08/12/2016

Are Galactic Command Boosts on the Cartel Market One Step Too Far?

Let me preface this by saying that I hate discussions about pay-to-win in MMOs, simply because I have yet to see any such discussion go anywhere interesting or useful. Since MMOs don't have a clear and indisputable win condition, whatever area you personally don't want to see people overtake you in is at risk of any related cash shop purchases being perceived as pay-to-win. I'll never forget Liore's post about how cash shops selling all those cosmetics kind of sucked the fun out of MMOs for her since collecting cool outfits had been an important part of her gameplay until then.

But even when we're talking about an aspect of the game that is clearly meant to be competitive and where most people would agree that they don't want money to buy someone an advantage, players are easily distracted by simple obfuscating tactics. People protesting about the Sword of a Thousand Truths being sold in the cash shop? Well, make it so that by collecting a thousand rare "sword shards" in game, people can acquire it without paying as well. Never mind that it's going to take three years and nobody is realistically going to do it, a lot of people will suddenly give it a pass if there's a way of getting the same thing without paying, never mind that it's not really viable in practice.

The only thing that I see all pay-to-win accusations having in common is that the cash shop items in question make people uncomfortable. To be fair, that also applies to things that don't necessarily have anything to do with pay-to-win, such as lockboxes, but let's use it as our standard anyway. Galactic Command boosters definitely make me uncomfortable.


To explain why, let me first talk a bit about what I tend call my secondary MMO: Neverwinter Online. There are definitely things I really love about that game or I wouldn't be playing it, but its cash shop is not one of them. I do want to give Cryptic money every now and then because it only seems fair when I've spent a significant number of hours playing their game... but deciding what I actually don't mind spending money on is always an agonising experience.

My biggest annoyance and the things I've sworn myself to never buy are what I would call anti-grind consumables. For example there is a process where you upgrade enchantments in your gear, but the higher you go up in level the higher the chance that the upgrade will fail and that you will simply lose all your expensive mats in the process, up to the point where the game will literally present you with a 99% failure rate. Except... you can avoid the issue by using a consumable from the cash shop! (Yes, they also exist as very, very rare drops that you can get without paying... but I refer you to my point above.)

Or take refinement, a related process through which you upgrade your gear in Neverwinter. For this you need to use up "refinement points", which again you do get through normal play, quite commonly in fact, but you need literally millions of them to actually fully upgrade an item, which is never going to happen for most people by playing normally - but once again, the cash shop offers relief in the form of expensive items that are worth tens of thousands of refinement points at once.

The reason these things bug me is that they are basically a sneaky way of trying to get a continuous stream of money out of players. I'm actually someone who is quite happy to continually support a game financially (aka pay a sub)... but be honest about it! Don't make your game free and then make it such a pain to progress that you have to shell out money over and over again (unless you're willing to literally just pay hundreds of dollars at once to get your items to cap right away).

What does all this have to do with SWTOR? Well, SWTOR does charge a subscription. But now we have a new, super grindy system for subscribers anyway, and lo and behold, there's also something you can spend money on to ease the pain for a little while, again and again. Not subtle, Bioware. The main mitigating factor in my eyes is that it's really a pretty weak boost. 25% extra CXP doesn't really speed you up significantly in the short term, and you still need to actually play too - the boost increases your Galactic Command gains but doesn't just "give" points to you. But it still feels like a pretty cheap move, and I think Bioware can do better than that. If Command XP were a thing for everyone and then subscribers got a boost to it automatically, fine. But paying to be able to grind and then paying again to lessen the grind is a poor way to be treated as a customer.

All that said, I will confess that I actually bought some of these boosts. Why? Because thanks to referrals, I'm sitting on tens of thousands of unused complimentary Cartel Coins that I never use for anything since I'm not really one to buy lots of cosmetics or crates of randomness. There's just little for me to spend them on right now, and at least these boosts are actually useful to me. I don't know how I'd feel if I actually had to pay for them with real money though. I don't think I would want to.

06/12/2016

Shintar's Galactic Command Diary, Week 1

Day 1:

I hit level 70 from completing KotET chapter seven and had earned two crates by the time I was done with the story - unsurprisingly, the first couple of Command levels come easy. After the horror stories I'd heard about the livestream where Musco got nothing but greens from the crates even at Command rank 90-something, I was pleasantly surprised to find ilevel 230 blues in mine. While they still weren't upgrades, their quality at least didn't feel insulting. None of the cosmetic items interested me either, so I just disintegrated everything - including the companion gifts because you can buy them for credits anyway, and every little counts when early estimates suggest that it might take a whole year to reach Command rank 300, even for a pretty active player. The only thing I kept was a Cybertech schematic for a purple 230 earpiece, which I sent to my Guardian alt.

Next I did some PvP, which turned out to be a much better source of Command XP than anticipated. Out of the four crates from that I got some greens and reputation trophies which I disintegrated, four more crew skill schematics for my various alts, a Pyroclastic Subteroth pet and... dun dun dun - a purple 230 set piece (legs), which really surprised me as I had read somewhere that set items wouldn't start dropping until a much higher Command rank.

In the evenings I ended up doing some uprisings and operations with guildies to evaluate how good these were for CXP. Sadly Bioware appears to have taken out the "get a bonus while in a group" concept at the last minute, as killing a gold or champion mob solo yields the exact same amount of CXP as doing so in an 8- or even 16-person group. I finished the evening with another six crates, whose entire contents I ended up disintegrating except for a Synthweaving schematic.

Day 2:

Back to work, so there was less time to play, though I still managed to acquire five crates through an intense mix of operations, uprisings and warzones in the evening. In one of the warzones we did I managed over 8.6 million healing and the other healer on my team (a Sage) even broke the 10 million mark. Warzones were also supposed to be the highlighted Galactic Command activity of the day but we noticed no difference in our CXP gains compared to the previous day - shortly afterwards this was confirmed as a bug.


Screenshot or it didn't happen.

Anyway, most notably these five crates contained: more schematics which I saved for my alts, though I'm foreseeing the need for a spreadsheet or something here to keep track of which of the various schematics I've already collected; and another 230 set piece - but since it was the legs again it ended up disintegrated. A 230 relic got disintegrated as well since it wasn't the type I actually wanted. I claimed a blue 230 implant even though it wasn't an upgrade because my main's a Biochem and I could have sworn that I'd heard somewhere that you can also learn schematics from reverse engineering, however I was disappointed to be presented with a "no research available" message when ripping it apart.

I noticed that things like pets and cosmetic gear don't actually bind on pickup and some people have opted to claim these purely to sell them on the GTN - however, since credits are not a problem for me, I'll continue to go with disintegration because that actually "buys" me progress that I can't get any other way.

Day 3:

More miscellaneous group content in the evening; end result: six crates. Light side seems to always dominate during my main play time now, which is handy for the CXP bonus. Claimed a purple 230 ear piece, a blue 230 main hand and a cosmetic bounty hunter chest piece, though I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the latter as I only decided to keep it on a bit of a whim. Collected another schematic for an alt. Everything else disintegrated.

Day 4:

A day of exciting changes. A patch was supposed to fix the bugged bonus for the highlighted Galactic Command activity, but neither me nor my guildies could notice a difference between the numbers from before and after the patch. The system remains opaque. Also, the amount of CXP you get for killing a gold mob was dramatically nerfed, from 10 to 1. Why? Because a player who goes by the name of Jerba on the forums hit the supposedly unhittable weekly cap for Command XP after only three days. Apparently he had spent all his waking hours grinding mobs until he ran into a dead end at rank 100. (He even uploaded a video, which shows the location on Tatooine where he grinded and that he had a full ops group of people happily joining him - oh, and you can see that he's German. Insert joke about German work ethic here!)

For some reason, people on the forums and on Reddit completely lost their shit about this nerf. To me it made perfect sense: The mob killing bonus was clearly meant to serve as "padding" for people's XP gains while doing the harder content, but the last thing a game like SWTOR wants to encourage is mindless mob grinding. That this was actually the most efficient way to level up was clearly a bad calculation on their part and needed to be fixed, but either way it changes little about the overall nature of the system. Though I am a bit sad that I'm now unlikely to see a repeat of my ops group clearing out the entire jungle area in Eternity Vault.


Probably unlikely to be a repeat occurrence now.

In the afternoon, we tried a couple of hardmode flashpoints to see how they held up as sources of Command XP, and they weren't too bad - though we did suffer a lot of deaths since we weren't used to things hitting that hard anymore. What we did notice however is that Bioware made a right pig's ear out of their naming conventions with the whole veteran/master thing. While for uprisings, veteran is the equivalent of hardmode and master will be nightmare, for flashpoints they decided for some reason to rename tactical to veteran and hard to master. Even in that they haven't been consistent though, and in various bits of mission text and achievements, hardmode was alternately referred to as veteran or master, while at other times both tactical and hard still had their old names. If that sounds confusing, it's because it bloody is and makes no sense.

I also ran into a thread on Reddit that claimed that Galactic Starfighter was a good source of CXP too. I did a couple of matches myself to test this and they certainly weren't wrong. What was funny though was that I hadn't done a GSF match on Shintar in ages and apparently some patch (might not necessarily have been the latest one) had reset all my main ships' weapons to "none" - so I excitedly hopped into my first match just to find that I wasn't actually able to attack anything as I had nothing to shoot with! Pfft.

All in all, I could tell that my CXP levelling is starting to slow down, as despite of playing all day (it was Saturday) I "only" ended up with seven crates by the end of it all. The contents were pretty good though: Aside from even more schematics, I ended up claiming a blue 230 off-hand and a purple 230 relic that was actually of the type I wanted, woo! I also disintegrated another relic, which bizarrely said in its tooltip that it wouldn't proc in PvP areas, which can only be a bug or mislabelling at this point.

Day 5:

Warzones were the highlighted activity of the day and this time we could actually see the bonus working. Even though it was a Sunday, I played less than I had the previous couple of days and only earned four crates. One contained the exact same relic I had claimed the previous day, forcing me to disintegrate it this time. After seeing oodles of schematics for Cybertech and pretty much all the other crew skills, I finally got my first Biochem schematic, hurrah! Oh, and a belt with set bonus.

Day 6:

After successfully besting EV and KP hardmode the night before, several guildies were keen on more hardmodes, even though we had alts in the group that wouldn't even have been considered well-geared back at level 65. Unsurprisingly, we kept running into a wall already on the very first boss of EC, hitting the enrage with quite a bit of boss health left to go. In the end people could be convinced to settle for a Dread Fortress story mode run instead, but due to the amount of "wasted" time I only earned two crates that evening, and both had all their contents disintegrated.

Day 7:

After another bout of quick maintenance, we saw the introduction of CXP boosters to the Cartel Market. I bought a bunch, but that will be a post for another time. Since I was tired from work and my guildies had a full group anyway, I didn't join for ops that night and only did a bit of PvP. Finished with two crates whose contents got disintegrated once again.

Week 1 Summary:

It feels a bit strange to admit it, but despite of all my concerns about Galactic Command, I did have fun with it this week. It helps a lot that I'm someone who enjoys participating in most aspects of the game to some extent, so I didn't feel like I was "forced" to engage in a specific activity that I didn't really like just to earn optimal amounts of CXP. In fact, it was quite a bit of fun to experiment to see how different types of content interact with the new system. The only CXP-granting activities I didn't participate in at all were dailies/heroics and pure mob grinding (before the nerf to gold mobs).

I also felt pretty lucky in that I got six pieces of gear that were upgrades for me during this first week, two of them with a set bonus. That was after 38 crates though, so on average I got one useful item every sixth or seventh crate.

That does segue nicely into the concerns that still remain though: The grind is real. As explained in the Reddit thread linked earlier in this post, someone calculated that if you managed to earn 20k+ CXP per week, you would hit Command rank 300 in a year. I hit over 90k CXP myself this week, but that was with a crazy amount of time invested for my standards and is definitely not sustainable. I suspect that my enthusiasm in the face of such a system - where even a Herculean effort on my part is nothing but a drop in the bucket - will diminish quickly. Finally, there were all the social issues that I made a separate post about: Guildies getting upset about who was and wasn't favoured by the random numbers; me kind of yearning to play alts but feeling vaguely guilty about it and then not doing it.

How has your own first week of Galactic Command been treating you? Do you want to curse me for being so lucky? I wouldn't blame you! Or have things gone even better for you?

04/12/2016

Rise Up, Rise Up!

Uprisings were one of Knights of the Eternal Throne's features that I was the most curious about. Our first new group content in two years! No, I'm not counting the Star Fortresses because they felt more like solo content with the option to bring a friend.

After running all of them several times, on both story and veteran (hard) mode, and completing most of the associated achievements, I find them... interesting. I'm still not entirely sure what I think of them though.


My first impression honestly wasn't that great. I kind of coasted through my first couple of runs, hardly even taking in what was going on. To avoid "spacebar please" issues, there are no cut scenes in these, with all story context simply being delivered by a voice-over from one of your Alliance members (Hylo, Theron or Lana). I don't exactly mind that, but it does make it easier to miss what's going on if you're late to zone in or get distracted by boss mechanics. After a few runs I started to pay more attention though, began to take note of more of the details and started to have fun with them. I'm just not sure how sticky the whole thing is going to be.

From what I've read and heard, Bioware's design goals for uprisings were to reuse existing locations that had been somewhat underused and to provide an alternative to flashpoints that was a bit more fast-paced, with less worrying about how to correctly handle trash pulls and more charging in and smashing things. I do think they succeeded at both of these goals.

There are currently five uprisings and all five locations immediately look familiar to the long-time player. Done and Dusted takes place on Tatooine and actually has the most "original" setting of them all as the compound you enter didn't immediately remind me of an existing location on Tatooine. Firefrost (five years of WoW make me want to call this one Frostfire all the time) is set on Hoth, in an underground forge which I'm pretty sure was used in an existing quest, though I can't remember which one exactly... I think it was either a bounty hunter class mission or a world story arc? Crimson Fang takes place on Port Nowhere, a location from the smuggler class story. (Where's Corso? He said he'd be there!) Inferno reuses the base inside the volcano on Ord Mantell, and Fractured recycles the Emperor's space station one more time.


As far as fast-paced goes, there is indeed no time to spend on planning pulls as a lot of them spawn in from different directions in the way with which we've become so familiar over the course of Knights of the Fallen Empire's chapters, but somehow it's not as annoying in a group because there's a kind of friendly competition going on as for who kills the most mobs the quickest. Elite mobs are almost non-existent but weak ones appear in abundance, turning many a pull into an AoE-fest. This could be boring, however the way things spawn and are spread out differently every time does keep things somewhat interesting. There are also three types of temporary power-ups that you can pick up from boxes throughout the instance, which add an additional way of sowing destruction and another layer of friendly competition for group members. ("Nooo, I wanted the rocket launcher!")

While there are many mobs per pull, the number of trash pulls itself is fairly small and you go from one boss to the next quite quickly. The bosses themselves are another exercise in recycling as they re-use a lot of mechanics from existing flashpoint fights; for example the last boss of Crimson Fang AoE-stuns the group to duel one person à la Malgus, and an earlier boss scans group members to summon specified "kill squads" similar to the way the Interrogator in Directive 7 chooses to clone people. Again, I didn't mind this too much because for the most part they have copied good boss fights, so why not? There's nothing to say that you're only ever allowed to use a mechanic once. I just wish the bosses had a bit more personality - just like the "story" of the uprisings, they are pretty generic. Even after several runs I struggled to remember any of them by name, with the exception of Crack-Shot Aggy from Done and Dusted (modelled after Colonel Daksh from Maelstrom Prison), and that might simply be because the name is short and easy to remember, and Done and Dusted happened to be the very first uprising I set foot into.

One thing I did like a lot were the small touches added for achievements that don't necessarily serve any purpose other than to have a bit of fun. For example in Done and Dusted you get the opportunity to summon a random desert beast to fight for you for a bit. While they make no real difference to the fight, it's plain fun to suddenly pull a bantha out of nowhere and to try to "collect" all the different animals. Crimson Fang and Inferno also feature friendly spies in hidden locations that grant you achievements for finding them.


Getting to this guy needed the help of a Gunslinger's roll and a Vanguard's Transpose. Not sure that's quite working as intended.

All that said, after completing both weeklies for this new game mode, I felt little inclination to go back to them for the rest of the week. If I want to play something fun- and fast-paced, I'm more likely to queue for a PvP match, which is less repetitive and also better for my Command XP bar from my personal experience so far. Maybe uprisings will fill a niche for a certain type of player that doesn't enjoy PvP, but I think that if I'm honest with myself I prefer my group PvE to be a bit longer and slower.

Oh, and you may be wondering why these currently don't have a solo mode, even though it sounded like there was one in the works at an earlier point in development. After seeing all the current uprisings for myself, I'm pretty sure that it has little to do with Bioware wanting to force people to group up and everything with the viability of the all-powerful Jesus droid that makes solo modes possible in the first place. There are a lot of mechanics like odd movement and target switching going on, which are not really that difficult but I strongly suspect that the GSI droid's current AI is simply not up for dealing with them effectively.

02/12/2016

Social Implications of Galactic Command

I've already had my moan about why I don't like 5.0's new design philosophy of moving all gear progression into random loot boxes and the many ways in which this is frustrating for the individual, but it's only over the last couple of days that it has really hit me how much the new Galactic Command system is affecting relationships between players as well.

You don't have to be particularly competitive to feel a certain pressure whenever an expansion launches and raises the level cap. Even if you don't want to rush, there can be something awkward and uncomfortable about seeing your friends level up much faster than you and hearing them tell tales of the exciting new content that lies ahead - especially if there is a risk of being left behind and having a harder time finding friendly group mates for the same content later on. Fortunately though, most of the time these issues don't last long, because the new level cap isn't far, and once you hit it, personal progression tends to slow down significantly, allowing slowpokes to catch up.

In my first post about Galactic Command I noted that the way it was described made it sound like a process of endless levelling, and so far that impression has certainly held true - but keeping in mind the scenario I just described above, that isn't entirely a good thing. While Command level by itself isn't displayed and doesn't increase your power, psychologically there is still something unsettling about watching the growing gaps between people's levels. Since we're only a few days into early access of the expansion, all my guildies are still relatively close together, but already one can see certain players shooting ahead and others lagging behind. It stands to reason that once the gap widens enough, some characters will be ready for hardmode/nightmare progression way before others... with limited ways to help the ones at the bottom catch up.

I'm really bothered by this because I don't like the thought of falling behind in such a manner, yet as someone who works full time these days and gets home late I'm likely to be among the ones ending up near the bottom sooner or later. I've been playing like crazy for the past couple of days, and still there are guildies who are already more progressed. I wonder even more about the ones who usually play less than me and often only log on for operations - they will be perpetually behind and really risk dragging the team down, effectively enforcing a certain segregation of players by available amount of time to play instead of by skill or friendship if you are at all interested in progression.

This also turns alts from something almost universally beneficial to guilds into a guilty pleasure, because any time spent on an alt is now effectively time "wasted" not working on your Galactic Command level. This didn't used to be an issue because the actual time spent on progression through operations was pretty limited, leaving people with lots of opportunities to do other things without impacting their performance in group content. You know something has gone wrong then raiding - so frequently derided as the bastion of the unpleasantly hardcore - comes out as the more casual option in a direct comparison!

And in all of this, we are only talking about the way players will be progressing on average - because the RNG-heavy nature of the thing also creates additional opportunities for conflict. When one person in the guild keeps getting nothing but greens while another gets a set piece every other level, without any way of "sharing" their wealth, this breeds frustration and envy that players have no way of actively countering, no matter how good their intentions.

I am annoyed because it feels like this change has moved progression raiding - something I'm very much interested in at a basic level - into the realm of the stereotypical "no-lifer" only. The time investment required for gearing up for harder content is just too great. As if raiding in SWTOR needed the odds stacked against it any more than they already are right now...

Many of you who mostly play solo might say: "Why do you even care so much?" And the truth is: I don't care that much about having the best gear for the sake of having the best gear. But I do care about bringing the best I can to group content with my guild, something that Galactic Command will make unreasonably hard going forward. And I'm already tired of the tension created by the constant conversations about who got what from their crates.

30/11/2016

Knights of the Eternal Throne Expansion, Day 1

I did something for Eternal Throne that I've never done for an MMO expansion before: I took the day off work. Not the Tuesday, since the servers didn't come up until shortly before the end of my work day anyway, but the Wednesday afterwards. To be fair, it wasn't so much because I was much more hyped for KotET than for any previous MMO expansion that I played on launch day but more because the end of the year is approaching and I still had a couple of unused days of holiday left. I figured I might as well use one on this.

From a technical point of view, the (early access) launch was pretty damn smooth. The servers came up slightly earlier than expected on Tuesday and upon logging in several guildies immediately commented that the game seemed to run much more smoothly than before. The inevitable bugs and such also seem to have been relatively mild so far. While visually terrifying, the fact that my character's head and arm trade places whenever she sits still on her tauntaun is more funny than annoying.


WTF

Other than that, my trooper's armour randomly changed into bounty hunter gear in a couple of cut scenes and, um... I heard there is now a bug with the last fight of KotFE chapter 16, but they are aware of it and there is a temporary workaround. There was a slightly game-breaking bug with the new Command interface apparently, but they were able to hotfix it quickly and before any serious exploitation could occur. That's pretty good going for Bioware to be honest.

The changes to the UI were slightly confusing at first but I'm getting used to them. The first Dark vs Light battle was won by the dark side on TRE within about an hour, but I blame this on the fact that the new interface element that lets you select which side you want to fight for is by default partially hidden behind the mini map so that only the dark side toggle is visible! Since then things have evened out somewhat though and I've seen both light and dark side victories.

As for KotET's story - don't worry, there won't be any spoilers in this post, only some very vague general thoughts on it. I played through the first six chapters on Tuesday evening and then the last three on Wednesday morning. I didn't feel quite as pressured to keep going as I did during the early KotFE chapters, but that's not really a bad thing. They still flowed quite smoothly from one to the next; it just felt a bit less jarring to take a break here and there to check your mailbox and stuff like that since they were a bit more self-contained.

It's hard to judge Knights of the Eternal Throne purely on its own merits because it's so obviously a direct continuation of Knights of the Fallen Empire. KotFE started off strong, drawing a lot of positive energy from players being intrigued by what had happened during that five-year time skip and who this Eternal Empire was. It floundered a bit towards the end though because almost nothing got resolved. KotET sets this right, starting us off very much in medias res, without the need to explain what's going on and who these people are (even if Bioware has said that you can start KotET without having played KotFE if you want) and gets things done. Also, while I was initially disappointed by the announcement that no more of our missing companions would be coming back for this story arc, after having actually seen the result I can't deny that it was probably the right choice to make. KotET is just so much more focused on its existing characters and finally gives them the time and attention they deserve.


I'm not yet sure in what format I'm going to present my more specific thoughts on KotET. I went with the "chapter by chapter" format for KotFE because that's how the later ones were released, but I didn't think I would need that format again for KotET since everything was released at once. However, there are so many different things to talk about in each chapter and they evoke such different emotions at times that I might as well split my "review" into chapters anyway - once I have more than one playthrough under my belt, that is.

A note on PvP, of which I've also already done a fair bit since hitting level 70: Healing seems so much more powerful than before now! It's weird to see everyone's health pools ratcheted up to about 130k, which is nearly double of what we had at level 65, and while damage and healing numbers have increased too, I don't think they've increased by as much. The result is that it feels even harder now to kill anyone, making combat feel a bit "spongy" as soon as there's more than one healer present. That might just be my own impression - I've also seen people claim almost the opposite, that fights are too bursty now - but I'm mentally preparing myself for some nerfs.

29/11/2016

Day 10: Death #IntPiPoMo

Wondering what the hashtag in the title is all about? Click here. Want to know all the themes that I have used for my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots? You can find the full list here.

As mentioned last year, I pretty much only die in PvP and operations these days... which admittedly does happen a lot though!


Let this one be a stand-in for the countless screenshots I've taken of "embarrassing deaths", as in: deaths or wipes on bosses that we've done so many times it really shouldn't happen anymore! Seriously, how did I die on Soa here? Probably by jumping off a platform the wrong way... As usual, the view from the floor is great though!


This one also kind of falls into the category mentioned above, except that we're dead without actually being dead. There had only been three of us left to finish off Soa, then someone died and the last two of us got caught in a mind trap. No other way out than to slash stuck...


Another one from Eternity Vault, though this one is intentional, as it's part of how you skip most of the trash between the first and second boss. With trash mobs also granting Command XP in Knights of the Eternal Throne, we might want to revise our strategy here though...


OK, I don't feel bad about this one, as this is hardmode Revan. I think this was the only time my group actually gave him a try. Needless to say, we didn't get very far.


I'm never quite sure how people end up dead in the air. I mean, yes I get dying in the middle of a knockback or something, but shouldn't your body continue to be affected by gravity? Apparently not.


During this one night of hardmode Master and Blaster attempts, I suffered massive lag spikes and after one of them I was presented with the above when my game caught back up. My guildies immediately asked why they could hear me laughing hysterically in the background through my pet tank's microphone - apparently they didn't get to enjoy the same view. After I shared the screenshot, much hilarity ensued and the Commando who appears to be diving between my legs here was very apologetic...


Not actually dead (yet) in this one, but using my favourite custom health regeneration item: feign death! I think it's the fake loot beam coming out of your body that really nails it. It's such an ingrained instinct for me to go after these loot beams that guildies using this item get me pretty much every time.


This screenshot is the answer to the question: What happens if you enter a GSF match while on stage two of the rakghoul plague? Answer: Nothing happens during the match, but you're dead as soon as you come out.


I suck at arenas. That is all.

And with that, this series as well as my contributions to International Picture Posting Month come to an end just in time for Knights of the Eternal Throne early access tonight! See you on the other side!

Final IntPiPoMo count: 86

28/11/2016

The REAL Differences Between KOTOR and SWTOR

... as perceived by a long-time SWTOR fan who had never played KOTOR until recently. Does that title still sound click-baity enough?

To get the obvious out of the way first: KOTOR and SWTOR belong to two different genres: single-player RPG vs. MMO, so of course they are going to be different in that respect. However, the single-player part of SWTOR has been labelled as basically being KOTOR 3 by both players and devs (I think Bioware even called it "KOTOR 3-10" once, because of the eight different class stories), so it only seems fair to take a closer look at that comparison.

1. Combat / Controls

My very first post about playing KOTOR on my tablet contained a lot of whinging about the controls. Just moving around was a pain, inventory management was a nightmare and so on and so forth, though I'm not always sure how much of that was the fault of the mobile port and how much can be traced back to the base game. I do feel confident in saying that the combat plays out very differently than in SWTOR though.

SWTOR is based on "classic" MMO tab-targeting combat and while that's not everyone's cup of tea (it does seem to be going out of fashion as of late), it's tried and true for a reason. While I think that the massive, game-wide nerfs applied in 4.0 have diminished the fun of combat somewhat because things die too quickly now, the general concept of having lots of different buttons to press in different situations is fun.

KOTOR on the other hand works with a sort of hybrid turn-based, real-time combat system, which is to say that you can just let it run or pause at any time to give new instructions to your character and your companions. I suppose your mileage may vary in terms of which combat style you prefer, but personally I thought that the combat was definitely KOTOR's weak point, mainly because it's just strategic enough that you can't simply let it proceed in real-time, but way too simplistic to make planning your turns any fun. For example there is no restricting factor like "energy" for non-Force special attacks, so there is basically no reason to ever use an auto-attack... but for some reason all your characters will want to perform them by default all the time, so most of your combat management is spent cancelling auto-attacks and forcing your party to perform specials instead, which is just tedious.


2. Different Freedoms

In general, whenever I see people complain that SWTOR isn't enough like KOTOR, their main issue seems to be that SWTOR is too restrictive and they feel like their choices don't really matter. Based on that, I half-expected KOTOR to be a wildly open game... but it wasn't. In fact, there was still a very strong plot thread that you have to follow and which I'm confident you can't deviate from, even after only having experienced one playthrough. You always start off by having to rescue Bastila Shan (which you can only do by winning that swoop race), Taris always gets destroyed, then you have to train to be a Jedi, then you have to hunt down the different pieces of the star map and so on and so forth.

What KOTOR does do better is granularity of choice when it comes to how you want to achieve certain things. I thought the Sith Academy on Korriban was a great example. You have to impress the head of the academy to get to the tomb with the star map, but there are a multitude of options to gain favour with him and you can pick and choose the ones that would suit your character best. Inside a single conversation there are often also several different options for what to say: do you want to try to be persuasive, intimidating, reasonable? SWTOR limited itself in that regard from the start by adopting a conversation UI that doesn't allow for more than three conversation choices at a time. When SWTOR gives you a choice of how to tackle a certain situation, it simply comes down to doing the nice thing or the evil thing most of the time, with no in-between.

From a mechanics point of view, KOTOR also allows for greater character customisation as you go along, what with the different skills, feats and powers you can invest into opening up a huge amount of possible permutations.

However, I dare say that KOTOR doesn't give you more freedom across the board. For example, it doesn't really matter what class you pick at the beginning, the story quickly turns you into a Force user. I suspect that for many this doesn't really matter because a Jedi/Sith is all they really want to be, but for me, one of the big appeals of SWTOR was that it wasn't "just another Jedi game". While the recent expansions have somewhat gone back on that promise of an experience tailored to different roles, at least the base game genuinely lets you experience life in the Star Wars universe as a trooper, smuggler, agent or bounty hunter. Or a Jedi/Sith, if that's what you want - but it's not the only option.

Also, in terms of geography, SWTOR offers so much more real estate to uncover and play around in. All the planets in KOTOR are pretty tiny and I don't remember single area that wasn't obviously just placed there for quest purposes. I found this particularly striking on Tatooine, which is absolutely vast in SWTOR, but encompasses only a tiny couple of areas in KOTOR.


3. Streamlining

I've almost always been against the kind of thing that certain critics describe as the "dumbing down" of MMOs, but playing KOTOR really gave me a new perspective on this because parts of it are just too damn opaque for my liking.

I suppose you could say that KOTOR is more true to the roleplaying roots of the genre in the sense that it's less gamified and there's more "real world logic" going on. As an example, there are no "trash drops" from mobs like rakghouls or kath hounds, because realistically, nobody would want to buy stuff like broken rakghoul teeth. On the other hand, if you kill a Dark Jedi, you generally get to loot his lightsaber and gear. SWTOR leans much more strongly on modern MMO conventions here, where you can farm anything for money but you can't usually count on getting anything exciting from it.

Now, the above didn't actually bother me, but there were other things in this category that did. When SWTOR launched for example, I remember them making a big deal out of the fact that you would not be at a disadvantage based on whether you made light or dark side decisions. I didn't quite understand why that was even a concern, but KOTOR quickly made me see why: If you go down the light side path in KOTOR, you get royally screwed over in terms of money, which can turn certain points in the story where you are supposed to pay x amount of credits to proceed into real roadblocks. Meanwhile, dark side characters are free to rob, steal and extort every step of the way and it pays off. I even found guides that recommended that you always go dark side of the start of the game, regardless of your plans for your later alignment, just because it's too much of a pain to progress during those early levels otherwise. Now, that may well be "realistic" but doesn't make for a fun experience when I'm playing the game to live out my fantasy of being a goodie two-shoes Jedi.

Likewise, while I found the combat itself pretty tedious, the underlying stat system is reasonably complex. There are several different types of damage types and resistances for example, based on the Star Wars d20 tabletop game as far as I'm aware. The problem is, without having read the rulebook for that, how it all works is frustratingly opaque. I remember getting a piece of armour that said it had x amount of resistance against frost. But what exactly does that mean? That I have an x% chance of resisting a frost attack? That I always resist x frost damage each round? How many opponents even do frost damage? How do I know how useful this is? To this day I'm not sure why certain pieces of gear suddenly made my Force powers unavailable. "Restricted by armour" is a frustratingly vague explanation. Was there a manual supposed to come with the game that explained all of this?

This is all taken to eleven by the character builder. As mentioned above, the fact that it gives you lots of choices can well be seen as a positive, but you can also make a lot of "bad" choices here, and you won't necessarily know how bad they are until it is too late. The prime example of this was my frustration with the final boss fight - I had built my character largely around stunning, healing and support, which worked just fine as long as I had my two companions with me, and even when I went up against that duo of terentateks on Korriban while on my own. But then I was thrown into the final fight where I suddenly would have needed a Force attack power - which I didn't have, with the result that the final fight was, while not completely impossible, incredibly hard, long and tedious. It was bad enough that I honestly considered quitting the game there, even though I had come that far already. Putting the player into that kind of position - a situation which is completely different from anything that came before and where all their choices up to that point can suddenly turn around and bite them in the butt - is very bad design in my opinion.

TL;DR: While SWTOR may well have taken streamlining a bit too far for my liking in some areas, personally I appreciate that it makes it impossible to ever end up with a character that is too seriously disadvantaged to progress. The biggest thing that you can do wrong in SWTOR is press the wrong buttons for the situation - but that is something that is easy to correct at any time. Also, while some might be annoyed by the fact that you can't reject or kill companions early on, you also can't lock yourself out of a companion story by accident - I didn't complete a single companion's arc in KOTOR largely because that is possible in that game.

4. Style

While both KOTOR and SWTOR are set in "the Old Republic era", SWTOR takes place about three hundred years later and has a somewhat different feel to it in some respects. For example I explained in this post how the Sith Empire comes across both as a bit more reasonable but also somewhat less interesting in KOTOR than in SWTOR - I would say it's a matter of taste which portrayal you prefer, as both have their pros and cons. The Republic doesn't really get much screen time in KOTOR other than to show up for space battles - if you are interested in how things were run during that area, SWTOR offers a great opportunity to explore important Republic planets like Coruscant and Corellia to get a feel for what things were like there.


Side missions in both games also follow slightly different formats. I've seen SWTOR get accused of "having too many boring fetch quests" compared to KOTOR, but this comparison strikes me as unfair as none of the side missions in KOTOR are really very deep either. The main difference to me seemed to be that the KOTOR side quests almost always relied on some mystery: "Where is X?" However, this wouldn't have worked for SWTOR since people are used to modern MMOs telling them exactly where to go. The Search for Shasa would have been a lot less intriguing if the moment you picked it up a map marker had told you exactly where to look. Instead SWTOR mostly opts for missions where the quest giver knows at least roughly where to go but can't do the job themselves because the environment is too hostile or whatever. Ultimately however I didn't feel that this made the two types of side quests feel all that different - they still have little to no connection to the main plot and mostly serve to give you an idea of what else is going on on any given planet.

Story?

In terms of overall writing, it seems to me that SWTOR is a worthy successor to KOTOR. I enjoyed playing through the latter even more than a decade after its release and with the main plot twist having been spoiled for me. It hits many notes that are "typically Star Wars" while occasionally veering into slightly clichéd territory, though that doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment too much. If you want a similar experience in SWTOR, you can get this either via the Jedi knight or the Sith warrior story - depending on whether you want to be a good or a bad guy. You just have to make up your mind about which side of the fence you want to be on from the beginning - while you can be an evil Jedi, you'll still remain a Jedi regardless and can't suddenly go join the Sith. KOTOR could (presumably) afford to let you go off to rule the Sith at the end if you wanted to, but only because that was the end of the game and they didn't have to worry about showing you what comes after. SWTOR is a continuously ongoing story, so there are certain limitations to how far they can let you veer off the main story rails. But as long as you go into that with eyes wide open, there is no reason you can't enjoy SWTOR's story as much as the original KOTOR (assuming that none of the gameplay differences mentioned above are absolute deal-breakers for you).

27/11/2016

Day 9: Silly #IntPiPoMo

Wondering what the hashtag in the title is all about? Click here. Want to know all the themes that I have used and will be using for my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots? You can find the full list here.

To be honest I've already used quite a few silly screenshots for the previous days' themes, so these are really just the ones that didn't fit in anywhere else.


Me and Pet Tank having fun with emotes (I'm the pair of legs sticking out of the sand).


One of my guildies hiding in the guild Czerka Crate-O-Matic. If you've never heard of this item, it's quite rare and enables you to disguise yourself as a crate on a cooldown (what kind of crate people see is randomised each time). Our old guild leader once raided the guild bank to buy it when he saw one on the GTN for cheap, and then justified it by saying that it wasn't really his, it belonged to the guild. Since then it's been handed around quite a bit so different people could get the associated achievement. Fortunately this is one of the few items that doesn't bind on use.


Worst character name ever. I used to collect these for submission to Njessi's Hall of Shame, but you can't take five steps on the Republic fleet on The Red Eclipse without running into something cringe-worthy, so I eventually gave up on submitting them all.


Another contender! Though I've been told that this one is good at PvP, so that makes it OK I guess?


Worst guild name ever.


Worst... no hang on, that's actually a brilliantly funny and accurate get-up! If you've played through the HK bonus chapter anyway.


And finally a bit of silliness from Bioware's end that I only learned about thanks to Calphy: In Depths of Manaan, the droid foreman that serves as the hardmode bonus boss can be seen talking to various droids at the start... but if you run off into the corner of the plaza, you can find a lone loader droid "hiding from the foreman" there. I guess he's not just a scary prospect for pugs.

IntPiPoMo count: 74

25/11/2016

The SWTOR Encyclopedia

The Star Wars: The Old Republic: Encyclopedia (that's a lot of colons) was released in 2012 to serve, as its sub-title claims,  as "The Ultimate Guide to the Epic Conflict". Initially it was quite expensive, and not unfairly so, since it's one of those giant hardcovers with big, colourful pages and lots of pictures, but once it turned out that SWTOR wasn't turning out to be the next World of Warcraft, retailers quickly slashed the prices, which is when I decided to pick up a copy of my own.


Product picture from Amazon.

I remember being quite pleased with it when it arrived, but then I opened it on a random page and landed on what were basically spoilers for the entire bounty hunter story. As I was nowhere near having completed all the class stories yet at that point, I went "argh" and banished it to the top of a shelf, never to be touched again. Well, I was planning to read it after there was nothing left to be spoiled for me, but then I just kind of forgot about it... until recently, when I realised that actually, it's been safe for me to finally read it for a while.

I slowly leafed my way through it a couple of pages at a time and actually found it quite enjoyable. There are a lot of little lore bits and pieces about the base game in there that are nowhere to be found in the game - well, some might be hidden in codex entries that I haven't read or forgotten about, but I'm sure a lot of them are exclusive to this book.

For example, did you know...

- that Chancellor Saresh grew up a slave on an Imperial planet but escaped by leading a revolt? Or that she had a husband who died when the Sith retook Taris? I know that in many ways she's been set up as the kind of character that people love to hate, but if that woman doesn't have genuine reason to hate the Empire, nobody does.

- that Senator Dodonna (from the smuggler story) was nicknamed "Shimmersteel" and had a reputation for using her feminine viles to her advantage in politics?

- that General Garza (from the trooper story) was married three times, one of them to the head of the Strategic Information Service, Marcus Trant?

- that Gearbox (also from the trooper story) was a long-time personal friend of Jace Malcolm? Wonder what the Supreme Commander thought of what happened to that iteration of Havoc Squad...

- that Jedi Master Oteg (from Taral V/Maelstrom Prison) used to be a member of the Jedi Council but stepped down because he was more needed as Fleet Admiral?

- that Master Orgus (from the Jedi knight story) was close friends with Harron Tavus of Havoc Squad?

- that Jaric Kaedan was the one who led the strike team that originally captured the Dread Masters?

- that Grand Moff Kilran is supposed to be 51 when you meet him in game? He always seemed a fair bit younger to me... quite a lot of the ages are slightly baffling to be honest. For example Talos Drellik is supposed to be only 27, when I would have pegged him as older (maybe because of the receding hairline). Yet Quinn is apparently already 37 at the start of the game...

- that the late Lord Kallig's first name was Aloysius (teehee)?

Anyway, the main point of this post is simply that I really enjoyed the book and if you are a big fan of the game too, I can only recommend picking it up.

(I just realised I'm posting this on Black Friday. Sorry, I'm not aware of any great deals, nor is this posted with an affiliate link. Just so you know.)

24/11/2016

Day 8: Memorable Moments #IntPiPoMo

Wondering what the hashtag in the title is all about? Click here. Want to know all the themes that I have used and will be using for my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots? You can find the full list here.

While I've generally appreciated the re-tuning of flashpoints and operations that Bioware did in 4.0, it has made it very hard to find screenshots for this day in my series as a lot of my memorable moments have involved downing an operations boss for the first time... and while I didn't mind having to re-learn content we'd already done nearly as much as I initially feared, getting those "new but old" kills didn't really feel all that satisfying and exciting either. The one screenshot I could find was this one: 


... which shows me and my ops team standing proud after having downed the Cartel Warlords in Scum and Villainy on NiM post-4.0. The original iteration of this nightmare mode operation was crazy hard - we didn't even get the first boss down until we overgeared him significantly, and even then we couldn't get past Thrasher. We didn't down the rest of the bosses until we outlevelled them in Shadow of Revan, and even then Styrak remained a challenge. So it did feel like a genuine achievement to clear most of the instance at level, even if it seems to have been nerfed quite a bit compared to its level 55 difficulty. (We didn't even try Stryak though.)


A memorable moment from the DvL event was when I finally got that kolto barrel achievement from Depths of Manaan! I think I mentioned previously that it seemed like everyone already had it as nobody was ever competing with me for the barrels anymore whenever I pugged it, but this year I finally got it too - incidentally, my pet tank got his in the same run.


This is my DvL Shadow levelling up and isn't really that memorable by itself, but I felt like using this screenshot since she dinged off killing that champion droid on Tython, and killing that has often been a milestone for my lowbie Jedi. Too bad the 4.0 changes have made it completely trivial and therefore a lot less interesting.


I've written about the guy who "stole" my name (incidentally, he seems to have stopped playing in KotFE, or at least he was still level 60 last I checked) but I don't feel antagonistic towards people who have a name that is only similar to mine - in fact the opposite is the case and I find it highly amusing. A good example here is Master Shin the Guardian, whom I met in a couple of random warzones. I had incredible fun yelling out things like "don't die, Shin" or "great job, Shin" while my guildies rolled their eyes at me.

IntPiPoMo count: 67