The State of Operations in 7.0

I think I've mentioned before that considering the amount of time I spend raiding in SWTOR, I spend relatively little time talking about it on the blog. You might also think that there shouldn't be that much to say about operations at the moment, what with us still not having a release date for the new op, R4-Anomaly.

However, like it or not, with the way SWTOR works, every time the level cap is raised, things get shaken up in the existing operations as well, as everything gets re-tuned and we get to enjoy the process of re-progressing through the content once again. (I'm not being sarcastic here. It's the kind of thing you either like or not.)

For as much as I thought that Onslaught was a very good expansion overall, the state of ops throughout most of it was not great in my opinion. Sure, the new operation on Dxun was sweet, but the older raids suffered from awkward, extremely unforgiving downscaling with no avenues for progress other than to repeat the dance over and over until you were absolutely perfect at it.

My guild did continue to raid in that environment, but it was rough at times - the fact that it took my team something like nine months (with some interruptions) to get Dread Master Styrak down on master mode was a good example of this. That's also why I for one was perfectly happy to start our pre-expansion raid break early once the original launch date for Legacy of the Sith was announced... we didn't seem to have anywhere left to go where it wasn't going to take us many, many months to kill anything anyway.

That said, I'm happy to report that while Bioware showed no signs of relenting on their stance on master mode operations throughout the 6.x patch cycle, they did decide to approach things differently for Legacy of the Sith and actually had someone go through all the group content to level it up to the new cap correctly and to avoid any more forced downscaling shenanigans. As a bonus, whoever did the work on that also took a close look at various minor mechanics in ops that had become somewhat screwy over time and fixed a lot of those too. No more cheesing Writhing Horror's babies with double Shadow tanks, no more hiding behind the pipe on Operations Chief... and the pylons on the way down on Soa now actually have enough health to allow you to do their mechanic properly instead of them just kinda being killed by accident by the first person who Force-leaps down to the next platform.

I can't emphasise enough how enjoyable it's been to actually be able to feel a difference in performance from gearing up again. During 7.0 launch week, we actually wiped to the first boss in 16-man Eternity Vault enraging on us... which I thought was absolutely hilarious.

Now, we had been messing around and several people had gone down early, so were easily able to overcome that on the next try by playing "properly", but it showed that dps checks and following mechanics actually mattered again, and as we all started to improve our item rating under the new gearing system, it was very noticeable that our performance improved too, and that felt good. That's what I like to see in an MMO!

I won't say that it's been an entirely smooth ride, as a lot of what should be relatively straightforward hardmode bosses feel pretty unforgiving right now, especially in terms of dps required, which has been somewhat intimidating to some of our damage dealers in particular I think. There's a general sentiment of "If veteran mode is already this hard, just how hard is master mode going to be?!", coupled with a fear that we won't be able to progress as far this expansion as we did in the last one.

Personally I've tried to assuage people's fears by telling them that I don't expect things to be that bad. My general impression has been that Bioware's trying to play the long game here, and they have explicitly stated that we'll get to upgrade our gear by several more item levels with the release of the new operation. Considering how much of a difference we've already seen from the upgrades from 320 to 330, I expect that the old master modes will become significantly more accessible as we continue to gear up - which again, is how I feel it should work.

Other notable differences to the ops running experience revolve around gear and schedules. I've already talked about how I find the new gearing system quite convoluted, but aside from that, one thing that it unfortunately has in common with Galactic Command is that everything is personal loot - meaning that if you have anyone on your ops team who doesn't have as much time to play or is being held back for other reasons, you're limited in terms of how much you can help them gear up. You can offer to e.g. run flashpoints with them, but ultimately they have to be willing to put in the time themselves so to speak. You can't just craft upgrades for them or let them have your drops. Based on the same dev blog I linked above, this should at least improve with the release of the new operation, assuming that Bioware are still planning to go ahead with their plan to have tradeable gear tokens drop in there at least.

The thing about schedules is that in the past, we've largely been free to decide which content to run in which week at our own leisure, aside from the weekly highlighted hardmode system that was in effect during KotFE. We've also had a bit of a rule of thumb in our guild that we try to avoid having different ops teams work on the same content at the same time, both in order to ward off unhealthy feelings of competition, and to keep people's lockouts free so that teams could help each other out more easily if any group came up short a member one night.

The new featured ops rotation has kind of thrown us for a loop in that regard, because while we can technically still go wherever we want, it's most rewarding for all teams to try and complete whatever the featured weeklies are. Meaning that we can't help but compare performances to a certain degree, and extra care has to be taken whenever you're helping out a team other than your own so you don't get yourself locked out of a raid you're meant to do with your own group later in the week.

So far it's worked out okay, as we have a lot of players with a lot of alts (and free lockouts) at this point. All the officers who lead teams have also known each other for a really long time by now and are therefore doing their best to compare notes to help each other out and keep everyone progressing at a good pace. But it's certainly a change compared to how we used to operate.

Still, the bottom line is that my early impressions of what Bioware have done with operations this expansion are extremely positive, which is a nice thing to be able to say considering a lot of the negativity that has surrounded the expansion launch. I've been having more fun with them than I've had in a long time and I'm looking forward to seeing what R-4 Anomaly has in store for us whenever it comes out.


Galactic Season 2: Notes on Weeks 3-6

As I noted in my post about Galactic Season 2 week two, I didn't really see a point in keeping a detailed diary for the rest of the season, seeing how the daily objective is so trivial to achieve and even a lot of the weeklies just kind of "happen". With that said, I thought it would still be interesting to take some brief notes on each subsequent week of the season - here's what I noted down for weeks three to six:

Week 3

One of the weekly objectives was to kill a certain number of mobs without your companion out, and it included a note that the counter would only advance if you weren't in group content or PvP. Naturally, completion popped up for me and several of my guildies while we were killing trash in Karagga's Palace. It didn't happen for everyone though, so someone suggested that it might have been related to whether you had a companion summoned before joining the group or not. It was a funny bug either way.

I also got quite excited to see GSI missions featured as one of the weekly objectives, as "more GSI" had been one of my wishes for Season 2 after Season 1. However, I then didn't end up doing it anyway as I just kind of happened to complete seven of the other weekly objectives first. It really is so easy to just complete some of these by accident...

I also foiled my own plan to always get the daily objective out of the way easily by popping a reputation token, as I picked up nothing but purple reputation trophies during this week, and as it turns out, five of those are already enough to put you at the weekly reputation cap for the Shadow Syndicate, so that I actually had to "work" for my Conquest points the last two days. Not that it was all that much work, but still...

Week 4

This was the first week I had to commute to the office again for two days a week, and on those days I definitely appreciated the ability to get my daily seasons points with the press of one button, as I didn't really have the energy in the evening to do anything other than eat dinner and then go straight to bed.

This was also my first week where the weekly objectives didn't just mostly complete themselves. Sure, there were still three or so that happened automatically, but the others did actually require me to put in some effort towards the end of the week to run specific content and craft.

Week 5

There was a PvP weekly objective again this week, and while doing it I discovered that my Sage had hit Valor rank 100, which made me very proud as it's still quite a grind and this is only my second character to get there.

Another objective was to cause infighting among the Syndicate by dressing up as one of them and then killing members of the Black Sun or planting rumours at consoles. I'd seen some of the disguise crates and consoles around since 7.0 launch and had been wondering what they were for, so it was nice to finally understand their purpose. Mr Commando and I ran around Coruscant doing this objective together and I meant to take screenshots of it and wanted to use one of them to illustrate this post, but as it turns out I must have hit the wrong key or something because nothing got saved.

Doing this sort of stuff with Mr Commando made me realise that both the revamped structure of Season 2 and the new gearing system make me appreciate that there are at least good reasons to play in small groups again. In general, the game has kind of been moving away from that kind of play style since Shadow of Revan, and it means that Mr Commando and I haven't spent that much time playing together in the more recent expansions outside of operations.

Legacy of the Sith on the other hand still has us running flashpoints more than a month in, and doing both heroics and dailies, and we've seen the same behaviour among guildies. As much as I like to moan about the amount of dailies required to upgrade gear pieces from all sources under the new gearing system, it does give us something we can do together outside of the purely solo story installments, and that's been nice.

Another thing to note is that I've started logging alts on servers other than Darth Malgus purely to claim seasons points there. I noted after completing Season 1 that seasons rewards are legacy-, not account-wide, meaning that you can claim them on multiple servers if you're inclined to play on all of them. A guildie of mine did that during Season 1 and I thought he was nuts. This time around, he's set himself the even loftier goal of doing it all on every server on both of his accounts. I'm not that crazy, and I don't even particularly care about the free Cartel Coins, but his talk did make me curious about how far you could get with just claiming the free points for logging in and perhaps a little bit of play. We'll see how that pans out.

Week 6

This is the current week, but I might as well write about it since I'm once again already sitting on six out of seven weeklies completed and it's only a matter of time until the seventh one ticks over whether I'm trying for it or not.

This was the week of the first post-expansion patch, meant to fix some bugs - and to be fair, it does seem to have done that, but it also added new ones, such as the Galactic Seasons reward track getting messed up and some rewards being unclaimable, or re-claimable, or being claimable and then disappearing when you try. There's supposed to be another patch next week to fix that. Oh, Bioware...


The New Character Experience in LotS

I'm kind of at a point in SWTOR where I feel that my several dozen alts are enough to experience what I primarily want out of the game and that I don't really "need" any more, but that doesn't prevent me from occasionally rolling up a new alt for a specific purpose anyway. For example I've been very curious about how the 7.0 class and UI changes feel on a brand-new character. Long-time players like me complaining about losing their 29th ability button are one thing, but I was under the impression that a lot of these changes were primarily targeted at new and returning players anyway, in order to make things more appealing and less complicated for them.

While I can't un-know everything I know about the game after ten years of playing, I could roll up a new character on a server where I don't usually play very much and where I have no notable legacy unlocks, to see what that experience felt like. I already mentioned in a previous post that I created a new Jedi knight on Star Forge, but with the Shadow combat style, which was previously reserved for consulars.

First off: character creation. My opinion on the new character creation screen has largely stayed the same since I first saw Swtorista tweet a screenshot of it during LotS PTS testing. It looks good, but the overall look is just very generic. Obviously changing the first half to accommodate the decoupling of base and advance class was needed, and I also like that gender is simply a toggle now instead of a separate "step", which always felt unnecessary to me. But I do miss some of the flavour that was lost, such as having information about the different species. Also, before this change I'd never really thought about it, but the previous way of having character creation take place on a space station was actually a nice story tie-in, as each class story starts with your character taking a shuttle down from orbit to the planet. Now your character's simply "born" in a black void like in some generic shooter game.

Some problems are still the same old, same old, such as finding a name. They really need to do another round of freeing up the names of unplayed characters some time, because none of the suggestions the game itself provides are ever available. Also, I found myself wishing for a back button when I accidentally overwrote all my initial choices by hitting "random". (I thought it was for randomising the name, not the appearance...)

Anyway, enough about character creation. Once you get into the game properly, the traditional scrolling Star Wars intro is notably absent, but this has been acknowledged as a bug. I know many people still hold up the class stories as the best SWTOR has to offer, but I've got to say that going back to the starter worlds it always strikes me how far the game's come in terms of its storytelling. Sure, the original class stories are still engaging, but everything from the writing to the cut scenes to the quest flow has come a long way in my opinion and is actually a lot more enjoyable in newer story installments. It's just the fact that you've got those eight completely different stories to choose from at the start that makes going back there so appealing I think.

Gameplay-wise things immediately felt a little off though. No, I don't expect the starter planets to be a huge challenge, but that's not what I mean. For example, one of the first abilities a Shadow is given is Force Breach, which starts as a damage-over-time ability. It immediately struck me what a terrible choice that was in terms of fun, because every enemy in those early levels dies within literally one or two hits, so that applying a DoT is utterly pointless.

New abilities now appear on your bar automatically whenever you level up, which is something I grumbled about when WoW first started doing it and I'm still not convinced it's an entirely good move for SWTOR either. Mostly because I think there's value in making a conscious choice to see a trainer at a time that's convenient for you, so you can actually take the time to read your new skills and acquaint yourself with them at your leisure. A new button just appearing on your quickbar in the middle of combat is easy to overlook... admittedly less so during the earlier levels when there isn't much on there yet, but it becomes more of an issue as things fill up and become visually busy.

I also found the lack of AoE for the first few levels very noticeable, as all the mobs come in groups so you're just running up to them and then whacking them to death one by one. I don't remember when you got your first AoE under the old system, maybe it took just as long, but I don't recall it feeling quite so bad... maybe because you generally got more abilities sooner. This time around, I only had enough combat abilities to fill up a little over half a bar by level ten - again, I don't have exact numbers, but I remember those skills coming in much faster during the early levels within the old system.

At level ten I also went to look for some sort of prompt to choose a specialisation and was surprised to find that the game had just put my Shadow into Infiltration spec by default. I guess I can see why the devs would do that, to avoid players accidentally gimping themselves by potentially never even choosing a spec at all. If you do discover it later, the game now let's you change specialisation with the push of a button anyway, without requiring a special legacy perk or that you visit a guy on the fleet. On the other hand though, it makes specialisation a very passive thing to begin with, and I suspect that might lead to casual players being even more likely to remain completely unaware of the concept.

For the Shadow in specific, I also found it interesting that I gained stealth at level ten, but not a single ability that only works from stealth or that behaves differently from stealth, which means it's kind of introduced as just a way of avoiding mobs instead of something that affects the way you do combat. Again, my memory may not be 100% on point here, but I seem to recall that stealth pretty much used to come combined with things that you could actually do from stealth.

On a totally unrelated note, "Introduction to Conquests" is now granted automatically when hitting level ten, which I did think was neat, as it was too easy to miss on the fleet terminal previously.

In the area leading to the Forge on Tython, there's an optional champion droid which used to be quite tough back in the day when you couldn't have a healer companion at this level, and who became utterly trivial to solo after 4.0. I thought I'd give him a go to use him as a sort of measuring stick and was kind of pleasantly surprised to find that while T7 kept healing me, without legacy buffs or anything he couldn't entirely keep up with the damage, so that my health started to slowly but surely decline. In the end I ran away and had to start kiting the droid around a pillar for the last part of the fight in order not to die, which was quite satisfying actually.

Another thing I liked was that upon finishing up my class quest at the Forge, I actually received a dual-saber right away. That may not be a brand-new change actually, but I do remember how awkward it used to be to forge yourself a special one-handed lightsaber, just to then instantly have to replace it with some green that was actually suitable for your advanced class/combat style.

After finishing Tython, the first thing I did on the fleet was to queue for a PvP match, which was a stark reminder that you really shouldn't do that at level 13. I mean, it's always been a bad idea at such a low level, but now it was even worse because I had even fewer abilities than I would have had previously. I could stealth but had no crowd control, so literally all I did for most of the Voidstar match I got into was put my single DoT on every enemy and spend the rest of the time saber/double striking. Unsurprisingly we lost, though at least the Introduction to Warzones quest gave me a few nice pieces of starter gear.

I also thought it was quite noteworthy that I didn't gain any skills at levels 11, 13 or 14, but then when I dinged 15 in the middle of a Coruscant heroic I suddenly got four new actives and a new passive at once - and worse: the passive was the one that completely morphs the way Force Breach works. I was just getting the hang of putting my DoT on every mob, then I dinged, and suddenly my DoT wasn't a DoT anymore, and couldn't be used at all unless I used other abilities to build buff stacks first... not the best experience to have while buried under a pile of mobs in the middle of a heroic. Again, this is why trainers are a good thing in my opinion.

At the end of the day, I'm not a truly new player though, so who can say how they perceive this kind of thing? To me personally it doesn't seem like a significant improvement, at least not in these early levels. For my taste, you spend too much time spamming your most basic attack simply because nothing else is available yet, and the pacing of new abilities feels awkward. I may keep experimenting with it some more though, to see how it feels as you go up in levels or when you play a combat style other than Shadow.


PSA: Struggling with Chapters?

I've got some videos on my YouTube channel of me killing a number of KotFE and KotET chapter bosses on veteran and master mode. You can find additional info about that and links to everything in this post - one of the few pieces of blog content I've put out over the years that vaguely resembles something like a guide.

I've noticed that over the last month there's been an increase in people watching and commenting on these - now, some of that might simply be more people playing the game again after the launch of the expansion, but it's not just that. A lot of players seem to be struggling even with story mode at the moment - as was highlighted by fellow blogger Roger from the Contains Moderate Peril blog:

He eventually got the fight down, but was not at all happy with the experience. I did try to assist a little on Twitter, but it's not a great format for giving detailed advice on anything. Above all I felt like I must be missing some crucial bit of information, considering that he was playing on story mode, which is often so easy that it borders on boring... heck, my last post on here was about a story fight that is so easy that it can literally complete itself without any player input.

Then again, we've also just had a new expansion and that can sometimes cause strange things to happen with tuning. A boss fight having the wrong damage and health values for its designated difficulty is certainly something we've seen happen before, but without more information it was hard to judge what exactly was going wrong.

The post I linked at the start already contains a bunch of generic advice for beating the harder fights in KotFE and KotET chapters, but I suppose the overall tone of that is aimed at players who are already at a more advanced level since they're intentionally looking to challenge themselves with the higher difficulty levels. I thought I'd use this post to present a few bullet points for more casual story players that might find themselves stuck on a fight.

  • First off, make sure that you've got all your active abilities on your bar by checking the abilities tab (by default bound to P). The class changes that came with Legacy of the Sith may have caused some things to disappear from your bar. You can also change your ability tree on the combat styles tab of your character sheet to see whether there are any abilities there that you can swap around to be more useful in the particular situation that you're stuck in. If you've just been playing through the story and not much else, there may well be a number of buttons that you've never bothered to use before because you simply didn't have to. However, if you're struggling to stay alive, make sure you find all your damage reduction or self heal abilities and then remember to actually use them during the fight - all classes have at least a couple of these. This is particularly pertinent for fights like the one against Vaylin in KotFE chapter twelve, which was the one Roger struggled with.
  • The fight against the Purifier Droids in KotET chapter four seems to be giving people the most trouble at the moment. First off, try using the somewhat counter-intuitive strategy demonstrated in this video here. It's counter-intuitive because according to the story you're supposed to be defending the room you're in, but in practice it's much easier to run out and fight somewhere else. If you're still struggling though, it's worth noting that Bioware has acknowledged this chapter as currently bugged (too many droids, potentially also an issue with the additional NPCs not engaging properly). There's a patch meant to be deployed next Tuesday which is supposed to fix a load of bugs, but I don't currently know whether this issue will be one of the ones addressed.
  • It's worth knowing that while chapters can only be progressed solo, other people can join you to help out with a fight. To do this, invite them to a group, right-click on your portrait and there'll be an option somewhere to invite them to your instance, which should give them a teleportation prompt. This might not work in all situations (I found this out the hard way when I wanted to help a guildie kill the rancor in KotET chapter six but it kept putting me in there in Zakuulan knight disguise and therefore unable to fight), but it's a workaround for some.
  • Finally, if you're just replaying the story and actually already know what happens because you previously did it on another character, keep in mind that if your level is high enough, the console on your ship should let you skip ahead to the start of KotET (if you're stuck in KotFE) or Iokath (if you're stuck in KotET). Potentially you can skip even further ahead to Ossus, but I'm assuming that you do actually want to play through as much story as possible. You might not like this option since it will resolve important story choices for you automatically based on a template, but I'm just mentioning it as another possibility if you're stuck and really want to move on.


Echoes of AFK-ness

6.2's Echoes of Oblivion story was a very good content update, but in terms of replayability I've found it to be quite limited as time has gone on. It's exactly the same for both factions and there are few opportunities for interesting choices or unique dialogue based on your class or previous decisions, so it feels very same-y on each subsequent visit.

Also, I strongly dislike the final boss fight. As far as I'm concerned, it's right up there with the solo version of Revan among the worst encounters in the game, due to how redundant it makes the player character feel. I don't need my fights to be difficult, but if the abilities I press make no difference to the outcome at all, if the encounter just resolves itself without me, then the whole thing would've been better off being a cut scene.

I was pondering this as I was somewhat dejectedly dragging my primary smuggler through the quests leading up to this particular set piece, in order to get her to level 80 and caught up with the current story content, when I suddenly had an idea: If the player character was really as redundant as it had felt to me on previous playthroughs, maybe I could actually avoid dealing with the fight altogether by simply going AFK and letting the NPCs do all the work! It seemed like a win-win scenario: If this experiment resulted in my character's death, I'd at least know that my input wasn't totally pointless. If not, I could be away from the keyboard doing something else for a bit while the friendly NPCs dealt with the tedium of the boss fight for me.

As a result, I was actually more excited to face down the triumvirate of Emperors than I'd been in a while. When it was time to deal with the first of the Emperor's incarnations, Valkorion, I turned on video recording and then shot him once to engage, followed by me walking away from my keyboard. I'll be honest though: At first I popped back really quickly to check whether my character was even still alive - I strongly suspected that the fight was designed to make it impossible to die, but I wasn't entirely sure. But indeed, it didn't seem to matter how much pink crap my little smuggler stood in and how low her health got, Master Satele pulled her back from the brink of death every single time. I felt comfortable getting myself a drink and busying myself with other things.

I did take a peek at the screen every few minutes though to see how things were going, and was pleased to see Valky's health slowly going down... until one of those checks suddenly showed his health having gone up again instead of further down. I didn't even remember him having a healing ability! But I thought I'd let my NPC allies have at it for a little longer to see whether they could out-damage his healing.

Unfortunately, after a total of twelve minutes or so I came back to my game to find that the fight had seemingly reset. I consulted my video recording and it showed that one of Valkorion's abilities included a very small pushback, which had gradually knocked my character further and further back (but so gradually that I hadn't noticed during my quick check-ins) until she eventually fell off the edge of the platform and died. Oh well, no full AFKing phase one then!

I re-engaged the boss and did that part of the fight "properly" this time, though even as I did so I noticed that the area was actually partially surrounded by low walls... so maybe AFKing through phase one is still technically possible as long as you position yourself correctly in order to not get pushed through one of the holes in the walls? Maybe that'll be something for me to try on the next alt that makes it to this point in the story, but I didn't feel like intentionally wiping the fight just to try AFKing through phase one a second time.

Anyway, as soon as I'd downed Valkorion and the fight transitioned to Vitiate, I stepped away from the keyboard again, because a new phase meant a new chance for my NPC allies to prove themselves. Vitiate starts with an immunity shield and a lot of adds, so that he initially didn't seem to take any damage at all, but my allies were very diligent in hunting them down and eventually his immunity ended. Whenever I checked in on them, they were making good progress and I wasn't in any danger of flying off the edge this time either. The only odd thing I noticed was that at one point when I took my usual peek to see how things were going, most of my friendly companions were standing around my character not doing anything, with only brave Darth Marr continuing to whack the big bad. The others eventually got back into the action though, and after eight minutes or so they got him down and I could only applaud their efforts.

Finally, it was time for Tenebrae, who turned out to be the weakest of the three, as my little helpers killed him in only about seven minutes or so, time that I mostly spent putting away some laundry. The ending was even a little exciting, as I returned to my PC to find that Tenebrae, too, had a little knockback, and I could see that it was slowly pushing my character across the platform and towards the edge on the other side. I considered interfering if it looked like she was about to fall off again, but wanted to hold off as long as possible... fortunately for me, he did some kind of phase transition just as I was getting close to falling off, which meant that he stopped doing the ability that kept pushing me just in time.

Instead he summoned some adds, at least one of which I saw coming my smuggler's way, just to witness Meetra Surik do a heroic intercept before it could reach me. Meanwhile Master Satele ended up in a state of perpetual indecision as the AI script that's meant to prevent healer companions from getting stuck out of range kept calling her back to me at the edge of the platform every time she tried to attack Tenebrae. In the end they got him down though, and once again without any help from me at all.

All in all, I spent a little over half an hour on the fight this way, which is of course a lot longer than it would usually take... so I guess this experiment taught me that the player's contribution isn't completely useless, as it does speed things up considerably. I'm also still not sure just how "AFK-able" phase one really is. Still, the fact that my companions were able to kill two of the three bosses with zero input from me on the first try does go to prove my initial point about this being a badly designed fight I think. Powerful NPC allies should never be so strong as to need no assistance from the player character whatsoever.


Early Musings on Combat Styles

When combat styles were first announced, I said that "depending on the exact details [this feature] has the potential to be a huge game changer or to make no difference to many players at all". In a follow-up post I tried to think of some ways in which I could/would utilise the ability to change some of my characters' advanced class but admitted that based on my personal play style, I couldn't think of many.

Four weeks into Legacy of the Sith, it's time to admit that I've ended up being firmly in the camp to whom combat styles make no big difference. I've toyed with a few ideas, but knowing that whatever choice I make would be permanent (for now) has kind of put me off the whole thing for the time being... plus as I've said previously, for me my characters' class and spec are a big part of their identity. I've rarely even changed specialisations, as I'd rather use a desire to try a different spec as an excuse to roll up another alt.

So I've not even done the mission to pick a second combat style on any of my characters - I've just untracked it on all of them and then forgot about it. (Part of me actually feels like this must be slightly offensive to the devs... "We put all this work into this new feature and you're just ignoring it?!")

That said, there's no escaping the fact that a world in which base classes/origin stories and advanced classes/combat styles are decoupled from each other feels very different in some ways. It used to be that if I saw another player out in the world shooting lightning, I immediately knew that they were a) a dirty Imp and b) a Sith inquisitor in specific. Now they could be any kind of Force user... a Jedi even! Unless you're in a PvP instance, it's hard to actually tell the difference between members of the two factions - as far as I can see, the only giveaway is the little note saying "Republic/Empire player" at the bottom of the tooltip if you hover over them, but nothing you can easily spot at a glance.

You could adopt a philosophical view on this matter and say something about how that just goes to show that people are ultimately the same everywhere and that war is pointless, which is something I strongly agree with in real life, but in a game based around a deeply ingrained faction conflict, it feels rather odd.

Even looking purely at my own faction it bothers me slightly that I can't tell a character's origin story anymore unless they are low level and have a class-specific companion out. However, I can't really explain why. I guess I just liked being able to identify players that were "like me" in the sense that they'd played through the same story, even if that knowledge had no practical use in the way knowing someone's combat style does.

Within my guild, combat styles have also added a level of confusion in the sense that after years of playing with many of the same people, I had a pretty good grasp of who had what alts and was capable of what. Now Sentinels are suddenly also Shadows, Gunslingers are sometimes Scoundrels, and who knows what else. It would be interesting to see the stats on whether there are any particularly popular combinations across the player base as a whole.

Looking at the strangers I encounter out in the world, my vague impression is that a lot of players went for a stealthy combat style if they didn't have one before. I complained on Twitter about my experience doing dailies, waiting in front of a clicky objective, and having someone pop out of stealth to "ninja-click" it ahead of me as soon as it respawned multiple times.

Warzones have also seemed more clogged with stealthers than usual to me, at least initially - and it was very obvious that many of them had absolutely no clue how to play a stealther in PvP. Then again, that might not necessarily have been due to them trying a new combat style, but could just as well have been inexperienced players trying their hands at PvP for the first time in order to earn some of the new reward crates. It'll be interesting to see whether people will hone in on some kind of "meta" in terms of what's the "best" combination of combat styles, even if I'd rather not see the community go down that route.

In general it does seem like people are getting good use out of the feature - I've seen many happy comments from players who love to level alts about how refreshing it's been to combine a familiar story with an unfamiliar play style. I also created a baby knight on Star Forge for whom I chose the Shadow style to see what that would be like, but didn't get very far before the pull of focusing on my home server and gearing my main there became too strong again.

Also, while putzing around the NA servers, I noticed that some sub-10 alts I had on Satele Shan and who'd never chosen an advanced class were apparently auto-assigned a combat style, though I can't tell for certain whether this happened with 7.0 or before. Too bad all the choices were the opposite of what I was going to choose for them, but I guess that's my own fault for leaving them in that state for too long. I can always delete and re-roll them if it really matters.

On my main I'll just continue pondering my options for now. I've pretty much discarded my initial idea of perhaps going Mercenary for my main's secondary style as it wouldn't really serve any purpose. Comparatively, choosing Vanguard for example would enable me to also tank on that character, or going Scoundrel or Operative would enable me to bring a different healing style to operations (which might be handy as those two are particularly OP at the moment). I just can't quite decide. I keep coming back to the notion that usually, if I want to play a different role or style, I'd just log on an alt - I do have something for pretty much every situation after all! However, the new setup for ops missions punishes this play style, as completing the quest to earn a reward crate requires you to be present for every single boss kill inside the operation - meaning no more swapping to a different character just for one boss to help out. Not if you want to earn any of the rewards, anyway.

But while I continue to fail to make any decisions on that front, I'll admit that one thing that has made me consider my play style at least a little is the loadouts feature that came with combat styles, aka an easy way to switch between different specs, utility point distributions, gear sets, action bar setups and outfits with a single button press. While it's true that I very rarely respec any of my characters, it's not something I've never done. On my Scoundrels for example I've dabbled in both healing and dps, and my Sage healer respecced to Telekinetics for some fights during master mode chapters because I just couldn't beat them any other way. And I did kind of like the experience of playing around with more than one spec there; it was just annoying in practice to rearrange my bars, remember my utility point setups and so on every time. With loadouts, I actually made a point of creating both healing and dps loadouts for these characters for both PvE and PvP, and it's been fun to have more flexibility on that front without too much additional UI fiddling. We'll see whether that goes anywhere.


Gearing in Legacy of the Sith

When Onslaught came out in October 2019 (gosh, has it really been that long) and introduced the Spoils of War gear system, I was fully equipped with the new maximum gear rating within less than two weeks. Aside from chasing more set bonuses and trying to optimise my amplifiers, I had essentially already acquired the gear that I was then going to wear throughout the whole expansion. And I was really quite content with that!

When Bioware revealed that they were going to revamp gearing again with Legacy of the Sith, I was not exactly thrilled, though I didn't mind the idea too much either. The thing that stood out to me the most was that it sounded like gearing was going to become a lot more complicated again, oddly reminiscent of the mess of currencies and vendors that we had at the end of Eternal Throne and that both devs and players had been keen to get away from.

Three weeks into Legacy of the Sith, I'm not at the new max-level item rating yet (though I'll also confess that I haven't been grinding very hard - guildies who have are much closer to being maxed out, if not fully there yet either). I don't really mind that - while I was happy to gear up super fast last time, it did go very quickly, and I'm fine with the process taking at least a little bit longer this time.

The complexity is close to what I expected though, and that's not great. It's not exactly a problem - we've had to deal with vendors and currencies in the past - it just feels like a downgrade from Spoils of War to be honest. I mean, look at these guides trying to explain the gearing system. The sheer length of them! The number of tables! There's just too much going on, and to be honest there are aspects of it that still confuse me even after three weeks. I've been struggling with how to structure this post because as soon as I'd get to the point where I'd touch even vaguely on how it all works, things would get derailed and I'd just end up confusing myself, as embarrassing as that may sound.

I'll just try to list some non-comprehensive bullet points:

  • When you hit level 80, you'll want to do a quest for a Twi'lek on the fleet to unlock access to the legendary implant vendor - these have special effects on them that replace the old set bonuses and are about the only aspect of this whole thing that's perfectly clear to me.
  • Otherwise you get gear from a mix of boss drops (group PvE) and out of reward crates that you get for completing weekly missions. One thing they kept from Spoils of War is that the item level of these drops is affected by what you're already wearing, though instead of comparing to your average it just compares slot by slot (so if your crate contains a belt, its item level will be determined based on your current belt).
  • Getting an item level upgrade from drops is mostly not guaranteed, but you can also upgrade each item at a fleet vendor, using certain currencies.
  • Where the Onslaught system had you work your way through thirty-odd item levels (even if it was very quick), things are much more condensed this time. Endgame gear starts at 320, and the absolute highest it can go at the moment is 330, but that's only for master mode ops right now. Most gear stops at 326.
  • Each "gearing track" (Conquest, master mode flashpoints, PvP etc.) has its own gear set with slightly differing stats. You can mix and match what you wear, but different tracks have different item level ceilings - these aren't clearly apparent in game, which is where a lot of my personal confusion comes from.
  • There's a lot of min-maxing advice flying around about how you should first get gear from one track while saving up boxes from another and what not, but again, this is just giving me headaches. I just equip whatever I can get and upgrade whatever I can afford at the time.
  • The one thing that irks me about the vendor upgrades is that one of the currencies comes almost exclusively from dailies, and is required in large amounts for all gearing tracks. This has the bizarre effect that this new system that's supposed to let me gear up by simply focusing on the activities I enjoy the most is forcing me to run more dailies than I've done in a long, long time, because it doesn't matter whether I do flashpoints or PvP, daily currency is mandatory for all gear upgrades. I don't mind the occasional daily round, but considering how rarely I used to worry about doing these, the sheer amount of dailies and heroics required to collect enough of this currency irritates me somewhat. What was wrong with just letting raiders get raiding gear through raiding?
  • One thing that's nice for raiders though is that they brought back the looks of the old Tionese, Columi and Rakata sets, so if you weren't playing back in the day or sold your old pieces, this is your chance to (re-)acquire these classic looks. I say this as a trooper, because personally I think the Rakata trooper gear looks ace (except for the silly snow trooper helmet, but you can hide that). Then again, perhaps you main a Sith inquisitor and don't really miss looking like this... I'm definitely building a nostalgic fan-hat and banana-shoulders set for my consular though!

Interestingly, while I was finalising this post, content creator Aviriia started up a discussion on Twitter about how she's already feeling kind of burnt out from the gearing process and asked whether others were feeling the same. Honestly, this is simply why I avoided going too hard on the gear grind from the beginning, because I saw some guildies go into the same kind of frenzy that absolutely poisoned the launch of WoW Classic's Burning Crusade for me, and I know not to buy into that sort of thing anymore, but it seems some people just can't help themselves. I don't know what the answer to this is from a game development point of view - you can always restrict things more, with lower weekly caps and such, or just reduce the required effort altogether, but then people complain about "time gating" or that there's nothing to do.

Personally I'm OK with upgrading my gear a bit more slowly over time... and things are still legacy-bound, so getting additional pieces for alts will go a lot faster. I do think that's very much Bioware's intent here as well: master mode operations bosses - and to some degree even veteran modes - feel crazy tough right now, but unlike in Onslaught, where we were stuck with the same gear forever, we already know that the new operation and beyond will bring more upgrades, and as we grow in power it'll help us overcome these challenges. That is something that I'm very much okay with.


Thrice-A-Weeklies & Limiting Content

When I talked about the systems changes that were meant to be coming with Legacy of the Sith, I mentioned that one of the more low-key changes that I was worried about was that daily and weekly missions were now always going to be removed from your log if you hadn't completed them by reset time. I dreaded this because pretty much all of my characters have been in the habit of carrying half-completed weeklies around with them for months and even years, to finish "one day" when it suited me.

Now, I'm happy to say that the reality of this change hasn't actually bothered me at all. In fact, it was really refreshing to log into various characters after the expansion launch and find their quest logs almost empty. What pleasant decluttering! What new-found clarity of purpose! I actually dig it.

Also, with all the complaining about UI changes, I'd like to say that I quite like the little clock displays that they've added to dailies and weeklies in the mission tracker to give a visual indicator of how much time you've got left until they reset. It's very clean and clear.

Another change that came with this and which I hinted at in my first post about Galactic Season 2, but which wasn't really clearly communicated beforehand, is that many weeklies now have lower requirements for completion but can also be done three times a week instead of just once. I do think that both of those things are overall beneficial to players. For example, the weekly PvP mission used to require ten wins, but now it's only four, which makes it more realistic to complete within a week and lessens the pain of being unable to carry over progress from one week to the next. And the fact that you can do it more than once a week is nice if you're really into a specific activity (such as PvP), as it means that you can earn rewards on the same character repeatedly instead of having to switch to an alt. Nonetheless I can't quite shake the feeling that it's all a bit weird and unintuitive. I wouldn't expect something called a "weekly" to be repeatable three times a week. Not that I have a good alternative name; it just feels strange.

There is another facet to these changes though, and that is limitations on PvE content. This seems to be tied at least in part to the new gearing system, but I'm not sure that was the sole reason for the change. Over the course of ten years and with level sync in place for almost everything, SWTOR has become a pretty broad game. Not everything is equal in terms of effort vs. reward - or how fun it is for that matter - but simply put, there's a lot of content that you can do that will benefit your character in some way and never becomes completely irrelevant. I generally think that's a very good thing, but I can definitely see some downsides to it too: such as new players being overwhelmed by choice and feeling directionless, or existing players becoming too spread out across different kinds of group content to keep queues popping reliably.

What I'm trying to say is, I can understand the basic impetus behind funnelling players into a more limited number of activities at specific times, and that is exactly what Bioware has done. Nothing's strictly gone away or become inaccessible, but for example only certain daily areas are featured in the activity panel from one week to the next. If you want to do any of the others, you have to travel there manually and will get significantly fewer rewards for your efforts.

As far as daily areas and heroics are concerned, I guess I don't really care as I'm not someone who runs these a lot either way, and for operations something similar was already previously in place in the form of the featured group finder operation, which changed every week. However, for flashpoints I feel this change has honestly been kind of bad. SWTOR has over thirty flashpoints at this point in the game's life, all of which can be level synced, and I think that's actually a great selling point for players who like this sort of small group content. But there's a reason people were clamouring for an automated group finder back in 2012 - because they don't like having to rely on manual group formation or having to be in a guild in order to do group content nowadays. With that in mind, taking the majority of flashpoints out of the group finder in a given week comes pretty close to making them inaccessible, and that sucks.

It's made worse by the fact that Bioware has stuck with the change they made in 6.0, which was to limit access to flashpoints based on their original level, despite of the ability to scale characters upwards (which was why my little Nautolan Shadow that I levelled at the start of 6.0 saw way too much of places like Hammer Station initially, because she just didn't have access to much else). Thing is: With this new system you can't level a character through flashpoints anymore even if you were happy to mostly be limited to Hammer Station, because a lowbie might not have access to any flashpoints in the group finder for 50 levels.

Case in point, in week one, every single one of the nine flashpoints up as part of the limited rotation had a minimum level of 50, meaning that if your character was below that you saw nothing in the group finder. I actually found out about this because I was driving around the Lower Promenade on Nar Shaddaa when a random 30-something character whispered me to ask if I knew why he couldn't access any flashpoints. I thought it was a bug at first and even reported it as such, until I read up on it and it slowly dawned on me that this was apparently working as intended.*

At least as far as flashpoints are concerned, I just can't agree with this change at all, and I can only hope that Bioware will at least reconsider it. Especially as I think they could still achieve what they seemingly wanted to do with this update by perhaps adding a tab called "featured" or something to the group finder, which has the flashpoints of the week in it, which give special rewards, and then have the rest in a different tab or something. Players would still be incentivised to queue for the featured flashpoints in that scenario, but at least lower level players or those who simply want to do different content wouldn't be completely locked out of the ability to find others to play with.

*Update: Apparently at least this particular change may not have been intended, or they changed their minds about it quickly. Either way a fix allowing low-levels to queue for flashpoints again is meant to come with patch 7.0.1 according to Keith's latest post on the forums.


Shintar's Galactic Season 2 Diary, Week 2

I can already tell that I won't feel compelled to keep a weekly diary for the entirety of Galactic Season 2 the way I did for the first season, but I did still come across some things that I considered worth writing about in week two, so here we go:

Day 1:

I said in my last post on the subject that I encountered only one bug during the first week of the season, but as soon as the weekly reset rolled around I had instant déjà vu to all the shenanigans tied to non-functioning weeklies in season one. This time around, the objectives updated at reset time, but the weekly missions available from the terminals and required to actually complete certain objectives did not, meaning that said objectives were - at least initially - impossible to fulfil. However, Bioware was able to react quickly and managed to make the missions "roll over" without requiring emergency maintenance or even a server restart.

Like last week, I'd like to simply list all the weekly objectives with what my initial thoughts on them were:

  • Earn 45 warzone medals: Easy enough if you enjoy PvP (which I do) - I thought this should maybe take me 5-6 matches.
  • Collect Underworld Syndicate Plans: Same as last week, now known to be easy enough and to pretty much sorts itself as you play.
  • Do flashpoints: Same idea as last week, but with some different flashpoints highlighted.
  • 200k Conquest points across your legacy: Again, easy peasy.
  • Gain Shadow Syndicate reputation: Again, same as last week and more or less an automatic follow-up from collecting the Underworld Syndicate Plans.
  • Do uprisings: Not a fan of these but they should also be easy enough to do with guildies.
  • Earn 25 specific medals in GSF: I wasn't sure about this one at all. I don't mind GSF, but unlike in regular PvP, I'm terrible at earning medals in it, and this objective required very specific ones as well, not just any medals. I figured I might end up playing some matches for gear anyway and would then see how it goes.
  • Do some quests and kill mobs on core worlds: This being Alderaan, Balmorra, Corellia, Mek-sha and Onderon, I might be able to cover this with another heroic run with Mr Commando like I did last week.
  • Affect 15 enemies with destructible objects (exploding barrels etc.): This sounded interesting but it's not something I ever paid a huge amount of attention to - I thought that there must surely be some quests that are great for this, but I wouldn't even know where to start.
  • Complete the CZ-198 weekly twice or Iokath once: I thought I might do that to see how bad Iokath feels now that you can't save up missions anymore like I used to do.

My daily 25k Conquest points objective was once again ticked off by simply acquiring and popping a reputation token for the Shadow Syndicate. I realised that basically, as long as I don't max out this reputation track and Bioware doesn't decide to change the reputation Conquest objective, I'll be able to get the daily done with the click of a button every single time.

I also did some PvP on my Sage, and she achieved her 45 medals in only four matches! I still lost all but one of those though. Doing some ops with my guildies later on also completed the 200k Conquest points and Underworld Syndicate Plans weeklies again.

Late at night I ended up in the new flashpoint, Ruins of Nul, on master mode with two guildies and a pug. It took us about two hours, but we did manage to complete it in the end (minus the bonus boss), which added a good chunk of progress to my weekly flashpoint objective.

Day 2:

I guess I don't need to mention the daily objective anymore as it's basically always the same thing now. In terms of weeklies, I got the core world one ticked off by doing heroics on Corellia with Mr Commando, and earned enough reputation to complete the Shadow Syndicate weekly as well. In the evening I did a round of CZ-198 and I've got to say that's one area where the new shared mob tagging rules are definitely helpful.

Someone on Twitter also pointed out to me that day that not all weekly objectives give the same amount of points - I'd just thought that it was eight points for all of them, just like it was last season, but no, this time some of them give twelve instead. The commenter on Twitter expressed annoyance about that and I can see why. If you're happy to do any of the objectives and want to min-max your point gains, you'll obviously want to do the 12-pointers every time, but some of the 8-pointers pretty much complete themselves (like the one to collect Underworld Syndicate plans... almost impossible not to pick them up), and of course as soon as you've completed seven, the whole thing locks down, meaning you could potentially miss out on points without meaning to.

I suspect that my point gains for the first two weeks have been "sub-optimal" that way for sure, and doing a bit of napkin maths it looks like if I continue on that same path, it'll take me two weeks longer to complete the season than it would've done if I'd optimised my point gains more. I guess it's not a big deal... other people I talked to said they'd still rather pick their favourite activities regardless of point values, but I know that I'll be bummed whenever the first person announces that they completed the season just by playing and doing their objectives every single day and week, and I, having done the same thing but sub-optimally, will still have two weeks to go. I'll just say that making the point values different seems unnecessary to me and I don't know why Bioware did that if their objective was to make players feel like they could choose whichever weeklies they liked best, but oh well.

Day 3:

I did another round of CZ with Mr Commando, during which we got credit for the heroic mission from him firing a single hammer shot towards the big droid just before it died. This also completed the CZ-198/Iokath weekly for me. 

We followed this up with some heroics on Nar Shaddaa, where we kept looking for barrels to blow up on mobs and did find some, but it wasn't quite enough to complete that objective. Later on we also did a couple more flashpoints, which completed that weekly.

As that was my seventh already, all the others became greyed out and I never did find out about those GSF medals, though some posts I saw on the forums seemed to indicate that this objective was a pain. We did find a lot more good locations for exploding barrels throughout the week though. Plus I also did Iokath a couple of times and it's worth noting that they changed it so you can now do that weekly mission in a single day as well.

I had also seen some talk on Twitter about the new seasonal companion, Fen Zeil, actually having a couple of companion quests, even if they're all just dialogue in alien gibberish. That's still more than Altuur had! People kept saying that it was tied to your influence level, which confused me as I already had Fen up to influence 22 but had not seen any indicators that he wanted to talk to me. Eventually I just went on my ship and there he was, suddenly wanting to chat! So if you rarely go on your ship anymore and haven't seen a conversation prompt either, make sure to check in there at some point.

Days 4-7:

Nothing more to say about these in terms of seasons, as my weeklies were all done and my dailies continued to be completed with the press of a button.

Week 2 thoughts:

The second week seemed even easier to complete than the first, with me being done with my weeklies after only three days and without any of them taking a particular amount of effort. Finding out about the differing point values initially annoyed me a bit, but I got over it. With how relaxed this new system is, doing two weeks more of it won't feel like any effort at all anyway.

Learning that Fen Zeil has a little bit of story going on, even if it's not much, was neat, compared to Altuur last season basically doing nothing other than exist and provide an excuse to make us kill insectoids.