish trap, considering they don't follow up on it.)

Also, similarly to Objective Meridian, I found that Spirit of Vengeance actually got more fun on repeat runs. Weird hiccups with Gorga Brak aside, you can breeze through it pretty quickly and it doesn't have any of those mechanics that seem impressive or cute the first time around but then get more and more annoying as time goes on. Which is... fine, I guess. I still think Objective Meridian did it a bit better though by having more interesting and memorable boss fights to go along with it.


Reviewing Renown Ranks

When Galactic Command turned into Renown with Onslaught, that never-ending, not-quite-XP bar became a lot less important as a source of gear, and since your Renown rank didn't actually affect the level of gear you got our of your reward boxes anymore, there's been a lot less incentive to care about levelling it up ever since. Mind you, I still like making numbers go up, and there were multiple achievements to be had for getting every class to 100, and one character to the max of 999.

With how intensely I played at the start of Onslaught, the first 100 Renown ranks on my Commando flew by in no time, and I even missed it when I got the achievement for hitting rank 100 because I was too busy actually playing. (Or maybe it was a technical issue at the time? All I remember for sure is that I was somewhat disappointed when I realised that I'd failed to capture the big ding.)

The first couple of alts followed reasonably quickly as well, but after that my efforts became increasingly... scattered. For example it took me nearly a year to get an inquisitor to renown 100 because the class is not among my most frequently played, but also because I have several at max level and kept swapping between them. I was happy for my guildies when they hit their own milestones and earned the "Everybody Knows My Name" legacy title for hitting 100 on all classes, but even though I kind of wanted that achievement as well I just didn't want it quite enough, always preferring to hop on different alts all the time to work on their Conquest scores.

It was therefore only last month that I logged on one night and finally hit renown rank 100 on one of my multiple bounty hunters, the last class I was still missing for the achievement. Alas, not even one guildie was online to witness it, but it was still something.

Up next is the one to hit rank 999 on my main. Again, based on how quickly I burned through the levels at the start of the expansion, I should've already achieved it, but in practice my Commando main is still somewhere in the mid-500s. If I added up all the Renown ranks across my legacy though, I'd already be at more than 2000, so it's not as if I haven't been playing... also, unlike with the class-related achievement, I haven't seen many lay claim to having reached the 999th Renown rank, so I feel somewhat less behind the curve on that one.

Of course, this is all in the context of being surrounded by my guildies, most of whom are pretty hardcore in terms of how much time they spend in the game. I posted a poll on Twitter the other day to ask other players about their highest Renown rank at this point, and somewhat to my surprise, even more than a year after the system's launch almost 30% of respondents still said that they had yet to progress beyond rank 50 on any character.

Before Onslaught's launch, there was talk of having "seasons" for Renown ranks and the suggestion that they would reset every so often, which was one of those things at the back of my mind putting a bit of FOMO pressure on me to get that rank 999 achievement done sooner rather than later. We haven't heard anything about that since the system was actually implemented though, and based on those poll numbers I guess Bioware isn't feeling a particular rush to reset the numbers. Hopefully that means that I can continue to take my time (relatively speaking) and still get there in the end.