23/05/2015

Attack of the Clones

I'll say it right away: This post has nothing to do with Episode II. Sorry if you came here thinking that it would. The title was just too appropriate not to use.

A long time ago, I saw a video on YouTube that was bashing SWTOR pretty badly. I can't find it anymore, but it was very straightforward really. The video-maker was running around the Imperial agent/bounty hunter starter area on Hutta and accusing Bioware of being lazy and of having created a dead and uninteresting world. His evidence? The NPCs in front of Nem'ro's palace were all the same. Not literally all of them of course - but as he was walking around, he pointed the camera at various citizens that were strolling around the area, talking to vendors etc. and there were indeed a lot of clones among them. The guy sounded so bitter and hateful that I found it easy to ignore him and to dismiss his criticism. After all I had already been playing the game for a while by that point, and I'd never noticed anything like that. I figured that it was probably footage of placeholder NPCs from beta or something.

I kind of forgot about his whole argument until late last year, when my guild was getting really into conquests. Initially, one of our main sources of conquest points was grinding low-level heroics on multiple alts, which worked particularly well on Nar Shaddaa. As I was mindlessly killing the same mobs over and over again, multiple times a day and for several days in a row, I couldn't help but get a closer look at them. Since they were low level compared to my characters, they posed no threat and combat required no real attention. So instead I started to notice... similarities.

The thing is, to a certain degree I honestly expect lots of mobs to look similar. In SWTOR, we spend a lot of time fighting enemy soldiers of a certain faction or another, and it's no surprise that people in uniform or heavy armour all look kind of same-ish, especially when you're more focused on selecting the right abilities than on inspecting them up close.


But as I was grinding those heroics on Nar Shaddaa, I started to notice things that looked a bit odd to me. For example the [Heroic 4] Mandalorian Rage requires you to kill a lot of Mandalorians from Clan Sharratt. Especially when they have a helmet on, it goes without saying that a lot of them will look the same. But I noticed things like that all the mobs called "Clan Sharratt Vanguard" were female Zabraks with red skin. That's a rather striking look, and when there are two of them in each pull it looks rather odd.

A similar thing caught my attention in the [Heroic 4] Lab Animals, where you fight some bad guys called Xenobi. The Xenobi thugs were all body type one (or two, not sure now) with short hair so not particularly eye-catching, but the ones called rangers were all body type three and had that wacky haircut that Corso Riggs comes with by default. All of them. It was slightly disconcerting.


After that I started to notice the same pattern pretty much everywhere I cared to look: Bioware would make a bunch of different mobs with different names and mix them up in larger mob groups, but every mob with the same name would look exactly the same. I won't pretend that this bothers me very much, because most of the time when I'm in combat I'm busier with focusing on my survival than on inspecting the facial features of some random NPC, and I rarely go to low level areas to mow down mobs that can't really fight back (that heroic grinding for conquest purposes was definitely an exception). But every so often when Bioware gives one of these generic mobs a more striking look, with an unusual skin colour or a funky haircut, I notice it again.

I even went back to check on Hutta, and the YouTuber whose name I can't remember was actually right. That same NPC is still there, playing a whole plethora of roles in front of Nem'ro's palace.


I'm just wondering: Who else has noticed this? And if you have, does it bother you? I'm kind of thinking that in theory, I would like a world where no two NPCs look the same, but I'm not sure how much additional work that would create for the artists. I'm kind of doubtful it would be worth it, when even long-time players like myself can take almost three years to actually take a close enough look to notice.

19/05/2015

Whatever happened to...?

Bioware keeps adding new features to The Old Republic at a decent pace, and even if they slip up in certain areas sometimes (such as letting us go with no new operations for over a year), you can feel safe in the knowledge that they are probably working on something new in the background. Recently, GSF players have been worried that their favourite part of the game might be in danger of being forgotten because every time the subject is brought up, the devs declare that they currently have no plans for new GSF additions. However, at least Galactic Starfighter is still being talked about. There are other parts of the game that haven't seen updates in much longer and genuinely seem to have been forgotten by most people. Here are three that I've been thinking about lately:

1) Original Space Combat

It seems to me that the last time this received a significant update was in patch 1.6 when heroic space missions were introduced. That was over two years ago. But does anybody even care? Unlike with GSF, I haven't heard anyone clamour on blogs or podcasts that Bioware needs to make new space missions. Were they really that unpopular? I have to admit that I never liked them very much myself, and I can only think of two people I know who ever played them with any real gusto, but I also seem to have a vague recollection of Bioware stating that a fairly significant percentage of players were doing at least one space mission per week. (Though of course I can't find a link to that piece of info anymore.)

I kind of have a suspicion that Galactic Starfighter was more or less intended to replace the original space game, which is why they stopped updating the latter. Of course it's a bit questionable to replace a PvE game with a PvP one, and while GSF has found its fans, I wonder how many players actually migrated towards it from the original space combat. Of the aforementioned two fans I mentioned, only one really took to GSF as far as I know.

At least the original space missions are still in the game, and most players probably give them a try at least once, considering how prominent that quest icon is on your starship. The fact that space combat has never been relevant to any other parts of the game actually has the advantage of making it timeless.

2) Legacy

This one might seem a bit odd at first, considering that we probably spend a fair amount of time looking at our legacy window to check things like achievements or reputations (all of which are legacy-wide). What I'm talking about however is legacy as something other than a simple accumulation of character perks.

Remember legacy levels? I have to admit I almost forgot that they exist, considering that I hit legacy level 50 over two years ago, which caused my legacy experience bar to disappear. I'm sure I'm not the only one who expected these to gain some sort of purpose eventually, but they never really did. The maximum legacy level has also never been raised, even though the maximum character level has gone up to 60 in the meantime.

Or how about that family tree? I have to admit I always thought that it had some potential for roleplaying additions, but Bioware never really did anything with it. I would have loved to be able to connect it to the characters of other players!

Basically, the legacy system originally appeared to be something that could really allow us to build our own story in game and build stronger connections between our characters. However, nobody has really shown any great interest in taking it in that direction in the last two years, neither the devs nor the players. It still has its role to play as a point to collect achievements and certain character perks, but I can't help but think that it could have been - and could still be! - so much more.

3) Matrix Shards & Cubes

The first time I actually felt compelled to hunt datacrons in the game was when I built my first matrix cube. At the time, good relics were pretty hard to come by, and none were better than this simple item that you could build yourself... even if it did require some effort. These days, I like to pick up as many datacrons as possible whenever I level a new character - but sadly all those matrix shards effectively go to waste, as Bioware never added new matrix cubes for level 55 or 60.

Why not, I say? I'm not saying that these new matrix cubes would have to be best in slot, but having new versions of these at all would offer players at least an alternative way of getting something for that particular gear slot.

I find it strange that while Bioware keeps adding datacrons to give people stat boosts (and players embrace them, with all their crazy jumping requirements and secret puzzles), this secondary function of datacrons seems to have been all but forgotten.

Would you like to see any of these features updated and added to? Or can you think of other parts of the game that both devs and players seem to have forgotten about?

14/05/2015

Five Myths That Shouldn't Stop You From Playing Star Wars: The Old Republic

While SWTOR is my "home" MMO, I'm still interested in other games and the state of the industry in general. Burnout and content slumps happen, and then it's nice to be able to check out other games for a little while.

While I think that the image of SWTOR on general MMO sites has improved a lot since it had to deal with all those issues in its first year, you'll still find a fair amount of people commenting on SWTOR articles purely to spread misinformation about the game. (I'm not saying that they are doing this intentionally, but the effect is the same, whether the intent was malicious or whether they are simply basing their judgement on outdated information.) It always makes me pretty annoyed, but when has anything good ever come out of arguing in an internet comment section?

Nonetheless it's not good to have this stuff out there, because people who genuinely don't know anything about the game will read it and think it's true. (I'm pretty sure that I must have some pretty warped views of a lot of games that I've never played myself, having used random internet comments about them as my knowledge base...) I thought that I could at least try to provide an article that those who are curious, who want to learn more about the game and are wondering whether some of the bad things they've heard about it are true can read as a counterpoint - a counterpoint from someone who has actually played the game since launch.

You might argue that this makes me biased, and of course it does, but I've never claimed that SWTOR is perfect or that everyone should play it. However, if you don't think that SWTOR is your cup of tea, I'm sure that you'll be able to come to this conclusion based on actual facts, not rumours and myths that some people like to perpetually regurgitate in comment sections.

Without further ado, here are five myths about SWTOR that shouldn't prevent you from trying the game, where they originated, and why they are wrong.

1. SWTOR is effectively a single player game

I actually wrote about why this wasn't true shortly after launch, but sadly I still see it pop up quite often even three years later.

Why do people believe this? When SWTOR first launched, the way it delivered quests with cut scenes, multiple-choice dialogue and voiceovers was quite revolutionary for the genre, even if its ultimate importance was overhyped. Since then other MMOs, such as The Secret World and Elder Scrolls Online have adopted similar systems of quest delivery, but at the time of SWTOR's launch it was very novel. It was the closest thing to questing in a single-player RPG that any MMO had done before, and it made sense that people noticed the similarities. However, some players got so caught up in their class stories that they ignored everything else and were then confused that nobody wanted to play with them.

Why is it not true? SWTOR is, on average, no less group-friendly than other theme park MMOs. You receive bonus experience while in a group, there are group quests and world bosses on every planet, and the endgame is very group-centric. In fact, it's other MMOs that have introduced features like XP penalties for grouping and forced solo instances! In SWTOR, being in a group is pretty much always rewarded and there's no content to which you can't bring along a buddy.

Yes, you can make your way to the level cap on your own if you wish, but you've been able to do that in pretty much every major MMO since the launch of World of Warcraft. The mere option of being able to play on your own does not turn any virtual world into a single player MMO. I always found it odd how SWTOR got singled out for this as if it was something new.


Busy being bored in my no-endgame, single player MMO.

2. There is nothing to do at endgame

I can understand why people believed this at launch, but at this point it's just baffling. Do you honestly think that Bioware hasn't added anything to do in three years?

Why do people believe this? At launch, a lot of very vocal people burnt through the levelling content very quickly and then found themselves bored with the endgame. Even then it wasn't true that there was "nothing" to do at max level - there was PvP, two daily areas, an operation, three normal max-level flashpoints and nine hardmode flashpoints even at launch, but it's understandable that this wasn't enough to keep people busy who had burnt through the entirety of the levelling content within days.

Why is it not true? Speed levellers were never a good benchmark to measure when people would run out of content. Personally, despite of playing for several hours a day immediately after launch, it took me over a month to hit level 50, by which point Bioware had already patched in another operation and another flashpoint. I never experienced a lack of things to do at max level.

Since then the game has kept adding patches at a pretty steady rate of about once every two to three months, raised its level cap twice, and added space combat and housing. There is plenty to do.

 3. The servers are dead

In the comment section of the old Massively site, I noticed this one guy who liked to claim this repeatedly and "backed it up" by posting a screenshot that showed his character standing on the fleet, alone.

Why do people believe this? Because there was a time when many servers were dead. The game launched with dozens of servers and initially they added even more... so when the game lost over half of its launch population in the following months, a lot of servers were left as ghost towns.

When Bioware actually started "soft merges" by allowing people to transfer off towards a designated number of target servers, those ghost towns became even emptier... yet they were still left open for a while, ready to give new and returning players a terrible impression of the game. (No, I didn't think that was a good idea either.)

Why is it not true? This was back in mid-2012. Ever since all those smaller and deserted servers were merged into a handful of mega-servers, the populations of those have been healthy. Obviously there are still differences in terms of how busy things are depending on the time of day and your exact location, but there are definitely people around.

Somewhat related to this, not everyone understands the way the game's instancing system works. If more than a certain number of people (I think it's 250 on the fleet, less on most planets) are in the same place, the game will create a new instance of that location to split the population up. However, the counter in the top left will only ever show you the population of your current instance. So even in game you sometimes get players going "oh my god, only 42 people on the fleet" - while they miss the fact that there are already two full instances of the fleet and they happened to load into the newly spawned third one.


The Republic fleet on The Red Eclipse on a Saturday morning, ca. 11 a.m., instance one of two.

4. The alignment system affects your gear progression

In other words: I can't play my character the way I want, I have to maximise my light or dark side point gains or I won't be able to wear the best gear in the game!

Why do people believe this? There are items with alignment requirements on them in the game. People who saw these drop early in the game and couldn't use them due to their alignment obviously jumped to conclusions and aren't shy about sharing those conclusions with the world.

Why is it not true? The Torhead database had over 58k items on record when I originally started drafting this post. (RIP Torhead.) If you looked at just the ones that had any sort of alignment requirement on them, the shown number went down to 871. Or in other words, about less than 1.5% of all items in the game have an alignment requirement, and not a single one of them requires max level. Most of them are pieces of orange (cosmetic) gear or levelling relics - in other words: totally irrelevant if you're worried about your gear progression. There are other reasons to care about your alignment, such as the story - but that only makes sense. Gear and character power however are definitely not a concern when you're wondering whether to be naughty or nice to those NPCs.

5. The payment model is horrible and will constantly annoy you

This point is probably going to be the most contentious one and I fully expect someone to pop up in the comments just to go: "No, you're wrong, SWTOR's payment model really is horrible." Nonetheless, I ask you to hear me out.

Why do people believe this? When you go to the official SWTOR website, it advertises on the main page that you can "download the game and play for free". It is somewhat understandable that some people misinterpret this as meaning that it's a free game. News flash: it's not. The game will remind you very early on that it's still a subscription game at heart and wants you to cough up some money. People can get very grumpy if they are asked to spend money on something that they expected (or simply wanted) to be free.

Why is it not true? SWTOR is a subscription game with a free-to-play option/trial and those options work fine the way they are. I suppose you could argue that they are being advertised in a misleading way, but that doesn't change how they work. I've been a subscriber since launch and aside from the fact that the game has inevitably changed and evolved in some ways, my subscription has allowed me to continue enjoying the game in exactly the same way I have since launch. While a cash shop has been added, I receive a monthly Cartel Coin grant as part of my subscription, and since nothing in the shop bestows any kind of gameplay advantage, there is no pressure to buy things all the time. On the rare occasion when something strikes my fancy, my stipend is usually enough.

If you're only planning to play casually, the "preferred" play status, which you gain as soon as you spend any money at all (the lowest amount you can spend is on a bunch of Cartel Coins for a fiver), isn't such a bad deal either, as you have access to a huge amount of content for free, the worst restrictions are lifted, and many of the others won't really apply to you anyway (e.g. if you're just going through the quests for the story, you probably won't amass enough credits to hit the credit cap, and wearing ugly hats or purple gear to maximise your stats is hardly required).

If you were trying to play without paying a single penny, then yes, the game will nag and annoy you a lot. But such is the way of free trials - they are not the full game.

09/05/2015

Ziost, the Day After

So, five days ago, on Star Wars Day, we were allowed to see the conclusion to the Ziost storyline. (Spoilers this time if you haven't seen it yet!) There was a big crowd of people at the mission terminal that couldn't wait to see it.


As soon as you click it, you get a message that some sort of anomaly has been detected on the planet... and then you get to see Vitiate "consume" it by killing every living thing on the planet. Talk about a shocking moment, especially since the story up to that point had ended with NPCs expressing hope that maybe the former* Emperor wasn't as powerful as they thought.


People have pointed out that the whole thing is reminiscent of something that is talked about in the Revan novel, how Vitiate consumed all life on his home world to make himself immortal. If this was indeed a similar sort of thing, he only just got even more powerful. Personally I was also reminded of an event in the early Jedi knight story - it's been a while, so I don't remember all the details, but basically you get sent out to save a planet from an evil superweapon and arrive too late, which cumulates in a moment of shock similar to this one as everyone stares down at the planet's destroyed surface. Finally, the whole thing is an interesting contrast to Makeb, where the threat of the planet's destruction is dangled over your head for the entirety of the storyline, but it isn't very credible and it's unsurprising that it never bears out.

In hindsight, it makes a lot more sense now that the quest areas on Ziost felt so tiny, considering that they literally only existed for the purpose of progressing the one story quest. Ziost's "permanent" state is that of a dead planet. There aren't even any mobs down there, except for a couple of giant Monoliths (alchemical Sith creations), which you are better off dodging than fighting if you are on your own.


The quests are once again pretty varied (they kind of have to be, with no "ten rats" to kill), and the mission with the speeder bike ride was pretty fun. I was quite annoyed though when the one with the Macrobinoculars bugged out on me and my pet tank when we tried to do it in a group and we were forced to reset it and drop group to be able to complete it. I just can't help but see this as another sign of Bioware's decreasing interest in making their content group-friendly.

Even though the new dailies were a fun little romp, I also couldn't help but wonder why I should keep doing them. There is no new reputation or anything attached to them, so the only rewards are commendations and some new tokens for another set of orange gear with blue mods. As a raider, I have commendations coming out of my ears and the last thing I want to do is get more of them. I occasionally use them to buy gear for a rarely used alt or a companion purely because I don't like being capped, but other than that I really have no use for them. I guess people who don't do endgame group content may appreciate another way of upgrading their gear a little.

What I probably found the most interesting though were the Colossal and Worldbreaker Monolith bosses. Bioware has a history of experimenting with world bosses: giving them long respawns, then shorter ones, putting them in instances, then putting the next one outside again, and so on and so forth. The two Monoliths definitely feel like another step in this ongoing experiment, since one of them is a world boss and the other one is inside an instance (an operations boss). The weekly requires you to kill both, and to tackle the Colossal Monolith on hardmode you're supposed to have a buff which you only get from killing the Worldbreaker Monolith beforehand.

I thought this sounded immensely annoying at first, considering my bad luck with ever seeing the Yavin world boss out in the open, but fortunately Ziost spawns lots of instances quickly due to its small size, and even if another group just killed the world boss before you, he respawns after only fifteen minutes.


I also thought that the Worldbreaker Monolith was the more fun boss of the two in terms of mechanics. He spawns three adds that can't be killed and make him invulnerable to damage while even one of them are active, but if you get their health low enough, they go into a "stasis" for about thirty seconds during which you can actually damage the boss. What makes this fun is that it's vital that you co-ordinate dps on the adds or you'll end up with a "rotation" where at least one of them is always up and you can pretty much never hit the boss. The first time I pugged this fight and nobody knew what to do, we actually managed to have the boss enrage on us, which was pretty funny.

I've been less impressed by the instanced boss, the Colossal Monolith. He feels like just one more giant circle dance... and somewhat ironically, the current recommended strategy for killing him on hardmode seems to be to ignore his main mechanic and just AoE heal through the whole thing. My small guild group certainly didn't have much luck on our first night of attempting him on hard and trying to actually execute the circle mechanics correctly. But then again, considering that he's supposed to drop a mainhand better than what you get from harmode Revan, I would expect him to be something of a challenge.


* On a side note, I thought it was interesting that it took until Ziost for the Empire to fully denounce the Emperor, and Lana insisting on calling him Vitiate felt quite poignant. Makes you wonder about the Empire's future though - there must be a huge power vaccuum now that no single person is officially in charge of the Empire anymore. Surely more than one Dark Council member must be more than eager to fill that role, wanting to become the new Emperor?

05/05/2015

Conquest Fatigue?

Last week we had another Total Galactic War, and me and a couple of other guildies had diligently saved up crafting materials to make a push for first place on the planet of our choice again. We waited a bit with choosing a target to invade and eventually decided to go for Ilum, which seemed very quiet at the time. Within only a couple of hours, we had a good lead of about 500k points... which was when two other large guilds suddenly decided to join us. Since they were so much bigger than us and it was obvious that we didn't stand a chance, the whole excitement was over before it had even begun.

I still hit my personal target on five different characters and felt nicely rewarded for my efforts, but the whole thing certainly left me with a slightly awkward feeling in my gut. It only makes sense that I'm not nearly as enthused about conquests as I used to be when they were introduced. Trying to tailor my play around earning as many points as possible week after week was just not sustainable in the long run, not when I still wanted to play alts and spend time crafting non-conquest items.

But I have been enjoying taking part in the occasional event, especially Total Galactic War, and I had prepared for this one for weeks. To see the competition come to such a premature end so quickly was a bit disheartening, for me anyway. At the same time the number of people in my guild that seem to have any interest in conquest whatsoever seems to be going down as well. The hardcore achievers moved an alt into some bigger guild ages ago and get their achievements that way. The middle-of-the-road players on the other hand, the ones that I was previously able to coax into making an effort at least occasionally, seem to see less and less of a point in it and feel increasingly burnt out by the whole concept.

I thought that this may just be my guild, however I was struck by how many empty slots there were left on the scoreboard on The Red Eclipse at the end of this Total Galactic War. During the first event of this type, I expressed some surprise that ten slots remained unoccupied at the end but chalked it up to not enough guilds having a guild ship yet. When the event came around again a little more than a month later, all slots were claimed within days. However, since then, overall participation seems to have decreased again, and this week's event once again ended with nine empty slots on The Red Eclipse's scoreboard.

A few months ago I felt that a slighty decreased interest in conquests was part of their "maturation process" and not a bad thing, but now I kind of wonder... how far can said interest decrease before it becomes a bad thing? I've heard of guilds not even bothering to invade a planet anymore to give their members the benefit of the bonuses (which even my small guild always does, just to give any individuals who are working towards their personal target a leg up). Has the whole system become too predictable already, with big guilds causing smaller ones to immediately give up as soon as they arrive?

It's certainly something that I will continue to keep an eye on.

02/05/2015

Day 10: Death

This is the tenth and last post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

Strictly speaking you never "die" in The Old Republic, because it wouldn't make sense lore-wise. You only get "defeated" - but "I'm dead" is just so much easier to say.

Last time I went through this challenge, I was still relatively new to the game and I was still constantly discovering new and interesting ways to die. After more than three years of playing however... well, not so much anymore. My alts rarely die while levelling unless my companion decides to charge off and overpull, or something respawns on my head at a very inconvenient moment, and neither is generally very interesting (just annoying). So when it comes to looking at interesting ways of dying, operations are the way to go these days, because that and PvP are the only places where you're expected to die frequently, regardless of your skill.


For example, if a boss or an add has a particularly powerful knockback, your body can end up landing in strange places. Pictured: me staring at one of my guildies on his Sniper alt, who had somehow managed to die above Draxus' gate in Dread Fortress.

 

A line that you'll often hear in operations is: "Slash stuck, everyone!" The /stuck command, which moves you if you get physically stuck on an obstacle somewhere in the world, has the nice side effect of killing you if you're in combat at the time. This has led to it seeing lots of use in operations to get people to "die up quickly" when it becomes obvious that a fight is going to be a lost cause and it's better to start over.

Some time ago a visual bug was introduced which causes your character to not fall over when you /stuck - on your screen at least. You still die and fall down on everyone else's monitors. This can lead to some strange images, like this one of my trooper seemingly "defiantly" standing up to a roaring Thrasher, even though I was already dead at the time.


While wiping quickly is good form for regular raiders, sometimes trying to stay alive for as long as possible is just too hard to resist, just to see if you can. This is particularly fun on a Sage, since their Force Barrier (which grants complete immunity to all effects for its duration) allows them to survive for a little while even when things have gone majorly pear-shaped, so you can briefly enjoy the illusion of being extremely powerful... until the bubble runs out.


When you're dead and know that you won't receive a combat res, that's a great time to take screenshots, especially if other people are slow to type /stuck (or the group is genuinely still trying to down the boss). From a vantage point on the floor, any boss looks even more imposing than usual, and you can capture all kinds of heroic last stands... or the moment just before a missile is about to kill your fellow healer.

I hope you all enjoyed (or at least didn't mind) this series. The posts for it were a lot easier and faster to write than many of my usual, (trying to be) more thoughtful ones, and I thought that it also provided a good opportunity to talk about random gameplay observations that usually wouldn't warrant a post of their own.

29/04/2015

Impressions of Ziost

My first impression of Ziost upon landing was that it looked a bit like an Imperial Ord Mantell with snow, what with the town where you land being surrounded by rock formations. This was not a bad thing, as I always tend to think fondly of my newbie days on good old Ord Mantell.


Unfortunately my second impression was less positive, as Pet Tank and I ran into a wall, quite literally, when we tried to enter the first quest phase together, as it was another personal phase which we had to play through separately. I really don't like this trend. I don't mind treating the new generic storyline as the continuation of the class stories, but it's not a class story. Except for the ending of the Yavin storyline, which has some class-specific dialogue at the end, I've really seen no reason why all these phases couldn't allow groups to complete them together. Competing for the quest giver's attention via the group conversation system is one of the most fun things about levelling as a group - it sucks that this is slowly being eroded to the point where we are pretty much questing in parallel but separately instead of together a lot of the time. /endrant

Other than that, the quests on Ziost were pretty straightforward from a mechanical point of view. It was nice to see that even in such a relatively small story update, Bioware tried to mix things up with a bit of non-combat action, by having quests that required tasks like using scanners or Macrobinoculars. The quest with the super fast custom speeder in particular was good for a couple of laughs (I catapulted myself off the platform of course).

The only slight annoyance was the bonus mission to save civilians at the tower, which felt like a considerable bottleneck as there weren't that many of them around. It wasn't exactly a show-stopper, as you could just skip the bonus, but considering that every other quest, including this bonus one, gave an achievement, I don't think many people liked that idea. It might get better once more players are repeating the whole thing on alts and can skip the bonus without missing out on anything.

Achievements in general were a bit silly. Kill a mob - achievement! Complete a quest - achievement! Complete another quest - another achievement! I found it more amusing than annoying though.

The questing flow and environment felt a bit weird... unlike on other planets, you don't enter a single large area, but instead you do a couple of quests in a tiny area, then go back up to the space station to be sent to another tiny area, and so on and so forth. It feels very heavily instanced/lobby-like. As someone who quite likes a big open world I always feel like this kind of thing should bother me more, but I think SWTOR gets away with it (in my personal estimation) because it makes sense to have "cuts" when you're travelling between areas on different sides on a planet or between different planets altogether. It just feels a lot less jarring than running into a loading screen while crossing a zone border in a fantasy MMO.

Last but not least... the story! I liked it. While it was short enough to play through it in one evening, Bioware still managed to pack it with a couple of twists and turns. It ends without a real resolution, but it's been confirmed that this is intentional and that the "real" ending will be revealed on Star Wars Day (May the 4th). I don't mind waiting another week, though it does increase pressure on the ending to be something that was truly worth waiting for! On a side note, it's funny how many players thought that the quest ending where it did was a bug. I guess 3.0's major blunder with the buggy Revan fight has really hurt people's faith in Bioware's ability to put out content that works as intended.

On a final and completely random note: I loved the bit where you fight the two possessed Jedi in the tower and the Sage uses Force Barrier just before you can get him down. It was just like a bad PvP match and made me laugh out loud.

27/04/2015

Day 9: Silly

This is the ninth post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

After the grousing of the last two posts, let's look at some very random and silly things!


Here I was working on the Seeker Droid quest chain on Balmorra, when a dread-seeded Bormu of all things burst out of the ground. I was like... really? That thing was hiding under that small mound of earth? As if Bormus aren't ridiculous enough as they are.

(On a side note, it feels like every time I work on this quest, I'll either find the seed within my first three searches, or I'll spend ten minutes or more running in circles without finding anything. There seems to be no in-between. Has anyone else noticed this?)


In Terror from Beyond, if you take the speeder after killing the first boss but before you've cleared the trash leading to the second boss, it will drop you right in the middle of the first trash pull. (I don't know whoever thought that was a good idea... or maybe that someone just enjoys playing practical jokes on raiders.) I'm sure you can imagine this leading to all kinds of fun whenever people take the speeder at the wrong time. However, one time when this happened to me, the speeder dumped me in the middle of the trash mobs as expected - yet they just didn't aggro. I had fun striking poses while they ignored me.


Fun fact: while cut scenes filter out any players that aren't grouped with you, they don't filter out NPCs, so you can end up with funny shots like this one, which shows my Scoundrel having an important conversation while a crowd-controlled Sith is asleep while standing up right next to her.


If you're the cautious type like me, you may not know this, but like the Lich King in WoW's Icecrown Citadel, Revan in Temple of Sacrifice doesn't actually aggro until you start the fight by attacking him. This makes for some amusing screenshot opportunities.

24/04/2015

State of Operations

I'm mostly logging in for operations at the moment, and that's okay. What's not okay, or at least not great, is that ops have been nothing but a struggle for weeks and it's really starting to get people down. I blame the difficulty.

Now, before you tell me that I need to learn to play, let me explain a bit. For most of the time that I've been with my guild, I've thought of it as a hardmode guild. Just based on experience, hardmode operations are where we spend most of our time making smooth progress while still being challenged. Story modes are easy for us. Nightmare mode is the kind of content we'll stick our noses in once we've cleared hardmode, and while we'll manage to kill a couple of bosses, it takes us very long and I don't think we've ever finished a NiM operation before the next raid tier was released and allowed us to overgear the content.

I think it's okay to acknowledge these limitations. The vast majority of the player base has them. Unless you're in a small number of top guilds, you're always going to run up against a progression wall eventually where the difficulty of the content is increasingly too high to overcome for the combined skill level of you and your guildies. It's a normal part of engaging in this kind of endgame. It is however also a risk, because if people run into a wall for too long, they get frustrated and stop logging in.


As it turns out, Sparky was the easy part...

From Bioware's point of view, the trick is therefore to combine the inclusion of challenging content with giving people the ability to progress for as long as possible without hitting a wall. Tiered difficulty levels are a great way of achieving this, because it adds several different steps for people to climb and therefore stretches things out. Ideally, you then release a whole new operation before people have had time to get frustrated with whatever difficulty mode they can't beat.

Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice have been very unforgiving in that regard. I've said from the start that I feel that their story modes are too harsh in parts and are likely to turn casual raiders off the whole thing before they even have a chance to get started. HealingSWTOR also asked back in February whether the operations are too hard and included the hardmodes in his question. Many experienced raiders have noted that the hardmodes for Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice are more on par with the difficulty of nightmare mode in previous tiers. So when you have a (slightly too diffcult for what it's supposed to be) story mode, immediately followed by what's effectively a nightmare mode, where does that leave a hardmode guild? Not in a happy place.

For comparison, I've looked at what I posted about Dread Fortress and Palace back when they were current content - we had to put up with them for over a year after all. From what I can tell, it took my ops group a little less than six months to clear both operations on hardmode. That means that on average, we killed a new boss every two to three weeks. To me, that's pretty good in the sense that it's neither so fast that things feel too easy, nor so slow that frustration starts to build up. But then we moved on to nightmare, and things started to slow down. Nefra was comparatively easy, but Draxus took us something like two months to get down, and even as we managed to tick off a couple more boss kills, we couldn't always get them down consistently, which made it all the harder to actually get any time on later bosses that we were supposed to progress on. In hindsight I'm pretty amazed that we managed to keep ourselves busy with nightmare modes for more than half a year under those circumstances, without going completely bonkers or having people rage-quit en masse. That level of difficulty just isn't our forte and we simply spent way too much time wiping and not achieving anything for it to be a lot of fun.

And now? Well, we cleared the story modes in the first week and got HM Sparky and Malaphar down quickly. That was back in December. For the last four months however we've been struggling with what comes after. We have got both Bulo and Sword Squadron down, however it's still incredibly hard to repeat those kills, to the point where we haven't really had a chance to really work on the third boss in either operation.


You can do it! Or can you?
 
This shouldn't be the state of things less than five months after the launch of two new operations. It really makes me miss hardmodes that are more tuned to our skill level. I don't begrudge the NiM raiders their fun, but at the moment I can't help but feel a little left out in terms of endgame content that suits my abilities. I really, really can't wait for the next operation, and I very much hope that Bioware will reconsider their tuning for that one.

21/04/2015

Why I'm not Thrilled by the Outfit Designer

Patch 3.2 will bring us the outfit designer, and after people have had time to test it on the PTS for a while, most of the reactions I've seen seem to be positive overall. They may criticise certain limitations of the system, but I don't think I've seen anyone suggest that it's a bad idea as a whole. Me? Once again I seem to be going against popular opinion by not being particularly thrilled by the idea.

It's not that I don't see any advantages at all: there is definitely something to be said for making it easier to separate looks from stats. I remember when the Thermal Retention set first came out - I thought that my character would look great wearing that while riding her tauntaun around Hoth or Ilum! But would I want to wear it the rest of the time (especially on Tatooine...)? No. So I wasn't going to move all my mods into it, and wearing a full set of gear with no stats was pretty much out of the question as well, at least if I wanted to do anything but strike a quick pose for a screenshot.


Like this.

With the outfit designer, silly ideas like this - costumes that you may only want to wear temporarily - will be able to thrive, and my inner roleplayer definitely appreciates it.

There will also finally be a purpose to all those green, blue and purple non-moddable pieces of gear again that you find out in the world or get from crafting. They had become pretty worthless except to gear levelling characters or companions about whose looks you weren't too concerned.

But at the same time I can't fight the feeling of how utterly redundant this whole thing is. The whole point of moddable gear has always been that you'd be able to keep a certain look while upgrading your stats. This is why my Jedi and Sith characters still own the lightsabers they received early on during their class story. If we now have another system that allows you to separate your stats from your looks, is there really a point in having mods anymore (aside from the fact that the outfit designer currently doesn't work for weapons and companions)? I mean, I suppose that mods will continue to exist as long as Bioware continues to release high-level gear in the form of moddable pieces, but if Bioware decided to make all gear unmoddable with 3.3, I wouldn't think that anybody would mind very much except some min-maxers who couldn't pick and choose every single part of their gear anymore. In the meantime we'll be left with a system that will make gear management even more cluttered than it already is. I still remember being confused by the concept of mods when I was a new player myself; I can hardly imagine how confusing this new mish-mash of systems is going to be to newbies. This is not good game design.

Also, while I'm generally very annoyed by people who criticise parts of the game simply for not being what they hoped they were going to be, I'll allow myself a bit of hypocrisy in this case and express annoyance that a feature called "outfit designer" will not actually allow you to switch between different (statted) outfits. Now there's something that would have been genuinely useful! As someone who does both PvE and PvP, switching between my two gear sets is always a nuisance (especially with the implants and relics, since you have to drag them into exactly the right place), and the amount of blunders I've made while swapping gear sets is much too high to count by now. Making that easier would have been something I would have appreciated with no reservations.